Review: "Tomb Raider" marks a new era for iconic game

Lara Croft surveys village ruins in Tomb Raider.
Square Enix

It's been a long time since the world was first introduced to relic hunter Lara Croft, the main character of the original "Tomb Raider" game released in 1996. A lot has changed in the gaming industry since then. With advancements in technology, an increasing acceptance of games as an art from, and the medium reaching a wider audience than ever before, the industry has evolved in many ways with games becoming more complex in scope and creative direction.

This evolution in gaming has created an opportunity to revisit and improve upon classic games. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have risen to the challenge with their take on the origin story of Croft simply titled "Tomb Raider." This game marks a new era for the "Tomb Raider" name and is not a mere reboot of a once popular series. It's a complete reinvention and an exciting new direction.

In "Tomb Raider," a young Croft is on her first archeological expedition. Lara along with the crew of the "Endurance" travel through the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan in search of the ancient civilization of Yamatai when the ship is destroyed by a sudden storm. Lara makes it to the shore of a mysterious island inhabited by a dangerous cult. On her own now, she must search for her crew and a way off the island while surviving harsh conditions and fighting back against the hostile inhabitants.

The first thing I noticed about this game is how visually stunning it is. The opening cinematic of the ship being caught in the storm and Lara barely escaping not only features a high-quality detailed look but is action-packed and sets the tone for the rest of the game.

"Tomb Raider" truly feels like an epic adventure. The story takes Lara all over the island and into a variety of environments, including shipwrecks, catacombs, cliffside temples and a swamp just to name a few. The beautifully designed levels along with the sweeping musical score create a mysterious and immersive setting for the game. The camera angles used at certain gameplay sequences (like parachuting through a forest while dodging trees or sliding down a mountainside river) makes these action moments particularly intense.

"Tomb Raider" also adds another layer of visual detail: Lara's appearance changes as the game progresses. After scripted events in the game and cutscenes, her character model will have injuries, more dirt on her clothes, and she'll be carrying additional gear with her.

More importantly, the game's main character is completely redesigned in terms of personality as well. No longer a caricature of a woman, the new Lara Croft is a much more developed character and a very human protagonist. She has strengths and weaknesses. She has self-doubts and limitations -- particularly in the beginning of the game. Lara also shows courage and resourcefulness as she fights back against the hostile islanders in order to save her comrades, allowing the player to take part in her evolution from sheltered archeologist to a strong heroine.

In addition to the new and improved Lara, Crystal Dynamics has hit the mark with Tomb Raider's gameplay. The combat is fluid and streamlined. You can quickly switch between different weapons and reload. Since you're almost always outnumbered in combat situations, using cover effectively is important. Slowly walking near objects or walls while enemies are near by will automatically have Lara crouch down or take cover. This auto-cover feature works well and rarely created any issues during my playthrough. (The publisher provided the Xbox 360 version of the game for this review.)

Though Lara may not be able to match the physical strength of her enemies, she is able to use her speed to dodge attacks while moving. A successful dodge from the attack of a nearby enemy usually presents an opportunity for an effective counterattack. The enemy A.I. will keep you on your toes too. Opponents will call out your location when spotted and when you're reloading weapons or recovering health nearby enemies will take note and charge at you.

Another gameplay feature, Survival Instincts mode, is extremely useful. Activating this mode changes the view to black and white while highlighting waypoints and other objects in Lara's field of vision that can be interacted with in a yellow glow. Enemies are highlighted in a red glow.

Although "Tomb Raider's" story is linear, exploration is definitely encouraged in this open-world game. At camps scattered throughout the island, you can fast travel to other previously discovered camps, making it easy to return to various locations. The camps also provide access to upgrades for Lara's skills and gear. Each area of the island has hidden challenges and collectibles to be discovered, like documents and relics. Collecting these items will provide XP and unlock concept art. And of course there are also tombs to raid, but first you'll have to find them, giving you even more incentive to explore each level. Every tomb presents a unique puzzle to be solved or obstacle to maneuver around before you can reach the treasure.

As you progress through the game, you'll earn XP. Collect enough XP and you'll earn valuable skill points that can be used to upgrade Lara's abilities in three categories. Survivor skills make finding hidden areas and useful items easier. Hunter skills boost ammo capacity and weapon handling. And Brawler skills add dodge counterattacks and melee attacks.

"Tomb Raider" features the usual round of weapons: a bow, pistol, shotgun and rifle. Lara also has a very useful pickaxe that works for climbing, zip-lining, and as a melee weapon. Lara's gear is upgraded by finding and accumulating salvage caches which are translated into salvage points. You can collect these by smashing special wooden crates and opening large trunks as well as on dead enemies and animals. Salvage points are used to pay for weapon upgrades making it worth scouring an area to find salvage items.

The time and skill put into this game are apparent. With gorgeous environments, action-packed gameplay and a thoughtfully developed main character, "Tomb Raider" is one of the best gaming experiences of this console generation. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have created something special here. I hope they continue in this direction and that this new Lara Croft is here to stay.

Tomb Raider hits stores on March 5 for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC, and is rated M for mature audiences by the ESRB.