- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2013

The famed female archeologist returns for gamers to appreciate her origins in the third-person adventure Tomb Raider (Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, Rated Mature, reviewed for the Xbox 360, $59,99).

Yes, Lara Croft is back, but not as the sexy and confidant explorer as seen in the previous games and Angelina Jolie movies over the past 16 years.

Rather, as a bruised, battered and disoriented recent college graduate stuck on a dangerous island, in search of her shipwrecked mates from the vessel Endurance and on a quest to find a lost city.

Stuck on this lush and weather-fickle graveyard to boats, planes and humans, the action places her in an R-rated Indiana Jones predicament, with a touch of the supernatural, as she tries to avoid hostile islanders, cult members, castaways, mercenaries and packs of animals.

With the healthy physique and brunette ponytail likened to actress Jennifer Lawrence and prowess with a bow and arrow just like Katniss Everdeen in the movie “Hunger Games,” Lara learns quickly how to hunt and stay alive.

It’s a concoction only the might of J.J. Abrams (I’ve never felt so “Lost”) could deliver and a moody Nathan Drake appreciate that takes the Tomb Raider franchise down a much darker and bloodier, “Uncharted” territory than ever before.

For veteran fans of Lara Croft, they will find a violent exploitation of the survival genre, as the character must quickly evolve from unsure girl into a killing machine to complete her missions.

She often feels more a Terminator than frightened human when early on Lara manages to handle taking a spear to the side and an ankle-crushing injury from a bear trap and yet she recovers near immediately.

Her combat gets more vicious with each skill upgrade based on amassing experience points. Within hours, she is stabbing enemies in the knee and neck, honing in on headshots and tossing improvised Molotov cocktails to burn her foes to death.

Still the familiar environmental puzzles are in tact as well as her acrobatics moves as she jumps, climbs, shimmies, zips, squirms, swings, dives and crawls around this gorgeously designed, massive jungle gym of an island, meticulously constructed down to swaying leaves, prickly-thorn bushes, rushing waterfalls, massive fires and angry mountaintops peppered by lightening.

Her tools of the trade rely heavily on the aforementioned bow (with slick rope line and fire arrows), a makeshift pickaxe (to help climb rock formations, break open boxes and even act as a lever) as well as eventual access to a shotgun, rifle (such as a WWII submachine gun) and pistol.

Moments to savor include escaping from a subterranean prison filled with skeletal remains, taking a respite at one of the many base camps to spend skill points and upgrade weapons (by collecting junk), climbing around a very active waterfall, viewing snow mountaintops while standing on a rickety bridge and a dizzying climb up a satellite tower.

Lara also remembers her studies, and a player will find plenty of relics scattered across the island such as Japanese Noh masks, ceremonial fans and a yagen (ancient mortar and pestle).

A player works through the free roaming solo campaign much like he would feel immersed in a movie. I often found myself stopping to think about what just happened on screen as I helped Lara escape from another action-packed, roller-coaster ride.

Her dynamic reimagining by Crystal Dynamics reminded me of the days when comic-book publishers decided to make popular superheroes a flawed, too-human group easily hurt and not afraid to kill.

Once a player makes it through the 20-hour or so storyline, it’s definitely worth going back into this forested and ruin filled wonderland to find hidden tombs to explore, and to find many bonus items and documents that expand upon the plot.

Considering Lara Croft has always been primarily about a one-woman crusade, I found it odd that Square Enix added a multiplayer component.

So be it. It’s up to four-versus-four, third-person, online action as teams choose between Lara and her shipmates (called survivors) or the Solarii (evil islanders).

Matches involve defending radio transmitters (while the opposition tries to turn them on), finding medical supplies or a free for all, without teams, where killing everyone is encouraged.

For the multiplayer time, being a Solarii was much more fun with some organic, fiery weapons at my disposal and traps to set against the opposition. It remains to be seen if serious gamers will care.

However, the solo player experience in the rebooted Tomb Raider is Hollywood eye candy at its franchise’s finest while giving players a reason to experience the legendary Lara Croft at her most vulnerable as well as bloody brutal.

Parental advice: The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) — after watching Lara get strangled, shot in the throat, chewed on by a wolf and hacked to death — decided to label this game “M” and that stands for mature, adults 17 years and older need only explore this Tomb Raider. Humans can die in terrible ways here; shooting an enemy in the face at point-blank range is actually rewarded. So don’t let your 13–year-old cajole you to simply “remember the movies, Dad? Those were PG-13. How violent can a girl looking for relics be?” The game delivers stark brutality that embraces the darker sides of humanity.

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