Review: Tomb Raider

File photo. Fan art of Tomb Raider protagonist Lara Croft. (Halli-well / Google Images)

Tomb Raider is an iconic video game franchise, as famous for providing gaming’s first powerful female lead as it is infamous for turning that same character into an oversexualized symbol of misogyny. After numerous lackluster outings, the franchise has laid somewhat dormant in recent years, making the new semi-reboot from Crystal Dynamics Studios all the more intriguing.

This instalment centers around Lara Croft’s origin story: how exactly did she become the supreme ass-kicker who appears in every other Tomb Raider game to date? It is a prequel of sorts, but also a reimagining of the character.

As a crew member of a ship on an expedition in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai, Lara is thrown into a nightmare of chaos and savagery when the very island they are looking for seems to take the ship and crew captive.  With a mysterious faction already occupying the island, and escape cut off by the intervention of ‘mystical’ storms, Lara takes it upon herself to save herself and her friends.

Immediately noticeable to fans of the series will be the redesign of Lara Croft herself. Physically, Lara is still a fit, young, and attractive woman, but gone are the insanely-revealing (and quite frankly impractical) shorts and midriff-bearing cut-off top. Also, the character no longer looks as if she should be falling over, as her signature (disproportionately-robust) chest has been scaled down. On the personality side, Lara is not an ultra-confident quip-dropping killer, as she has become known. Traditionally the one in search of trouble, this Lara is certainly not having a good time on Yamatai, as she struggles through an unending amount of spills, falling structures, and wounds. Her character development is believable, and is luckily one of the game’s highlights, as she is often isolated.

Luckily for Lara, she is well-trained, if untested, but the trials appear soon and often.  Her climbing skills are exceptional, and this makes the game’s platforming element excellent. A handy climbing axe, among other tools, make scaling or descending almost anything a breeze and there are quite a few breath-holding jumps throughout the game. That axe also plays a small role in the game’s most exceptional aspect, its combat system.

Taking on foes in Tomb Raider has never been this fun. Along with the aforementioned axe, Lara gets her hands on a small arsenal of guns, and the ridiculously-fun bow and arrow which is being introduced for the first time.  All of her weapons are upgradable through the search and salvage system, which keeps an exploratory element in the campaign. Combat mechanics are fluid and responsive and fighting is really a joy.

Fans of the franchise’s traditional formula may be dismayed at the game’s shift of focus from exploration and puzzles to a fixed story, but the island provides a sizeable number of optional tombs to explore during the campaign or after its completion. Each tomb features a large puzzle to solve in order to loot the treasure.

This is plainly one of the best action-adventure games to come along in years. In fact, only one other franchise operates at this high of a level, and that is the revered Uncharted series from Naughty Dog. A lengthy, quality story campaign, outstanding gameplay, and an expansive exploration element make the new Tomb Raider a can’t-miss game for 2013.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 26, March 26, 2013.