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Tomb Raider was in a creative rut last we saw it, with stagnant gameplay and a dull lead character. However, Lara Croft has undergone quite a transformation in the five years since Tomb Raider Underworld. The new Lara might not be recognizable to the fans who knew her way back when but these changes are for the best.
In the game, Lara Croft is no longer the back-flipping, expert treasure hunter with uzis in each hand. Instead, she's a fresh-faced graduate on her first journey. Minutes after the game starts, she's shipwrecked on an island populated by wolves, murderous salvagers and other dangers. The game follows her evolution from scared young girl into hardened adventurer.
The evolution's a lot quicker than it ought to be. She'll be shooting enemies by the dozens within the first half hour of the campaign. Ultimately the demands of an action genre beat out the desire to tell a grounded story. Still, Lara has never been a more compelling character. The events of the game take an emotional and physical toll on her. Her transformation into a hero might happen too quickly, but the key thing is that there's a transformation there. In previous games, she was an unflappable action hero who tracks down treasure for funsies. Here, she's in over her head and has to grow up quickly in order to survive.
The trailers might lead you to think that survival is a big portion of the game. However, this isn't S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or DayZ. You're not going to be foraging for food and water. You have to kill exactly one deer in the campaign, and that piece of venison apparently tides you over for the rest of the game. Instead, the game challenges players with a mixture of combat, puzzles and platforming.
The combat is surprisingly deft. It avoids the plodding, whack-a-mole of other third-person, cover-based shooters. You can't just sit in a corner and snipe off one enemy at a time. Enemies force you to keep moving. Salvagers will toss molotov cocktails and dynamite at you or shoot up your cover. Wolves and blade-wielding enemies will charge your position as well. The charging enemies even do little side-steps to throw off your aim. Each battle is fast-paced and frantic, with bow-and-arrow headshots, assault rifle barrages and axe swipes.
Quick Time Events rear their ugly head occasionally. The first fifteen minutes of the game will make you think they're more common than they actually are, though. For the most part they're used sparingly. I do wish they weren't utilized for key story moments of the game, though. I had to rewatch a few scenes because I didn't hit "Y" in time to avoid a death blow.
Platforming was a big part of previous Tomb Raider games and there's plenty of swinging and climbing here. You won't fight with the camera as much as you did in earlier installments. However, the jumping and climbing are effortless. It doesn't test your twitch skills at all. Instead, these parts of the game are like eye candy.
The puzzles, though engaging, are likewise reduced in importance for this game. There's a decent amount in the campaign but they're all fairly short. Furthermore, many of them are found in optional tombs hidden throughout the island. They're much more approachable than in past games thanks to a new ability called Survival Instinct that highlights key items in the environment. Old-school fans of the series might object to puzzles taking a backseat to combat but you can choose to make them a bigger part of the game by finding all the tombs and opting not to use Survival Instinct.
A speed run of Tomb Raider might feel like an Uncharted game, with third-person shooting broken up by platforming and puzzling. However, Tomb Raider also offers a healthy amount of open-world exploration. The island is gorgeous and filled with texts detailing its colorful history, so it's hard to resist the urge to wander off the beaten path.
By exploring the world, you'll also earn bonus XP and salvage. These, in turn, give you skill points and weapon upgrades to make Lara more powerful. The progression options are a mixed bag (ranging from incendiary shotgun shells to getting more items off dead animals) but nonetheless, they're a hard incentive to pursue the optional content.
If you don't spend any time on optional tombs or hunting down all the hidden items, you can finish Tomb Raider's campaign in a couple afternoons. That might seem a bit short for players who have been waiting five years for a new Tomb Raider. Still, I was left satisfied by the length. If it was any longer, it would've stretched out the plot and gameplay too thin. Lara's journey ends before you get sick of her.
I would've been perfectly content if the game had shipped without its multiplayer. In the game's online modes, players compete in deathmatch or objective-based matches. It features a deep progression system with new weapons, weapon upgrades and special abilities. That's the only positive thing I can really say about the multiplayer, though. Stripping away the story, characters and puzzles removes what's most special about Tomb Raider. The developers threw in some climbable walls and booby traps to give the multiplayer some Tomb Raider flavor but aren't enough to make the online play memorable. It doesn't feel like a worthy complement to the campaign at all.
This reboot breathes new life back into Lara Croft. She's not a pin-up girl with guns anymore - she's a believable, human hero. Long-time fans of the series might not be happy that combat is emphasized over platforming and puzzles but the changes to Lara as a character are unmistakably positive. She'll be a worthy travel companion in the next generation of consoles.
Platforms: PS3, PC, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics (campaign), Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Publisher: Square Enix