In 2013 developer Crystal Dynamics decided to take one of the gaming world’s icons and reboot her and her games. Tomb Raider launched to mixed reviews at first, with many claiming that the game was still over-sexualizing the female lead while others weren’t interested in the new direction. I was a fan from day one and still consider it one of my favorite games, and eventually, it seemed like most of the gaming world did actually get on board with the “new” Lara Croft. I recently revisited the definitive edition of the first game, and after all of these years still find it to be one of the best.
Unlike past games, this Tomb Raider is before Lara is the badass we all know and love. It is her first real mission, and she doesn’t really have full access to the skills we are used to her having. She is also notably one of the many people who doubts her late father and his belief in the supernatural.
The game opens rather aggressively with Lara and crew on a ship that ends up wrecked on a strange island. Lara is separated from the group and nearly killed. She is eventually able to reach a point where she can contact other survivors and must work through the island rounding everybody up and helping them to escape. As you progress, you realize that it was Lara’s idea for the group to head towards this particular island, and she must face that it is cursed and there are unworldly forces at play keeping them on the island. The story is pretty heartbreaking at various moments and really hits the “this is how Lara Croft became the “Tomb Raider”” approach. She experiences loss, is forced to do things she would never have done otherwise, and has to make quite a few difficult choices. It is a great story and hits all the right notes. There are moments it made me laugh, cry, get angry, and I was just downright entertained from start to finish. I also loved watching Lara develop through it, barely able to push herself forward at the start, to knowing and being willing to do what she must to survive and get the remaining survivors out. She doesn’t fully harden, but you can see the shift in her as you play.
Gameplay is definitely a reflection of what was popular at the time. While the original series had some impact on inspiring games like Uncharted, this game was clearly a nod to Uncharted in many ways. The action sequences with Lara running, jumping, wall climbing, etc., feel very much on par with an action/adventure games we were getting at the time. Not that it felt like a ripoff, but that those common threads were there. There is a decent amount of platforming and puzzle-solving involving platforming. I think this game was well balanced with the combination between action and puzzles and never felt overly worn-out one way or the other. There is a lot of extra platforming if you tackle the hidden tombs and start to go for all the collectibles, but those are fairly optional, with the only real “punishment” for not doing them is not getting the leveling benefits.
The fighting segments do have a decent amount of freedom in how you prioritize them. Lara has a bow, shotgun, pistol, and rifle. There is a huge emphasis on using the bow and doing the whole “slow and steady” approach, but it is not a requirement. There are a few segments, however, that will force you out of your comfort zone, and I have mixed feelings on this. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to challenge gamers to really experiment with gameplay, but I am also not a huge lover of “we gave you a bunch of gameplay freedom then took away all your weapons but one.”
Probably my biggest issue with this game in terms of gameplay is the overuse of QTEs. There aren’t too many per se, but many of them felt clunky, and the fails don’t always make sense. If you have QTEs, people can’t be punished for the timing on them not being perfect from a development angle. And before people say, “well, maybe you just fail” absolutely, some of the time it is me; I will not even pretend otherwise. However, there are noted timing issues on the QTE events that can greatly draw out scenes and start to frustrate the gamer.
The game is also a treat to look at. Honestly, the Definitive Edition, which was released in 2014, still looks amazing even with the movements in graphics the last several years. The island is great with many different biomes, so you get to see a few different settings. Lara and the characters look great, and all the extreme and fast-moving action sequences play out smoothly. The soundtrack is wonderful and helps nail moments, and the voice acting is spot on.
As for Lara and being overly sexualized, when the game first launched, I wrote a piece for an entirely different website about how I felt that Lara had really been reclaimed as a character for women, and I stand by that. Yes, there is still sex appeal. Yes, there is a lot of male characters being a bit gross to her, but the situation and function have changed. Lara is no longer a badass lady with little personality but is super fun to look at. We get to see her again grow, change, and develop as a person. She comes into the game struggling and goes out stronger and ready to keep growing and fighting. Lara has a personality now, she shows character development, and she is learning and changing. Like real people. The point isn’t that Lara needed to be completely desexed. She just needed to be more than that, and she is. Also, a story about a woman taking back her power after being put in a terrible situation is pretty empowering and awesome.
I think you can argue with the follow-ups they start to lose a little of why Lara is such a better character, but that is a larger subject. For this game, Lara being “hot” is not her main feature anymore, and that’s really what I was personally looking for.
So bottom line? In case it wasn’t super clear. I love this game. I love the story, the way it looks, the way it plays, and all the pieces that make it what it is. I think it’s the best of the reboots, and I was pleased all those years ago with the new direction and still am. If you never played, you should really consider giving this game a go. It’s also more than worth the revisit.