The Reviews are In: Tomb Raider is Fantastic

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When adventurer extraordinaire Lara Croft raided her first tomb back in 1996, she brought with her an exhilarating feeling of isolation and discovery. Over the years, Lara has continued to venture into parts unknown, taking dark turns and frequently tangling with the supernatural as the series evolved alongside the burgeoning third-person action adventure genre. The gameplay of this series reboot takes a few cues from a current titan of the genre--Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series--but don't let that familiarity put you off. This origin story is a terrific adventure that balances moments of quiet exploration with plenty of rip-roaring action to keep you enthralled from start to finish.

As Tomb Raider begins, Lara is more an academic than an adventurer. But when she's shipwrecked on an island full of ancient secrets and deadly cultists, she has little choice but to learn how to survive. Lara endures a great deal of punishment early in the game, and though no small amount of that anguish is physical, it's an unpleasant moment in which a man tries to force himself on her that's most harrowing. But as unpleasant as it is, it marks an important turning point in Lara's understanding of just how hard she has to fight to survive. Rather than crumbling under the weight of her physical and emotional struggles, she emerges from them a stronger person.

It's empowering to witness Lara's journey from the understandably fearful individual she is when she first arrives on the island to the justifiably confident survivor she becomes. Later in the game, when she has proven to the resident cultists that she's not the easily cowed person they mistook her for, she turns the psychological tables on them, letting loose battle cries to strike fear into their hearts. Aspects of the story that fall outside of Lara's character arc aren't as strong; there's a twist of sorts that occurs late in the game that you see coming hours ahead of time, for instance, and the central villain offers little in the way of nuance. But as an introduction to the legendary Lara Croft, Tomb Raider's tale is a success; she emerges as a strong, charismatic and human figure, and you're left eager to see what the future holds for her.

Lara's origin story deserves an extraordinary setting, and the island where Tomb Raider takes place does not disappoint. Centuries ago, it was home to a kingdom called Yamatai. Many shrines, temples, statues and other remnants of that history remain, and often, you just want to take in these places, slowly advancing through the darkness, eager to discover what's just outside the light of your torch. The island is a beautiful place, but not every discovery is a pleasant one; Yamatai's dark history is vividly communicated in piles of bones and far more grisly things.

The ancient structures of Yamatai now coexist alongside bunkers built during World War II, the wreckage of planes brought down by the storms that surround the island, and the shantytowns and makeshift machinery of the island's current inhabitants. It's a fascinating hodgepodge of the beautiful and the utilitarian; the buildings are believably nestled in their rough natural surroundings, and appear appropriately weathered, damaged, and rusty. The island really feels like a place where people have lived and where great and terrible things have happened. It's a place with many facets; it has claustrophobic caverns and breathtaking vistas, and phenomena like gentle snowfalls, torrential downpours, and fierce, howling winds make it alternately seem like a tranquil place, and a brutal one.

It's immediately clear that one thing the island is not is safe, so it's a good thing that Lara soon gets her hands on a bow. You acquaint yourself with using it by hunting animals; Lara doesn't have hunger levels you need to manage or any such thing, but the deer, rabbits, crabs and other creatures that call the island home make it feel much more alive. For reasons of their own, the cult that currently occupies the island doesn't exactly welcome you with open arms, so it's not long before you need to turn that bow (and, soon, a pistol, rifle, and shotgun) on humans. Combat is varied and suspenseful; some situations give you the opportunity to take a stealthy approach, sneaking up behind enemies to perform silent kills, or firing arrows into walls to distract them and picking them off from a distance with well-aimed arrows while their comrades aren't looking. During one particularly tense battle in a fog-shrouded forest, patrolling foes hunt you with flashlights; if you can manage to stay unseen, you can shift from prey to predator, using their cones of light to pinpoint their positions and eliminating them one by one.

Then, there are the all-out firefights. When your presence is known, enemies are smart and aggressive about flushing you out from cover with grenades and Molotovs, which forces you to keep moving and act boldly. Many enemies attack from a distance while others get in close, so you need to be constantly on your toes, switching between your weapons on the fly and evading foes who attack with melee weapons. Dodging and countering melee attacks is easy, but the savage animations of Lara's counters make eliminating those foes who make the mistake of getting too close to you consistently satisfying.

Lara eventually finds powerful new tools like a grenade launcher and fire arrows, and uses the salvage she constantly collects to improve her weapons, so combat offers more flexibility and becomes more intense as you progress through the game. Throughout it all, great sound design drives home the impact of your actions; delivering a shotgun blast into the face of a nearby enemy is made all the more powerful by the resounding report the gun lets loose, and the conversations you overhear between cultists create a feeling that they're not just enemies who spawn into the environment to hinder you, but are people with histories on the island and tasks to accomplish.

As great as the combat is, it's the quieter moments in Tomb Raider that are most affecting. The simple act of moving, of shimmying along ridges and climbing up craggy rock walls, is a pleasure, thanks to the excellent controls and the fantastic environments. Once in a while, Lara appears to get a bit of divine assistance and float through the air to successfully land a jump you botched the timing on, but with these rare exceptions aside, the controls let you experience a wonderfully physical and agile relationship with your surroundings.

Lara's been making desperate leaps and grabbing on to faraway ledges since her earliest game, but it's never felt quite as good as it does here. And just as Lara acquires new weapons over the course of the game, she also gets her hands on gear that makes her more a more versatile adventurer. Particularly nifty are the rope arrows and rope ascender, the former of which enables you to create rope bridges to certain areas (among other things), and the latter of which lets you rapidly zip up ropes from a lower position. This gear gives you more freedom, and makes Lara seem like a progressively more capable and confident explorer.

We’ve seen Lara Croft in many forms over the years, from busty action-heroine to Atlantean explorer to wise-cracking aristocrat. But we’ve never seen her like this before. Crystal Dynamics' new Tomb Raider sees a young Lara on her first expedition, shipwrecked and stranded on an island bristling with danger, pushed to the limits of her ingenuity and will to survive. Over the course of the game we see this intelligent, resourceful young woman become something closer to the Lara Croft we know, fearless in the face of danger. It is a greatly successful origin story, a series reboot that feels both authentic and hugely exciting.

Tomb Raider is a little self-indulgent at the beginning – the first hour is a sequence of carefully scripted set-pieces and, yes, a cavalcade of button-mashing QTEs. But it's all for the sake of character development, and Tomb Raider is so good at this that you'll forgive the strict direction – especially after the game opens out past the 60-minute mark and lets you loose on the island. Camilla Luddington's performance as Croft is impressively convincing, and throughout this adventure you'll really feel for Lara – she is just not having a good time out there. It is a compelling reading of the character; we see Lara's vulnerability, but she is never disempowered, and never less than totally capable in extreme danger.

The supporting cast is less developed, though. Lara herself is so well-realised that her friends and enemies feel two-dimensional by comparison. Lara is shipwrecked alongside a crew of friends, and her guilt over bringing them along on this expedition provides much of the plot’s emotional thrust, but it’s difficult to feel as much for them as you do for Lara. Thankfully, this doesn't rob the plot of impact. There are a few jaw-dropping moments in this story, which develops quickly from survival-struggle into action epic.

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.

Tomb Raider is well-written, sympathetic, exciting, beautiful and just incredibly well-made. The single-player rarely makes a mis-step, and though Lara's quick transformation into a hardened killer seems at odds with the narrative at first, the game quickly moves past it. It is a superb action game that brings a new emotional dimension to one of gaming's most enduring icons, and repositions her alongside Nathan Drake at the top of gaming's action-hero heirarchy.

Well...damn I'm really pleasantly surprised. I was expecting sexist garbage after those shitty Kotaku interviews.

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