CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Beaten and bloodied, shipwrecked on a mysterious island inhabited by a members of psychotic cult, a young Lara Croft is struggling to survive. Years from now, she will become the Tomb Raider of legend, a larger-than-life thrill-seeking adventurer who once battled a Tyrannosaurus Rex with dual-wielded pistols. But today, alone on this island, she is merely a fragile creature lost in a savage land.
In Crystal Dynamics' "Tomb Raider," gamers are given a front-row seat to the beginning of Croft's metamorphosis. The journey is an emotional one, to be sure, for both Lara and the player. We see her react to killing for the first time. We feel her pain when she loses those closest to her. We cringe when she suffers serious injury.
The move toward a more realistic depiction of Croft and her exploits is a welcome one as it draws the player into the game like few have been able to do, but make no mistake - this is still a "Tomb Raider" game at heart. And it's the best the series has ever seen.
In the beginning, "Tomb Raider" is as much about survival as it is exploration. Lara spends the early part of the game either bound, wounded or both as she works to escape her captors and reunite with members of her shipwrecked crew. Combat soon becomes a focal point, with Lara gaining access to a bow, pistol, machine gun and shotgun, each of which can be upgraded with salvage found scattered across the island. Lara, herself, can be upgraded with new skills and combat maneuvers, including some brutal finishing moves.
Despite the rather hefty arsenal at her disposal, I was pleased that Lara never became overpowered to the point that combat became easy. In fact, I began to welcome the gunfights and any opportunity to use Lara's deadly bow. Animals roam the island and can be hunted and harvested for small amounts of experience points and salvage, but beyond that there is no tangible benefit in pursuing them.
There are also hidden tombs on the island that present a more traditional "Tomb Raider" experience with environmental puzzles to solve in order to reap the treasures within. Sadly, none of these optional tombs offered much of a challenge, but they did provide a nice bit of nostalgia. In addition to the tombs, there are dozens of hidden items to collect and journals to discover, each providing a small XP boost and, more importantly, insight into the island's history.
Controlling Lara around the island is a dream, from the slick animations to the ease with which she scales sheer cliffs with her trusty axe. Whether jumping across wide gaps, leaping to high ledges or shimmying along rope bridges, Lara moves with a confident fluidity that series fans have come to expect. Levels are excellently designed to take full advantage of Lara's skill set, offering multiple paths to most objectives. Activating the Survival Instinct feature highlights objects in the environment that Lara can climb or grab hold of, though I rarely had to make use of it.
"Tomb Raider" pulls together all of its different gameplay elements and mixes in some of the most bombastic set-piece moments I've ever experienced in order to tell Lara's origin story. I was consistently impressed by how well the game was paced, with explosive scripted scenes framing quiet introspective moments and white-knuckle gunfights waiting at the end of lengthy platforming sequences. I thoroughly enjoyed taking my time exploring the island and soaking up the unbelievable level of detail in the world, which made the tense moments all the more powerful.
Graphically, "Tomb Raider" is perhaps the most stunning total visual package I've experienced on a console. Lighting is nothing short of breathtaking - watching the glow of Lara's torch reflect off the damp walls of an otherwise pitch-black cave was a sight to behold. Character animations are equally impressive, as are the character models, themselves. The third-person camera sits close behind Lara as she moves, and it's easy to get lost in the level of detail found on her body, especially the cuts and scrapes that form over time. Lara's various death animations are nothing short of gruesome, to the point of being unsettling, but they were also a reminder to approach situations more carefully. The audio presentation delivers as well, with excellent voice work and fantastic ambient sounds.