Tomb Raider defined the Playstation generation back in the 90’s. The first game was a huge hit and a well-deserved classic. The lovely Lara Croft could fight dinosaurs while exploring tombs rendered in 3D, and her AI was smart enough to auto-aim at enemies while the reliable over-the-shoulder camera angle managed itself (A technological miracle back when Playstation controllers had no analog sticks). The second game was even better, but the series very quickly degenerated due to the law of diminishing returns. Other classic Playstation franchises like Resident Evil and Metal Gear managed to re-invent themselves over the years, while the Tomb Raider franchise struggled for innovations to its formula. A reboot of the franchise hit this week, seventeen years after the first game. With this new Tomb Raider, Lara Croft once again manages to define a generation of gaming.
As the sun sets on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, gamers can look back at what mechanics defined the last few years of gaming. The old notion of health bars and medkits is gone, replaced by regenerating health. Charging headlong at enemies, guns-a-blazin’ is a thing of the past, replaced by cover systems. Button-mashing minigames and QTE events for finishing moves are becoming a standard, as are stealth kills, upgradeable weapons, bullet-time, and the ubiquitous tacked-on multiplayer mode.
All of these features and other staples of the current generation are present in the new Tomb Raider game. The developer, Crystal Dynamics, has obviously put a great deal of thought into how to implement them, because the Tomb Raider reboot is excellent and the perfect excuse for long-time fans to return to the series.
From a gameplay perspective, Tomb Raider combines action-packed shootouts with palm-sweating platforming. Yet there’s more going in with this game than mere shooting and jumping. Aside from being a reboot, it’s also a prequel to the other games. A “Pre-boot” to coin a term.
It stars a young Lara Croft on her first adventure. This is no hardened bad-ass, this is scared girl who would rather not be raiding tombs, let alone killing people or scrambling for survival in a jungle. This Lara Croft is cold, hungry, wounded, frightened and just hoping to survive.
This story lets players watch as Lara grows into the legendary game icon that she is meant to be. And that story suits the gameplay. Lara is uncertain of her abilities, and so is the Player controlling her. As Lara learns to hunt for food with her bow, so do players learn the gameplay mechanics of archery and looting. When Lara takes her first human life, players join her for that first awkward shootout, learning the controls for how to aim and fire on the spot.
Lara traverses a large island on her adventure and she often finds seemingly unattainable goals. As she gains new skills and gear she can retrace her path to reach those inaccessible areas with a strength that she didn’t know she had. As this happens the Player shares Lara’s feeling of “Hey, I didn’t know I could do that”.
For players who don’t care about nostalgia or symbolism, Tomb Raider offers a very satisfying experience. Lara has wide variety of tactics at her disposal, but the developers have wisely limited her to just the golden triangle of guns: Pistol, Rifle, Shotgun. Each of which has its own special use, from the run-n-gun assault rifle to the precision handgun, to the “I dare you to come over here and swing that knife at me” shotgun.
Lara also uses a bow that serves for silent kills, and the game has a few other features to make stealth a fun option. Lara also carries a climbing ax, and players can choose to focus on melee skills in the later parts of the game.
The maps are littered with collectibles and hidden items (Including the optional diversion of actually raiding tombs). Players who like to collect and explore will be engrossed with Tomb Raider’s many opportunities to hunt down items. Those who wonder “Hey, what’s over there?” will always find something interesting to do over there.
The new Tomb Raider is a game about growth. Lara grows from girl into a woman over the course of the story, while the Player helps her gain Experience Points and upgrades. But the franchise itself is also growing. Once the poster girl for the industry’s refusal to innovate, Tomb Raider is now an example of the accomplishments of the last few years. It is out now for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.