It has been a while since Lara Croft has graced out consoles. In the meantime Nathan Drake has wooed us with his roguish charm and reminded us what adventure gaming should be all about even if his nice-guy demeanour is at odds with his body count.
Uncharted's success has meant that when Lara Croft finally did make her return, Crystal Dynamics would have to do something pretty damn special to return Ms Croft to her rightful place as the queen of adventure gaming.
Well, Tomb Raider is something pretty damn special.
Crystal Dynamics has decided to scrap everything they've done before and start with a completely clean slate. This new Lara begins the game as a hopeful 21-year-old archaeologist heading out to look for a lost Japanese kingdom hidden in the Dragons Triangle (South East Asia's equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle) called Yamatai.
She embarks on a voyage on the Endurance, the same ship her father used to set out on his adventures on and it soon runs into trouble. Lara soon finds herself and her friends shipwrecked on a mysterious island said Dragons Triangle.
Tomb Raider is gritty and brutally dark from the outset. Not long after being washed up on the shores Lara is knocked out and kidnapped and awakes to find herself hanging upside down in a cavern meets charnel house of horrors that Clive Barker would be proud of.
Crystal Dynamics have paced this beginning just right, introducing their new incarnation of Lara Croft in possibly the most dramatic fashion. Players have to swing Lara free only to see her skewered on a stray piece of iron sticking out of the ground. What follows is an excruciating and short QTE as Lara tries to remove the iron spike before she becomes another pile of bones in this horrific cavern.
This sets the scene for what is one of the most exciting and traumatic games that have graced our screens in recent years. The game continues with bow-armed stealth segments, edge-of-the-cliff exploration and sporadic gun battles all carefully punctuated by some frantic QTEs as Lara searches for her friends and a way off the island.
The games fast, careful and deliberate pacing is matched by some pretty impressive visuals. Even on a fairly old PC Tomb Raider looks spectacular; a reminder that while the next generation may be just on the horizon the current generation still has a phenomenal amount to say for itself.
Part of what makes the visuals so special is the dynamic nature of the environments that Lara can explore. Running across collapsing bridges, high on the mountainside yields the kind of clench factor akin to that of a rollercoaster ride.
If Lara is swept down a stream the water effects serve to both amaze and disorient players, in a very deliberate and immersive way.
The lack of HUD deepens the immersion adding an almost Dead Space-like intimacy to the game's many dramas. Some of the camera angles employed in sequences where Lara is up to her neck in water in a dark cavern convey the claustrophobic feeling, zooming in close as she squeezes through crevices. It almost evokes the atmosphere of early Resident Evils where awkward camera angles served to ramp up the tension.
One moment serves to underline this more than most as Lara climbs to the very top of a radio mast on one of the islands highest peaks to send a distress call. The rusted old ladder begins to creak and fall away as she reaches the top and the camera is pointed at her face with a vertical drop of several hundred feet as the backdrop. The fear is palpable as one of the elderly rungs begins to come away in her hand. This is truly a moment of utter tension and fear.
The game swings between moments like these using exploration sequences as entertaining punctuation. These segments offer optional tombs to raid which give a satisfying 'Tomb Raided' message when they are completed. There's loads of collectables too from WWII relics to items from feudal Japan dotting the island. Journals hidden in different locations also give more of the history of the island and each is well-narrated by its writer adding a striking emotional dimension beyond the effect of just reading the words on the screen. And if you missed bits you can always jump back using the hand fast-travel feature at the various base camps dotted around each of the islands regions.
Tomb Raider is just a few inches short of perfect though. There are a couple of flies in the ointment. The first is the balancing of the QTEs on the PC. If playing with a controller some of the QTEs don't quite work the way that they should. On at least one occasion the balancing was off enough to require switching from the controller to the keyboard and mouse to satisfy the QTE. This can be irritating for anyone especially those taking advantage of Steam's Big Picture Mode but thankfully its not a game-breaker.
The other issue is with the multiplayer. It features the opportunity to run around a selection of the islands locales with Tomb Raider-style versions of the traditional multiplayer modes. Yes, you can climb about the levels as you can in single player but the multiplayer just feels a bit tacked-on. Not to say it's not fun just that it feels a bit redundant, especially given how good the single player actually is.
Everything that Crystal Dynamics said leading up to the release of Tomb Raider emphasised that this is a complete re-imagining of the series and they have done a cracking job. Gritty, captivating and visually exquisite, this Tomb Raider is certainly a fitting rebirth for one of gaming's best-loved heroes.
Tomb Raider was tested on a PC powered by an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz with 4GB RAM and a Radeon HD4550 with 512MB VRAM.
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