Review: Tomb Raider

It is good to see that even women are subjected to the chin-down eyes-up approach of video game covers.
Tomb Raider is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC.

Since its release in 1996, Tomb Raider has proven to be one of the more resilient franchises in modern gaming. The latest inception of the series, a self-styled “reboot” which simultaneously serves as an explanation of how Lara became a tomb-looting murderess, does the series’ pedigree significant justice. Indeed, longtime fans of the series will most likely be salivating at the prospect of continuing this incarnation of Lara Croft in later games by the time the final quick-time event is completed.

In Tomb Raider, Lara finds herself shipwrecked on the mysterious island Yamatai, hunted by a cult of men who sacrifice women, and desperate to find her traveling companions. The story has players following Lara through a series of transitions: civilized to savage, fearful to brave, skeptic to one who is comfortable with the supernatural. Some of these transitions, such as from fearful to brave, feel natural and well paced. This is often challenging for games to pull off -see Farcry 3 for the penultimate example of the schizophrenic characterization which results from gameplay and narrative diverging in a transition-, so it is to Tomb Raider‘s credit that the Lara in gameplay never deviates far from the Lara in cutscenes. Ultimately Lara’s character arcs are the narratives which shine brightest in this game. Although most secondary characters can be written off as standard adventure story stereotypes, Lara comes off as a very believable character, and the variation on the standard save-the-princess trope (by having a woman be the savior) will be a pleasure for players who have been yearning for another developed female protagonist.

There is no doubt that feminist scholars will be having a field day with this game.
Lara being hunted by a cultist.

Gameplay in Tomb Raider has more in common with Uncharted than with previous Tomb Raider games. Lara has learned to take cover during firefights and while hiding, and the firefights in the game will feel a lot like firefights in any other cover-based shooter. Enemies sight Lara and take cover, firing potshots as they angle their way to flank her. The enemies can be especially polite, offering just enough time for Lara to leave cover, take aim, and kill them, perhaps while eating a sandwich between each step. It is worth mentioning, however, that the cover system in Tomb Raider is remarkably well done. Cover is contextually activated and requires Lara to only move against the object she seeks to take cover behind, something that has worked only sparingly with previous games in the genre. While some players may wish for the ability to shoot from behind cover, most will find the overall system to be far and beyond better than most the other games which opt to use cover-based shooting as a mechanic.

Similarly adopted from other games are the weapon and character upgrades. These upgrades allow players to alter the mechanics of weapons, raising damage, ammo clip capacity, and other standard weapon upgrades seen in other games. The novelty of upgrading your weapons soon wears off, however, as most of the changes feel relatively negligible and are barely noticeable within gameplay itself. The rare exception is when Lara finds a grenade launcher and decides to strap it onto her assault rifle, in a rather fun call-back to the film Aliens. Another exception would be the bow, in which every upgrade elevates the weapon closer to superhuman status. Character upgrades fair a little better, with most of the upgrades offering some ability that can then be used in the game such as counter attacks or weapon-based kill moves. The collection of experience and scrap can be tedious at times, though most players will find that they can manage all notable upgrades and complete the game with ease without spending time grinding.

I reject your hegemonic worldview and supplant it with my own!
Lara declaring her equality with bullets!

It is also rather surprising, given that the title of the game is Tomb Raider, that most of the tombs have been relegated to optional objective status. Furthermore, every “tomb” consists of only one room with a rather mediocre puzzle which can be solved rather easily. Some players may find it worth their time to eschew Lara’s “survival sense,” an ability which highlights important and usable objects, in order to increase the difficulty and therefore the satisfaction of solving the puzzle on their own, but even then most tombs will only take a few minutes to complete. Also of note, here, is how well the designers created seemless transitions between varieties of tombs and environments within the game. Yamatai offers players the opportunity to explore areas like caves, natural forests, a shanty town, World War II era bunkers, and feudal Japanese fortresses, none of which feel out of place or contrived within the context of the narrative.

On reflection, Tomb Raider is an extremely solid game. It adopts and crafts gameplay mechanics from other games around a unique story, often improving upon those mechanics. Beyond the rather mediocre weapon upgrade system, there is very little about the game to complain about. That being said, beyond the story there is very little to be excited about. Tomb Raider does very little in the way of gameplay which innovates or gives cause for developers to stand up and take attention. It jumps through all the hoops, checks all the boxes, and manages to do every gameplay mechanic it steals better than the game before it- but it does not create anything that other games may wish to adopt themselves. In light of that, there is very little for players who are not already fans of the series aside from the story. Nonetheless, if gamers are looking for a mature and well-written character piece, they will certainly find what they are looking for in Tomb Raider.


  1. This is the first Tomb Raider game which I’ve ever been remotely interested in. I am still on the fence about buying it.

    I know we have very high standards for innovation and moving the industry forward here, but is there an argument to be made that Tomb Raider moves its own series forward, if not the genre as a whole? Previous games in the series have always seemed to be behind the curve–the current game at least seems to be on the front edge of it, rather than a few years behind it.

  2. I’ll probably get this game soon, and if I do it will be my first in the series. It seems now that Tomb Raider has grown a little beyond the “assets” of it’s main character, more people have become interested. Who knew, right?

  3. @Lusi – You know, I think there is an argument to be made there and it’s one that I waffled back and forth on as I wrote this. I went the way I went because a large amount of gains that this game makes on its series are there because of the advancements made in the genre itself, ie the QTEs, the cinematic approach to storytelling, the cover-based shooting, etc. etc. This isn’t really a mark against it, because again, it does all of those things extremely well, but it makes it problematic to compare with the earlier games which largely had no ability to foretell those developments.

    Now, the fact that the genre itself has grown up and attempted to mature, and the fact that those developments work very well with Tomb Raider, is a testament to how well this game has been made I think. And I would agree with your assessment that this game seems to be on the front edge of the curve.

    @Mel – I certainly didn’t know, and was pleasantly surprised to find out!

  4. Tomb Raider for me is kind of a nostalgic game, since I played the originals a lot as a kid, so I’m a little skeptical of this new remake – it may be the development of the genre, but would you say that it has lost the focus on exploration that the old games had?

  5. @Kendra – Mmmm…as unsatisfying of an answer as it may be, I’d have to waffle between yes and no on that one. It’s been ages since I’ve played the previous games (yet another unspoken reason why I limited my comparisons), but what I can say is that the segments do encourage you to move with a bit linearity, very much like the Uncharted games pushed you from set piece to set piece. Also, if you enjoyed the puzzles and whatnot of the old games, you will see flashes of brilliance in some of the Tomb puzzles, but otherwise you’ll want to look elsewhere because they are few and far between.

    With those caveats being given, however, I found myself deeply engaged with the exploration of the island and the little trinkets you find occasionally, however guided or linear the exploration may get. I also thought the game paced its action and platform (for lack of a better term) segments well enough that I had plenty of time to take in the environment around me, which definitely allowed for a proper atmosphere to develop. So if you were more into the seeing of exotic settings and whatnot, I think this Tomb Raider does a far better job by situating itself on one exotic island as opposed to several different places.

    Just my thoughts, at least.

  6. @CheTheFey: One of my favourite parts of Tomb Raider was definitely all the different locations, though. I’ll probably enjoy this game more if I see it not as part of the old franchise, especially if important elements like the puzzles are toned down. Great review, by the way.

  7. I watched a video that featured 35 ways to die in Tomb Raider, and I have to say many of them are quite gruesome. All I could think was that somewhere, Adam Sessler(the ladyboy who threw a bitch fit over the God of War trophy) was sitting in a corner bawling over how they could do such things to a woman in a video game.

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