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Lara's Brilliant Return
on March 6, 2013
I might have been the harshest critic of the new direction Crystal Dynamics decided to take "Tomb Raider." There are several angry posts to my name across the web, talking about why this game would fail, and how it was a desecration to the franchise. After all, I grew up with Lara's series, and in fact, "Tomb Raider II" was the first video game I ever played. To this day, I thought that this would be a simplification of the timeless series, and a desperate attempt to make the series fit in with newcomers. Thankfully, I have been proven wrong. "Tomb Raider" is one of the venerable heroine's finest outings, and possibly the best action game since "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves."
We begin with Lara being trapped on an island, searching for her friends and being pursued by a menacing cult. But this isn't the cocky, oddly-proportioned character we're used to; this is before her official tomb raiding days, and the first major expedition she sets out on. As such, she is inexperienced and vulnerable, and the game chronicles her ascension from scared teen to powerful warrior. Now, you might think the trailers give away the plot, but you'd be dead wrong. The story is every bit as strange and wonderful as some of the earlier games, containing unpredictable twists and surprising supernatural elements. It would be a crime to spoil it, but let's just that fans of the old games need not worry; Crystal Dynamics (developers of Legend through Underworld) still know what this franchise is all about, narrative-wise, and they hit the nail right on the head.
Special props should go to Rihanna Pratchett, writer of the woefully underrated "Heavenly Sword", for making Lara into one of the most empowering female role models ever crafted. Even in her weakest states, she is never a victim, always resourceful and one step ahead of everyone else. Through the story, we see her learn from mistakes, and turn into what we typically think of as Lara Croft. Special little nods the series' roots, right down to the origin of her signature silver pistols, add in flavor to her character, and turn into a much deeper protagonist than she has ever been. Even as somebody who loves the old character, I must say that Pratchett has actually made me prefer this interpretation of her. Full-speed ahead with this new Lara, I say; she's smart, cheeky, and powerful, which is exactly what she's supposed to be.
Fans' biggest concern about this new entry, however, was undoubtedly the gameplay. The seemingly liberal inclusion of Quick Time Events, and the deceptively linear design of showcased levels both indicated an unwelcome change. However, it turns out we were only drip-fed bits and pieces of different levels. The game itself is an entirely different matter, because it is teeming with as many secrets as the old games, if not more. While it is easy to simply follow the set path, there are numerous alternate routes to pursue in search of loot, and even entire optional tombs. These tombs are more in line with the classic puzzles we're used to, fun little mind teasers that are a great distraction for old-school fans. Whether you want to get to the point or indulge in some side quests, this game has got you covered.
As far as the gameplay itself is concerned, Crystal Dynamics has unquestionably changed the formula for the better. Platforming is now much more tight and urgent than ever before, requiring the precision fans are used to. While it is significantly easier than past entries, the sheer creativity that went into the dynamic set pieces more than make up for it, and it isn't necessarily as streamlined as the demos make it seem. Attention still must be paid at all time, and once you get past the initial 2 to 3 hours, the game stops holding your hand and expects you to dive head-first into somewhat tricky platforming, fully prepared to punish you with brutal deaths if you fail.
The biggest overhaul by far, though, is in the combat department. Now, even as a fan of the series, combat in "Tomb Raider" has always... well, it's always kind of sucked. Even the improvements in Legend couldn't quite find a way to balance platforming and shooting up enemies. However, the developers have learned from their mistakes, creating a seamless blend of platforming and TPS mechanics that must be played to be believed. There's also a leveling component that really makes or breaks the combat; your survival is dependent on scrounging for salvage and strengthening your weapons. Most games mess this mechanic up pretty badly with upgrades that are seemingly meaningless, but this is pleasantly a whole different bag altogether.
Even more impressive is how important each weapon is, some being required to solve puzzles and progress the game. My personal favorite is the bow, which can be used as a distraction, a stealth weapon, a capable frontal assault companion, or a key to burning open pathways. Oh, yes, and it can be used to choke enemies from behind. This is just one example of the versatility weapons have in this game. Heck, even the climbing axe ends up becoming a lethal tool of destruction...
Graphically, the game excels. While some may argue that the rendering power is not on par with some other AAA titles around today, it only takes one look at the brilliant art direction to sway non-believers. The mysterious island and all of its secrets are a marvel to behold, a mixture of jungle, forest, and even desert-esque canyons. Shanty towns and elaborate Asian temples alike comprise the architecture of the island, and ominous tunnels range from wet rock to a disgusting river of blood and corpses. The key word here is "variety", really, as most locations tend to not look the same one bit. Older entries had to span multiple countries in order to convey a sense of changed locale, but this time around, they only needed one island to create a living, breathing world. It's a wonder to behold, and one of the most unforgettable video game environments ever crafted.
Soundscapes are another strong point here. The background noise is convincing, with the caws of birds seemingly surrounding you, and the distant war cries of enemies preparing you for battle. You'll always be sucked right into the action, regardless of the situation. Ditto for the score, which is surprisingly similar to the early games; it's tense and dramatic, but always has an element of mystique to it. It is one of the rare video game soundtracks that doesn't simply blend in, but stands out and demands you pay attention to it.
The new voice of Lara is also wonderful, and I daresay the best portrayal done yet. Sure, we see the frightened and timid girl advertisements seem to highlight, but we get hints of what is to come with the character. Moments of wry sarcasm between her and her shipmates, as well as her cheeky observations and bold proclamations of assault on her enemies, are pure 90's "Tomb Raider." The game lets you know what to expect in future entries, and this is due in large part to this fantastic performance. Kudos to Camilla Luddington for a performance which is sure to be lavished with awards in the coming months.
As mentioned above, I was a complete non-believer with this entry. I feared that one of my favorite franchises was cashing in on cheap gameplay mechanics and a weak plot, while shedding what old-school fans adored about the games in the first place. Luckily, I was proven to be a complete fool. Square Enix has released a game that not only reminds me why I fell for Lara and her exploits, but why I love video games as well. The story is a brilliant tour-de-force, the gameplay is perfect, it's a feast for the eyes and ears, and the protagonist is one of the best in a very long time. Everything about this game, from top to bottom, is positively flawless. There is not a single ill word I can speak of the game, whatsoever.
Filled with enough nods to the series' history to satiate diehards, but with enough innovation to snag newcomers, this is a game that shows Crystal Dynamics is the perfect developer for this household name series. "Tomb Raider" is an instant classic, and should be a benchmark for which all future action games are played. It is utterly perfect on every possible level, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.