Tomb Raider is the next-gen reboot of the critically acclaimed blockbuster series that launched in the mid-90s, most notably on the PlayStation. Since then, we’ve seen the release of roughly 10 Tomb Raider video games and two feature-length films starring Angelina Jolie.
Though developers Crystal Dynamics released a spin-off title in August 2010, the entertaining platformer Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, it’s been more than 4 years since a full-fledged tomb-raiding Tomb Raider hit consoles. That’s created pent-up demand for the series and its alluring and nubile star, archaeologist Lara Croft, who in this edition has found herself and a band of fellow adventurers stranded on a deadly island after a freak boat accident.
Lara Croft helped galvanize our culture-wide acceptance of the exaggerated female form in games and comics (or at least male acceptance: after filming The Dark Knight, Anne Hathaway referred to her Catwoman suit as an, “emotional terrorist”). The original Croft, who was thrust into the cultural spotlight at the height of Baywatch, would not have had much luck raiding tombs — her features were so augmented to benefit the male gaze she would have fallen over the moment she stood up. Still, Croft did become, if not the first, then certainly the preeminent gaming sex symbol. Boys the world over enjoyed playing her role as a fearless, gun-slinging sexpot hurdling her way past demons and cannibals in the long-forgotten passages of the earth.
Tomb Raider, released by Square Enix and developed by Crystal Dynamics, is an adventuring character-driven title, much like what seems to be its greatest inspiration, the Uncharted series. But this Lara Croft is different from the one we grew up with. Originally a snarky Dirty Harry meets Indiana Jones take-on-all-comers type, Croft has been made young and, it’s worth pointing out, naturally proportioned. In smoothing out her form, Crystal Dynamics smoothed out her temperament as well. Yes, she’s skilled and capable, but she’s vulnerable and lacks the pomposity of her previous incarnations. Her character pushes the story along, which is, without spoiling anything, mostly about bringing people back together and achieving safety in numbers, as opposed to just finding buried relics and killing bad guys. There’s a big difference between handling a fearful character who is lost along her way as opposed to the smoking gun who knows the jungles of Ghana like the back of her hand.
Or at least there should be. As much as we want to believe in Croft’s delicacy, we can’t. The gameplay does little to mirror the character its narrative strives to establish with all its breathless voice acting and her taciturn dealings with others. It’s difficult to play a lost damsel striving to save herself when she can, say, survive a 15-foot drop that lands her directly atop an arrow that impales her on one end and comes out the other. As fortune would have it, no vital organs were punctured in the fall and she recovers from this wound by simply taking a nap. The game’s opening is so jarring (think the plane crash in Cast Away), that I almost feel Crystal Dynamics put the arrow-fall at the the beginning of Tomb Raider’s gameplay as if to say, “Hey everyone, remember this is just a game, okay?”
During an appearance on The Daily Show, President Bill Clinton remarked, “Anyone who has ever been hooked on a video game like me knows that you’ve got to have good simulation to keep yourself in a constant state of anxiety.” But as the saying goes, too much of a good thing often goes bad. In Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics cranks the state of anxiety up to 11. The game constantly introduces sequences where you’re falling through craters, out of aircrafts, or you're being shaken by unsuspected foes. While standing in the game’s lush landscapes I found myself wishing I was back in Skyrim where I could peacefully wander about the mountains while plotting my next move. Not so in Tomb Raider. Although the game does a deft job of helping you forget you’re on rails by way of its scintillating environment and deadly atmosphere, you are most certainly on rails. There is always another tedious wall to scale, no matter which way you turn.
A few hours into the game the wall scaling sequences become less matters of finesse and more tasks you accomplish by rote. Luckily the game isn’t just gunfights and climbing. There are some serious puzzles that unlock powerful items, which is a bonus if you’re a loot-obsessed gamer like me. Also, in a nod to Castlevania games and the series’ past, there are plenty of out-of-reach areas initially inaccessible that you’ll come back to after leveling up. You’ll want to level up, or I should say, find yourself addicted to leveling up, as Tomb Raider provides a JRPG-focus on upgrades.
By the game’s end you’ll have shotguns and grenade launchers and even a compound bow, and Croft will have roped, scaled, swam, snuck, zip-lined and ran (there’s a lot of running), all around a massive island that becomes just as much a character as any other in the game. Towards the game’s end, I began to feel just how influenced Tomb Raider was by J.J. Abrams' Lost, as the island kept revealing secret after secret in classic “no-way!” fashion. I ate it up. And I suspect long-time fans of the series who want the chance to live inside Lara Croft’s origins will as well.
This review is based on a retail copy of Tomb Raider for the Playstation 3.