In comparison it's surprising to note that Ninja Theory's refresh of Devil May Cry sticks more rigidly to formula than Crystal Dynamics, the studio for whom the relationship with Tomb Raider is, with this title, five games and counting. Tomb Raider circa 2013, looks, feels and plays differently than what's come before. But, for the last two anyway, not as differently as you'd think.
But this is definitely a darker take on the archaeologist's origins. It earns its 18 rating. The adventure is nowhere near the lightheartedness of Uncharted, but far from the sadistic torture feature headlines would have you believe. You're spending ten plus hours trekking across a cursed island that's guarded by a cult who either violently indoctrinate or viciously kill those washed up on their shores. You take it upon yourself to save your fellow castaways by any means necessary, while surviving long enough to discover the island's secrets. The title's story and gameplay reflects the reaction and adaptation to that experience.
It's a harsher take on the archaeological stories of lost civilisations but no less a Hollywood interpretation. For all the talk of this being a realistic survival story, there's enough jarring logistical elements that'll disrupt your enjoyment if you think about them too much. Best then to ignore, and instead think of this as an adult version of Temple of Doom. A comparison that has further merit since Tomb Raider keys into classic Indiana Jones storytelling by keeping the line between the myth and reality carefully undefined until the game's end.
Equally the line drawn through your journey across the island, two massive hub-like areas aside, is fairly linear, but the game successfully masks the fact with environmental design that feels wholly natural. Each area may have a clear central path and only a few jutting side areas or routes, but these weave though caves, up cliffs and along pathways, all of which seem the work of the natural world rather than the careful build of a level designer.
Likewise the studio's smoke and mirrors to cover area loads is equally effective; interactive cutscene cinematics or squeezing through darkened mountain corridors allow you to be fully absorbed in the spectacle or claustrophobia at hand, even if both player and designer know the reason for their inclusion.
And there's still that Tomb Raider spirit of panning camera round each new area and working out how to get to higher locations. All areas are connected, and the developers find a fine way of retreading those hub locations that most areas spill back out onto without it being boring. You'll gradually ascend higher up the island's mountain ranges, arriving further up the slopes of multi-tiered makeshift towns and villages, with both new perspective and changing weather system effectively making you feel you're somewhere different.
There are multiple secret areas; and most of those that require weapon upgrades to access are only introduced when the upgrades are, making it much less of a task to mentally remember spots to return to later on. It's a good move, as while you're free to backtrack via fast travel come campsites, doing so breaks the flow of the story.
Exploration's more an optional extra than an integral part of the adventure - yet embracing it is important to getting the most out of the game, otherwise linearity is all the more apparent. The scale of the island's environments means that while potential routes are subtly marked (with a dash of white paint) their end point isn't. There's a joy in discovering where these paths lead. Later, when you've gained the rope arrow upgrade, some multi-levelled locations become festooned with climbable lines - letting you slide down or repel up to points all the more easier.
Oddly while there's a sense of Lara's weight on the ground, when she's in the air there's a weightlessness to her that feels almost unnatural, a floaty feel to the character model and animation as she jumps that takes a while to adapt to.
Stashed items are enough to warrant combing locations but not so many as to feel a grind. The ability to examine collected items closer for clues is a nice touch that's sadly not made more of, while finding and collecting salvage is essential to affording weapon upgrades for your primary foursome of bow, pistol, shotgun and machine gun. Those upgrades are extensive and meaty.
There are tombs buried in and around the island, and these are also entirely optional. Entrances are squirrelled away but flagged by chalk markers that are easily spotted if you're using the camera a lot (we only missed one). All are physics-based puzzles that while overly-simple when compared to the gigantic tomb puzzles that made the previous games, they're still divertingly enjoyable and grant you the time for solitary brain-scratching that echoes the old series. Hunting wildlife is less enjoyable: other than the story-driven first takedown of a deer, there's little benefit to the task beyond a few extra XP points, and we only really engaged in the process as a post-game jaunt to claim a few extra Achievements.
Yet Lara spends as much, if not more, time gripping a gun as she does a ledge. Tomb Raider has a heavy investment in gun battles, and for all the marketing fuss over her first kill, Lara rapidly becomes the island's own angel of death with a body count in the hundreds. It's an acceptance that's quick in coming and perhaps consciously, the studio leaves Lara mute come the kills following the first, letting us grapple with the issue - if we have one.
A few wolves and odd wildlife aside, it's the two-legged variety enemy that Lara's primarily fighting against. Funnily, we always thought those clashes to be the weakest parts of past adventures; new mechanics here however refine gunplay brilliantly. There's no cover lock-on system, no crouch toggle (in SP at least): everything's automatic. Lara will immediately unsheathe a weapon when enemies are near and hunch over when running. That'll turn into a crouch when near cover. A trigger hold will pull you out to aim. A button tap will duck you mid-run, and a double-tap will make you roll.
It's not built to make firefights easy, but to make engagements liberating. You've the choice between a stealth approach or going in guns blazing. While enemy placement to signify the option of the former is head-slappingly stupid (which armed guards all stand facing the same way, that also just happens to be with their back to you? And how do they not hear someone getting their head caved in a few feet away?) the option's at least welcome, and becomes tense when later opportunities up the patrolling guard count. Make a mistake, or just choose to go for a straight attack, and reinforcements are quickly called in.
Either way Lara's continually outgunned, and the need to dash between cover points - as semi-destructible environments are chewed away by machine gun fire, or locations are blown apart by grenades, set aflame by fire arrows - is essential. Lara's movement animations perfectly convey the emotional mix of being both hunted and hunter.
Soldiers tend to be idiotic and easily downed when in twos, but are excitingly terrifying when in large number, swarming from all angles. Many of the bigger clashes take place in multilevelled environments, requiring you to take full advantage of your weapon set. Carefully aimed bow strikes for those higher up, machine gun fire for charging groups, shotgun blasts for close-range, and pistol headshots if you want to be cocky.
And there's a great deal of upgrades for pistol, machine gun, bow and shotgun to dig into - pitched battles become enjoyable as every weapon has purpose and use. There's a rainy night climax to the action some two-thirds of the way through the game that's one of the title's highlights - and by that point you embrace Lara's "kill or be killed" mentality and just revel in quick weapon switches and moment to moment survival.
Lara's not just tackling cultists. An appearance of a new foe late in the game gets not one, but two great introductions, but the eventual engagement with them dulls their menace: faster and armoured they may be, but the same tactics as before work fine, and that their big setpiece echoes the real showstopper of the game earlier cools the excitement.
It's these fights were much of the violence comes in. But Crystal Dynamics also aggressively showcases what a dire place this island is with repeated treds through body-covered caves and blood-filled rivers. The gore factor is so heavy and high that you don't so much become desensitised to it, which is the likely aim, but instead end up ignoring it. The studio would have more pointedly put its message across by reducing these moments massively and thereby retained the potency of their impact.
Also the game's cast and Lara's voice actress are both weak points. Character growth over twelve hours rather than a cinematic three should have been easier to etch out as Lara's uncertainty hardens to solid belief. Yet it's a belief we don't feel until the game's last act - and there's an unbalanced contrast in the voice work in the minute to minute situations that defy belief. Such as a horrified response to ducking through a pool of remains transferring into an enthusiastic monologue in discovering an artefact the next.
Her fellow survivors are for the most bland stereotypes that don't convince of their worth in the few scenes they're in. It's an issue that's always dogged the series, and it's a shame the reboot couldn't convincingly fix the problem either.
That cast forms the faces for the game's multiplayer, an unneeded addition to the title that at least performs as an interesting diversion for a time. A small number of modes familiar to any team-based multiplayer are played out across small but dense maps, with a series of weapon and skill unlocks available as you rank up.
Yet the real meat is that single player adventure. For long-term fans of the series, there'll be disagreement with the direction Lara Croft has been taken in. Puzzles are low-key, gunplay is as much a component to the game's foundations as exploration and platforming. Yet the combat mechanics feel unique - quite the feat given the swamped genre Tomb Raider finds itself returning to - and they're always engaging. Plus the island's design is such that it feels real rather than manufactured, and as such we welcome the chance to explore it.
Once the credits concluded, we headed back in to 100% each area - for our own enjoyment, rather than for the sake of completion, and we're left wanting more. Something we haven't said about a Tomb Raider game in a long time.
The change has been a controversial one, but it's also revealed as the right one. We'd rather be excited for a new Tomb Raider than preserve what worked for the originals at their time of release. Better we're out with an invigorated Lara than watching a gaming icon gather dust and cobwebs for fear of change; that Lara belongs in a gaming museum. This Lara marks the return of the great adventure.