Tomb Raider has been around for a decade and a half now, and the series has seen a bunch of high and low points over that time. Still, excitement has been building for this latest title, a reboot of the series, for quite some time now. Last year at E3, I came away more excited for this game than anything else I saw there, and I am happy to say I did not come away disappointed.
Square Enix has had their ups and downs over the last few years, but for the most part their handling of the Tomb Raider series with Crystal Dynamics has been met with mostly positive reviews. Still, there was some apprehension when this reboot or origins story was first pitched. Those concerns diminished as more screen shots and footage became available, but even then questions persisted, such as how the puzzles and gunplay would work, or would the game be mostly quicktime events (this was an actual concern I saw quite a few times after the first couple of trailers were released).
This Tomb Raider starts off heavy on story as Lara Croft is not the hardened adventurer we see in all of her other games, but little more than a young woman who has had lots of training, but nothing in the way of actual experience. She is shown as someone who is intelligent and strong-willed early on, but when her ship crashes and she finds herself in one harrowing circumstance after another, you see the foundations for a young woman who has to learn to adapt and do things she never considered before in order to stay alive and protect her friends.
Graphics - 10:
One of my buddies at work says he thinks this is hands-down the best-looking game he has ever seen on the Xbox 360. I would be inclined to agree. There is no skipping or slowdown, nothing tears or pokes through the environment and the lighting is handled beautifully. There is not only a diverse amount of terrain here, but it all looks amazingly detailed as well, with almost no texture pop-in. The forests look and feel alive while tombs feel dusty and appropriately ancient. Plenty of forced perspective when a scene calls for it, but you generally have excellent control over the camera as well. On top of that, the weather effects look convincing and there are some neat splatters and droplets on the screen depending on what you are currently encountering in your environment. There are moments where tension is ratcheted up wonderfully, and the video and audio really help to sell those experiences. There are a lot of lessons aspiring horror and adventure games could probably learn from Tomb Raider's presentation.
Sound & Music - 9:
The music is often understated, but it does rise and descend in a way that generally compliments what is happening on screen. Most of the voice acting is pretty good, with Lara's being particularly well done. This is a huge boon since she does do more speaking in the game than anyone else by a large margin. Environmental sound effects are excellent as well. With surround on you can sometimes hear things 'around' you with some excellent use of directional audio. In general the world around Lara tends to feel very alive as you hear water running through caverns, or a bird squawking nearby or a conversation between two wandering patrolmen that tip you off that there is something going on nearby.
Gameplay - 9:
Most of the game's movements are very intuitive. Moving around on or around objects is usually pretty easy to do, and with a quick tap of a button, you can activate what the game calls Lara's survival instincts. These can show you enemies, nearby wild life, and also parts of the environment you can interact with. After you have been playing for a time, you really do not need it anymore because you have a really good idea what the interactive parts of the environment look like, but I have played plenty of games in the past where you just never quite know if you are supposed to be jumping at a certain type of terrain or not. This mechanic can make it a bit easier to figure out puzzles in tombs if you use it a lot, but since it is something you have to press and is not active by default, you can make those puzzles as hard or difficult on yourself as you like.
The combat feels pretty good most of the time. Weapons feel different enough that they are useful given different combat situations. The bow and arrow were my favorite as I thoroughly enjoyed the moments where I had Lara skulking about behind terrain, zooming in on my prey with a perfect headshot as I silently took him down and moved onto the next. However, sometimes combat becomes an all-out firefight, and the pistol, rifle and shotgun all have their places in the mix as well. There are a couple of sequences later in the game where Lara just feels amazing to control.
I had one fight sequence where in about a ten second span I took down my first opponent with a perfect shot to the head using my bow. The two men next to him turned on me, and I effortlessly switched to pistols to put them down. I then started taking fire from a nearby structure that had a rope line between my building and theirs. I jumped up onto the rope, ziplined down and pulled out the shotgun, taking down the two guys closest to me, but another with a shield and sword came after me. I made use of the dodge and counter mechanic, finishing him off in close range before switching over to my rifle to finish off the stragglers trying to close in on my position. It was an intense little moment that really showed off the variety in weapons and combat as well as the clever layout of the environment.
Intangibles - 8:
This is not a terribly long game - I think I beat it in about ten hours, give or take. There are frequent checkpoints, which is nice, but the game really only challenged me a handful of times. The story is excellent, with some characters that probably could have used a bit more fleshing out, but really this is the tale of how Lara became the adventuress we all know and love. Certainly the time frame is a bit short to have such a huge amount of transformation in a person, but her circumstances are intense and dramatic. The amount of abuse Lara undergoes through this journey does stretch credulity, but the game is so much fun I never really found myself caring (though I did wince on several occasions).
There are quite a few optional things you can do as well if you want, such as disarming mines, lighting statues, hunting different kinds of animals and finding while completing optional tombs. I loved in the story when Lara remarks that she 'hates tombs' when walking into one. I have a sneaking suspicion she will get over that particular dislike of hers.
There are some nice progression hooks built into the game, from an experience system that lets you allocate points to a wide variety of traits (take more damage, carry more ammo, find things in your environment more easily and more) and an upgrade system for weapons. You find 'salvage' parts in your adventure that are just a numeric counter that represents your findings. Then you can upgrade things like the amount of ammo or damage your pistol does, or how strong your bowstring is, by trading in those salvage points. As you progress through the game, you will also find upgrade 'parts'. So even if you have fully upgraded your shotgun at one point, you may find three other unnamed parts over the next hour, and when you have them and camp, your weapon updates and you can add two or three new upgrades to it such as less recoil or even more damage.
The puzzles in the tombs are not terribly difficult, but there were some that were pretty creative uses of your environment. You also have a lot of small things such as relics or journal entries you can discover while you wander about the game. You really need to explore a lot and try quite a few different things if you want to find all of these.
Multiplayer is completely unimpressive. There are a handful of nice ideas here, such as a handful of different modes, different skins and loadouts you can unlock for your characters and a leveling system to give you goals. The problem is the combat is a bit rough around the edges - what works well for the storyline does not work nearly so well when playing against other people. More concerning is the lack of community playing it online. This game is only a couple of weeks old, but it still took upwards of five to ten minutes to find necessary people for a three versus three deathmatch. I also got booted once for inactivity because I was not shooting anyone. Problem was, I simply could not find an enemy because the teams were too small. I will get some credit for how it handled host migration. There were a few times where the host dropped and we very quickly shifted the match over to a new one without dropping out of the game. Still, I tried playing on a weeknight, a weekend morning and a weekend afternoon and still never found a single match with more than a total of six people participating. I know these modes get added in to try and encourage people not to trade in the games, but it just is not compelling enough to succeed on that front and feels like it will turn out to be a waste of development time.
Overall - 9:
There are different difficulty levels you can play at, but only a couple of the fights ever killed me. The environment did a much more effective job on that front. Thankfully those puzzles never really got me frustrated, and a couple made me put on my thinking cap. My wife found the game interesting enough that she sat down and simply watched me play it at times, and another buddy of mine at work said his roommate watched him play through almost the entire game. There is a cinematic quality to both the story and audio/video presentation that helps make Lara's adventure very engaging. The game is a bit short - and the only reason this really stands out to me is because I was enjoying it so much I did not want to see it end so soon.
I have read in several places now that Tomb Raider did meet sales expectations, and that worries me. This is an excellent title that I would love to see more of down the road, and I do hope Square Enix continues to show Lara the love she deserves by continuing the series in this direction.