It looks gorgeous. The incredible vistas merit just standing still and taking it all in for a while. Lara’s newly smoothed face is capable of detailed expressions, with a brow that even furrows into delicate pleats when she’s concerned. The water has realistic waves, Lara’s body gets dirty when crawling around in the dust, and most importantly, the platforms and grips look like they belong in the world, rather than having been artificially placed there.
Lara’s grappling hook is back, but here again Crystal Dynamics have made a significant step forward. Previously it was a rather contrived device: this time it’s much more malleable. When you’re attempting to cross from one end of an arena to the other, and you realise you could get from this ledge to that grip by rappelling down, and then running along and dropping – it all feels like your use of the grappling hook, rather than their prescribed route. The rope can even be wrapped around objects and then pulled on to drag them over or turn them from a distance.
Even the swimming isn’t hateful. This being a Tomb Raider game it’s still the weakest part, but you’re never fighting horrible controls while Lara runs out of air for the 15th time. Oxygen conservation is never even a factor; with scuba gear on hand for any wet bits (it does mean you can’t drown her, however). And thanks to the wonderful design, swimming among sunken ruins is gasp-inducing, with schools of fish zipping about, and even the odd shark attack. Ah yes: endangered species. Of course Lara meets tigers, pumas, and other endangered creatures, and of course she can shoot them dead. But magnificently, this time out our heroine carries a tranquillizer gun – you can finish the game without ever becoming the target of Greenpeace’s ire.
Combat in Tomb Raider games has always been a problem. Just as with the recent Prince of Persia trilogy, the games are fantastic because of the athletics, not the biffing. While there’s never a fight where you think, “That was a worthwhile encounter,” this time around they’re a lot less offensive.
The auto-targeting is enhanced by Lara being able to not only shoot but also kick and punch if people/creatures get too close, and also do a few silly slow-mo tricks for extra damage. There is, in fact, a bullet-time mode based on her adrenaline levels – but it’s telling that we finished the game without ever figuring out how to use it properly.
And as we said at the beginning, no boss fights! It’s an excellent decision, keeping all mega-baddie disposals confined to the cutscenes where they belong. In the bosses’ stead are wonderful uber-puzzles, super-challenging scenarios to tax your leaping skills. Figuring out how to traverse the final level made us feel like a genius in a way fighting an enemy never could. In a game about exploration and gymnastics, it’s only right and proper that this is what gets scaled-up for the climaxes.