Over seventeen years, the Tomb Raider series has consistently failed to recapture the magic of its brilliant debut. The smart, mysterious original saw you isolated and alone, drawn deeper and deeper into dark chasms, with no idea what was coming up next (dinosaurs!), and nothing for company but the occasional reassuring grunt from heroine Lara Croft.
But things quickly went south: across five subsequent games, we had embarrassing side characters, musty, derivative levels set in dull cities, dubious polygonal outfits, and lots of shooting, all of which reached its nadir in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. When new developers Crystal Dynamics launched Tomb Raider Legend three years later, it was no surprise that they returned Lara to the tombs and puzzles of her 1996 debut - but, ultimately, nothing before or since has quite recaptured the remoteness and mystery of that first game, nor that feeling of playing something truly unique. Well... perhaps until now.
After her ship is washed up on the shores of Yamatai, Lara is kidnapped
At the outset of this origin story, Lara is part of the Endurance, a ship cresting through the Sea of Japan in search of the fabled kingdom of Yamatai. A recent graduate, she and her best friend Sam have followed an educated hunch that the mystical island could be located within the Dragon's Triangle, a notorious focal point for monstrous storms and ship-ripping seas.
Predictably, upon arrival, their boat is torn asunder and driven against rocky crags - but as the rest of the crew struggle to gather supplies ahead of an anticipated night singing kumbaya and toasting smores, Lara is knocked out and kidnapped. It's then that the true horrors of Yamatai become apparent to you.
BIG IN JAPAN
Waking up in a meat-filled den full of mutilated corpses and leaking flesh bags hanging ominously from the ceiling, it's clear that Yamatai has a few secrets. The first you quickly become aware of: a group of fellow survivors - with a population expanded from years of assimilating other research teams and expeditions into the mix - has also become stranded here; worse, they've developed a murderous disposition. Who they are, and what they want falls on Lara to investigate - but first she needs to survive, and help Sam and the rest of the crew to get off the island alive.
Lara may be on the box but, really, the island itself is the star of the show. Split up into hubs, the gameworld offers a sublime mix of open-world discovery and linear narrative progression. Each hub is vivid and memorable, thanks to the convenient (but excellent) plot excuse that is Yamatai's extreme weather.
Hot and fetid jungles, blustering snow-capped World War II bunkers, musky temples untouched for centuries, sandstorm-ravaged cliff faces and glorious sun-kissed vistas, Yamatai is gorgeous to look at and a pleasure to explore. It's easy to stand back and admire the view - but what makes this world really come alive is how Lara's physical presence is felt here.
Strike a flaming torch in a tightly compacted cave and tongues of fire will lick juicily at the shiny wet roof rocks. Lara's arms shake with the strain of opening up a heavy-lidded chest. In a nod to those horrible back-snapping sound effects of previous Tomb Raider's, her fragile place in this hostile environment is emphasised through some gut-punching death animations, too. Dive into shallow waters and her neck will crack sickeningly against the rocks beneath. Fail to avoid driftwood as you plough down a waterfall, and you could end up impaled through the head.
In many games, violent death prompts quick restarts and hardly a breath taken, but these animations do an amazing job of grounding Lara, of making her feel human, of ramming home the consequences of failure and, conversely, the elation that comes through success. Occasionally, they're undermined by the unwelcome appearance of cheap, button-mashing Quick Time Events. But don't panic. They don't surface often, and the basic tenets of the gameplay remain the series staples we demanded: exploring, puzzle-solving and combat.
The cover system is seamless, giving combat a rampant, chaotic kind of flow
From afar the first obvious comparison to make in terms of combat would be with Uncharted's breed of cover-based shooting. Here though, Lara automatically leans down slightly whenever enemies are nearby, and when you move towards cover, you seamlessly press up against it. These smooth transitions cut down on dodgy moments, and lend combat a rampant, chaotic flow. You won't find yourself erroneously attached to the wrong bit of cover - but you'll still maintain complete control over Lara as she leans out. (You press the left trigger to fire.)
A scramble ability lets you dodge incoming shots or swings as you dart around the hectic, ever-changing island, dispatching foes. We mean hectic too. Scenery catches fire and falls apart, tables get overturned, buildings burn and crumble, and enemies constantly look to flank you and find alternative paths, forcing you to constantly keep on the move. You always feel like you're on the edge of failure, which only adds to the tension, making firefights dangerous and frightening.