There’s a lot to love about the new “Tomb Raider” (PC, PS3, X360; $59.99; rated M), in stores this week. The game is a true reboot of the series, re-setting the clock to contemporary times and recasting Lara Croft as a young archeologist shipwrecked on a mysterious island.
There are also quite a few surprises. As a 17-year-old franchise, “Tomb Raider” was getting a bit long in the tooth. Returning players will quickly note that the new game addresses some previous weaknesses, while updating some enduring strengths.
Top 10 pleasant surprises
The characters: In the new game, Lara isn’t just fighting for fortune and glory. She’s fighting to save the fellow members of her expedition crew, each of whom is a distinctly drawn character. By turning levels into rescue missions, the designers raise the emotional stakes.
The combat system: The new dodge-and-cover combat system fits the high-adventure style perfectly, and is a marked improvement over previous installments. Lara’s opponents fight with intelligence and aggression – watch out for ambushes.
The story: As the levels progress and the story unfolds, the island gets weirder and weirder. Information is doled out gradually, so that there’s always a story hook to keep you involved. Who are those Russian guys? Why is this Portuguese pirate ship still here? And what about that 12-foot samurai?
The graphics: This isn’t too much of a surprise, as the “Tomb Raider” games have always put a premium on dramatic, sweeping visuals. But a few sequences here really hit the spot: The base jumping parachute descent, say, or the ghostly beach littered with derelict shipwrecks.
The Instinct button: Like similar action games such as “Assassin’s Creed” or “Hitman,” “Tomb Raider” incorporates a survival instinct game mechanic in which Lara’s intuition is represented visually. If you’re stuck on a particular puzzle, click the Instinct button to get visual cues on how to best proceed. This prevents a lot of the dead-end frustrations of previous games.
The quick-time events: During particularly dramatic cutscenes, Lara’s fate will depend on your facility with quick time events (QTEs), a gameplay element in which you must press certain buttons in response to on-screen prompts. These sequences are pleasantly nerve-racking – the slightest hesitation and Lara meets a gruesome end.
The bad guys: Without giving too much away, I can tell you that “Tomb Raider” has several villains. Some of these are the usual Lieutenant Goons; underlings types who function as warm-up encounters and mini-boss fights. Some are essentially decoy villains, obscuring the real antagonist. But all are dastardly and satisfying to dispatch.
The platforming: Taking ill-advised jumps from dangerous ledges has been a staple of “Tomb Raider” since the first scene of the first game, way back in 1996. The new games takes it to another, yes, level. You’ll jump from waterfalls and ruins, cargo lifts and helicopters. You’ll swing from ancient tapestries and hang from rusting radio towers. And you’ll fall. A lot.
The final fight: In the final scenes, the designers have strung together a gauntlet of obstacles designed to test all your fighting, platforming, puzzle-solving and quick-time skills. The payoff is clever: Old fans of the series will be rewarded with a nice moment that pays tribute to classic “Tomb Raider” iconography.
A loveable Lara: This is certainly the nicest surprise of the new game. By way of good old-fashioned storytelling techniques, the writers and animators encourage the player to identify with young Lara and her desperate situation. Unlike previous games, you don’t just control her onscreen, from three steps behind, admiring her … um … poise. By rebooting Lara as a scared but determined young woman, the developers have recast the entire tone of the series.
Also new this week: Obsessive urban planning with “SimCity” (PC), anime brawling with “Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3,” and the glorious return of baseball season with “MLB 13: The Show” (PS3, Vita).