It's a good while before you first pull out a gun in Tomb Raider. Lara's first kill is the game's first dramatic crescendo, a moment of genuine emotional impact. After that moment, though, the game quickly moves on thematically; the transition from terrified survivor forced to take a life to headshot-happy killer is jarringly instant, and this is the narrative’s only significant weakness. One minute she's retching over a corpse, the next she's skewering five guys through the neck with arrows, which leads to a period of narrative dissonance as you adjust. Lara has to get used to killing quickly, and so does the player.
Combat has never been the strength of Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider games, but the developer has finally nailed it here. Whether with a bow, a shotgun or a pistol, fighting is fun, and crucially there's not too much of it (though the body-count is certainly high). Lara periodically discovers new weapons, injecting the combat with fresh novelty every few hours. I gravitated towards the bow – there’s something vastly more satisfying about being a hidden assassin than leaping into the fray with a shotgun or hiding behind a wall with an assault rifle, though the game necessitates all these approaches and more in different situations.
Building Lara’s skills and upgrading her weapons with salvage proves unexpectedly gratifying. By the later stages of Tomb Raider’s story her arsenal rivals that of a small guerrilla army, and she’s equally deadly in hand-to-hand combat. But for most of the game, Lara has to work with what she’s got. Though survivalism is one of the plot’s dominant themes, if anything it’s under-used in the gameplay; hunting and foraging are introduced in the first twenty minutes, but then quickly abandoned.
Croft’s Survival Instincts vision – which, at the touch of a button, helpfully highlights things like climbing walls, flammable objects and rope surfaces you can attach to – makes navigating the island and its puzzles easier, and thankfully is completely optional after it’s first introduced. It’s most useful when you’re hunting for collectibles, but otherwise I played the rest of the game without using it. The game is well-designed enough that you can read the environments perfectly well without it.
Tomb Raider has definitely taken inspiration from the other great action games of this generation. There's an escaping-from-a-burning-building scenario, and more than one sequence where you're skidding at speed down a waterfall. But even when Tomb Raider falls back on action-game cliché, it does so with such confidence and aplomb that you don't mind – in fact, that burning-building sequence is one of the game's most breathlessly exciting moments. Once it gets going, Tomb Raider is high-octane and squeezes your adrenaline gland dry, but it's also got great variety and pacing. There are quiet, tense moments inbetween the combat-heavy setpieces, and you're never in the same place doing the same thing twice.
The Tomb Raider heritage shows itself in the game's secret tombs, which are secreted around the island for you to discover. These are self-contained one-off puzzles that lead the way to treasure, and they are frequently ingenious, challenging enough to make you feel properly clever when you find the solution. This traditional Tomb Raider exploration takes a back seat to the storyline in the main campaign, so it's great to see it shine in the secret tombs. Lara's love for archaeology and geeky fascination with ancient civilisations shows through when she's poring over relics and ancient structures, despite the hardship she has to endure.
There is one truly disappointing aspect of Tomb Raider, and that's the multiplayer, which is best forgotten about. It just isn't a lot of fun and it's totally superfluous. Two of the four game modes feel significantly stacked in favour of one team over the other, and though Tomb Raider's combat is good in the context of the single-player, it's just not flexible or varied enough to support a multiplayer mode for long. It’s also over-complicated with loadouts, levelling and skill unlocks, which robs it of immediacy. At best it's passably entertaining, but I'll be surprised if anyone is still playing it in a couple of months.
A new beginning for Lara Croft that does justice to one of gaming's most iconic characters.
- +Great characterisation
- +Beautifully presented
- +Exciting, breathless pacing
- +More depth than you expect
- –Lacklustre multiplayer