Lara Croft stands with the distinguished few that can claim to be a video game icon. In the decade since her Playstation introduction, she’s been featured in over a dozen video games and was even portrayed by Angelina Jolie in film, twice. But always looming over her critical or commercial success was her symbolism as a sex object and video game’s long and uncomfortable relationship with sexism. A popular character attached to an outdated ideology calls for reinvention, and that’s much of what the new Tomb Raider asserts.
Tomb Raider is keenly aware of its roots, but longtime developer Crystal Dynamics is also eager to overhaul. The game immediately draws from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted (which in turn took inspiration from the older Tomb Raiders), tasking Lara Croft on an adventure that’s equal parts cover-based firefight and light puzzle sequences. These segments demonstrate the game’s polish. Level designs are intriguing and exciting, the mountainous ruins offering many hidden surprises and a nice sense of vertical dimension often missing from shooters.
Unlike Nathan Drake and Uncharted, Lara Croft is on a serious journey, where she takes up arms reluctantly and only in desperation. She’s not the voluptuous protagonist, but now a more grounded everyday adventurer. And for the most part, Crystal Dynamics develops this thread well, whether it’s terrifying encounter with wolves or crawling around creepy caves. The dark realism only works to highlight Croft as a relatable character, while also offering a fine excuse for beautiful fire and shadow effects and dramatic sweeping camera angles.
While dual pistols have been Croft’s staple since day-one, guns often took a backseat to adventuring–namely tomb raiding. Tombs are still featured here, although they are now relegated to optional side quests. Instead, gun battles occupy most of the campaign’s ten or so hours. The controls feel tight, and few things match the satisfaction that a headshot via bow and arrow delivers, but it pierces into Tomb Raider’s carefully constructed plot and pacing.
Her first kill and its traumatizing effect, is played up–only for it to slowly dilute throughout the rest of the game as Croft mows down waves of enemies. Make no mistake, Nathan Drake racks up a ludicrous body count too, but he does so with humorous quips and artful snark. He’s a blockbuster action hero, killing baddies as an action hero would. The aim of Croft’s reinvention is quite the opposite and it’s disappointing to see the disconnect.
Tomb Raider boldly sheds much of its history to create a compelling new Lara Croft. The game boasts beautiful graphics and satisfying upgrade mechanics, but sacrifices some of its emotional gravity and pacing to deliver more firefights. The fighting mechanics are fun, as is the lore and narrative, but they don’t quite come together. Tomb Raider is not a return to form as many of these remakes tend to be, but a welcome reinvention for modern sensibilities–albeit with some growing pains.