Depressed Lara is depressed.

Lara Croft has been a video game mainstay for almost 17 years now. You, or some of your younger gaming friends, may have never known a world without Lara Croft and her tomb raiding antics. Over the course of eight proper games spanning three console generations, the Tomb Raider franchise experienced very little in the way of evolution, or even innovation. Sure, graphics engines were occasionally overhauled, the notorious “tank” controls of the earliest games were modernized, and even the series’ original founders, Core Design, were replaced after the universal drubbing of Angel of Darkness (2003). Tomb Raider fans pretty much knew what to expect when they purchased a new Tomb Raider game, but they went right on purchasing, anyway.

All of that has changed in 2013. Veteran Tomb Raider developer, Crystal Dynamics, has delivered the first entirely new Tomb Raider experience in the history of the franchise. Far from a simple overhaul of the game engine, Tomb Raider is complete reboot of the series with an entirely new philosophy: drag Lara by her hair through a living hell, and beat her to a bruised and bloody pulp. Tomb Raider is not about raiding tombs; it is about survival and the loss of innocence. Tomb Raider is what Batman Begins was to the Dark Knight’s cinematic legacy, and it is what Casino Royale was to the 007 series.

STORY

The newest Tomb Raider is not only a reboot of the series; it represents Lara Croft’s first adventure. It is the series of events that turned a mouse-ish (yet still smoking hot) amateur archaeologist into a fearless, daredevil adventurer.

Tomb Raider opens on the ship Endurance. Lara, along with a group of scientists and sailors, are exploring the waters off southern Japan in search of the lost Japanese nation of Yamatai. Lara is a 21-year-old, inexperienced adventurer looking to make a name for herself in the world of archaeology. When the Endurance sails into a violent storm in the dangerous region known as Dragon’s Triangle, the ship crashes, and scatters the crew about an unknown island filled with jungles, mountains, wolves, insane mercenaries… and maybe the key to the Yamatai mystery. Lara has only one goal: get out alive.

While the story is nothing movie and video game fans have not seen before, what makes the familiar beats actually work so well in Tomb Raider is the way Crystal Dynamics applies them to a franchise once thought to be out of new ideas. In the opening parts of the game, Lara Croft is not the spry, gun-toting superwoman we have known and loved for so many years. Early in the game, Lara is beaten, stabbed, bloodied, and frightened. The story is merely a backdrop to the journey the player takes with the burgeoning adventurer. The actions Lara is forced to undertake do not come easily to a character that, at this point in her life, is far more comfortable in a library than a long forgotten cave full of deadly traps. Crystal Dynamics deserves a lot of credit for breaking down the cliché Lara Croft had become, and showing us a believable, vulnerable young woman who loses her innocence right before our eyes.

GAMEPLAY

Tomb Raider is primarily a game about survival, and Crystal Dynamics has presented the player with an interface that does a great job of balancing the survival aspects with fun and intuitive controls. Lara is easily able to scavenge for parts that allow her to upgrade her basic equipment. Experience points are earned with almost everything you do. There are many campsites set up throughout the game world, when activated, allow the game to be saved, equipment to be upgraded, and experience points to be spent on sharpened survival skills.

The game is only somewhat open world. You can (and will) backtrack through previously explored areas of the island, and the many areas that make up the entirety of the island are all very linear. This gives the player a false sense of openness. Backtracking is handled similarly to the Metroid Prime games, in that you will use equipment earned later in the game to access new sections of the earlier areas of the game. While the many sections are linear in nature, it is easy to overlook this when exploring, as there are many collectible items to hunt, puzzles to solve, and dangers to avoid. It really becomes less of a problem the more you are immersed in the plot line.

And then there is the game’s propensity for quick-time events (QTEs). QTEs are pre-rendered segments that force the player to press a sequence of buttons within a brief snippet of time in order to make the segment end successfully. The developer relied a little too heavily on QTEs, and they made the game feel more linear than it already is.

Overall, I found the mechanics of the controls worked very well. They provided a nice balance of action and stealth, although made the game a bit too easy (I recommend playing on an elevated difficulty). Given the large number of QTEs, and the game’s several stealth sections, I highly recommend using a gamepad to play Tomb Raider. It worked flawlessly with an Xbox 360 wireless gamepad.

GRAPHICS

Between Crysis 3, and now Tomb Raider directly on its heels, the “next generation” that is coming to the consoles later in the year is already here for those with capable PCs. While Tomb Raider might not look quite as good as Crysis 3, it comes damn close.

When entering the world of Tomb Raider, the first thing that struck me was how alive the world felt. There is constant environmental motion, as if every leaf, every wild animal, every drop of water has its own little bit of business – its own personality. Wind whips through the environment with an almost palpable sense, and wraps itself around every moveable object and flame.

Crystal Dynamics deserves a lot of credit for what it was able to accomplish with its in-engine lighting. Torch light, for example, bounces off environmental surfaces that seem to have multiple responsive layers of depth. Sun pierces dark clouds with majestic rays that bathe foreground objects in a glow.

Most important of all, Lara’s character model is as superb as you are likely to see in any game. Rivaling the eerie realism of Psycho’s character model in Crysis 3, every (glorious) inch of Lara was crafted with impeccable care. You can even detect individual pores in her skin. This attention to detail of the hero model is a double-edged sword, however, as it is obvious that every other character model in the game was not afforded the same level of detail. On her own, Lara is spookily real. However, put her in a scene next to any other character, and it becomes clear how much more realistic she looks, or inversely, the relative less effort put into the other models becomes apparent.

Speaking of models, British actress Camilla Luddington was the physical and vocal model for Lara Croft (to see… um… more of Camilla Luddington, check out Season 5 of the Showtime series Californication). Ms. Luddington did a superb job of breathing new life into an aging icon. Crystal Dynamics, working with Ms. Luddington’s physical performance, was able to provide a realistic sense of dread into Lara. Early in the game when Lara first washes up on the island, she shivers with utter terror, and moves with the caution of a terrified kitten. The “performance” of this digital character is the most convincing I have yet to encounter in any video game. One could argue L.A. Noire had more convincing digital performances, but I found the facial capture tech used for that game to produce results that were creepier than they were realistic.

Last, but not least, I must mention the new AMD tech used in this game, called TressFX. TressFX, which sounds to me more like a fancy shampoo, is a new physics-based technology that chains together many small nodes into a long thread to represent a single strand of hair. When many, many of these strands are grouped together, it creates a full head of hair. Since the strands are made up of chains of separate nodes, they can be set to react to environmental factors and behave with real physics characteristics. It can be “expensive” to run TressFX on all but high-end systems, so you may experience a very dramatic performance drop if your system is not adequate. While AMD designed it to work with AMD GPUs, I have no trouble running it on my GeForce system. I did not really like TressFX at first, but it has grown on me, and now I think it is pretty neat to see Lara’s hair whipping around while she runs, or if the wind blows it.

AUDIO

Another top-notch piece of work by Crystal Dynamics, the audio works well with the graphics to immerse the player in the game world. The world is not only alive with animation, but it is also alive with ambient audio cues.

The impact of gunfire is particularly effective in Tomb Raider. Most video games, without fail, turn the power and authority of gunfire into weak little snaps that end up disappearing into the overall soundtrack. Anyone who has discharged a real firearm will appreciate the gunshot audio in this game; these effects are loud, convincing, and smack the audio track with the authority they should.

The musical score in Tomb Raider is fitting, if lacking a memorable theme. Voice acting is solid throughout, with Camilla Luddington effectively leading the charge as Lara Croft.

BUGS/GLITCHES

Here is where things get particularly nasty for Tomb Raider. Launch day for the game saw most GeForce gamers with 600-series GPUs simply unable to boot the game with the newest 314.14 beta drivers. The 314.07 WHQL drivers launched the game, but users either could not start the game, or experienced frequent crashes. Later in the day, it was discovered that if GeForce gamers rolled their drivers back to 310.70 (from December), the game would work, but still frequently crashed with tessellation enabled. The solution has been 310.70 drivers with no tessellation. I have had zero problems with the game using this combination of settings, although performance is somewhat erratic. I experience a FPS fluctuation of anywhere between 35-60 FPS (“Ultimate” preset; TressFX = True; Tessellation = False; AA = Max; 1920x1200). The game cannot seem to lock into a steady frame rate; however, it does not crash. Note: the game only uses one of my GPUs from my SLI system.

So, what happened? Here is what I have gathered over the past few days. After a maelstrom of negativity from the GeForce community on launch day, NVIDIA officially responded, saying they did not receive final code for the game from the publisher until the weekend before launch. They did not have sufficient time to create drivers to maximize the game for GeForce GPUs by the time the game became widely available. As of this writing, NVIDIA is working on drivers for the game, but they are not yet available. NVIDIA claims Crystal Dynamics still needs to provide at least one additional patch to maximize game performance, even with new GPU drivers. As an aside, I guess we know why there were early reviews of the console versions of this game, while PC reviewers were conspicuously left in the dark.

It is worth noting that the (admittedly unscientific) research I have done on various message boards reveals Tomb Raider is not terribly well optimized for AMD GPUs, either. While AMD gamers are not experiencing nearly the number of problems GeForce gamers are, the game still performs erratically on AMD GPU-based systems.

The bottom line is it is going to take at least one patch and one driver update from NVIDIA before Tomb Raider performs optimally for both AMD and GeForce gamers.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The end of 2013 is going to be all about the next generation consoles, Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and WATCH_DOGS. I genuinely hope gamers do not forget about Tomb Raider when it comes time to vote for Game of the Year, because Crystal Dynamics’ reinvention of Lady Croft is a phenomenal game, and easily the most fun I have had with Lara since Tomb Raider II (1997).

Tomb Raider is not a perfect game, but its detriments are easily buried in a landslide of awesome. This game plays like a dream, and looks almost as good as Crysis 3. It takes the series in a bold new direction, and paints Lara as a vulnerable survivor who must kill or be killed.

Tomb Raider is highly recommended, and easily my favorite game of 2013 (so far).

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STORY: B

The story itself is derivative, but the way Crystal Dynamics turns the legend of Lara Croft on its ear by presenting her as a victim makes the game work more effectively than I expected.

GAMEPLAY: B+

The mechanics of the game are a great blend of action and adventure/survival, but the game itself is deceptively linear and there are too many QTEs.

GRAPHICS: A

Almost as good as Crysis 3, Tomb Raider is easily one of the prettiest games ever made, and Lara Croft may be the most convincing digital human ever portrayed in a video game.

AUDIO: A-

Gunfire effects are amazingly convincing, and voice work is top notch.

FINAL SCORE: A-

Doesnt she look oddly relaxed given whats happening... like, sup wolf?