The one game that has constantly stayed with me throughout 2013 is Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot. Please lower that eyebrow. It may be a big-budget AAA designed to reboot an established brand, but Tomb Raider has more soul than most other mainstream games released this year.
Why? In the past, Lara was an icon. In this new Tomb Raider, she’s a human.
Gaming’s favorite leading lady evolves from gun-toting tiger murderer into a post-grad with aspirations, relationships, and a good dose of fear. Enduring the hardships of being washed up on an island inhabited by pirates, Lara works her way through her origin adventure in a game that’s equal parts ancient-wonder investigation and survival horror.
Crystal Dynamics’ first success in Tomb Raider was to have Lara’s story written by “real-life woman” Rhianna Pratchett. Turns out getting a lady to write your strong female character actually makes some kind of sense.
Tomb Raider is genuinely one of the most frightening games of the year. It won’t have you falling out your chair in the manner of Outlast, but guiding Lara through rivers of blood, caverns of rotting corpses, and skull-adorned tombs is genuinely creepy. Hers and your fear through the first quarter of the game only makes what to come more intensely satisfying.
Lara endures. Armed with a makeshift bow and collection of rusting shooters, she stalks through the undergrowth silently picking off enemies one by one. As they become fewer and more petrified, you suddenly realise that Lara is approaching the superheroine that she used to be: only this time with armed with an actual personality.
What’s nice is that journey from student to survivor is mirrored in a player’s own sense of power. Tomb Raider’s steady stream of unlocks means there’s frequently new additions to Lara’s combat and adventuring abilities. She’ll graduate from desperately throwing sand in enemies faces and scrambling away to prowling through the undergrowth and assassinating with scientifically-crafted shortbows. Upgrades come thanks to the constant supply of salvage, which whilst not really making much real world sense, means that your weapons constantly improve over the course of the game and offer up new and interesting tactics for combat. An RPG-like survival skills tree also allows Lara to explore more effectively, reflecting how her time on the island matures her senses. And with heightened survival instincts comes the discovery of more tombs to raid.
Tombs are perhaps - amusingly - the element of Tomb Raider that disappointed me the most. They’re really well crafted physics and climbing puzzles, but gosh they’re tiny. We’re talking like one room small. Finding them becomes a compulsion though, as each one not only notches a few more percent onto your completion counter, but also hands over the boxes of salvage needed to upgrade your bow to competition standard, or put a muzzle choke on your shotgun that sets buckshot pellets on fire.
Tomb Raider is just one of a very small handful of AAA games this year that truly satisfied me. It isn’t just one of this years most enjoyable games, but a bright treasure in Square’s reboot trophy cabinet that can sit proud next to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And knowing that, how can I be anything but phenomenally excited for next year’s Thief?