To properly judge Tomb Raider, you'll need to forget its name. See, it's not really a Tomb Raider title; it doesn't have any epic puzzles to deal with, and Lara isn't nearly as spunky as she used to be. This game, instead, is its own thing, the start of a new franchise, more or less.
And that is more than fine, even if I admittedly do miss the giant puzzles Lara would often have to deal with in the past. But what we have here is a nice mix of stealth, straight-up gun combat and dynamic exploration that is wholly satisfying as a gameplay experience.
For a while, it almost feels as if Crystal Dynamics were eschewing combat in favor of other elements, like wandering around, hunting and climbing on stuff. Eventually, though, the game reveals that it does have an extensive combat focus, and what combat it is. When Lara gets within earshot of the bad guys, she automatically crouches, and she attaches herself to cover at the right moments so you don't have to fiddle with extra buttons while you're worried about killing stuff.
But don't think you'll be able to sit still and pick off enemies from afar. See, the bad guys will throw molotovs and dynamite at you to flush you out, and so you must stay on the move as you fight and expose yourself to fire. This is not a bad thing, as it only serves to make fights more interesting and challenging and, especially, fun.
You get four weapons — a bow, a pistol, a shotgun and an automatic rifle — and each is unique enough that you'll find a use for them in different situations. And you upgrade them as you go along, making each of them even more versatile. The lighter you stick on your bow to set fire to your arrows is particularly interesting, but that's just one example. Don't worry that this system gets too complicated too quickly, as this is nothing like Dead Space 3's weapon customization. Here, it's just a matter of adding stuff to your weapons, instead of switching things out.
Exploration is another departure from Tomb Raiders of old. Climbing returns, of course, but you won't find yourself having trouble mapping out your route. Climbing is no longer a maze, or at least it's not a tough one. You get tools in your arsenal that add a lot to the climbing experience as well. You can use a climbing axe to make your way up vertical rock walls, or you can attach ropes to arrows to create a makeshift bridge for yourself between ledges. The use of such tools must stay within the framework of the world CD has built — meaning you can only use those tools when they want you to use them.
Making your way around the world, whether it be in combat or peacefully, is a pleasure. All the elements I describe above combine to craft one of the better gameplay experiences I've had. Crystal Dynamics took the Uncharted formula and made it a lot more interesting, and it comes together wonderfully.*
And it is a beautiful experience. I played the game on PC, with all settings but the TressFX hair maxed (that hair looks funny), in 1080p 3D, and it is just about the nicest looking game I've played. Native 3D support is all too rare for PC games, but here the game shines in the format. Crystal Dynamics clearly put a lot of love into the PC version of this game, and it shows in the textures and performance**.
If only it had the presentation to match, however. CD, because they were making a big budget video game, felt the need to throw you right into the action immediately — the game opens with the boat wreck cutscene we saw long ago — and that results in a terrible lack of any sort of character development as the game goes on. You don't have any feel for what kind of person Lara is as the game begins, and so there's no sense of the "zero to hero" arc CD liked to tout before the game was released. Too, you never get to know your fellow castaways, and that left me feeling rather uninvested in their fate. Sometimes, Lara would talk to one of them over a walkie talkie she has, and I didn't even know which one she was speaking with. In their attempt to ape Uncharted, they forgot about that franchise's first acts.
This iteration of Tomb Raider is also exclusively serious, which is a fine idea considering the goal of the game is to put the good guys through hell after they're shipwrecked on an unmapped island. But CD consistently undermines the serious tone of the game by having Lara experience wild, over-the-top set pieces. Many of these put Lara through some rather extreme scenarios that would kill any real person, but the game never stops to acknowledge that these set pieces are patently ridiculous. Lara takes them in stride, never bothering to let out a "Holy shit, I can't believe I survived that!" In a game that attempts to be so grim and gritty without a sense of camp or humor, such sequences feel out of place.
But I understand why they are there. This is a blockbuster action game, whether CD wants to admit it or not. Protocol demands it have wild action sequences. The problem is that these sections just don't jive with the vision CD had for the game.
But those complaints don't do a whole lot to negate just how impressive this Tomb Raider really is. It seems to already be a financial success, and you know that means other developers will seek to imitate what works in this game. And it would be good for them to do that, because as a gameplay experience Tomb Raider is by far the best thing out there right now.
But it's ultimately not the complete package. In its pursuit of Michael Bay action sequences, it looks like just another no-brain game. For it to be a truly gritty experience, it needed to be more grounded. Still, what we get is one of the best times you'll have with a game so far in 2013, and far be it for me to complain about such a development. While ultimately shallow, Tomb Raider is an absolute blast to play.
8 out of 10
*A note on quick-time events: they are horrible. They don't pop up often in this game, but when they do they are awful and frustrating. CD have managed to make an even-more-annoying-than-usual variation on them, as well. But this is not a regular occurrence.