Rebooting a series as beloved as Lara Croft's Tomb Raider isn't a challenge that should be taken lightly. It's been 16 years since she first burst onto our screens in her now classic outfit and accompanied by her trusty guns, as she delved into deep and dark places in search of mysterious artifacts. The original Tomb Raider instantly became a cult classic and several sequels followed, as well as a few Hollywood films, which catapulted Lara into the kind of superstardom not usually reserved for characters in a video game.
But Lara's been on a bit of a hiatus lately, and we don't blame her. Surely there's only so much tomb raiding a girl can do? In light of this, Crystal Dynamics has decided to go back to the start of her adventuring career and show fans the experiences that helped forge such an iconic character, letting us discover more than we'd ever known about her life.
And let me tell you, it's going to be traumatic. Without giving too much away, the first gameplay segment puts you in control of a terrified Lara after vile enemies have imprisoned her in a cave on an island south of Japan. Her ship crashed somewhere and she's been separated from her friends. It won't be long before you see her falling onto a sharp object and hear her scream in agony, immediately putting the danger of the situation into context as you already start to feel protective of this young woman who's been captured.
While it's a brutal introduction to this new world, it's one that leaves an imprint on the memory. This certainly isn't the all-action heroine that we've come to know and love over the years. She's scared, vulnerable and doesn't know what's going on. But it's abundantly clear that what she lacks in know-how, she more than makes up for with a grit and determination that belies her years.
It's a shame, then, that the action takes a slightly contradictory turn soon after Lara is forced to make her first kill. She sits there, feeling guilty about what she's just done and how she's taken a life for the first time, but not long afterwards she's off firing bullets at anyone she comes across. It's a necessary move to defend against the many foes that she goes up against but it's a change in her demeanour that seems to happen a bit too quickly. Many games have struggled with the moral compass in the past, forcing characters to reflect on their actions before challenging them to clear out a room full of bad guys (GTA 4, anyone?) but you feel like the pacing could have been pulled off better.
Even though there is plenty of action, long time fans of the series needn't worry about the game straying too far from the traditional gameplay route of old. There is still plenty of platforming and exploration to be had on the strange island that Lara's ship has arrived at. Striking a balance between linear and open-world, Lara will come across large, open spaces from time to time where she can do a bit more investigation. We came across an old, abandoned plane that could be used to scramble across a steep drop and an empty village with plenty of climbing opportunities. At one point Lara even uses a pickaxe to ascend the side of a large rock. Players will probably have grown accustomed to the platforming side of things due to games like Assassin's Creed, however it's still good to see Lara in all her glory again.
But there is so much more than simple platforming. Going with the idea that young Lara knows little about survival tactics, Crystal Dynamics has added roleplaying elements so that her skills can be upgraded over time. This includes a system that improves the handling and power of your chosen weapon, which will either be guns that Lara picks up along the way or the more exciting bow and arrow that she uses to hunt her first deer. Oh yes, there are hunting elements too, although they're not essential and thankfully you're not forced into shooting that poor bunny. Looting a dead animal carcass will reward players with 'salvage', which in turn can be used for more upgrades. There is plenty of 'salvage' to be found hidden away in crates all over the island, encouraging yet more exploration.
This Tomb Raider reboot also features another star of the show that isn't Lara Croft, and that's the island that she finds herself on. A seemingly lush paradise on the surface, it contains multiple secrets once you do a little bit of probing. For example there's the gang that trapped her earlier on, how did they get there and what do they want? A hint at earlier visitors from the past is given with paintings on walls that point you in the direction of hidden tombs and buildings with distinctive architecture. And then there's something even stranger, as if the island has some kind of unexplainable, abnormal force. Without wanting to go too much into Lost territory, it's definitely something you'll want to explore further.
Sometimes it can feel like this reboot is trying to achieve too much as it scrambles to include every facet of a triple-A game into its opening hours. But we can't say we're not impressed by the emotional cut scenes, traditional platforming and roleplaying elements that had us hooked. Crystal Dynamics ambition certainly can't be faulted for attempting to churn out a huge, blockbuster game. It's what Lara deserves.