Lara Croft, one of the most iconic protagonists in gaming, has finally returned with a contemporary tale designed to reboot the Tomb Raider series. And it's a magnificent comeback. Crystal Dynamics' new take on the heroine mixes combat and exploration in a compelling fashion, resulting in one of the best action adventure titles since the Uncharted trilogy.
It's not entirely flawless, though. The narrative revolves around a younger Lara Croft, and depicts her journey from shipwrecked archaeologist to hardened survivor in an intense and powerful story. However, frequently the struggle to survive and suppress her humanity fails to translate to your actions. The first animal that you kill for food and the first human life that you take causes the character considerable pain, but subsequent deaths take no toll as the protagonist proves to be a peculiarly effective markswoman and hunter. The clash certainly damages the emotional depth of the experience, but the rest of it is so expertly crafted that you probably won't dwell too much on this misstep.
The mysterious island that you're washed up on with your gang of fellow archaeologists, film crew, and ship mates is a huge environment, packed with puzzles, treasures, and collectables. Beautiful waterfalls, snow covered peaks, windy plateaus, and ancient ruins dot the landscape and blow you away with their splendour. Meanwhile animal life scuttles through the vegetation, with the occasional beast hungry for your blood. Mostly, though, you'll be fighting off human enemies with the weapons and equipment that you find.
You'll promptly discover an axe and bow to defend yourself with right at the start of the game, and you'll eventually come across some firearms to provide you with a small but effective arsenal. Salvage can be found in crates, chests, and on the bodies of fallen foes, which can be used to upgrade your weapons gradually, providing you with effective death dealers and also the tools to access previously inaccessible areas where more items, hidden collectables, and experience points dwell. With the experience points you can upgrade your hunting and survival skills, making you more durable and deadly. Campfires scattered across the island allow you to access the upgrade menus, as well as a fast travel option which warps you to other visited campfires. They also give Lara an opportunity to rest, and allow the narrative to take hold with journal entries and other bits and pieces of lore.
Despite a growing arsenal of weapons, the bow leads the pack. It's highly accurate, fast, and silent, and an absolute thrill to use. The firearms also feel appropriately lethal, with some excellent sound effects selling their power. Although the protagonist's proficiency with them is jarring to say the least, it's still an enjoyable combat system. Regardless, it's the good old fashioned exploration and tomb raiding that really shines. Clambering over rocks and shanty town huts, climbing cliff faces, zip lining down ropes, and squeezing through tight passages is extremely satisfying, making traversing the island a treat. Locating tombs and solving the puzzles within them is certainly rewarding, with clever environmental tasks challenging you at every opportunity. However, it's unfortunate that there are so few caves to explore and that the handful that are on offer are so small.
The campaign's fairly linear for the most part, but there are more open areas for you to forge your path through as well. Wherever you are headed, the platforming is particularly precise. In a way, it's reminiscent of Assassin's Creed's parkour, with its natural free flowing movement. The animation is impressive, too, demonstrating Lara's considerable acrobatic and climbing skills – though her proficiency is perhaps once again at odds with the plot. If you get lost, a quick tap of the L1 button activates your Survival Instinct vision, which highlights interactive elements within the environment. This is a particular godsend when you're trying to solve some of the more challenging traversal puzzles in the game.
The adventure itself is packed with memorable moments. Much like in Uncharted, you should expect plenty of encounters in which Lara dangerously slips down steep cliff faces and desperately attempts to avoid collapsing structures. Unfortunately, early in the game, these do lead to some frustrating quick-time events, which become a bit of nuisance. Fortunately, they don't detract too much from the experience, and the campaign does a wonderful job of maintaining a swift pace throughout its 10 to 12 hour running time.
Tomb Raider also boasts some stunning presentation. Characters are exceptionally well detailed, and you can almost feel the vegetation and damp cave walls. The lighting and fire effects are particularly impressive, though the disappointing water physics break the illusion a touch. Additionally, strong voice acting throughout helps to keep you immersed in the story, even if a couple of characters descend into cliché. Ultimately, though, it's Camilla Luddington as the budding archaeologist who steals the show. She delivers an engrossing performance, and really lends believability to the character, even if the gameplay threatens to squander it at times.
Outside of the campaign, you'll find the title's controversial multiplayer component. Despite the negativity surrounding it – and a handful of technical issues – it offers a decent roster of deathmatch and objective-based modes. The latter options find you capturing radio points or retrieving health packs as survivors, while the island dwellers aim to stop you. The ability to activate traps laid out in the arenas adds a nice touch of variety to the otherwise bog standard affair. Meanwhile, a basic weapon and perk upgrade system and plenty of unlockable characters pave the way for some longevity, though the few maps that are available are small and prone to cheap tactics.
Tomb Raider is an exceptional game. Break-neck set pieces and quality combat help make the action exceedingly enjoyable, even if it does stray from the themes of the narrative at times. Impressive visuals and a lively environment brimming with distractions will encourage you to explore, while a solid if unspectacular multiplayer component provides some replayability. Nathan Drake may want to watch his back, because the queen of adventure's gunning for his crown.