It's obvious why developers love reboots: it's a chance to make a brand new game, but with a head start. They already have a large part of the story mapped out – or at least an endpoint to aim it – so the writers can put their feet up and relax. Plus, the game will automatically have a large following of original fans, eager to see how an old favourite has been re-imagined, so the marketing team gets more leeway than usual. It’s why we’ve seen so many recently, and the reason why we’ll no doubt see many more in years to come.
In this spirit, step up Tomb Raider, prequel to Tomb Raider, and tale of the origins of Lara Croft. See, they couldn't even bother to come up with a new name.
Lara is depicted as an innocent young archaeologist setting off on her first expedition to a virtual Bermuda Triangle, where lots of strange things have been happening. Shockingly, things don't go too well: the boat Lara is travelling on is torn apart by a vicious storm, washing Lara and the rest of her team up on a strange island. As if that weren't bad enough, she's then separated from her friends, captured by a madman and hung upside down, only to escape and find that she’s in a land inhabited by washed up mentalists who don’t care for her life. A very bad day at the office.
The act of tomb raiding is, on the whole, demoted to side quests. Lara, in her own words, "hates tombs" (maybe get a different day job?), and so most of what you’ll be doing in Tomb Raider is fighting bad guys in wide open spaces and puzzle-platforming your way around some beautifully designed environments, trying to figure out how to progress. I say ‘most’ because, unfortunately, quite a lot of your time will be spent not doing very much at all: the game is riddled with segments where you have no – or very limited – control over Lara’s actions.
For the first hour, the game clearly thinks you’re the biggest idiot on the planet: you’ll soon realise that there is no crouch button (the game does it for you), that there are certain segments in which you can do nothing but hold forward on the control stick (anything else will have Lara stand there scratching her arse), and that quick time events infect the game like a tropical disease for which the cure has not yet been discovered. “You like playing video games?”, Tomb Raider asks, “Well how about you watch me play a video game, and I’ll let you press a button every once in a while? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The only positive thing about the stupid press-X-to-not-die moments is that failure is often more entertaining than success. Lara regularly dies in hypnotically gruesome ways that can't help but make you wince (trust me, some of them will have you writhing around on the sofa), and I often found myself actively not doing what the game wanted me to do just to see what would happen. Thankfully, they do dry up as game unfolds, but you'll still have to face them right up to the very last boss battle.
Lara is well acted and, despite her slightly grating accent, in another time and place could've passed believably for an young woman caught in a dire situation, forced to do terrible things to survive, all the while hating herself for it. But within in a few hours she has already transformed into a killing machine. When she's all “woe is me” one moment and “woe is you as my pickaxe makes mince meat of your face” the next, it becomes a stretch to take the story seriously.
What's more, story elements keep getting in the way of the fun parts, like the big kid in the primary school playground who comes and kicks your football over the fence just as you're lining up a 6 yard screamer. Cut scenes are shoved down your throat at every opportunity, and you’ll pummel the skip button so hard, and so often, that once the 12 hour or so journey is over you’ll have a rectangular imprint in your crippled thumb.
The story tries to whisk you along at breakneck speed and yet you’re encouraged to engage on ridiculous side quests, like acquiring pointless collectibles, all of which Lara gets very excited about. Yes, Lara, that's a very nice decorative jug, but that pilot you saw crash land a few moments ago and vowed to save has a tree branch sticking through his stomach, so it's time you leave the antiques be.
Despite all my criticisms, I found it very hard to put Tomb Raider down. In fact, I didn’t feel satisfied until I saw the credits roll, and it’s testament to just how brilliant Tomb Raider’s gameplay is.
It doesn't try and do anything remarkably original, but everything it does attempt is pulled off with such polish that you can't help but revel in it. If you glanced at the combat, for example, you might see a generic cover based shooter, but spend some time with it and you’ll realise it’s a lot more than that.
The weapons are incredibly satisfying to use, and can all be upgraded through the use of salvage, which is found abundantly in crates and the bodies of enemies. The bow is the standout choice. It gives you a wealth of enjoyable offensive options: with it in hand you can sneak around picking goons off with silent headshots one by one, or you can stick on the explosive arrows attachment and cause mayhem at every possible moment. Up close, Lara is deadly, and however much that might hurt the story, it’s damned fun. She can throw dust into attacker's eyes, roll away acrobatically from incoming blows and take out unsuspecting victims in unspeakably violent, bloody ways.
What’s more, the level design plays a big part in all the fighting: cover will break apart (something I wish more games would do) meaning you’re always scrambling to a different vantage point. You can set areas on fire to flush enemies out into the open – although their Molotov cocktails will do the same to you – or pull levels apart with rope arrows, sending enemies plummeting to their death below. It creates a frantic pace that doesn't let up until the last body hits the floor.
Lara is extremely responsive – think of a female Nathan Drake and you can’t go wrong – landing jumps precisely and satisfyingly shimmying across chasms and up mountains with the help of her trusty axe. Sure, she makes ridiculous jumps look like a hop onto the pavement, has the strength of 4 prop forwards, and endures more falls than a fat man in an oiled up pie shop, but realism's sacrifice is certainly appreciated for that crazy sense that anything is possible.
As for the puzzles, they get progressively harder, constantly adding well explained mechanics as the game goes on. Sure, there are a fair share of simple pulley-and-rope puzzles, but the game is at its best when it provides you with a clear goal and a mish-mash of tools to complete it, which it does on a regular basis. The solutions are normally fairly obvious, but never feel contrived. Most of the difficulty comes in mastering the timings, which will take you a few attempts. One, for example, sees you temporarily closing to let gusts of winds through an old building, then winching up an old chandelier and jumping on it at exactly the right moment, allowing the wind – now practically tearing the shutters from the wall – to swing the chandalier into the air, allowing you to make a gravity defying lunge for safety.
What holds the best parts of Tomb Raider together – the combat, the platforming, and the puzzle solving – is the fantastically designed environments. Not only are they visually stunning (you’ll stop and stare on more than the odd occasion) but they’re used in inventive ways that really make you feel like you’re a part of the world.
You'll be traipsing through dank, dirty underground tombs seeing rivers of blood flow down the walls one minute, and leaping between rickety bridges on mountaintops the next. Everything feels real: you'll do a lot of backtracking through the more open environments and although they're clearly designed with platforming in mind, with a few too many conveniently marked spots that can you can fire your rope arrows upon, and thus zip across gaps with no trouble, you still feel like an adventurer carving a makeshift path out of the roofs and rock faces surrounding you.
Tomb Raider has its fair share of problems. But when it actually lets you play, which doesn't happen nearly often enough, it really is something great. It doesn't tell the story of Lara Croft's origins with a clear voice, instead opting to whisper it to the player as 10 machine guns go off right next to your ear. But that doesn't make it any less enjoyable. If developers Crystal Dynamics had spent a bit more time de-weeding the tropical island they lovingly crafted, Tomb Raider would be one of the best games of the year. As it is, it’s a game that I can still recommend, and that you’ll no doubt recommend to others too, but it feels like a huge opportunity missed.