Survival is her business, and business is brutal.
Shortly after dispatching a swarm of fanatical cultists in a variety of gruesome ways, Lara Croft informs one of her companions that she had no choice, she had to kill them. Her friend, attempting to reassure the young women, tells her he understands, that it can't have been easy.
“It's scary,” she replies, adding: “just how easy it was..."
This place is violence, and Lara finds herself adept at surrendering to it. From the storm that rages around the fictional island of Yamatai where the adventure is set, to the blood-thirsty nature of the enemies that inhabit its ruined beauty, the game rarely quits beating down on our hapless hero. From the very start, Lara is forced to immerse herself in the savagery in order to survive, and as she progresses and her clothes tatter and skin becomes etched like a map leading to nowhere but pain, the violence that almost feels like a living part of this place rushes through her as a conduit and explodes forth with an efficient brutality. Lara begins as an innocent yearning for adventure, and emerges a survivor adept and righteously vicious.
To Crystal Dynamic's credit, they've done a decent job attempting to convince us of this transition. The first hour or so is spent with Lara barely escaping danger and being relentlessly pummeled as she's forced to kill and push her endurance to its absolute limits, with Quick Time Events (QTEs) and scripted escape sequences heightening the tension of the narrative brilliantly, but the shift from frightened captive to headshot heroine is still slightly jarring. As the violence is so thick, and so brutal, the game's insistence to constantly remind us of Lara's fragility and distaste seems a little diluted. The problem isn't that this is unrealistic – the entire premise of this video game is fantastic – but that the writers try so hard to convince us, and set against an orgy of effortless bloodshed it's just not terribly effective.
Indeed, it's the writing and narrative in general that's the game's biggest flaw. Lara's characterisation is very much the forefront, and her personal journey is a convincing one. However, Lara's companions appear to have been cut and paste from the 'cliché companion' hand book. We have: “Angry black women” who snarls and contradicts everyone perfectly on cue, “Grizzled veteran mentor” who provides all the right wisdom in all the right places, “Tubby, friendly giant”, “Drunk Scottish old guy”, “Pretty little damsel”, and so on... the cast is forgettable and entirely dispensable, and as certain characters meet their inevitable heroic or justified deaths set against swelling scores and impassioned outpouring, the impact that's intended to drive the emotional weight like a stake through our bursting hearts isn't strong enough to even scratch the skin. It tries at times to be a little too gritty, often takes itself far too seriously, and ends up feeling leaden and forced.
Lara aside, the real star on show is the island itself. Despite the decision to forgo an open world environment and close off each section into separated instances surrounded with impassable walls, Yamati feels like a real place rich with history and expansively overbearing. The natural beauty of the place is striking: waterfalls pour and pool overflowing into churning rivers and streams, and cliffs and pillars of rock rise to breathtaking vistas and fall into vertigo inducing chasms creating a system of natural platforms that react to your passing and interactions as rickety bridges sway and unsteady edges topple.
The human history and presence on the island is a huge part of its character. The evil and desperate nature of the men who inhabit the ruins permeates everything; feverish writings scrawled across the walls script the insanity, hideous shanty towns twist and contort out of pools of filthy water atop piles of rotting corpses like temples constructed to worship the suffering they were built upon, and creeping vegetation and rushing torrents of water and rain feel like the island attempting to reclaim its soul and wash away the horror. The atmosphere is thick, and at times extremely evocative.
Lara's traversal of this environment is one aspect that might truly alienate fans of the series, Gone is the pixel perfect precision of the previous games, and in its place we have an Uncharted style reaction based system that is is extremely forgiving. While it's certainly fluid, with combos of movements easy to chain together, aiming in the vague direction of a zipline or climbable surface and holding down the relevant action key is often all you need to do. Dive off a cliff, hold or mash action, and the island will catch you in its mothering arms more often then not.
Considering its namesake, there are very few actual tombs to raid. Those that are there are optional and brief, but due to their intelligent simplicity and the game's impressive physics, they offer the truest sense of your actions having direct and precise consequence. You need to get it right to get the solution, not just hold down a button and hope. It's a shame they're so short and separated from the main game.
Character progression is designed with a slight illusion of choice, there are decisions to be made but they're fed to you in a controlled way. For example, the game relies on backtracking to gain access to previously closed-off areas and there's no way to unlock a skill that allows this access (shotgun unlocks destroy barriers, rope arrows create ziplines, etc...) before the game wants you to. This makes even the optional exploration feel a part of the linear path, and as the pace of the game is one that attempts to hurtle you forward at breakneck speed, back tracking to make use of these skills fully never really feels compelling.
Combat is simplistic, again, but requires some precision and timing, and while it's not particularly difficult (even on the hardest setting), there's a flow to it (enhanced by a cleverly implemented two-tier dodge mechanic and a smooth context sensitive cover system) that's extremely fluid once you settle into a rhythm. Head shot an unprotected enemy with a napalm arrow and flames gently caress and engulf as the unhappily burning nasty dances a merry jig of pain, shooting him in the legs will leave him stunned and vulnerable, and a well-timed dodge will open up an opportunity to counter attack with vicious stuns and killing blows. There's a decent variety in your ability to remove life and replace it with a few seconds of highly entertaining scripted suffering.
At times, the game can feel like its holding your hand and guiding you along a set path, and almost every cut-scene or extended animation requires a well-timed key press or sequence to active a skill or avoid a grisly end. Prompts are clear and easy to interpret, and while they're used liberally they mostly feel like enhancements that add emphasis to the urgency of a scene or weight to an action. It gives the game a cinematic feel, helping the narrative to power along (as best it can), with the more arcade-like elements of item collection and combat complimenting with their more free-form control.
Mutiplayer feels like an afterthought, a sub-standard mix of Uncharted without the charm and CoD without the pace. It's sluggish and uninspired, and rarely is a game full for longer than a few rounds. It won't replace anyone's primary MP title for long.
The PC version has a decent amount of video options and a very precise control scheme for mouse and keyboard. It feels like a thoughtful port, and ran very well on an i5 2500k and 670 at highest settings. The game's visuals, while not the most impressive we've seen recently, are striking: dense environments, shiny effects bringing the scenery to life, and smooth animations across the board.
Overall, and for all its flaws, Tomb Raider is a finely tuned experience. And while the story is shallow and the surrounding cast extremely forgettable, Lara is well rounded and compelling, and towards the end of the game as she screams to her unfortunate enemies in the midst of battle “I'm coming for you all”, you can't help but feel convinced of her developing prowess, of her anger and determination to survive as she introduces yet another victim's face to the point-blank business end of her shotgun.
Lara Croft has been convincingly reborn, and as she disappears into the sunset sailing toward new adventures she remains clearly on our radar.