For those of a certain age, "Tomb Raider" occupies a special place in gaming. It marked a time when the industry stepped away from the G-rated realm of Nintendo classics and awkwardly -- like a teenager learning to be cool -- stumbled into the realm of sex, violence and giant mecha robots.
The gore of "Mortal Kombat" became the killer feature everyone copied. Visuals were measured by how realistic a character looked rather than acted. And Lara Croft seemed to be at the heart of it all. The protagonist of "Tomb Raider" mixed action gameplay and overexaggerated sex appeal to a dizzying effect.
But 17 years later, that formula of gunplay, exploration and puzzle-solving has grown stale. A reinvention was needed; thankfully, Crystal Dynamics had the vision to make over Croft and the franchise in the rebooted "Tomb Raider."
This isn't just prettier graphics with a few new wrinkles here and there; this is a top-to-bottom overhaul that introduces fans to a younger, more innocent Croft. She and her crewmates on the research ship Endurance are searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai in the Pacific. Without much luck and money, they follow Croft's hunch, which brings them crashing onto a mysterious island inhabited by a strange cult.
The setup is a little "Lost" mixed with "The Hunger Games" as Croft figures out how to survive while uncovering the secrets behind the unusual locale. In the first half-hour, this grittier tone is set as Croft is kidnapped. While injured with a gaping hole in her side, she escapes her confines. Further on in the 13-hour campaign, the three pillars of the franchise -- gunplay, puzzles and exploration -- show up, but the elements are woven so tightly and unpredictably into the fabric of the world that it's almost imperceptible.
When it comes to puzzles, this "Tomb Raider" isn't as difficult as its predecessors. The game, which hits stores Tuesday, won't stump players because a new ability called Survival Instinct highlights important parts of the environment, and Croft mumbles hints to herself. All of these features guide players to a solution that at its hardest requires precise timing on jumps.
The exploration and structure of the world is more open in the reboot. Croft can traverse the island easily with her agility to run across logs and strength to hold on to ledges. As the plot develops, areas of the island become more accessible. Croft obtains new tools, and these unlock pathways that were closed off before. There's plenty of incentive to use fast travel and explore every nook and cranny for collectibles and hidden tombs. They give Croft resources to upgrade her abilities and weapons.
As important as these pillars are, combat is where most of the improvement is made. "Tomb Raider" feels modern with an automatic cover system and the freedom to handle gunfights in several ways. Players can go into a room guns a-blazing, or they can be smarter and stalk cultists from behind, silently eliminating them one by one.
The choice is up to the players, but what makes the gunplay so fun is the AI. It intelligently battles players as foes deploy tactics that force Croft to move at times, mix it up with melee attacks in others or dodge and counterattack in close quarters. With cleverly designed set pieces such as shantytowns or suspended ships, it's a thrill to take on an army of fanatics.
As for the plot, it's intriguing but fairly predictable. That isn't so bad because the new Croft carries so much of the game. She is the character tying "Tomb Raider" together, and seeing her transformation from fledgling archaeologist to determined explorer is a satisfying experience. Her reinvention shows the maturation of an industry and an audience: She's changed from a figure inspiring teenage boys' fantasies to a heroine that an older generation genuinely cares about.
H ** H
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC