The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Gamer's Corner column [The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa]
(Hawk Eye, The (Burlington, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 17--"Tomb Raider" available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. Rated "M" for Mature. $59.99
Most of the world knows "Tomb Raider" series protagonist Lara Croft as just another sexist video-game icon. Much like a Barbie Doll, Croft's impossible hourglass figure and busty profile represent the basest desire of men and little boys, who just happen to comprise the majority of video-game players.
Not that I'm above all that. I was 16 years old when the first "Tomb Raider" was released for the Sony Playstation in 1996, and would be lying if I didn't own up to my own appreciation of Croft's curvy features. Video-game graphics were so primitive back then, though, it would be more accurate to describe those features as triangular rather than curvy. Adults laughed, and teenagers like me lusted.
Believe it or not, though, Croft's body wasn't the big selling point behind the original "Tomb Raider." It was the three dimensions around her that really intrigued gamers. "Super Mario 64" had just introduced the gaming world to three-dimensional worlds a few months earlier, but most gamers, including me, didn't have access to Nintendo's new console back then. For us, the first step beyond side scrolling 2D games was through Lara Croft.
Though the "Tomb Raider" series eventually descended into a self-mocking parody rife with uninspired game play, the first one redefined the gaming landscape. It was more than a game of the year contender. It was a game of the decade contender.
By the time I started reviewing games for my college newspaper, "Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness" (the sixth entry in the series) brought the franchise to an all new low. I took great glee in ripping the game apart in review, but I was simultaneously saddened to see the once great franchise in such poor condition. Though the release of "Tomb Raider: Legend" in 2006 resurrected the franchise in a rather non-spectacular fashion, the series once again remained stagnant until the exceptional two-player overhead shooter "Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light" was released for download in 2010.
Still, it's not what you could call a full-fledged "Tomb Raider" game.
The newest entry in the franchise, simply titled "Tomb Raider," is an origin story/reboot, which seems to be a fairly popular trend in video games right now. I just reviewed the reboot of the "Devil May Cry" series a few weeks ago, which was pretty impressive, if not entirely necessary. Kind of like the "The Amazing Spider-Man."
But if any series desperately needed a reboot, it was "Tomb Raider."
To be honest, I wasn't particularly looking forward to this origin story, despite the overwhelming positive reviews I saw on metacritic.com. Though I was impressed by the preview shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo last year, it looked as though the developers had lifted the template from the "Tomb Raider"-inspired "Uncharted" series and claimed it for their own.
In this case, imitation has inspired originality. While this reboot does ape the base game-play mechanics of "Uncharted," it also refines the formula, mixing in enough original elements to create something entirely different. Something surprisingly wonderful.
Make no mistake about it. "Tomb Raider" is the best game I've played this year, forcing me to once again dine on my preemptive cynicism.
The first thing you'll notice after putting the game in are the eye-popping graphics. I play a lot of pretty games, but "Tomb Raider" outshines them all, pushing the aging consoles to their absolute limit. Those amazing graphics only are enhanced by dynamic camera work that makes "Tomb Raider" look like a full-fledged movie -- another trick the developers picked up from the "Uncharted" franchise.
That euphoric feeling continues once you pick up the controller. Croft runs, climbs, crawls and jumps like she never has before, displaying an intuitiveness for grasping environmental objects around her that feels completely natural compared to the rather skittish Nathan Drake.
The game begins with Croft setting out on her first expedition to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, and she's hardly the seasoned adventurer most gamers are familiar with. What starts out as an archeological trip turns into a nightmare when the ship Croft and her fellow researchers are riding on is struck by a violent storm and split in two, stranding everyone on an isolated island. Croft tries to reach the rest of the group, but is captured by a strange, savage man and trapped in his cave home.
The premise is as old as time itself, but the execution is superb -- not to mention creepy as hell. Players take control of Croft as she is hanging from the ceiling, rocking her back and forth until she escapes by falling on a stalagmite that pierces her through the side. From there, you must crawl and scramble your way through the dank wetness of a dark cave, listening as Croft whimpers through her pain and fear.
This is a very different Croft than the one I grew up one with, and all the changes are for the better. Not only do her reduced proportions more accurately represent that of a real-life woman, but she now possesses the emotional range of an everyday person caught in a crisis. Though her conversion from frightened girl to unstoppable killing machine seems a bit abrupt (this is a video game, after all), connecting to Croft's emotional journey adds a layer of immersion missing from games of similar ilk.
The shoot-'em-up combat is just as visceral, forcing you to scramble from cover to cover as relentless island natives charge Croft in an effort to take her off-guard. It's quite an improvement over the brain-dead baddies in the "Uncharted" series, and enemies duck and weave in an effort to throw off Croft's aim as they approach. If they get too close, you can duck out of the way, jab an arrow in their knee and then drive a hatchet through their head.
The ranged aspect of combat stays exciting thanks to the longbow Croft finds at the beginning of the game. You'll eventually gain the ability to shoot flaming arrows at enemies from hundreds of yards away, once again proving that women and bows are a deadly combination.
Though the island has an open-world design that allows vigilant players to backtrack and find extra goodies they missed the first time around, the game's hurtling forward momentum is so addictive that I never took a step back. I stayed glued to the controller for two straight days, blowing through the story and all the optional tombs in about 15 hours.
You'll spend a lot of time climbing up rickety structures, while exploring the mysterious island, only to plummet down cliffs and waterfalls as Croft takes a beating no real person could possibly endure. It's a dirty, grimy adventure that exhibits the best aspects of a grisly Rambo film, culminating in a battle against an evil supernatural cult ripped straight from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
That's the kind of stuff I geek out for. "Tomb Raider" is a heady brew of familiar game mechanics polished to a high sheen, representing the best of what the current console generation has to offer. Though veteran gamers may be wary of returning to a series that has burned them so many times, it's time to put the old prejudices aside.
"Tomb Raider" hasn't been this good since I was 16 years old.
Four out of Four Stars
(c)2013 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)
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