Lara Croft has had many iterations throughout the years, moving through at least three distinct eras (I’d argue it’s more like five) across 15+ games. This list doesn’t just look at how good each Tomb Raider game is, but specifically how Lara the Lara in each game is.
Number of entries: 19
What’s included: Every game in which Lara stars, plus her Hollywood movies. Mobile games, handhelds, and spin-offs count. The same game on different platforms (Tomb Raider PC v Tomb Raider PS1, for example) just count as a single entry, because let’s not mess about.
What’s not included: Other game appearances (like her skin in Rainbow Six Siege, for example), the books, the comics, and the Lucozade bottles. All the important stuff it’s sensible to include and none of the stuff that’s not, basically.
How is Lara-ness judged? There are a variety of factors. Lara is cool, Lara is kind, Lara is athletic, Lara is intelligent, and Lara raids tombs. There are some games where the character of Lara doesn’t change much. But since reinvention and evolution is a big part of Lara’s character, failing to substantially build on the previous Lara is judged to be a very un-Lara move, and may see an otherwise strong Lara candidate pulled down the rankings.
These factors all combine in a complex algorithm I call “My Opinion,” and results in the following infallible analysis of the one true Lara Croft.
19. The Game Boy versions
They’re called Lara Croft, and that’s all I can say about them. Next.
18. Lara Croft Go
A better game than the Game Boy versions, but still no actual personality here. Lara Croft Go Away.
17. Tomb Raider Chronicles
Which Lara is this? Who cares, don’t play it. Fine—Sunglasses Lara.
Spoiler alert for a 20-year-old game: Lara dies in the one before this. Some folks say this game is the end of the Original Era, but I wouldn’t even count it. Chronicles is its own thing, and that thing is chronic diarrhoea. The game consists mainly of three characters telling stories about Lara, which means this game’s Lara isn’t really her. She’s someone else’s idea of Lara Croft.
16. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The most recent one, mostly set in a Peruvian village. Lara wears green a lot.
I don’t hate the most recent Tomb Raider era, but I don’t see all that much Lara in it. She’s kind in Shadow, but that’s all that’s recognisably Lara. Away from that, the lead of Shadow is a likeable if inoffensive videogame protagonist, but with her clumsiness, lack of connection to a wider narrative, and distinctly uncool vibe, she sure ain’t Lara Croft. Even by the reboot’s standard, Shadow seems to actively play against typical Lara tropes, but with no evolution or new ideas to replace them.
15. Lara Croft And The Temple Of Osiris
Which Lara is this? The co-op spin off sequel.
It’s a sequel to the spin-off. Better than the worst Laras, but only just. It’s not a mobile game, so this Lara feels at least a bit more legitimate.
14. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
Which Lara is this? The second Angelina Jolie one.
The title is stupid and the movie is stupid. That this finishes above Chronicles and Shadow says a lot more about those than it does about Jolie’s second try at being Lara. The most frustrating thing is she wasn’t half bad at the character the first time around, but she’s all bad here. I mean, that bit where she shoots paper targets in trees while on horseback wasn’t part of the movie, right? Jolie obviously filmed that for a completely different film, then the two directors bumped into each other in a hallway like high schoolers in a rom-com meet cute, and the reels got mixed up. That’s the only explanation I have.
Her accent is somehow worse, and after getting some decent nuance in her performance the first time around, it’s like she’s been told her only motivation is sex appeal. ‘00s movies have a history of doing that to their female leads, be they Jessica Alba in Fantastic Four or Megan Fox in Transformers, and Jolie’s sequel Lara is another pushed into that trap.
13. Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness
Which Lara is this? Goth Lara.
I have to be honest, it was very tempting to put Goth Angel Lara top. While the game isn’t great, this is one of my favourite versions of Lara. However, she isn’t very Lara. Had Angel been built on in a sequel, this could have established a new direction for the character, and with more consistency I can imagine Angel establishing what it meant to be a modern Lara. But the series changed tack shortly after, leaving Goth Angel Lara the odd one out.
I’d say Chronicles and Angel are part of the same Tomb Raider era (The Meh Era), and both see Lara trying to offer something different but not getting it right. Leather looks good on Lara, but she never seems that comfortable wearing it.
12. Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The latest reboot. She’s stranded on an island looking for her crew.
A lot of the criticisms of Shadow could also fall on the first game in the Reboot Era, but this one gets a bit of a pass because it conceivably could be an authentic Lara. The reboot features the youngest version of the character, so the absence of most of the traits that make Lara Lara could be excused as inexperience. You can see the attempt here to write a new character, one more gritty, rounded, and realistic, but it comes at the cost of her established personality and fails to offer enough of a new direction to gain lasting traction. This ‘last girl in the horror movie’ version of Lara certainly isn’t vintage, so 12th place it is.
11. Lara Croft and the Guardian Of Light
Which Lara is this? The co-op spin off.
Like The Temple Of Osiris, Guardian Of Light features little narrative and therefore might consider itself lucky to be here. It gets points ahead of Osiris for being first, though, and taking the risk. It also fulfils a part of Lara’s character some versions forget far too often: She raids tombs.
Many criticisms of the weaker games can be boiled down to a lack of tomb raiding in Tomb Raider. This version of Lara, who deliberately ditches the ‘Tomb Raider’ label, ironically does more raiding than most. She doesn’t have much else about her though, Lara-wise.
10. Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Which Lara is this? The remake of the first one. Also the Midas Palace one.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary is a remake from before the time when remakes were cool, and while it does soak up some Second Era Lara tropes in its presentation, it’s basically just the same Lara as the original Tomb Raider. An appealing character, but not really anything new or different. Anniversary can be considered the midpoint of the list, with all the Laras below being not-really-Lara, and all the Laras above all one ledge shimmy away from being considered the Lara.
9. Tomb Raider 3
Which Lara is this? The Area 51 one.
Since we’re discounting Chronicles, Tomb Raider 3 is the first real Original Era Lara on the list. That era set the standard, but Tomb Raider 3 has the fewest new ideas. Its main one is escalating the difficulty, which actively harms the game’s Lara-ness as it reduces her competence. A good game, but not the definitive Lara Croft.
8. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The first Angelina Jolie one.
You could probably tell from the Cradle Of Life entry that I think Angelina Jolie was actually a good Lara. At the time, there was a bit of controversy over her casting because of her accent, her kooky personal life, and most unbelievably, because she wasn’t deemed good-looking enough. Now that the dust has settled, it’s a choice that only looks better with age, especially as she edged out Denise Richards, with the pair clearly on opposing career trajectories. It’s an early ‘00s popcorn action flick; I’m not going to argue it’s a good film, but Jolie does well in the role, and it’s fun to see her play upper class British opposite Daniel Craig as a wildcard American.
This Lara is wry, intelligent, actually raids tombs, looks killer in sunglasses, and while she definitely has sex appeal, she’s not defined by it as Cradle Of Life’s version is.
7. Tomb Raider: Underworld
Which Lara is this? Grappling Hook Lara.
Like Anniversary, Underworld is part of the Second Era, but it’s an original game rather than a remake, and it brings more new ideas on Lara to the table. The Second Era raised the stakes on the tombs, and with better graphics, was able to better showcase Lara’s athleticism. Underworld feels more like a direct riff on Tomb Raider Legend than anything that original, though, so it can’t quite crack the top five. You might think this Lara is the Lara if it was the first one you played, but otherwise she looks like an impressive sum total of other peoples’ previous Lara ideas.
6. Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
Which Lara is this? The one where she dies at the end.
The ending of the Original Era offers a little bit more than 3, injecting Lara with more personality and expecting her to carry a more substantial narrative than she had so far in the series. While it’s hard to say that comes at the cost of anything—Last Revelation Lara is a great Lara—it does slightly limit her freedom to show off her range of quips.
Lara loses some of her easygoing nature in becoming a more focused adventurer. It’s the first step away from Lara’s established persona, but ultimately sacrifices characterisation for a greater focus on gameplay. This change makes the game stronger but limits Lara’s potential in the all-time Lara stakes. It’s not short of great moments, like the Jeep leaping onto the raft, but ultimately this is one of the few (arguably the only) games where Lara is overshadowed by another character, in this case Werner Von Croy. Because of that, it just misses out on the top five.
The Top 5
5. Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The Alicia Vikander movie version.
Controversial to have it this high? Maybe. The movie itself is nothing special, but Vikander’s Lara is actually an incredible cocktail of Lara-ness. The movie follows the basic beats (with some poetic license) of the first outing of Reboot Lara. However, the character herself has the quip-heavy attitude of Original Lara, with the charming personality and the reliance on her team which comes from Second Era Lara. Whichever Lara is your one true Lara, Vikander’s version gets pretty close.
Yes, the movie spends a bit too long establishing Lara’s character in London, the ending with the twin pistols is way too cheesy, and I’m sure there are a dozen other flaws you can instantly pick out about this film, but I bet very few of them revolve around Vikander not being a good Lara. She’s a great Lara, and easily the best bit about this movie.
She’s arguably too much of a reluctant hero (a bad habit of the Reboot Era), but once she’s committed, the film is full of vintage Lara set pieces. Her scramble along the rusted plane is like a QTE come to life, and this isn’t just easily the best movie Lara, but one of the best Laras full stop.
4. Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The first one. Also the one with the T-Rex.
The original version of Lara remains one of the strongest. Tomb Raider does have the benefit of having nothing come before it to be judged against, but it also bears the considerable weight of not only establishing the series, but of launching one of the first major female protagonists in gaming. Lara mostly avoids the design pitfalls of other ‘90s gaming women, and offers a strong foundation to be built upon. There’s nothing in this game that Lara ever really loses, and it has remained the nucleus of every character design since. However, because others have always added their own ideas to this foundation, she can seem a little basic in comparison.
As the first, many will see her as the one true Lara from which all other versions spawned. But in building on what she laid down, a few other games managed to create a more well-rounded character. This Lara is often thought of as being more suggestive and provocative, but that came mainly from the marketing, not the games; here she’s much more down to earth, showing signs of the Indiana Jones wit and Tank Girl grit that later games developed further.
It’s definitely finding its feet—she threatens to shoot Larson when he’s annoying her, which is not very Lara at all—and is held back by limited cutscenes which offer little time to truly get to know Lara, but it’s an incredibly strong foot forward and deserves its place in the top five.
3. Rise Of The Tomb Raider
Which Lara is this? The one on the Russian mountain.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the three games left are from the three main Lara eras. Despite Tomb Raider (2013) and Shadow falling desperately short, Rise has not been inorganically inflated to make the top three. It’s really good!
Lara isn’t constantly fleeing in Rise as she is in the 2013 version. It takes place in a single location so there’s still persistent action, but this time with Lara in the driver’s seat. She shoots down helicopters, scales icy peaks, and even goes toe-to-toe with a bear; arguably more impressive than the T-Rex, as it’s more realistic. It’s this added realism that makes her climb up the mountain so perilous, as platforms or rocks inevitably give way, plummeting her into a new challenge.
Rise offers a fascinating version of Lara, one shaped by trauma but still kind, still athletic, and still (crucially) raiding tombs. She’s even cool, in her own level-headed way, if not in the ‘90s blowing-smoke-off-twin-pistols way. Rise highlights the opportunity the Reboot Era had to create a modern Lara who understood the traditions of the past, while Shadow later showed how to squander that opportunity.
2. Tomb Raider 2
Which Lara is this? Sigh… the wetsuit one.
The second Tomb Raider game also finishes second on the list, and is the highest ranked of the Original Era. It fleshes Lara’s character out well enough to be better than her debut, and while Tomb Raider 3 and Last Revelation try to add to it, they struggle to truly build on what Tomb Raider 2 established. This is a considerably longer game than the first, and so we get much more time with Lara to get to know her. It feels like Tomb Raider is the highlight reel, and Tomb Raider 2 is the full performance, with longer cutscenes and more screen time devoted to Lara’s personality.
It’s not crammed with filler, either. This entry introduced climbing (in the first game she could pull herself up ledges but not scale walls), something in hindsight core to being Lara. It added vehicles, too. When you think back to the very first Lara, you’ll likely mix some of Tomb Raider 2 in there (be honest, you’d forgotten OG Lara couldn’t climb, right?) because this version is so essential to what Lara became.
Tomb Raider 2’s Lara threw down the gauntlet, and her mix of action movie cool, intricate stunt skills, and charismatic personality has only been bested once. Tomb Raider 2 made Tomb Raider an icon, but there was another game that made her a legend…
1. Tomb Raider: Legend
Which Lara is this? The debut of the brown crop top and of Amanda. The definitive one.
I’ve been calling the Legend-Anniversary-Underworld era the Second Era, but many think of it as the Legend Era, because Tomb Raider: Legend is just that good. Not only is it a strong candidate for the best game in the series, it easily offers the best Lara. She goes globetrotting with style here, switching between her classic outfit, a few new looks, a Spice Girls-inspired Union Jack outfit, and a glamorous cocktail dress, all with ease. In King Arthur’s Tomb, she displays her cleverness and tomb raiding abilities. In Tokyo, she’s chic and cool and deadly. In Bolivia, she’s a fearless archaeologist. This Lara has it all.
This Lara does stunts and solves puzzles. She came here to collect relics and kick ass, and she’s already collected all the relics. Lara’s rival Amanda, while whiny and a fleeting presence in the game, gives her a formidable opponent, too. The scene at the start of the Tokyo level remains the best thing Lara has done on screen to date. While wearing a high leg-slit dress, a negotiation goes awry, and Lara dives behind a bar to reveal that she (somehow) had her twin holsters hidden underneath the dress the whole time. She then clears out the room with said pistols and looks fabulous doing it.
Legend Lara is suave, cool, athletic, and takes the player on several mini adventures across the globe, as any true tomb raider should. She is the essential Lara Croft, the definitive Lara Croft, and the best Lara Croft.