Completion of a tomb isn’t rewarded with some rare treasure, but a gold chest containing a hefty XP bonus. Just about everything on Yamatai you can kill, solve or discover nets you XP; fill a progress bar and you’ll be given a Skill Point to spend in one of three categories. Survivor gives you access to greater rewards when looting corpses, and makes the items dotted around the map easier to spot. Hunter increases your ammo capacity and unlocks close-range finishing moves. Brawler boosts health and opens up a series of powerful counterattacks with the weapons at your disposal.
One of the earliest skills you’ll unlock increases the rate at which you acquire Salvage, the game’s main collectible and secondary currency, which you use to improve Lara’s weaponry. Her shotgun, pistol and rifle each have the usual upgrades to damage, recoil and ammo capacity, but the real star of the show is the bow she finds on a corpse in the game’s opening minutes. It’s by her side throughout, and is a handy metaphor for her gradual transformation.
At the start of the game, it’ll take down a single deer. By the end, you’ll use it to fashion makeshift ziplines, pull down loose walls and manipulate heavy objects. It’s also the clear weapon of choice in combat, not only for scoring silent headshots on distant foes, but up close, too. You can throttle enemies from behind with the bow’s shaft, or stab them in the knee or eye with an arrow. There are fire arrows later on as well as grenade-tipped ones, and you’ll quickly come to resent using the more traditional ordnance in your weaponset. Guns break your cover, of course, but more damagingly, they turn Tomb Raider into a lukewarm thirdperson shooter.
There’s too much combat at times, though there is at least a little more narrative justification for Lara’s homicidal tendencies than Drake’s. She kills first to save herself from aggressors and then later – once she’s learned more about the all-male cult that occupies Yamatai in apparent service to the spirit of Queen Himiko – to save her friends. There’s a telling exchange with Roth, a shipmate and something of a mentor to our adventurer-to-be, early on. “That can’t have been easy,” he says when a tearful Lara tells him she’s killed a few of the men who just attacked their party. “It’s scary,” she replies, “just how easy it was.”
It gets easier: enemies put up a fight, but the odds always seem stacked in your favour, at least on the default difficulty. A spot of gentle stealth will see you take out a few, and you’ve got so many tools at your disposal – three guns and a bow, dodges, counters and finishing moves, and countless exploding barrels – that failure is, for the most part, barely an option. Platforming is fluid, Uncharted-sticky and largely stress free.
There are some excellent deaths in store for Ms Croft, though. One grisly end that comes courtesy of a tree branch is a particular highlight, with Lara looking shocked, offended even, before the light disappears from her eyes. And the relative lack of difficulty works in the context of the story of how Lara Croft transformed from precocious young thrillseeker to arse-kicking raider of tombs. If there’s one significant shift, it’s that the original game’s platforming was precise and its combat was automated. Here, it’s the other way around, but that’s more a reflection of the times.
So, in fact, is the game as a whole. It’s been more than four years since Tomb Raider: Underworld, and Lara has watched from the sidelines as this generation has defined itself. In many ways, Tomb Raider can be seen as a sort of collage of design best practice, or as a collection of the generation’s greatest hits. It’s got the kill-confirming XP popup of Call Of Duty; the gentle, optional stealth of an Assassin’s Creed; and Batman’s Detective mode. It’s got the linear, cinematic spectacle of Uncharted, with the narrative fleshed out by audiologs borrowed from BioShock. Platforming is Drake by way of Ezio Auditore, and combat borrows from, well, take your pick.
Yet despite all this, Tomb Raider retains its own identity, and much of that is down to its British heroine. Whether she’s huddled up against the cold or sending five men to their doom with an explosive arrow, this is still Lara Croft, one of gaming’s most distinctive heroes – and now she has a personality that extends far beyond the bounds of her bra straps. If the purpose of a reboot is to redefine a character and set them up for the future, then this is a job well done.