Tomb Raider single-player review: 'Uncharted' territory

Rebooting a beloved and long-lived series in any entertainment medium is a challenging prospect. Push your material to the next level in every conceivable way, but stray too far from the core type of experience that made your source material successful, and you risk disappointing your built-in fanbase. Tomb Raider by Crystal Dynamics does both of these things in a number of ways. There's also a lot mechanically and structurally familiar about Lara Croft's new "origin story" experience alongside the new stuff, though that familiarity doesn't stem much from past Tomb Raider games. focalbox For starters--and either good news or bad news, depending on your attachment to the more carefree tone of the series' prior games--Tomb Raider is much darker and violent than it's predecessors. The overall story line is infused with a hefty dose of the kind of supernatural elements you might expect from an Indiana Jones movie, but there aren't many (if any) moments of levity. Blood, gore, and decomposing corpses are used liberally in the set dressing, and there are a number of visually gruesome ways for Lara to meet her demise. The setting is confined to a single, but large island where Lara and her group of archaeologist friends find themselves stranded (and separated) after a shipwreck. They're beset upon by some strange cult of mercenaries, and Lara has to escape, try to survive, and rescue her friends. Overall, the voice acting is good, although the script erratically jumps between being decent and overly melodramatic. The story itself, despite a good amount of expository cinematics, is relatively one-dimensional, as is the games generic lead villain. Given the harsh weather and temperatures Lara encounters wearing nothing but her iconic tank top, suspension of disbelief can be tricky, given how seriously the story takes itself. It's also a bit strange that the story doesn't involve much in the way of ancient artifacts or treasures of any kind, which are relegated to the role of optional collectibles. The rest of the game's presentational attributes are great, including an impressive variety of character animations and great-looking locations. The design ethos of the new Tomb Raider game is actually quite different from prior games in the series. Whereas the primary focus was on environmental exploration and puzzles, with a dash of combat thrown in for spice, the new Tomb Raider pulls a complete one-eighty. It's not long before Lara has armed herself with a bow, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and pickax and is mowing down scads of bad guys while en-route to a linear climb to her next objective. The action is punctuated with some visually-impressive, scripted roller-coaster moments, quick-time events, and cinematics. For better or worse, Tomb Raider seems to have cribbed a lot of developer Naughty Dog's playbook for the Uncharted series. There are still some environmental puzzles to be solved--my favorites being ones that involved using Lara's rope arrow upgrade--but you're not likely to get stumped by them, nor are they likely to test your dexterity much. It's a nice touch that there are a number of optional tombs to explore along the way, but most of them basically amount to a single-room puzzle. Similarly, while there are some branching pathways, side-routes, and optional nooks to explore throughout the game, thoroughly scouring each area doesn't take long.

Lara in peril. This kind of thing happens a lot.

When it comes to Lara's new dual-purpose weapon-tools, the bow and the pickax are both fun to use. Upgrading the bow with things like rope arrows, fire arrows, and damage bonuses kept it useful throughout the game. It's actually the weapon I used to defeat the final boss. The pickax adds a minor, but fun new dimension to climbing sheer surfaces, and like the bow, can be used to dispatch enemies quietly. Combat is relatively entertaining throughout, and though much of it feels familiar to other third-person shooters, I felt the game's automatic cover mechanic was particularly well implemented, and much less clunky than the more typical "press a button to stick to cover" systems. In the end, I enjoyed the Tomb Raider ride, but in a B-grade thriller sort of way. A lot of that has to do with the new direction it takes, which skews towards a much different and action-oriented balance of gameplay than its predecessors, and a script that can't quite bear the weight of the story's serious tone. There are a lot of exciting, cinematic moments and action to experience within, even though they come at the expense of the spirit of exploration and environmental puzzling the IP was originally built upon.
This Tomb Raider single-player review is based on pre-release review code for the Xbox 360, provided by the publisher. The game will also be available for PC and PlayStation 3 when it comes out on March 5. The multiplayer portion of the game will be reviewed separately under real world conditions.