Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: 03/05/2013
Rebooting a franchise is always a tricky endeavor, with old fans clamoring to be heard on either side of whether or not such a reboot is a good idea. Tomb Raider is no different. The franchise, which first saw daylight nearly two decades ago, has had its ups and downs over the year. So has its protagonist, Lara Croft, who has been seen as a model for strong female characters in games and as a sexist symbol for men’s enjoyment.
Such a split could easily be seen when this new game was announced. Some saw the more realistic model of Lara to be a step forward in the right direction, while others chided statements from developers that indicated that Lara would be a weak girl in need of protection. The developers promised a fun game that showed Lara’s growth from terrified girl to the badass warrior that has existed for so many years.
They delivered on the former premise, but failed on a truly epic level on the latter.
The story of Tomb Raider starts with Lara and a group of fellow researchers at sea. They’re looking for a lost ancient civilization and relics of Himiko, the Sun Queen. At Lara’s suggestion, they take a detour through the Devil’s Triangle, and end up getting shipwrecked on an uncharted island. If things weren’t bad enough, the island is inhabited by others stranded by the Triangle who’ve formed a vicious cult. Lara ends up alone, scared, and hanging from the ceiling. She must overcome her fears and find a way to save herself and her friends.
Here we come to the part where CD took one hell of a wrong turn. The game is all about Lara’s transformation into a survivor. “A SURVIVOR IS BORN” is even pasted onto the screen before the end credits. However, Lara is already a survivor. She’s an expert marksman, can hunt, can make fire, can modify weapons, can rock climb, can walk on tight ropes, and perform a myriad of acrobatic feats that are usually reserved for Olympic gymnasts. Heck, you start the game off with a mechanic called “survival instinct” that lets you intuitively figure out where to go or what to do in order to progress. The only thing that makes her not a “survivor” is her complete lack of confidence. That flaw is taken care of well before the end of the game, such that Lara is taking on suicide missions without a second thought.
Also, calling what Lara becomes at the end a “survivor” is a bit disingenuous. In reality, she becomes a complete and total sociopath. Any feelings she may have had are totally destroyed, and while I’m sure the writers felt the ending showed her becoming a strong woman, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Things are worse when you factor in the gameplay. Lara is suppose to be freaked out by killing, yet is making head shots and performing incredibly violent executions right out of the gate. The body count in the game is several hundred, with Lara directly or indirectly responsible for almost all of it. And trust me, she doesn’t need to kill all of the people she kills. She could have used stealth or changed direction so many times, but that isn’t allowed. The game wants you to kill them all. It’s quite clear she doesn’t kill only when necessary, or when her life is in danger. She does it without a thought, just to make her life a bit easier.
The writing is pretty bad throughout. Lara will have seemingly debilitating injuries that magically heal or only come up when the developers want to shoehorn a mechanic into the gameplay. At one point Lara uses a lighter to heat an arrow in order to cauterize a wound. It took her hours to come up with this plan, but she’s been stopping at campfires all around the island the entire game! Not to mention, she takes a nice stroll through some stagnant water inside of a rusting hunk of metal while having a gaping hole in her skin. Why the hell didn’t she get a nasty infection? The big betrayal moment in the game is seen from a mile away, a group of archers set fire to their own damn building for some reason, and all of Lara’s fellow survivors seem to sit around and wait for her to do things. Lara also has to be emotionally coddled for the first half of the game, even after she’s proven herself countless times over by that point. It’s just a silly story. It has a few cool moments, but it ends up memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Visually, the game is a stunner. The island is full of the usual places, such a dense forest, dank caves, and sandy beaches. However, the island is also home to hulking shipwrecks, a shanty town made from salvage, ancient temples, old war bunkers, and rooms filled with ritualistic furnishings. It’s incredible to look at. The animations are also fantastic, and a lot of detail clearly went into them. This can cause some issues, such as cringe worthy moments where Lara is impaled on a tree branch and struggles in vain for several moments before succumbing. I could have done with less realism there. Other effects, characters models, lighting, and pretty much anything else you can think of are top notch. The multiplayer takes a huge hit though, and looks like something from the beginning of this generation rather than the end.
Audio is another strong point for the game. Apart from a few exceptions, the voice acting is superb. Lara herself is fantastic, as it the rest of her crew. Even the goons are fun to listen to, making it worthwhile to hear them out before shooting an arrow into their heads. The music is also enjoyable. It’s very good at staying low key when there’s little action and ratcheting up during tense moments. It almost feels like a big budget action movie. The twang of a bow, blast of a shotgun, and other such effects are also top notch, and create a heck of an atmosphere. Once more though, the multiplayer is a huge step below the single player experience. Guns sound tinny, and an overall lack of sound makes each level feel empty until someone starts shooting.
If you like a straight up action game, then TR is right up your alley. Though it has a couple elements of open world games, like the ability to go back and explore, the gameplay is straight forward, and pushes you down lots of corridors filled with bad guys to take down.
Lara is a nimble protagonist, capable of shimmying across narrow walkways, squeezing through small spaces, and climbing on walls. It’s always painfully obvious which areas you can interact with. Walls you can climb have white paint on them, and rocks you can climb are porous with hand holds. Also, you can activate survival instinct to highlight areas and show your objective marker.
Lara is also incredibly skilled at combat. Over the course of the game, she’ll gather a bow, three types of guns, a grenade launcher, and a melee weapon. Aiming is easy and precise, with head shots granting instant kills to unarmored foes. One of the first trophies I earned was for earning fifty head shots. The bow is the silent weapon, great for killing enemies without alerting nearby guards. You can also take a perk that allows you to reclaim arrows. The pistol is a good all around weapon that has some nice upgrades. The shotgun is devastating at close range, but anything more than ten feet away will be able to take several shots. The machine gun doesn’t do much damage, but can take enemies down quickly if you hold down the button. Honestly, I found it next to useless unless I was out of handgun ammo. The grenade launcher is an attachment for the machine gun, and is useful for clearing out several enemies at once.
Upgrading Lara’s weapons requires salvage, a catch-all for bits of scrap metal and the like that you can find all over the island. These come from boxes, from enemies, and even from hunted animals once you buy a perk. Guns can be further upgraded if you find parts, though they’re harder to find and often in isolated tombs.
Speaking of tombs, you don’t play through any in the storyline. Instead, they are all optional areas that are off the beaten path. These aren’t all that special though, as you only have to solve one puzzle before being gifted a bunch of salvage and maybe a map or weapon part. Still, almost all of the puzzle solving elements in the game are found in the tombs, so those looking to break things up should definitely take a look.
For pretty much everything she does, Lara earns experience. Gaining enough experience levels her up and gives her a skill point which can be used to buy a number of upgrades. There are three groups and three tiers of upgrades. Survival skills make her better at finding salvage, hunting, and staying alive. Hunter skills maker her more proficient with weapons. Brawling skills are good for increasing melee. You can choose what order you earn skills in, but you can’t jump tiers until you’ve unlocked a certain number of skills across all three groups. Even though I was specializing as a hunter, I couldn’t unlock new skills in that group until I purchased a bunch in survivalist. It cuts down on customization a bit. You can’t really tool Lara the way you want her, although you can choose what path she takes to get to her ultimate goal.
If there’s one issue, it’s that the active time events can be a bit much. They’re all pretty much “press x or die!” scenarios, which is the very thing that people hate about the mechanic. The button prompts are a bit odd as well. At first glance, it looks like you to have time your button press with a circle that encloses the prompt. Actually, you need to press it as soon as possible. It led to more than a few deaths.
Overall, the action is straight forward a fun to play. The simple control scheme combined with smooth mechanics make for an exciting mash up of gun play and platforming. You can even mix up tactics at various points in the game. Stealth rewards you with silent kills and less wasted resources. Going all out is faster. Things can get silly at times, especially thanks to a number of explosions that would make Michael Bay blush. Seriously, wood does not explode when it gets set on fire. However, I found this to be a competent and enjoyable playing experience from top to bottom.
The multiplayer could have been quite interesting. It uses a couple of basic modes along with some more intriguing ones involving one group trying to grab medical supplies while the other is forced to use melee attacks. The maps feature areas where you can set traps, areas you need specific weapons to access, salvage to find, and even some platforming elements. However, matches feature a pitifully small number of people, and the poor presentation doesn’t do it any favors. I honestly found it boring and bland. It was farmed out to a different developer, and it shows. Honestly, there was no reason to tack it on in the first place.
One thing going against this game is that it’s pretty darn easy. Apart from a few cheap active time deaths, I died very little. Of those few times, only a couple where due to enemies being tough. It was usually just some silly move I did, or a badly placed grenade. There were a number of scenarios I was able to overcome just with the bow, taking out enemies before they even knew I was there. While nifty, it made all but the most overblown sections simple to go through.
Playing through the story runs the standard action length of six or seven hours. You can easily expand upon that by hunting for collectibles, completing challenges for XP, and clearing out tombs. A fast travel system saves a lot of time, and you can finish things up post game instead of starting anew. It might be worth playing again on a tougher difficulty, just for fun. The total amount of time you get with the game honestly might not be worth sixty bucks, unless you really can’t wait. It’s worth a rental or a look at a lower price to be sure.
In the end, the game will be haunted by the drastic disconnect between its story and its gameplay. The story tries to tell a serious tale about a woman forced to do unbelievable things in order to survive, while the gameplay tells the tale of a badass warrior capable of taking on an entire island. Bad writing makes the story sequences hard to sit through. However, the more than capable action makes up for a lot. Whether or not fans enjoy this game really depends on what they were looking for. It’s certainly more Uncharted than classic Tomb Raider, but that might not be a bad thing.
Short Attention Span Summary
Tomb Raider is sure to please many people, just as sure as it is to piss many others off. The story is a joke, and one that could potentially permanently damage Lara Croft’s reputation in the gaming industry. Bad writing moves it away from a survival story and turns it into the story about how one woman becomes a mass murderer. However, it looks, sounds, and plays fantastic. I had a lot of fun with the game, and would be more than willing to play a potential sequel. If Crystal Dynamics can go out there and hire better writers, this could turn into a hell of a new chapter for the series.