The Tomb Raider games have always been about exploration, platforming, combat and puzzle-solving, but Lara's adventures had become so over the top and cartoonish that it was tough to take them, or her, very seriously. This new version of her story keeps the basics while stripping away most of the glitz, leaving an experience that's much more focused, while still being true to the Tomb Raider spirit. Locations are crammed with hidden goodies like treasure maps, GPS caches, and journals, as well as boxes full of experience points or salvage. Collecting enough experience nets you a Skill Point that you can put towards survival or combat abilities; salvage is the currency you use to purchase upgrades for your bow, axe, pistol, rifle and shotgun. The progression of skills is relatively simple and slow-paced - you can't suddenly do bullet time backflips and take out an entire army of enemies, or anything - but the simplified evolution of abilities works well with the stripped down nature of the game.
Even the tombs themselves have been simplified. They're not big huge sprawling things filled with massive statues, hidden switches and deadly traps. They're petite puzzle rooms with a very simple goal: Figure out how to get from the entrance to the treasure box using ordinary objects like gas cans, buoys, and cargo haulers. If you find yourself stumped, Lara's Survivor Instinct ability help highlight items of interest in the room, and occasionally Lara herself will mutter a hint. It's a great compromise, offering a helpful nudge to those who want it without forcing it on those who don't.
Whatever the setting, however well-designed the tombs, however precise the controls, Tomb Raider wouldn't work if you didn't care about Lara. And at first, you don't. When the game begins, she's a bit of a killjoy, so obsessed with her work that she almost forgets how to deal with actual people. But once things get grim and she's forced to face the fact that help isn't coming, her humanity is touching to see. We see her in a way we never have before - vulnerable and real. Other Tomb Raider titles have focused on bits and pieces of Lara's personal history, but she's never been so truly human as she is in this latest incarnation. Her journey to get off the island is a fun adventure, but her emotional journey from student to survivor is what makes this Lara so appealing.
Bottom Line: This is the Tomb Raider you've wanted for years. It needs a few more puzzles, but that's a small gripe when cast against such a marvelous adventure.
Recommendation: Whether you're a longtime fan or have yet to join Team Croft makes no difference. Join the adventure as soon as you can.
Note: We were unable to try the multiplayer before this review was published.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.