Tomb Raider Review

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A Fantastic Failure

Tomb Raider
Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix

The Tomb Raider series is one I’ve known almost exclusively through the Crystal Dynamics developed titles. The first in the series I played to completion was 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, which was the first game developed by the studio after Core Design’s poorly received Angel of Darkness ended what was years of work on the series. Legend was followed up by a remake of the original Tomb Raider in Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Tomb Raider: Underworld and the excellent downloadable co-op adventure, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. So while the Tomb Raider series has remained successful this generation, someone, somewhere decided it needed to be rebooted or re-imagined yet again and the result is Tomb Raider.

Before beginning the review proper, I feel like a bit of an aside is necessary. Many already have and will no-doubt continue to compare this game to the Uncharted series as people have compared the Uncharted series to the preceding Tomb Raider titles. I really dislike the use of the words “copy” or “clone” when developers adopt or use design innovations from other games. I especially dislike it when these innovations are credited to the most popular or well-known games rather than the true innovator. For example, there were FPS games before Doom, cover-shooters before Gears of War and certainly 3D hack-and-slash action games before God of War. Yet many games have been accused of being outright copies or clones of the aforementioned titles. In short, chances are that the game you think did something first, didn’t and if it did, another medium did something similar and earlier. Indiana begot Lara, Lara begot Drake and someone sure as hell begot Indiana. If the game is good, what does it matter?

The new Tomb Raider has certainly adopted aspects of the Uncharted series but it has also adopted liberally from many other games, most especially the Batman Arkham series. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the “Game of the Generation”. This is not to say it is the best game but rather the game that has most holistically  adopted all of this generations tropes, with the lack of co-op as the sole exception and one that may yet be rectified with DLC.

And what goes into such a game? A quick list:

  • Quick-time events
  • Open world gameplay
  • RPG-lite progression system
  • Cinematic gameplay
  • Cover-shooting
  • DLC
  • Online multiplayer
  • Social features

From the time it was first revealed, Tomb Raider has been sold to gamers as an origin story, which explores how Lara first became the tough, resourceful, acrobatic and deadly adventurer she has been since her first appearance in 1996. And if you’ve seen anything of the game at all, it is likely footage of the opening of the game which shows Lara ship-wrecked, injured, assaulted and sent through a quick-time roller coaster of punishment. This is indeed how the game begins but it isn’t representative of the whole. After little more than two hours, Lara will be effectively wielding various weapons and initial uneasiness about killing wildlife and humans is very quickly overcome. A significant portion of the game is spent in combat with human enemies.

It is very hard not to compare the combat to Uncharted and while the body count is much lower than any of the three in that series, it is still much higher than what anyone following the game would have expected. What makes it worse is just how detailed and graphic some of the violence is. Lara has some nasty equipment and the player will have her shooting people with arrows, stabbing arrow heads into faces, hacking people to death with a climbing axe, blowing people up, strangling people, smashing them with a rifle stock, creating new chest cavities with shotguns, slashing necks, knocking people into spikes and off high structures and cliffs. Further still, there are a whole series of disturbing death animations for Lara when the player fails to get her through one of the many quick-time sections in the game. Violence is not new to the series, nor are the nasty deaths Lara experiences, but it is surprising given the games marketing, how detailed it all is and how frequently it is experienced throughout the game. The game also heavily rewards violence with context-sensitive notifications and player experience — even for going to the effort of shooting birds out of trees. I had just finished the original Dead Space a few days before beginning Tomb Raider and I found the former only slightly more violent. Whether or not this bothers you, “A Survivor is Born” was definitely not an accurate tagline.

While the vision and result are in contrast, the game itself plays very well. In fact a Tomb Raider game has never played better. The motion-capture for Lara’s movement is fantastic. She can jump, grab and shimmy ledges, slide down and climb up suspended ropes and with the right tools can climb certain cliffs. I found the controls at all times responsive and could happily attribute any failures to my own mistakes. A complaint often heaped upon previous entries in the series was how hard it was to identify climbable ledges or surfaces in the platforming sections. Tomb Raider is generally easier in this regard, and the game also features a button activated “survival instinct” feature that will highlight enemies, items and more importantly climbable surfaces, addressing a long running complaint with the series. Those that enjoyed this discovery through death, may be a little disappointed however.

In combat, Tomb Raider is your standard cover-based shooter. When enemies are present Lara will crouch lower and ready her selected weapon, automatically ducking under any nearby cover. It would be easy to worry about about getting stuck against walls and having Lara take cover at the worst possible time with such a mechanic, but my play-through allayed any such fears. It simply works well, and moving from cover to cover, jumping over obstacles, and emerging to attack felt just as smooth as you’d expect.

Combat doesn’t just involve cover-based gun-play either. As Lara progressively unlocks skills, she can use plenty of melee attacks through dodges and counters. She can also easily switch between guns and melee. And it is certainly exhilarating to have Lara finish someone with her climbing axe before pulling out a pistol and blasting an approaching enemy. Lara is also able to utilise stealth in many of the fights throughout the game, using the bow, a silencer or a sneak attack to dispose of enemies. It is only unfortunate that there is rarely an opportunity to avoid combat altogether.

While the combat sections are fun, the game is at its best when Lara is exploring the environment. Tomb Raider borrows the semi-open world nature of Rocksteady’s Arkham series to great effect. Players are able to backtrack to previous levels at almost any time throughout the game, and the way in which new tools, weapons and skills are unlocked makes it rewarding to do so. There is also a quick travel option accessed through the game’s frequent campfires which also act as the access points for Tomb Raider’s experience and upgrade systems. The game is well paced and the backtracking to previous areas mostly optional — players who just want to go through the game will mostly experience new areas and those that love to explore will mostly find something new to do when revisiting previously-trekked sections.

Throughout the game there are also multiple tombs littered about. It’s a bit of a shame that these aren’t hidden particularly well; in fact, you’re alerted to their presence. Even more more disappointing is their length: of the four or five I discovered, all contained one puzzle with a treasure chest containing experience and/or locations of treasures on the map. While useful gameplay wise, opening a treasure chest felt like an anticlimax every time, without so much as a doubloon to reward my efforts. And while there are some archeological curiosities to be found on the map, they’re usually so blatantly placed that is a wonder that Lara is the first to ever find them.

Lara, like Dr. Jones, was never much good at actual archeology, with desecration and destruction being far more common to her work than erecting new museum exhibits. And rest assured, there is still plenty of destruction here — the most common victim being ancient Japanese structures. When it’s time to play in the dark, Lara makes extensive use of fire, from the early guided portions of the game where she starts fires in old caverns, through to action set pieces where she runs over collapsing bridges and through burning buildings. Indeed, it would be apt to say fire is very much the new “vase smashing” in Tomb Raider. In fact, it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics probably liked its flashy fire effect almost too much — a large portion of the game utilises the effect ad nauseam, usually involving finding a place to light a torch (before the player acquires a lighter), burning objects in the way, as well as interacting with physics-based puzzles.

The action-set pieces in Tomb Raider take influence from the Uncharted series. They weren’t invented in Uncharted but there is an unmistakable reminder of Drake’s amazing footwork when running over collapsing structures and the same sense of relief when the ground stops falling out from under Lara. These sections do help the pacing and are used reasonably sparingly. Quick-time sections occur at a similar frequency, usually involving a up-close confrontation with a foe. While Tomb Raiders‘ set-pieces are fun, its quick-time events feel completely unnecessary, often rearing their ugly heads during moments that felt unmistakably cutscene-like. And like any ill-implemented modern quick-time event, these rendered me unprepared each time. Game over? Game over.

It’s worth noting that the PC version was played for this review, and thanks to an aging video card, as well as incompatibility issues with Nvidia cards, I was unable to run the game on its highest settings, nor see Lara’s hair with the TressFX setting turned on. However, even on normal settings, the game looks wonderful. This is true tenfold when comparing the game to the last big entry in the series, Underworld, with Tomb Raider‘s character models — especially Lara’s impeccably crafted visage — looking excellent. These models are wonderfully animated too, with Lara’s lively expressions keeping things fresh throughout. You’ll mostly notice such emotive embellishments during interactions with the game’s characters, but swinging around the camera to focus on Lara will also show her in different states during gameplay, whether scared, exhausted or hurt — though never happy. There are a variety of environments in the game but everything is at its best in the open daytime areas. Small details such as flapping flags, blowing leaves, disturbed dust and soil, and the aforementioned fire effects bookend the game’s aesthetic nicely.

Lara’s new voice is provided by actress Camilla Luddington, a British actress (of course) mostly known for a number of television roles. As with the game’s other voice actors, she acts the part well, and it’s no surprise that Lara is a standout as the most interesting character here. Though the supporting cast members are well acted, they just aren’t as interesting, with most of Lara’s friends reduced to ethnic stereotypes, and her opponents angry grunts and lunatics. At least there’s Lara’s Japanese-American friend Sam, who acts as the damsel in distress for much of the game and is integral to the plot. She is the most interesting character outside of Lara herself, spurring on the player’s actions throughout the game and maintaining a heightened sense of motivation.

Though Tomb Raider has a new score that plays during its opening and its credits, the game’s overall audio palette is much more ambient. A drum-beat usually signals alerted enemies and continues until Lara has wiped them out or managed to get to safety. It’s true that much of the game’s soundtrack takes a backseat to its sound effects, from the island’s turbulent cacophony of violent weather, to the organic symphony of birds and wildlife. The game’s weapon effects aren’t really unique, but they at least give Lara’s arsenal a sufficient feeling of power and “pop” when used.

Tomb Raider’s story can be beaten in around ten hours but there is plenty to do to lengthen the experience. The game is rather easy on the standard setting, so more experienced gamers shouldn’t think twice about starting on a higher difficulty. The abundance of collectables here is also definitely welcome, as the game is truly at its best when exploring the environment at your own leisure. Indeed, discovering new areas or even tools to reach new ones act as some of the most rewarding aspects of the game’s design. There’s also a multiplayer mode on show here, but I can only spare it a passing mention — it’s truly unremarkable at best, and redundant at worst. There are your standard match types, a progression system, as well as accompanying unlocks and planned DLC maps, but there are much better multiplayer experiences to be had elsewhere, especially with free-to-play offerings on PC and PS3.

I enjoyed Tomb Raider. It was fun. It was “solid”, high on the “fun factor”, “a rewarding experience” — choose your cliché. I recommend the game and I’m going to play it again soon. But as I mentioned before, Tomb Raider can very much be described as the “Game of the Generation”. And this is unfortunately its biggest problem. The developers simply played it too safe and I suspect betrayed their initial vision behind the game in the process. Other features of earlier games, especially the clever puzzles, have also become simpler and infrequent. It looks great, sounds great and plays beautifully and is a fantastic game in its own right. Ironically perhaps, if it had been a little bit more daring and had excluded the heavy combat, quick-time events and even the entire multiplayer mode, it would have been even better.

A very harsh: 4 Stars

March, 2013

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