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Tomb Raider Review – Uncharted Waters

Ever since the beginning of the golden age of cinema, women have often been portrayed as stunningly beautiful creatures capable of captivating the hearts of various male protagonists, and audience members alike. Eventually over time, this role evolved as females were viewed less as love interests and more as strong, independent lead heroines. Once this concept transitioned over into video games, both Core Design and Eidos Interactive gained notoriety for their portrayal of an intelligent, and cunning English archaeologist by the name of Lara Croft. Thus the Tomb Raider series was born and fans began salivating over the endless array of possibilities Lara could encounter from one adventure to the next.

When 2006 rolled around, Crystal Dynamics took control over the franchise and started setting goals to effectively breathe new life into the aging series. They did their research and managed to take inspirational cues from several games, including Naughty Dog’s infamous Uncharted series. Now after teaming up with Square Enix, they have created a reboot that not only documents Lara’s transformation as a character, but also does it in impressive fashion.

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I first had a chance to see Tomb Raider live during E3 2012 and ended up writing a rather extensive preview article about some of the main features of the game. Therefore to avoid copying myself, I want to instead address my views on five key areas of the final product including story, graphics, gameplay, sound and the overall package value.

At the very core of the game’s narrative, we are treated to a deeply personal character study of Lara Croft and the trails and tribulations she endures on her journey towards becoming a legend. The decision to have Lara start out as an innocent, inexperienced 20-year-old archaeologist was a smart move that ultimately makes her a more believable character within the world’s context. However, the dynamic shifts into overdrive once Lara makes her very first kill. While the emotional pull is evident at this very moment, it disappears shortly afterward and every kill that follows remains virtually the same. There are of course the occasional threats that Lara yells out, as she is about to go toe-to-toe with a wave of enemies. While this is a nice attempt to try and convey an emotional response from the character, the lines come off as a bit cheesy and unnecessary in the larger scope of things.

Another aspect about the story that is worth pointing out is the addition of a few supporting characters that play a pivotal role in Lara’s growth. Roth is seen as her strongest supporter and the driving force behind the kind of person she ultimately becomes, while Sam is the close friend who she sympathizes with the most. The one drawback to having such an iconic character as powerful as Lara Croft is that she initially overshadows everyone else. The latter results in a handful of weak performances from some of the remaining cast members. Minor blemishes aside though, the story is filled with emotionally gripping setpieces that offer plenty of exciting moments within the 10-12 hours that it will take you to complete it.

Tomb Raider is without a doubt the best looking game in the franchise’s entire history. Whether it’s the detailed character models thanks in part to motion capturing, or the breathtaking atmospheric effects that take place during different cinematic sequences, it’s clear that the development team really put their all into this title. On the negative side, the multiplayer aspect of this game fails to carry over the same level of graphical quality and thus feels like a rushed feature unworthy of being added in the first place.

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When it comes to gameplay, this is actually the one saving grace that sets Tomb Raider apart from the competition. Not only are the controls tight, responsive, and intuitive, but they also compliment Lara perfectly and evolve every time she unlocks new abilities. The various camps located throughout the island serve as the perfect hubs for upgrading skills and modifying weapons. You also have the ability to salvage several boxes throughout each destination to use these points towards weapon enhancements. While navigating through dangerous environments, the gameplay mechanics make use of a quicktime button prompting system that has been used in several of today’s greatest games. If you’re not a fan of these types of controls then you need not pickup this game, but in all honesty these dynamics make for some of the most enjoyable parts of the overall experience.

While all of these features sound positive, there are at least a few glaring negatives that may upset long time fans of the series. For starters, the environmental puzzles in the game are scarce and very easy to figure out. I can understand that the purpose of this reboot was to draw in new fans and thus these puzzles were approached from a casual standpoint. Another negative is that the game is less focused on raiding tombs and more fixated on killing bad guys. I personally enjoyed every aspect of this action-oriented approach but I know people who favor exploration may get bored with this fairly quickly. Still, knowing all these facts firsthand can give you an idea as to whether or not this game is worth your time and your money.

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Most of the narration and voicework in Tomb Raider is top notch. The only flaws here lie specifically in the characters with the weaker performances as previously mentioned above. The musical score sets the tone perfectly and gives a feel of the experience being adventurous and engaging.

As a package, Tomb Raider is great but certainly not without it’s faults. Once the single player campaign is completed you can go back and collect everything that you missed, but there is no game plus mode to heighten this experience. Additionally, the multiplayer mode is low on replay value unless you can forgive its shortcomings and power through it.

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In closing, Tomb Raider is a phenomenal reboot that succeeds in reestablishing Lara Croft’s legacy as one of the most historically significant video game heroines of all time. While it doesn’t totally reinvent the action-adventure genre, it does offer a strong single player campaign complete with a mature narrative and engaging gameplay mechanics from beginning to end. If you’re a fan of games like Uncharted but seek a much more gritty and emotional experience, then do yourself a favor and pick this title up ASAP.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 3 version of Tomb Raider.

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