Tomb Raider is edgy, intense, and nearly faultless

The new Tomb Raider is an intense experience. Unlike previous iterations, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics’ latest product isn’t an empowering 3D platformer whose premise justifies unnecessarily complex puzzles, acrobatic action and even more acrobatic platforming. I’m only being casually dismissive of the previous games (perhaps a little inappropriately considering I quite enjoyed Legend, Anniversary and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light) because this year’s Tomb Raider is an experience that is simply on another level — and the word “intense” is just about perfect to describe it.

The promotional campaign was pretty clear that Tomb Raider was about a “survivor” being born. What we’ve got, as a result, is an origins story which seems like the logical way to approach a reboot. But what do you get when the tail-kicking Lara Croft is stripped of the skills she has honed over several years of Tomb Raiding? Well, another Lara Croft, it would seem, but this one is simply trying to survive. Right from the first act (Shipwrecked as a result of an expedition to the wrong part of the world gone hopelessly awry), Lara is thrust into one run-or-die situation after another, with the walls crumbling around her, bridges collapsing beneath her or stuff blowing up behind her. It’s not always a sprint-to-the-finish situation, however, because Tomb Raider’s moments of intensity can often be painfully slow, with Lara crouching under claustrophobic spaces, squeezing through the tiniest crevasses in a cave or using her climbing axe to literally cling on to life while scaling a cliff. The game succeeds at capturing the essence of open island exploration just as it does the cruel and painful crawl through close and confined spaces. This is a testament to the way in which is game is directed — in this particular case, not by you, the player, but by the unknown off-screen entity who seems to be operating the camera.

It deserves credit for being cinematic — yes, the Hollywood-inspired narrative is abundantly apparent (as is the inspiration drawn from games such as Uncharted), but the most exciting moments are those where interaction is involved. The cinema-style approach is more apparent than in most games we’re used to — the POV (point of view) and FOV (field of view) are kept dynamic to give the player either a sense of abundant space, claustrophobia, or altitude. This is achieved to perfection in virtually every instance where used without feeling gimmicky. Other subtle additions include a gentle camera bob that seems in sync with Lara’s footsteps, screen-shakes and found footage-style cutscenes that add to the cinematic depth of the experience. But just when it starts to feel like you’re watching a movie or TV show, you’re expected to do something. In a sense, it’s the anti-cinema, with your actions as a player critical to plot development, or in most cases, a screen that doesn’t read “game over”.

Tomb Raider is a great example of a reboot done just right. It’s great to see the series evolve — this feels like a next gen title in every sense of the word (even though our consoles are yet to completely make that transition). Game and level design is top draw, the campaign’s pacing is just about perfect and it would appear that Crystal Dynamics have discovered the perfect action-to-platforming-to-puzzle ratio. It also doesn’t hurt that the game looks consistently spectacular throughout its 10-hour story mode, while the audio is intensely atmospheric. Let’s ignore the occasionally dodgy voice acting, bugs and the needlessly tacked-on multiplayer, because the rest of the all-new Tomb Raider experience is almost faultless.