Tomb Raider: The Kotaku Review

I never wanted to have sex with Lara Croft. And I didn't want to protect her either. In the early Tomb Raider games that I played and loved, the relationship was simple. The lethal, archly snippy adventurer was me and I was her. I wanted what she wanted: to unearth the relics of antiquity. To go where human footsteps had never tread. To forge ahead into mystery.

God, I remember swimming to Atlantis in Tomb Raider 1 so vividly. Any game that could create that much awe in me deserved its accolades, no matter what shape the character's polygons were sculpted into.

But then Lara got lost. Too many games with too little to recommend them made it so that people only focused on her body and what she wore. (Yes, 2006's Legend recaptured some of the good ol' days, but its spark wasn't enough to keep the series' fires burning.) So it's meaningful then that this Tomb Raider reboot starts Lara off at a new beginning. Also significant is the notion that the character who became one of video games' biggest stars gains — and loses — some vigour on her new journey.

In the game, allusions are made to Lara's lineage — as before, she's the daughter of a renowned explorer — and they're heavy with symbolism. "I don't think I'm that kind of Croft," she says to her mentor at one point. "Sure you are," he replies. "You just don't know it yet." This game's all about making Lara into a survivor, both inside the game and out on real-world store shelves. In many ways, this Tomb Raider is a game of catch-up, something to establish parity with the other bankable personas and franchises of the modern gaming landscape.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider is a taut re-imagining of the iconic Lara Croft as a more vulnerable but increasingly empowered heroine.

Developer: Crystal Dynamics Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC (version played) Released: March 5 Type of game: action/stealth origin story with survival horror overtones and online play. What I played: played through all of the singleplayer campaign in about 15 hours, raided a few tombs

Two Things I Liked

  • Yamatai is a palimpsest of despair, a richly designed environment that echoes throughout history. Axis German troops, US Marines from the early 1900s, 17th century Japanese military forces… everyone was on this island! Finding remnants of previous lost souls makes you want to avoid sharing their fate.
  • The primal feeling of wielding the bow and arrow as a means of survival is tough to beat in Tomb Raider.

Two Things I Didn't Like

  • Tomb Raider 2013 can feel unrelentingly gloomy. Don't go in expecting to feel like a wisecracking badass.
  • Every time I felt forced to resort to modern forearms, I felt dirty.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "Best zip-lines ever!" — Evan Narcisse, Kotaku
  • "Attention, DC Comics and Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment: Steal everything applicable from Tomb Raider if you want to make a kickass Green Arrow game." — Evan Narcisse, Kotaku

You can feel the ambitions of the Crystal Dynamics creative team in the design of the game's component parts. The presentational elements — plot, dialogue, voice acting and art design — all shine. Some characters lean too heavily on type but not so much as to be really annoying. This is a beautiful game to look at too with great animations and modelling/texture work that's bursting with vivid, horrid detail in the characters and environments.

That last bit is key, as Tomb Raider quickly establishes it's going to be far more horror-inflected than its predecessors. We meet Lara as part of an archaeological reality television show, heading out in search of a mysterious lost civilisation called Yamatai on a ship called the Endurance. Crew members' personalities run the gamut from gruff to kindly and — in the case of the show's star Dr Whitman — desperately egotistical. The Endurance wrecks on the coast of Yamatai and, from there, Lara must stumble through tableaus of human sacrifice, cult religion and agonising despair to learn the skills necessary to save her friends.

I kept wondering how passionately this game would embrace awe and astonishment while mired in grit. Yamatai itself — and the men prowling it — provides the answer. The game's locale is a cursed place, an island-of-no-return in the Pacific where ships and planes have been crashing for centuries. Players will find journal entries from the people who had been trapped here long ago and you learn that no one ever left. The latter-day stranded are pirates and mercenaries belonging to a cult called the Solarii. Their charismatic leader believes the freak storms that keep them trapped there are powered by the ancient Japanese legend of the Sun Goddess.

The Solarii also conduct ritual sacrifices of women castaways aimed at ending their exile and Lara's friend Sam is on deck to become their latest victim. As far as made-up mythologies go, it's not a bad one. The Sun Goddess element feels better for the scepticism some of the enemy rank-and-file have about the myth. This instalment also treats the existence of the fantastic with better build-up and a trepidation that's more believable. The lore embedded into the game builds an oppressive air that adds fuel to the desperation at the core of this Tomb Raider.

Much of Tomb Raider re-contextualises elements that will be recognisable to anyone who's played a third-person action game in the last five years: specially timed finishers in melee combat, shooting sequences that rely heavily on cover mechanics and a segmented open-world design that opens up as you gain more tools and weapon modifications. Likewise, Tomb Raider uses an experience system that aggregates points as you play and offers up scads of unlockable collectible challenges. Lara's Survival Instinct — a special sight that highlights enemies and collectibles in the environment — will also be familiar. There's stealth too, and thankfully it feels meaningful rather than tacked on. Brawling or blasting away out in the open is never a path to victory for Lara.

As Lara explores the massive Island, you can set up camps, which act as save hubs and fast-travel stations for when you want to return to certain areas. Those camps are also where you upgrade weapons, skills and gear with salvage that you collect.

Are there tombs in Tomb Raider 2013? Yes. They're entirely optional, though, and are mostly hidden, combat-free zones concerned with environmental puzzle-solving. Exploring tombs gives you secrets and rewards — like skill points for upgrades and maps that show where relics and other collectibles are — so it's worth the investment of playing through them. They're also a quiet remove from all the human/animal aggression on the game's main path.

The Metroidvania elements to Tomb Raider's game design feel well thought-out, too. When you get the Rope Arrow ability, for example, it comes across as the result of Lara's increasing ingenuity, not just an expected design feature. The skill unlocking makes getting around Yamatai feel like the most fun part of a grim enterprise. As you launch climbable ropes across previously uncrossable chasms or destroy barriers with grenades or shotgun blasts, Lara feels less and less like she's at the mercy of the environment.

The key difference from, say, Batman: Arkham City or any Uncharted game is how effectively Tomb Raider drives home the physically gruelling experience of being an adventure hero. After all, you never see Batman sweat and, despite his grumbling, Nathan Drake tends to be very well-adjusted to what he has to endure. Not the 2013 edition of Lara Croft. She yelps, groans and screams in combat and traversal. You know she's going to make that jump. But it's going to sound really unpleasant when she does. And when she dies? The game unleashes truly gruesome death scenes — which, yes, call back to previous TR games — that turned my stomach no matter how often I saw them.

Ominous dread replaces intrepid sauciness in this reboot, and there's little of the breathless wonder that distinguished the first Tomb Raider games. You will see beautiful vistas, yes, but not much joy accompanies those moments. A tight claustrophobic camera zooms in on Lara when she squeezes through tight crevices and, even in the game's more open environments, a tense anxiety is never too far off. But that dread makes the play of the game feel deeply satisfying.

I grew to love the bow and arrow intensely in Tomb Raider, so much so that it was still my go-to weapon even after I'd gotten a shotgun and a grenade launcher add-on for my rifle. Lara spends so much of the game with wracked nerves and hiding from bigger, more vicious male aggressors. The bow gives you a way to weaponise all that angst. I always tried for headshots, to make sure the awful bastards shooting at me went down as egregiously as possible. Kotaku video editor Chris Person did the same, only he aimed for the crotch. Either way, pulling the string taut and letting fly feels like dishing out comeuppance.

Take the oppressive mood, the women-centric plot and the intimate nature of Tomb Raider's violence and this feels more desperate than any Uncharted game. There isn't as much dissonance between the narrative and the play. You'll believe in what's at stake and in the need to come out on top.

Initially, players will have to weather too many incredulous and affirmation-style statements — "Oh, God, what am I doing?", "I can do this", etc — but eventually, Lara starts growling back at her antagonists. Despite that, Lara winds up feeling like a sacrificial lamb on the altar of commercial video games. This is a video game icon becoming who she needs to be to stay alive and you're privy to an exhausting rebirth. Even when you come to the end of the game, you desperately hope that you and Lara will never, ever have to go through anything like that again. I liked what I played but I really want Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics to get Lara on her way to being cockily self-assured again.

Even if you know nothing about the earlier controversies that swirled around this game last year, it's impossible to play 2013 Tomb Raider and not breathe in all the subtext in its atmosphere. It's irresistibly ripe for interpretation: a cult of violent, trapped men forming around the myth of a vengeful Sun Goddess and a young, outmatched woman who gets bruised ad infinitum on her Hero's Journey. On its face, Tomb Raider doesn't appear to be about the portrayals of female characters in popular entertainment. But it's certainly ready to be read that way.

That layering — like the overall shift in tone — serves to gin up the experience in a counterintuitive way. It's the kind of feel-bad that feels good. If you miss the old Lara, you're compelled to finish this title to get her closer to the snarky, actualised persona of the PS1 era. In the game, Lara has been a doubter of the tales her father brought back home with him. "The lines between our myths and the truth is blurry," she realises at the game's end. The truth here is that this game is a finely crafted reboot, one that ensures that Lara Croft herself won't become a relic of the past. It's gloomier, yes, and laden with a thick sheen of meta-awareness. This new origin story throws more trouble at its heroine than ever before. But the changes folded into this Tomb Raider add a turbulent urgency that the old adventures lacked. We're left with a Lara Croft that we know better. She can handle what's coming, especially when it looks like she can't.

Note: Tomb Raider offers online multiplayer but I hadn't yet sampled the experience at press time. Once I get the chance to evaluate the game's online modes, I will update this review.


Comments

    "I never wanted to have sex with Lara Croft."

    Calling Patricia Hernandez article on sexism in games criticism.

      It's kind of sad that the Evan needs to begin the article with a line like this. It's a reflection of the state of modern feminism - the instant assumption that no male can enjoy a game like Tomb Raider for what it is, without there being some kind of ulterior motive or sexist undercurrent.

      Last edited 26/02/13 11:27 am

        Try the state of marketing, maybe. Lara was all about massive boobs and pointing that out is perfectly fine.

        Men whining about people having the gall to read something from a gender perspective sound like the american conservative christians shrilly screaming about their religion being oppressed as soon as a secular viewpoint emerges.

        Pointing out the t&a element isnt feminist. its logical.

          Really?
          Because saying "I never wanted to have sex with Lara Croft. And I didn’t want to protect her either." in the very first line of the article sounds very defensive to me. Would it have been there without the hysteria whipped up by the recent Patricia Hernandez articles? I doubt it.

          How is my comment "men whining about people having the gall to read something from a gender perspective"?

          Unless, by this you mean anyone who's opinion differs from yours.

            if you really think the authors care about forum dramas you are kidding yourself. Evan's not throwing out disclaimers because a bunch of forum trolls without life balance take some sort of umbrage to pro feminist viewpoints. like i already said, a viewpoint that can be baldly represented to wives and girlfriends is one that exists in this real world.

              From the US Kotaku site: http://kotaku.com/5986025/the-lack-of-women-presenters-at-the-ps4-event-is-bigger-than-sony?tag=women
              First comment is from another Kotaku writer defending Patricia, because of the shit-storm from the initial article. If you think the authors don't care about forum dramas, you're being naive.

              a viewpoint that can be baldly represented to wives and girlfriends is one that exists in this real world

              What about those of us with hair?

            You don't get it at all mate. That line is a comment on one of the most oft-cited attributes of Lara games. Any discussion of Lara with typical red-blooded male friends will almost inevitably result in mention of how hot she is, what she'd be like in bed etc, and this almost serves as a reason in of itself to play the TR games. The reviewer's just saying that Lara's innate attractiveness isn't what drew him in to the games - it's the adventuring spirit of them.

        I thought the first two sentences were a direct reference to the controversy about the rape scene in the game a while back... not a weak defence just in case some straw feminists come out from under the bed.

        Christ, most feminists aren't that crazy. Just looks it cos they're the vocal ones.

      jizz jizz jizz!! Not even Patricia can stop me. Tomb Raider 10/10 yeahhhhhhhhhhh.

    bring on next week... super excited for this one :D

    When I saw the first trailers for this game I was immediately turned off. Not because of the gameplay design choices or setting or anything like that; it is all to do with the changes to Lara and the way she is now presented. She basically comes across as being a very generic looking woman from any old adventure movie. While that may work for some things, I think that a character that you play in a game needs to be a little bit special.. a little bit "extra"ordinary.. the previous portrayals of Lara were just that.. but now we are not seeing that anymore. Yes, she is more realistic but since when is Tomb Raider a simulation of adventuring life? Think of the characters in Far Cry 3.. the main characters are special and extraordinary.. the side characters (e.g. the friends that you save along the way) are just regular, normal and ordinary people.. and that's how Lara comes across now.. she has all these abilities that allow her to do all these amazing things.. but still comes across as a generic actress from any number of movies and TV shows.

      I don't really see why the main character should be somehow "extraordinary". That's part of the appeal of a character like Nathan Drake - he just seems like a regular kind of guy (mass slaughter notwithstanding - it's a video game after all) who just hurtles from one extraordinary situation to another. That's what makes for more interesting stories, I reckon - ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

        You're using Nathan Drake as an example?? He is quite extraordinary, far from being ordinary acting or looking. Maybe people don't have any perspective any more these days.. *shrugs*

          I think you're missing the point of the story here. This game is all about Lara's first foray into 'tomb raiding' and eventually we'll see the story unfold and with that her character will mature.

          Making her "ordinary" makes it more interesting and fits the story.

        Agreed. Ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. You can relate to that much more.

        "Think of the characters in Far Cry 3.. the main characters are special and extraordinary" Disagree. They are ordinary (one was an ex-marine(?), one was at university, one was an aspiring actor etc) but they were put in an extraordinary situation. They actually remind me of my younger brother and his friends when they travelled SE Asia recently.

      Haha, you've been downvoted to oblivion, just for saying you liked the old Lara Croft. The PC police is rife over here.

        Well that's 6 people not worth communicating with.. downvoted but failed to provide a counter argument. Simply not worth the effort with pea brains like that. :)

          Blergh, nothing wrong with the old Lara except for some atrocious games.

    Dirty, dirty modern forearms...

    Sounds a lot more interesting. I hoipe there's a lot of Metroidvania stuff.

      Agreed. I wasn't really paying much attention but it's certainly sounding like a good one. The segmented open world opening up as you get more tools sounds like exactly my sort of thing. I don't even mind the modern experience-points systems as long as they're implemented well.

    Does the skin on your forearm is called a 'foreskin'?

      The same way your hair smells because of a brainfart

    Great review Evan, really looking forward to the game now.. can't wait!

    Last edited 26/02/13 11:25 am

    On its face, Tomb Raider doesn’t appear to be about the portrayals of female characters in popular entertainment. But it’s certainly ready to be read that way.

    ...by Patricia Hernandez, no doubt.

      It's really quite interesting to see how Patricia has become the name of scorn these days.
      Just a few short long months ago it was Luke "image with text on it makes an article" Plunkett and Brian "story not at all relevant to video games" Ashcraft.

      Not that I'm implying it's undeserved. But it's sure fun to watch.

      Last edited 27/02/13 2:37 pm

        Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing today, actually. The general rule of thumb seems to be that if gender is in any way mentioned in an article written by someone other than Patricia, at least one of the first comments on that story will make reference to her in some (usually mildly derogatory) way. Now I feel kinda bad for perpetuating this trend with my comment above.

          Ahhh, she's dug her own hole. Whether she climbs out or keeps on digging is up to her.
          I mean, Plunkett and Ashcraft both sort of stopped doing those things they did, didn't they?

    The first Tomb Raider was one of the best games I've ever played (and Anniversary was awesome as well of course) so I'm happy to see that this this reboot compares favourably in the opinion of a fellow TR1 fan.

    “Attention, DC Comics and Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment: Steal everything applicable from Tomb Raider if you want to make a kickass Green Arrow game.”

    Funny, not so long ago the comments were similar to...

    “Attention, Crystal Dynamics: Steal everything applicable from Uncharted if you want to make a kickass Tomb Raider game.”

    But it would seem they have done just as well taking their own path, who'd have thought!

      Hehe not owning a PS3 ive been looking,forward to this as the closest ill get to playing an Uncharted game

        No "The last of us" for you either then I guess :-(

          :(

          I'm trying REALLY HARD to resist buying a whole other console mere months before more consoles come out!!!

    This review, coupled with a few others floating around have made me buy this.
    All of them are positive until it comes to the multiplayer component, but who is interested in Tomb Raider for tacked on multiplayer anyway?

    I've been skeptical for a long time now after being burned time and time again by most of the bigger titles I've played/had my eye on from the past year or so... but all these nice words for a refreshing looking and sounding series reboot has swayed me on this one.

    $36 for the Steam/PC version from Green Man Gaming using their 20% off code.
    Can't go wrong.

      do you get any of the pre-order bonuses if you buy from GMG?

        I'm not sure what those are, but this is what is listed on GMG.

        ------------------------------------------------------
        Alongside the game, you will receive:
        Pistol Burst Upgrade:
        Early access to the three-shot burst pistol upgrade will let Lara unleash a hail of firepower on her foes.

        Animal Instinct Skill Upgrade:
        Early access to the Animal instinct skill will light up XP-laden animals in Survival Instinct mode to help Lara upgrade to the next skill in no time.

    Still on the fence with this one, mainly because TR was the first ever game I've touched on the PS1 so it has a lot of fond memories for me. The new one sounds great if a little less, umm, fantastic? (as in razing some long lost tomb and basically swimming in riches). In fact this game sounds more like a thriller than anything else :O

    There is a assumption that me being a male would only want to play Tomb Raider because i’m sexually attracted to the main character?... so if that correct, i have been living a lie because i loved playing Uncharted.

      In that case, you're living an even bigger - and unholy - lie if you've ever enjoyed playing Tokyo Zoo or Animal Crossing.

      Last edited 26/02/13 11:32 pm

    What system did you play it on? I've read that its marginally better on PC than consoles.

    I was actually kind of offended that they have taken so much effort to "de-sex" Laura Croft over the last few games. I don't really understand why there is this puritanical view about the appropriate size and heft of a fictional characters breasts. Hell, my wife has bigger breasts than Laura Croft does - does this mean that I married some wanton harlot that is only valued on the size of her chest? Really, the connotation here is not flattering no matter which way you look at it.

    In an imaginary place I like to call "Grown Up Land", female video game characters have both large and small breasts. Some people find this sexually stimulating. Some people do not. No one cares.

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