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RETURN OF THE QUEEN: TOMB RAIDER PS3 REVIEW

After years of false restarts, disappointing sequels and near industry-wide dismissal as sexist fan-boy fodder, the Croft franchise is born again in glorious fashion In TOMB RAIDER: A SURVIVOR IS BORN. We join Lara on her first expedition to the fabled land of Yamatai and learn how the once-innocent young explorer becomes the hardened thrill seeker who reigned as Queen during the PS1 Era. Comparisons to the Uncharted series are inevitable, but those who would call Lara the “female Drake” should remember that when Uncharted launched, Drake was no more than a “male Lara” and both owe almost everything to their grandfather of sorts, Indiana Jones. TOMB RAIDER combines elements of all three, blending blockbuster action sequences,  exotic locales, gunplay heavy combat, occasional humor and at last, a relatable, fleshed-out, Lara Croft.

To set Lara apart from cousin Drake or grandfather Jones, TOMB RAIDER focuses on Lara’s emotional journey. Wisely, it mostly sidelines the mythological arc – something the Uncharted series has always rather clumsily implemented into its games.  TOMB RAIDER’s story revolves around Lara contending with a cult of murderous fanatics doing the bidding of the wrathful Sun Queen Himiko, whose magic has trapped Lara and her (largely forgettable) group of friends on the island of Yamatai. The storyline, well voiced though it is, is droll and obvious, with the “twists” forecast early on and then revealed at a puzzlingly slow place. As the mysteries of Himiko and her army are spelled out (multiple times) for the oblivious cast, I wondered — are they not paying attention? Or does the game think the audience isn’t?

But the minutiae of the plot is always second to Lara’s development into a full-fledged explorer, as both the in-game and cut-scene mechanics converge to explore a fearful, but tremendously loyal young woman.  Even the game’s exploration and combat systems reveal Lara’s growth and resourcefulness.  Lara’s gear evolves over the course of the game via an RPG style upgrade experience system, with each of her weapons giving her new abilities and unlocking hidden areas at the story progresses. Unlike Drake, who uses whatever weapons are dropped by enemies, Lara specializes in specific weapons (bow, shotgun, handgun and rifle) leading to a much more consistent combat experience. The controls remain intuitive and responsive as the (it must be said, Drake-esque) combat focuses on maintaining cover in firefights and reflex-testing dodges and counter in melee.  And while Drake more or less humps around buildings for climb-able spots, Lara has specific gear used to traverse the island in specific ways. This makes the exploration much easier, as players know what to look for, rather than simply scanning the area for an entry point.

However, the game loses its footing in showing Lara’s struggles. In a bid to show her trials as the source of her strength, Lara is naturally put into harrowing situations. Unfortunately, these border on exploitative  at times, particularly in earlier chapters as the violence becomes extremely graphic. We see Lara kidnapped and bound repeatedly, dropped into a pool of blood, cauterize her own wound, held down by a cultist, told “shhhh it’s okay” as he attempts to stab her and at one point, beaten by 3 men in front of her tied and gagged friend Samantha. Ultimately, we know Lara is destined to transcend, but the narrative loses its precarious balance as her storyline sways between empowering and punishing as Lara is victimized over and over again. Considering how paper-thin the plot is, the narrative never fully justifies how extreme the violence is, It feels cheap, some fans even calling it “torture porn.” It’s certainly no way to treat the Queen.

But by game’s end, Lara ascends to her throne in a beautiful, brutalized and brilliant fashion. The excellent visuals, top notch voice acting and crisp sharp gameplay combine to make this Lara’s finest moment. Lara doesn’t just ascend to her throne in this game, she earns it – bullet by bullet. For all its flaws, Tomb Raider is a delight and a fantastic re-start to a legendary franchise.

VERDICT: 4/5

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