With their fourth Tomb Raider game, Crystal Dynamics took the chance to re-think the series a second time. In the process, they ensured more years of success and relevance for Lara Croft.
After being made the custodians of the Lara Croft and Tomb Raider phenomena in the early 2000s, California-based studio Crystal Dynamics released a successful trilogy of games. Legend (2006), Anniversary (2007) and Underworld (2008) restored the reputation of a series which had fallen on hard times. The name Lara Croft was once again associated with profitable games which earned good reviews. The developers had accomplished the mission set for them by publishers Eidos. What the Legend trilogy did not do, though, was to make any radical changes to the Tomb Raider formula. The games had steadied the ship; they had not plotted a whole new course.
The years after 2008 brought major changes to the context in which the Tomb Raider games were made. Eidos were bought out by Square Enix, and were transformed into the Japanese publisher’s European subsidiary. Clearly, the prospect of profiting from further Lara Croft adventures was a primary reason for the decision. Crystal Dynamics had begun working on a direct sequel to Underworld, but these plans were terminated. Instead, under new ownership the studio would again reboot the Tomb Raider series, just as they had done in 2006. This time would be different, though - they would plot a whole new course for Lara Croft.
Released after some delay in early 2013, the new Tomb Raider entirely disregarded the nine previous entries in the series. The game serves in part as an “origin story” for Lara, and also uses a darker tone for the story than ever before. In this sense, what Crystal Dynamics had come up with was the archetypal “gritty reboot”. The design was pared down in certain ways compared with Underworld; the motorcycle was dropped, the game ditched globe-trotting in favour of a single location, and the new Lara is younger and more believable. The 2013 game is also more action-oriented, with more combat and many scripted sequences. Then and now, strong comparisons have been made with the Uncharted series, which was felt to have poached on Lara’s turf and then to have inspired the design of her return.
The game was generally very well received on release. Critics praised the enhanced graphics compared with the previous entries, and the newly imagined version of Lara Croft. Criticism was reserved for the excessive emphasis on combat - which provoked “ludonarrative dissonance” - and for the multiplayer, which was almost universally derided as half-baked and pointless. Sales were very strong, and Tomb Raider had shifted almost 15 million copies across all platforms by late 2021. It was clear early on that Crystal Dynamics had achieved their aims, both critically and financially. It’s easy to imagine the studio breathing a collective sigh of relief at the time, given the risk they had taken in altering the Tomb Raider formula.
In Tomb Raider, Lara is introduced as a young archeologist who is a junior member of an expedition into the Sea of Japan onboard the vessel Endurance. Led by the self-regarding Dr. Whitman, the team is searching for the long-lost civilization of Yamatai when the ship is torn apart by a catastrophic storm. Lara finds herself stranded on a mysterious island. Over the course of the game, Lara must rescue the other expedition members, learn the truth about Yamatai, and defeat the malevolent Solarii cult. The studio’s aim was for this mission of survival to transform Lara from an inexperienced lost soul into something closer to the iconic heroine that players were familiar with.
Many previous games in the series had seen Lara explore a range of locations around the world. In this Tomb Raider, the use of a single location imposed a new structure on the design. The island consists of several distinct, named regions which each have their own particular characteristics. Some are low-lying and swampy, while others are at a high altitude and wreathed in snow. The various areas are connected together and visible on a map, while Lara can use campsites as fast travel points to switch between them. While the overall structure is still highly linear, this system was nevertheless a major break with previous games.
The game attempts to integrate gameplay with cutscenes in a near-seamless way. While this often adds to the feeling of immersion in Lara’s struggle, it does have its problems. At times, it isn’t clear whether the player is in control. Quick-time events are used quite frequently, and these again undermine the immersion especially when they are failed. Replaying a carefully scripted sequence clearly takes away from its excitement and impact.
One striking aspect of the 2013 game is that Lara’s moveset was pared down. Over the course of the Legend trilogy, the character had gained various abilities such as chimney jumping, swimming, and driving vehicles. These were all cut in favour of a simpler set of core moves like jumping, mantling, and using ziplines. Crystal Dynamics had always understood that the pleasure of traversing complex spaces is key to the appeal of the Tomb Raider concept. In this Tomb Raider, Lara is as satisfying to control as ever despite a reduced moveset which reinforces her reimagining not as a hardened explorer but as an inexperienced survivor.
Significantly, each time Lara gains new equipment it is a major event around which the game is structured. Tomb Raider uses a “gear gating” system similar to the one in earlier games like Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009). Finding new tools enables the player not only to progress forward in new ways, but also to backtrack to find previously inaccessible shortcuts or secrets. Crystal Dynamics integrated these discoveries into the story. For example, when Lara escapes being tied up with rope she can later combine it with her bow and arrows to create her own rope bridges and set up new routes. Other examples include the shotgun which can destroy wooden barriers, and the rope ascender which lets Lara pull certain obstacles apart. The puzzles in the game are shorter, simpler and more logical than in the Legend trilogy, and tend to make use of physics elements like fire, wind, and electricity.
Once again, Crystal Dynamics upgraded their combat systems for Tomb Raider. The fighting in the 2013 game is easily the best in the series so far, and a major element of the game. This in itself received a mixed reception. Early in the game, much is made of Lara being forced to kill a person for the first time. Literally within minutes, she is mowing down Solarii cultists by the dozen and does so on a regular basis until the credits roll. As good as the combat is, Tomb Raider is definitely at its best either in its quieter moments of exploration or in its scripted escape sequences. If the studio had been braver still, perhaps they could have cut combat to a bare minimum.
One aspect of Tomb Raider which was new to the series is the introduction of upgrade and progression systems. There are numerous collectibles and side activities available to players, ranging from GPS caches hidden around the environments to a series of optional “secret tombs” that are just slightly off the beaten path. Completing these tasks rewards Lara with XP, which can be spent on a variety of skill advancements. Similarly, Lara collects a generic resource called “salvage” which is traded in for upgrades to her small collection of weapons - a bow, a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle.
It’s easy to see how Crystal Dynamics justified these inclusions to themselves. This particular Tomb Raider is about Lara developing into the adventurer we recognise, and the upgrades literalise that sense of progression. Ultimately though, these systems mostly serve only to bloat and complicate the game. Both the skills and weapon upgrades feel minor and some are hardly noticeable; without these the XP is meaningless, and without XP the side activities are essentially a waste of time. Again, if the studio had been braver and leant into the minimalist approach seen in its interface, Tomb Raider could have been better still. These systems seem more like a concession to seeming “modern” than a worthwhile design choice.
This Tomb Raider has held up well over the years in its technical areas. The game's graphics have obviously dated to some extent since 2013. The very strong art direction has mitigated this, however. The game could easily have suffered from having only one setting, but Yamatai is actually one of the project's triumphs. The developers were keenly aware of the need to include both visual and gameplay diversity within this setting, and managed to do exactly that. The mysterious island is a grimy, but sometimes beautiful place which displays the influence of the many forces that have occupied it. The forces of the malevolent empress Himiko, a German expedition, a group of United States marines, Japanese troops, the Solarii and Lara's own crew all leave their mark on the island.
Aside from some fairly weak weapons effects, the sound design has also stood the test of time. Yamatai is made more atmospheric by the environmental sounds, and the music is a large part of what makes the scripted escape sequences so effective. When Lara is sprinting along a collapsing bridge, then leaping for a distant handhold, the visuals, sound and scripting all work in concert to spectacular effect that hasn't diminished with time. It's at these moments that the weaknesses of Tomb Raider seem to fall away.
Crystal Dynamics and their new owners Square Enix could definitely have chosen an easier route with this project. They could very well have made a direct sequel to Underworld, and followed the path of least resistance. Had they done so, though, they may have unwittingly sparked another period of decline for Tomb Raider and for Lara Croft. Instead, they went for the braver and riskier option, re-casting Lara and re-imagining the gameplay model for the series. There are definitely weaknesses to their approach, particularly the excessive bloat caused by the upgrade and progression systems. But Tomb Raider 2013 is a confident and accomplished relaunch of a gaming icon, one which ensured that Lara Croft would be a relevant force and a solid business proposition for years to come.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.