Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is the series defining reboot that Lara Croft has been scouring the underworld in search of for about the last 15 years.
Lara Croft is a legitimate video game icon, but it's been a long time since it's been possible to take Tomb Radier seriously. The self-parodic shortening of Lara's shorts and the ballooning of her breasts over successive instalments was both embarrassing and frustrating. And while the latter attempts to reboot the series' fortunes were occasionally successful - or not terrible - it seemed unlikely that Tomb Raider the Brand would return to its former glory.
In order to emphasise its break from the past, and reintroduce Lara Croft as something other than the lads mag pin-up she became, Square Enix has frequently stressed - occasionally to its disadvantage - that the new adventure would be a dark and gritty retelling of the Tomb Raider story.
Dark and gritty? It certainly is. And more besides. This is a legitimately grim video game, and at first it's almost distracting how much tangible pain and physical harm the young grave-robber has to endure these days - especially in what is still, at its heart, a run-and-jump adventure game.
The opening sequence, for instance, in which Lara begins her 'adventure' tied upside down in an insidious, bloody cave, before a series of harrowing near-fatal trials, fights and accidents leave her panting, wounded and almost weeping in the rain, is a brutal beginning. Other incidents in the first few hours, including the much discussed sexual assault, are also punishing. And more harrowing still, there is a scene later in the game which we won't describe, for fear of spoilers, but which will surely become famous for bringing a totally different level of gore and horror to the Tomb Raider franchise. It's grim, and you'll know it when you play it.
That said, it is to 'Tomb Raider's credit that this onslaught of doom doesn't feel shallow, or unearned. It's not gratuitous, or without humour, and almost more importantly it's also not just dark for darkness sake. It's engaging, dramatic and rooted in its genre - with all the melodrama that implies. That this balance is achieved is largely down to Rhianna Pratchett's script. She and the Crystal Dynamics team have come up with a clever, taut and occasionally ridiculous tale, but one that makes Lara both likeable and vulnerable.
Cast as a young archaeologist trying to make her name and escape her illustrious father's shadow, our 'new' Lara begins the game - and her Tomb Raiding career - washed up on a spooky Lost-style island populated by wild animals, military goons and eventually a lot more besides. Her struggle to escape the island, and uncover its history, has a strong momentum but also gives Lara and her supporting cast space to breathe. Where other Tomb Raider games (and films... and theme park rides...) have wallowed in cliche, this is a game that understands its genre and the appeal of its characters, but also gives its central figure depth and weight.
And as for the darker elements, ayone worried that Crystal Dynamics would misjudge the balance should be satisfied - they pulled it off, just about. It's dark, but it's likeable. It's Batman Begins with a pony-tail. It really is a breath-taking new start for the character, and the franchise.
Given this narrative weight, it is therefore a huge relief that the game is as fun to play as its story is occasionally hard to watch.
For at its core, the new Tomb Raider is just like the old one in many ways - it's full of running, jumping, solving puzzles and bloody shoot-outs - meaning that it's entertaining, fast, frustrating and addictive. But it's also connected together as a 'kinetic hole' in a way it has never managed before.
The core movement controls are tight, forgiving and responsive, and the addition of an 'Survival Instinct' mode - where useful items and locations are highlighted - is both a nod to Uncharted's best innovations and a useful guide in a game world which can be dark and tricky to navigate.
The addition of light RPG elements - weapons upgrades, skills and traits - are also neat and simple, if not central to the experience. Combat is simple but challenging, and Lara's bow, with which she can hunt wild animals, shoot bad guys and use with ropes to build makeshift bridges, is just ridiculously fun to play with. The quests are well-judged in variety and difficulty too - in total there is about 20-25 hours of game here, and you'll want to play it all.
The setting of Tomb Raider is also excellently drawn. As a single landscape it feels consistent and dense, but also expansive and varied. The island teems with life and hidden tombs to explore, and the game's ability to transition from snowy mountains to rainforest shanty towns and deep, trembling caves is impressive. Better still, everything moves quickly enough to give you a sense of this scope and variety in just a few short hours, even though the game is pretty massive.
The graphical quality of the new game is first class too, and is easily the equal of Batman: Arkham City or Uncharted 3. Take the camera, for instance, which has so often been the bane of Tomb Raider games: it now jogs behind Lara intelligently like a documentary film-maker, splattering the front of your TV with rain drops, mud and dripping blood.
The sum total is that Tomb Raider is one of the very best video game reboots in recent memory.
It keeps the core of the old title intact, but mutates both its story, lead character and gameplay into something far more exciting, convincing - often gruesome but most crucially fun than it's been in a very long time. It's easily one of the best adventure games of its generation. We can't wait to see what Lara - and Square Enix - comes up with for the next one.Suggest a correction