New Tomb Raider the best yet

Tomb Raider
$88, MA15+
Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Reviewer's rating: 9/10

Lara Croft has always been something of an enigma in the history of games. Massively successful financially, her games have swung wildly between classics and forgettable misfires. Her achievements have also been marred by her pixelated endowments that arguably became more famous than her.

We're a sophisticated lot, gamers. Lara never really stood up as a fleshed-out female character in her own right, despite being one of the few female protagonists in gaming. A vehicle for adolescent fantasy and impractical swimsuit choices, her original 1996 outing on the Playstation found great success by combining platforming, puzzles and combat. Many gamers have great memories of uncovering ancient and suspiciously pristine tombs, fighting monsters and flinging Lara's oddly-shaped body over chasms.

My memories consist of jagged graphics, frantic tactless combat and Lara insisting on flinging herself off every ledge as I grappled with the controls. But the seed of a great game has always been there, and because of that Tomb Raider has become one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time.

But the series arguably needed something to shake it up and a reboot is a perfectly good way to do that. This new Tomb Raider takes Lara back to her first adventure, before she had raided any tombs, and shows how she earns the name.

The game begins delightfully abruptly (the back story is filled out later in cut-scenes and documents you find) as Lara and her crew search for a lost island in the Dragon's Triangle. This mysterious Japanese Bermuda Triangle is known for destroying ships and aircraft but Lara points her prow towards it anyway.

Surprisingly, the ship is snapped in half on the rocks that surround the island and the crew gets separated. Things go from bad to worse when Lara discovers they're not alone, a band of half-crazed shipwreck survivors obsessed with myths relating to the island's ancient Japanese civilisation insist they join or die. The game takes a fantastic turn around halfway through as it introduces a tantalising plot development that ramps up the intrigue.

Plot-wise, Tomb Raider is a rollercoaster ride of exploration and by-the-skin-of-your-teeth survival that doesn't stop being compelling until the end. Unsurprisingly, the game's conclusion strongly hints at more entries in the rebooted series.

This is actually developer Crystal Dynamic's fifth Tomb Raider game, whereas traditionally a reboot would be the first game from a new developer, and arguably the best. To make sweeping claims about a game steeped in nostalgia is usually frowned upon by the nostalgia holders themselves, but I'm going to do it anyway. This is the best Tomb Raider game yet. The story is focused, compellingly visceral and filled with mysteries that drive you barrelling towards the conclusion. It's also a good length, and drip feeds you new elements and situations at a tantalising rate to keep you interested throughout.

The new Ms Croft is also a revelation. Gone is the poncy Lara of old, replaced by a green, young woman who must rise to a challenge for which she doesn't think she's ready. One of the main themes for Lara in this game is proving herself and discovering that she's capable enough to survive, even though she doesn't know it. It makes for a much more compelling game than dropping an already battle-hardened protagonist into a predictable situation.

One of the tenets of story-telling that games often forget is that your character needs to have changed by the end of the story – "grown" somehow. Lara's interactions and dialogue change over the course of the game as she becomes more confident and hardened by the horrors that assail her.

Compared to previous games, there is less actual raiding of tombs than before, but this is because the story is given greater focus. There are optional tombs for the completionists out there, but they never get much harder than the first few. Mostly you'll be spending your time between platforming and combat.

Obviously, new-Lara has taken a lot of cues from Nathan Drake of Uncharted fame (which funnily enough, took its cues from old Tomb Raider) and the environmental traversal never feels tedious as it sets such a fast pace. Players familiar with Uncharted's controls will be at home as Lara controls quite similarly to Drake. This isn't a bad thing as the feeling of being fast and nimble translates well to Tomb Raider.

Another reason the platforming is so much fun is the fantastic level-design. While not open-world, the game switches it up between expansive hubs and directed story missions. The larger areas are a delight to behold and show the island in all its bleak beauty. They're also perfect for Lara's particular skill set, and trying to figure out how to get from one side of a cliff-face to a signal flare, via that relic perched nearby, encourages just the right amount of exploration. Later levels around a crumbling monastery and ancient Japanese palace are some of the game's best and deserve to be returned to as they have lots of secrets to be found.

As this reboot takes place at the beginning of her career, many of the light role-playing game elements tie into Lara's growing skill set. By the end of the game, the weapon and skill upgrades make you a more savvy combatant – although you can't just blast through the whole game. I recommend playing Tomb Raider on the hardest difficulty for a more authentic experience. Charging in with your rifle blasting will work in some situations, but Lara just can't go toe-to-toe with the hulking men that call the island home. A combination of stealth, quick-thinking and combat will help you survive the odds, which are increasingly stacked against you.

Players interested in the fullest experience should find the documents and relics that dot the landscape as they offer an expanded insight into Lara and her crew's thoughts. They also give some back-story to the events that play out on the island and explain the motivations of the antagonists. This makes the collectables actually worth collecting, instead of just for the achievements, and extends the length of the game without feeling artificially padded.

The one complaint I had about the highly enjoyable storyline is that the puzzles just aren't very hard. While upping the difficulty makes the combat more challenging, you're still subjected to the same physics puzzles that never really move on from the simple ones that introduce you to the concept. Old Tomb Raider was renowned for the huge, complicated puzzles that often stood between you and your prize, and the satisfying feeling of completing one is one of the reasons the games have resonated for so long. Crystal Dynamics have done away with the feeling of accomplishment for the sake of accessibility, and this aspect of the game falls short compared to the rest of the stellar experience.

Tomb Raider also features, for the first time, a multiplayer mode. Your avatar controls well, as they've taken the same traversal style as the single-player, but the whole mode feels unfinished. Characters glitch away when you shoot at them, and trying to melee a combatant is a lesson in futility. The modes are not particularly exciting, either, and the lack of variation doesn't encourage replayability.

Keep in mind, though, that I played a pre-release version, and games these days often come with a day-one patch. I really hope Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix take the time to improve the multiplayer, as the framework of a fun experience is there, albeit hidden under a tedious one.

Often gamers decry reboots, and I would usually join them, but Tomb Raider has proven it can work. The experience is different from the old games, but this turned out to be a godsend. Apart from the multiplayer, the game is fantastic, offering a well-written single-player that shows the beginnings of a gaming icon.

The story is dark, the characters fleshed-out and interesting and the gameplay takes what made the old games so popular and redesigns it for the better. The best surprise turns out to be Lara. Compelling female protagonists are far and few between in gaming, and new-Lara turns out to be strong, capable and relatable. Regardless of how many times she receives a wound that would kill a normal human being, Crystal Dynamics still manage to make her feel vulnerable and real without sacrificing her strength.

The story New Tomb Raider the best yet first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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