8 July 2013 - 5:47 pm

Review: Tomb Raider

The latest Tomb Raider game.

The latest Tomb Raider game.

I don’t often feel moved enough to do a review, especially when it’s a computer game. However, with this one, I feel compelled to record my reactions.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, but those who know me know I’m a bit of a gamer. I love computer games and I freely admit that I’m not that good at them. I’ll never be one of those gamers who wins at competitions; honestly, I’m pleased when I find a game I can finish before I reach the limit of my skill or frustration tolerance. I don’t like PvP because I’m terrible at it and getting your ass kicked repeatedly sucks. Reflex or twitch-gaming isn’t something I excel at.

The games I like are usually RPGs of some kind, and I’m attracted by good stories and characters. Pretty graphics and the ability to kill the shit out of things are good too, but that’s not usually all I’m looking for in a game (only usually, because sometimes just running around and killing things is exactly what I’m looking for).

I have played (and finished! Go me!) a couple of the Tomb Raider games before: Legend and Underworld. They’re probably at the limit of my twitch-gaming ability, but I do enjoy making Lara Croft do cool shit and shooting tigers in the face. But let’s face it: the stories are okay and the characters are pretty static. Lara doesn’t tend to grow much through those games, if at all, despite the personal nature of the mysteries she unravels.

So when a new Tomb Raider game was announced that was going to go back and look at how Lara became the capable, kickass woman you flip, tumble, and fight through the games, my ears pricked up. An actual character development story? The writer in me brightened. Of course, knowing how these things usually go, my excitement was reserved until there was some proof that the promises had been fulfilled (I’m a poor, jaded thing).

I didn’t get the game as soon as it came out (I actually didn’t wind up buying it until about a month ago, when it was a reasonable price), but I did keep an ear out for the reactions to it. What I heard was disappointing: a lot of whining about the sexual politics of the game and how dare they put a suggested rape in. The objections centred around the suggestion that, in order for Lara to become the strong, confident woman we know from the other games, rape had to be threatened, as if there was no other way to get the same result.

Considering the historical sexualisation and objectification of Lara (let’s face it, she’s famous for the skin-tight outfits, short-shorts, and pneumatic boobs as well as (possibly more than?) for being kickass), this wasn’t a good sign. My enthusiasm was dented. But not enough to reduce my willingness to give the game a go. If nothing else, I was pretty sure there would be acrobatics and shooting things, and I was curious from a writing point of view just how well they really did with the character side of things.

My opinion of the game in summary: those who criticised the game based on the facet mentioned above focussed on one moment in a pretty long game. Out of context, yes, it can look skeevy. However, those reactionary statements don’t do the game justice. There is a lot to enjoy about the game, and the character stuff is well done. It has to be some of the best character development I’ve seen in a game.

(I’m going to get pretty spoilery from here on in; if you don’t want to know how the story goes, look away now! Go play the game instead.)

First, let’s get this out of the way: the thing I like least about the game is the name. There’s no subtitle or post-colon-term to distinguish it from the rest of the franchise, so I wind up referring to it as ‘the latest Tomb Raider game’. I get that it’s a bit of a reboot, but come on, guys. You could have called it Origins (oops, Dragon Age did that), or Zero (wait, Resident Evil used that one), or Beginnings, or Genesis, or something. But no, all we get is ‘Tomb Raider’. Confusing. I’ll be calling it ‘TR’ from here on in. Okay, everyone with me? Good.

This whole game is really about Lara Croft becoming a bunch of things. The promo material will tell you ‘a survivor is born’, and that’s true, but that’s not all. Also, there are many ways to be a survivor (some of which we see in the game) and Lara has her own, specific kind of evolution.

She starts out as a young woman fresh out of college (I think at one point it pins her at 21 years old), embarking on her first archaeological expedition and taking her first tentative steps in her father’s shadow. She has a bunch of people around her, each with their own stories and reasons for being there. But let’s focus on Lara for now.

So the ship bearing the expedition party crashes in a storm and Lara is thrown ashore with her crew and friends, and a bunch of hostile island inhabitants. Cue the start of a (literal) fight for survival, liberally sprinkled with superstition and something freaky going on with the weather.


The new-look Lara. Gotta say, I like it.

The new-look Lara. Gotta say, I like it.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Lara is still gorgeous, but she’s not the sleek, slinky, curvy ass-kicker we know from the other Tomb Raider games. She only has one outfit and it’s the one she washed up in. She gets increasing beat up, scratched, bloodied, and muddied through the game, and her poor vest suffers, Die Hard-style, until it’s a torn, stained mess at the end. (Luckily, she’s wearing something underneath, so her modesty is maintained.) Her hair isn’t all neat and sleek, and she winds up taping her pants together (you don’t actually see her doing this, but her outfit gains bindings of tape or string or bandages as you move through the game and she gets more beat-up). When she crawls through bloodied channels, she comes out covered in yucky red stuff. When she walks through the rain, she winds up a bit cleaner.

I have to say, her outfit isn’t the most flattering, certainly compared to other incarnations of Lara in the franchise. But she looks like a real girl. Her boobs are reasonably proportioned, which is always a good start. And she’s still nicely put-together; she’s a more realistic attractive woman than before. I’d love to know where she got the bottomless pockets, though; where does she keep all that equipment she’s not using? In which crevice does she put her shotgun? (I love that particular game mechanic.)

It’s also worth pointing out how well the movement was done in this game. All of it was motion-captured from the actress who voices Lara and it shows: the way she moves is smooth and plausible, and nicely done. The actress’s movements are graceful and neat but not fluffy or girly, with the right amount of femininity, all of which fit Lara and the things she has to do.

The other parts in the game were also motion-captured, so they’re likewise pretty slick. I appreciate good animation and graphics. Good job.


From the outset, Lara is set out as a sensible, capable person. Her mentor, Roth, is an adventurer and we learn early on that they’ve climbed mountains together before. He taught her how to hunt with a bow, start fires, and other general ‘survival’-type stuff. So her base skills of shooting things with bows, climbing rock faces and being physically capable are established and explained early on. This stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere, which is a tick in the ‘good’ column for me.

She doesn’t know everything, though, and Lara gets help from others over the radio through the game. The tech guy from the ship’s crew helps her set up a beacon at one point, telling her what she needs to do. Roth also gives her instructions and encouragement over the radiowaves, particularly in the beginning sections when she needs it most. She has realistic gaps in her knowledge, doubts herself, needs encouragement and support, and so her abilities made sense to me. So often in these types of games, these kinds of thing can come out of nowhere and you just have to accept them. I like that that’s not the case here.

The one thing that jarred with me was the upgrading of her equipment. Lara adapts her own weapons, which seems a bit of a specialist thing to do, like extending mags and adding extra capabilities. Some of it was clearly ‘let’s tape a grenade launcher to the rifle and now BLOW STUFF UP’, and I’m pretty sure even I could figure out how to do that, but other types of upgrades started to strain the believability somewhat. On the other hand, blowing stuff up is awesome fun, so I’m willing to let it go, and as she had to collect ‘salvage’ to make the upgrades, I can accept it as a game mechanic.


Again, very well established in the game as part of her background. A cinematic shows us that she has driven this expedition and it’s her information that has led the ship and its merry band of explorers to the home of an ancient (creepy) queen. She’s confident and competent in this area already, and clearly knows her stuff. She doesn’t particularly grow here, though there’s plenty of lore for her to pick up and learn as she runs around the island.

However, her attitude towards archaeology and what it actually means to her, her father, and the world does change through the game, as she becomes a:


If you’ve played the Tomb Raider games at all, you’ll know that supernatural stuff is real and active in the world. There’s power and truth in those old legends, and worlds beyond the one we walk in. But once upon a time, all of that was just stories and superstition to Lara. Until she gets to this island.

It’s a long and fairly subtle journey for her, going from academic and sceptic to archaeological believer of legends. More than that: it’s realistic. I buy her gradual realisation that the storms really are keeping people on the island, even though she doesn’t understand the power controlling it (it could be mechanical, right? Or something?). The facts support it. I like that she doesn’t automatically assume it has an extraordinary explanation, or that the Sun Queen is somehow responsible. It has to be proven to her.

Belief doesn’t come easily or simply to Lara, and that fits her personality, too. It’s not until after she sees the Sun Queen’s spirit with her own eyes that she accepts what has truly been going on on the island (though she starts having suspicions before this). She doesn’t come to terms with it all until she reflects on it in the closing cinematic, and this is where we see this part of the Lara we know sliding into place: legends are real and archaeology has a lot more at stake than mere academic interest. It’s a big change for her and how she views the world, one she hasn’t truly come to grips with, and I believe it. That’s why it’s well done.

Killer / Warrior

The bow: Lara's favourite weapon and tool.

The bow: Lara’s favourite weapon and tool.

In computer/video games, bad guys (human or otherwise) tend to get killed off with abandon (and sometimes very thin excuses). They’re shooting at you, so you shoot at them, it’s all good. Very few games that I’ve come across delve into the character impact of all of these killings, but TR is one of them, and it’s a refreshing change. Lara’s first kill isn’t off-hand, it isn’t brushed past, and it isn’t done casually at all. It’s a Thing, which is as it should be.

This is where the aforementioned threatened rape comes in. But let’s put it in context. (Here, I’m getting incredibly spoilery.)

By this point, Lara has survived a shipwreck, woken up hanging from the ceiling in a creepy cave with lots of dead people and candles around, escaped, found and lost her friends a couple of times, and she has now been captured by the freaky islanders again. She has her hands tied behind her back, and the leader of this group of freaky islanders orders the shooting of Lara and another couple of crewmembers from her ship. Those crewmembers are shot in cold blood right in front of her. She has an opportunity to escape, so she takes it, running and sneaking through the camp with her arms still bound. The island men are looking for her. She can’t move well or fast, and she can’t use any tools; all she can do is move and hide.

She’s spotted. A man drags her out of her hiding place and pushes her against a wall. Hands distinctly wander. He tells her she’s going to die. Lara struggles and tries to fight back, and they both end up on the ground. She manages to scramble away and break the bonds around her wrists, allowing her to grab the gun the man just dropped, and he’s coming at her again, so she fires… and he’s dead. And then she collapses to her knees and freaks out, because there’s a dead man and she made him that way.

So, is it the wandering hands that made her stand up and kill him? Was it the threat of rape that tipped her over the edge? I don’t think so. It contributed, yes, but either way, she knew she was going to die horribly. He was going to do awful things to her that would kill her. It was survival and instinct, and shooting him was a natural response.

The threat also fit the situation. These island men were all wrecked there, and they are all men; there aren’t any women among their ranks and that’s probably something to do with their habit of sacrificing them in an attempt to get off the island. Does that mean that all men are rapists if put in this milieu? No, that’s naive, but it does mean that rape is more likely. It’s a brutal and violent society. It’s also something that a man might do to threaten a woman, whether he meant to follow through or not. This is exactly the type of threat that could be expected in that situation.

Also, it’s one moment in a struggle, one I wouldn’t have given so much attention to if it hadn’t been for the histrionics I’d seen in the reviews and reactions (some of which I believe were in response to the pre-release promo, without actually seeing the game itself). If you fail to help Lara fight free, the man strangles her; there’s no follow-through on the threat (I know because I failed this bit the first time through, whoops).

Through the whole sequence, I love Lara’s reactions, because they seem like a real person’s reactions to this type of situation. She defends herself; and she was no cowering creature before then, either, so it’s not like it was a huge change in character. She loses her shit when she sees what she’s done, despite the fact that she’s still in the middle of a camp crawling with men just like the one lying in front of her, all of whom are looking for her. Killing is a big thing and it takes her time and emotional strength to pull herself together enough to fight her way out of the camp, but she does it (killing more in the process, but the emotional damage is already done). Later, she stumbles over admitting the killing to Roth, still shocked by what she has done and coming to terms with it.

The rest of the game is rife with weapons, killing, and bad guys falling by the wayside, but I think the character side was nicely done. It’s perhaps a little too easy to fall into the rhythm of the violence, and she doesn’t have emotional reactions to it repeatedly (which is a relief, because that would get annoying). At the same time, she grows numb through much of the game, doing what she knows she has to, running and jumping and fighting, swimming through pools of blood, climbing over mounds of body parts (I’m not kidding), fighting a guy who seems to be too huge to be real, battling mysterious ‘oni’ and suspected undeads, going up against the ghost of a dead queen… yeah, Lara has a lot of traumatic stuff to deal with. She freaks out occasionally. Her hands shake. And then she deals with it and moves on, focussing on her goal. She does whatever unpleasantness she has to to get herself and her people off the island, because she led them there and it’s her responsibility to get them safely home.


The tagline that the game lives up to.

The tagline that the game lives up to.

It’s all of these things that make Lara from the inexperienced, shocked woman who washed up on a beach into the survivor who is strong enough to pull herself and her friends out of a hellish situation. The whole game is her evolution, far more than that one moment when she was caught with her hands tied behind her back. The rescues that come for them are thwarted, but she pushes on, determined to find an answer. She loses friends along the way – painfully – and the losses she suffers all spur her on to save those she has left. She takes control of her actions and she takes responsibility to fix whatever is happening, to save the people she loves and led there. She becomes capable of rescuing herself and her friends.

I think this game achieved exactly what it set out to do: it explains how Lara became the woman we moved around in the previous Tomb Raider games.  Better yet: it promises that future TR games will continue on this new deeper, more character-focussed vein. A glimpse around opinions on the subject suggest that Crystal Dynamics intend to do this, carrying Lara’s story through into a rebooted storyline. Darker and grittier than before, with deeper, more complex characters, all of which I thoroughly approve of. Personally, I can’t wait to find out where they take it next.

Other Characters

Lara’s not the only character in the game, so let’s look briefly at the other members of the game’s cast. Lara comes with several friends and crewmembers, all of whom have pretty well-defined personalities. They’re all quite distinct from one another (apart from the generic crewmembers who are killed close to the beginning of the game).

They don’t all like or obey Lara; she’s not the boss in this expedition and she has to earn their respect. No-one follows her blindly and some refuse to follow her at all, for reasons that are explained in the game’s story. The ship’s mechanic, Reyes, gives Lara a particularly hard time, which is in line with her personality and the inter-personal clashes between the two of them.

Through the various game zones, we find bits of the crew’s stories (though how their letters and journals got all over the island is a mystery to me). We’re allowed glimpses into their backgrounds and motivations. We get to read an apology to a far-away daughter, and a slide into dangerous delusion. It’s not often that I’ll take the time to read content like this, but I enjoyed it in this game. The voiceovers probably helped!

We’re encouraged to care about these characters, so much so that it’s upsetting when they die (I won’t say who!). I didn’t particularly like all of the characters who were alive at the end, but at the same time, I liked that it wasn’t only my favourites who survived. Sometimes, puppies die to drive the story forward, and that only works if we care about them.


This is a review of a game, so I should touch on this. I liked the interface and the controls (I play these types of games on the XBox 360, so it’s a controller for me). I was able to pull off the required manoeuvres without too much trouble or repetition, which is always a plus for me, despite some of them being pretty complex.

The combat was pretty good; I usually play this kind of game on Easy for the first run-through, because I don’t like being shot in the back of the head repeatedly (like I said earlier, I’m not the most skilled gamer), but it was a fun challenge. There are stealth options as well as ‘blast the crap out of it with a shotgun’ options, so you can choose the tactics that work best for you and the situation. There was plenty of ammunition lying around, too, so you’re not really in danger of running out completely (something which some games use to create a false sense of difficulty, I find). There’s usually enough for at least one of your weapons to fire, and if you need a particular weapon to progress (like blasting a door open with the aforementioned shotgun), there’s always ammo available at that point so you aren’t held up or stuck because you used all your shells in that last fight.

There is a lack of the big, complex puzzles that are a staple of the Tomb Raider franchise. Personally, I didn’t miss them too much. The zones and optional tombs contain small puzzles, and I was inordinately pleased with myself when I managed to figure them out all on my own (without looking up the solutions, which I’ll do if I’m getting too frustrated with a problem that has an unobvious solution or no way to figure it out beyond trial and error). That probably says more about me than the game.

The other thing that is missing from TR is Croft Manor, which is an explorable area that gives you bonuses in the other games. I don’t miss it, and it wouldn’t have made sense in the context of TR, which is entirely set on a single island. So I’m glad they cut it out of there. Instead, you’re able to go back through all the areas on the island to pick up collectables that you couldn’t access or missed previously (which unlocks bonuses). If you have a completist urge (like me), this is a welcome thing, though the ‘fast travel between campfires’ mechanism is a bit weird (it’s not exactly realistic, where most of the game seems to be striving for realism). I’ll live with the weirdness, though; it’s better than running back through the maps.


Do I really need to write this bit? I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to say here by now. I enjoyed the game. The story was well-constructed and the character work was wonderful. It’s refreshing to see a strong woman explained in a way that doesn’t make her deeply damaged, a bitch, an ice queen, or a whore. It’s nice to see Lara less shiny and sexualised, and I like the grittier, harsher edge to the game (compared to other games in the franchise).

There’s a brilliant contrast built into the game. At the beginning, Lara looks at herself in the mirror of her cabin, just before the ship is wrecked. Much later, you take her back to the (ruined) ship, and she catches sight of herself in that same mirror. The difference in her appearance speaks volumes, and the story of the game is captured in that look.

Bravo. I’d like to see more games like TR, please.

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  1. Nick says:

    Ahh, I’ve been meaning to post a comment on this. I started Tomb Raider, but don’t think I got very far – there were some areas which lead to a lot of repetition (thanks to dying on my part), though I’m not sure what difficulty I was playing on. Personally I thought her shift from reluctant hunter to killer of dozens happened too quickly, and while it had flaws, thought Far Cry 3 handled that transition better (though yes, the character in that went waaaaay over the deep end).

    It’s a fun game though, and I will probably take to it again soon, but I can only handle so much almost-through an area before I need a break. The Last of Us has a similar thing, where I constantly find myself struggling to make it to the end of an area without dying, but I basically suck at any games with a stealth mechanic.

    July 16th, 2013 at 4:52 pm

  2. Mel says:

    Yeah, like I said in the review, once the initial kill is over, it’s all pretty acceptable after that. She has a few stumbles in the cutscenes, but the gameplay itself doesn’t return to the difficulty of killing again. On the one hand, it’s too quick of a transition. On the other, it would have been annoying to have her whine and freak out repeatedly. I’m not sure what the answer is there!

    They could, perhaps, have made something out of her first purposeful kill. That’s a different emotional impact to a reactionary, self-defense act, and you spend a lot of the game arrowing people in the head while they’re not looking (or at least, I did!). The game mechanics encourage you to take the stealth / strike-first method. Steeling herself for that kind of thing could have been a feature in the game, but it wasn’t.

    I haven’t played Far Cry 3! (Or any of that series.) I’ve heard some good things about it, though; I’ll have to check it out! Thanks. 🙂

    July 17th, 2013 at 9:03 am