"THERE ARE NO HEROES here—only survivors," one character shouts toward the end of the latest Tomb Raider. He's right: This Tomb Raider is all about survival. Where previous installments relied on clever and/or maddening environmental puzzles, acrobatic exploration of massive ruins, and the polygonal sex object that was star Lara Croft, this reboot goes the Batman Begins route: grim, gritty, and at least a little more realistic, with each level challenging Lara not to plunder and pose but rather to stay alive.
Normally these dour reboots suck the fun out of whatever they're rebooting—like, say, Batman Begins. But while Tomb Raider is all dark and grimy, it's also insanely, ridiculously fun. In following Lara's first adventure (shipwrecked on a haunted island, she has to discover its secrets while fending off blood-hungry cultists), developer Crystal Dynamics has turned the cartoonish Lara into—wait for it—an actual character. And in giving the player a remarkably visceral sense of accomplishment with each skill Lara gains, it's impossible not to sympathize with her—to feel proud, excited, and determined as she grows from a shivering shipwreck victim to a hardened explorer. From the satisfying shink of a climbing axe being driven into a cliff face, to the sound of once-menacing enemies running in horror when they realize Lara's entered a room, the addictive Tomb Raider masterfully builds momentum and raises the stakes.
Thanks to snippets of the game shown before its release, it was easy to get the impression that Tomb Raider was going to exploit and sensationalize Lara's suffering—no small concern in an industry dominated by male developers and protagonists. Some of those concerns linger—Lara's graphic, torture porn-y death animations are significantly more gruesome than they need to be—but it's still impressive how fully realized this Lara is, and how smoothly the gameplay dovetails with her growth. In focusing less on raiding and tombs—and more on a character who was, until now, barely describable as such—Crystal Dynamics has made the best Tomb Raider yet.