Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 03/05/13
The reboot has become something of an abused trend in the past couple years, as I’ve mentioned before. At the time I wrote that column, Splatterhouse and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow had both launched to reboot their respective franchises, and since then we’ve seen reboots of Devil May Cry, XCOM and Mortal Kombat (sort of). It’s so common a thing anymore that Wikipedia has a category for it now. It certainly seems like a good idea; take a languishing character, erase their history, and start them over fresh to generate fan interest through publicity in (hopefully) a really good game. Well, as has been discussed heavily over the past couple years, Lara Croft has received this treatment, as the subject of this review, Tomb Raider, is essentially a restart of her life, meant to build the character into the strong, confident character she was in the prior games. While I’ve not been the game’s biggest cheerleader, the game was certainly looking promising from a technical perspective, and Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of legendary author Terry Pratchett, was tapped to write the story for the game. Well, here we are and here it is, so let’s dive in and, instead of handling this as a normal review, address the important questions that such a high profile reboot generates.
IS IT A GOOD GAME?
Tomb Raider is absolutely a good game, and regardless of anything else I might say in the review, that will remain consistent throughout. The game is absolutely beautiful, featuring amazing environments that are incredibly varied and quite interesting, and the different locales you’ll visit are absolutely teeming with life. Lara herself is painstakingly well animated, whether stationary or in motion, and everything involving her, from combat to cutscenes to death sequences, is incredibly well detailed. The enemies she faces down are also fairly varied and appropriately evocative of their specific roles and capabilities, so you’ll be able to identify who can do what with minimal difficulty. The game is also an aural masterpiece, between a strong soundtrack that recedes and swells as the tone dictates, an expertly cast voice crew who are more than capable of bringing the dramatic nature of the story to life, and a sound effect catalog that’s well assembled and structured. From a presentation perspective alone, Tomb Raider is easily a winning product, and it does a very good job of bringing the player into the game and involving them in the events therein.
The game is also incredibly solid from a mechanical standpoint, taking elements from various popular franchises and meshing them together into a product that feels fairly natural in execution. The left and right stick are mapped to movement and aiming respectively, X is Lara’s default interact button, A allows her to jump, B handles dodging and rolling, and Y allows her to perform melee attacks and stealth kills. Holding the Left trigger aims whatever ranged weapon Lara is holding at the moment, while the Right Trigger and Right Bumper will fire the primary and (if applicable) secondary shots of the gun respectively. You can also swap shoulders with a press of L3, zoom your view (if applicable) with R3, and swap weapons and weapon effects with the D-Pad, with each direction being mapped to a different weapon. Finally, the Left Bumper activates Lara’s â€œSurvival Instinctâ€, which highlights objectives, targets and interactive elements in the environment for her to work with, allowing the player a way to obviously see their next points of interest as applicable. All of this generally works well and gives you a fair indication of where to go and what to do, and the game puts a solid amount of effort into introducing the various concepts to you as applicable across the game.
In the beginning of the game Lara basically has nothing, but as you progress she’ll discover and create various tools to work with that allow you to survive and progress as needed. Weapons, such as a bow and arrow, machine gun and so on allow her to take on her foes effectively, and can be upgraded through finding scrap and parts around the island, which can be found in boxes, treasure chests, and on the bodies of slain enemies. Upgrading her weapons can improve their ammo counts, accuracy and damage as well as confer other effects, such as setting things on fire or allowing for zoom-in functions, for example. You’ll also find tools that are multipurpose, such as a climbing axe that can be used for melee kills, breaking open boxes and climbing walls, flaming arrows that set enemies and obstacles on fire at a distance, automatic reels that allow for Lara to zip across rope lines quickly or rip down heavy doors, and more. Lara will also earn experience points by killing enemies, finding relics around the island and exploring hidden tombs, which will earn her points to improve her skills. Lara can learn new skills that allow her to improve her survival abilities (earning more scrap and experience from kills and looting), ranged combat (allowing her improved combat and headshot reticules) and melee combat (allowing her special finishers and added damage), among other things, making her into a stronger character as you progress.
You’ll find that the island is fairly massive as well; while you can clear out the campaign in around ten hours, you can also backtrack from campfires to other locations, allowing you to search for relics and hidden tombs that you couldn’t access or find the first time around. The game is literally filled with collectibles of various sorts that increase Lara’s experience, and backtracking is often the only way to find them all. There are also challenges in many zones that will also pay dividends for completing them, though you don’t need to do so to complete the game per say, and doing so will easily add another five hours to your play time, roughly, if you’re the sort of person who wants to do everything. The game also offers a multiplayer component, which works as you’d expect, allowing you to pick a character skin for both the islanders and the survivors, choose a weapon loadout and go to town with and against others in third person combat to level up and improve your gear. The multiplayer feels somewhat unfinished, as it’s fairly laggy at times and seems fairly bare bones, but it’s amusing enough to keep you coming back if you really like what the game does. The single player is likely going to be the bigger seller here, and from a mechanical and presentation perspective, it delivers in spades.
IS IT EVERYTHING THE DEVELOPERS PROMISED?
Oh, no, by no possible means whatsoever. Depending on the interview provided, different people have had different perspectives on what the game was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a game where you wanted to protect Lara. It was supposed to be a story of Lara growing into a strong, powerful character. It was supposed to be unsettling and uncomfortable at times. The end of the game, after all of the events up to that point, even pops up with a big splash screen at the end stating â€œA SURVIVOR IS BORNâ€ to showcase the expected end goal here. The end goal was, by every possible indication, to turn Lara from a normal person into the action hero she’d been previously, to develop the character into a strong character when pressed into the corner.
It does not do this.
Now, the plot itself is largely fine, insofar as its base elements are fine: Lara and company journey to the Dragon’s Triangle, which is basically an Eastern Bermuda Triangle for those not aware, whereupon they become shipwrecked. They discover that the island is populated by incredibly hostile natives who seem to worship the long dead Japanese Sun Queen, and are generally unpleasantly violent towards Lara and company. Magic is involved, weirdness happens, and Lara has to discover how everything ties together in a way that helps her escape the island with her friends, with as little loss of life as possible. It’s a fine action movie plot, and it would work fine if the point of the plot was to be a simple action romp.
The plot does not, however, do a terribly good job of developing Lara into a â€œsurvivorâ€ as the press materials tout, for one simple reason: Lara is quite obviously a survivor before the game begins. Inside of the first hour of play, Lara makes it apparent that she has fairly extensive survivalist training, and an extensive reservoir of knowledge in general to be honest. She comes equipped with strong gymnastic skills, solid marksmanship abilities, and a good knowledge of other languages (Chinese at the very least) in addition to her archaeological knowledge, and seems to have a pretty good amount of survivalist training to boot. She knows how to start a fire, how to dress a wound, how to properly hunt for and prepare animals in the wild, how to fire a bow and arrow and hit her target, and all kinds of other crazy skills the average person did not ever know at twenty-one years old. Her obvious mentor figure, Roth, spends a good amount of time reminding her to remember her training during the course of the game as well, which also implies that she’s been training extensively in all sorts of disciplines long before coming to the island.
The point is, Lara doesn’t spend her time on the island learning to be a survivor, as she already was one before she arrived. She spent her time on the island learning how to kill people.
Now, obviously the game can’t spend hours having Lara be a terrible shot, because from a mechanical perspective that’s a hideous disconnect; the player does not want to spend their time playing as an incompetent character because it’s frustrating. That’s fine. However, Lara knows basically everything she’s going to know by the end of the game except the artfully exquisite ways in which she will dismember and ventilate her foes in the beginning of the game, so, again, she starts as a survivor from jump. The â€œLara is pushed into killing peopleâ€ thing would be fine if the game were at all thematically consistent with how it handled this thing as well, to be honest. Early on, Lara is forced to kill a man with his own pistol by shooting him in the face, and the scene is incredibly uncomfortable and violent in an effective way, between Lara’s sobbing response and the man’s slow, agonizing demise. It’s an effective scene that really undercuts the effect violence has on a person and, if that were the point of the game, would be a very effective starting point for Lara’s development.
However, the game has absolutely nothing interesting to say about this thing, despite vague hints that it would like to have something worth saying. The main bad guy makes a couple throwaway comments about Lara doing what she does to survive and how that doesn’t make her a hero, but aside from that, the majority of the game is spent being completely ignorant of the cost of violence. Lara guns down thousands of dudes, hacks into their necks with an ice axe, stabs them in the knee with an arrow and so on, and the game handles this in a mildly gratuitous fashion, giving the violence an almost perfunctory feel. It’s a means to an end, basically; no one is violently eviscerated, none of the death is gratuitous or meaningful, people just… die. The game has nothing to say about the initial violent sequence at all, which punctuates the disconnect between that first scene and the rest of the game. The first scene is incredibly traumatic and painful, and if the rest of the game had anything to say about that that’d be amazing, but it doesn’t. Lara breaks down after killing one dude, then kills a thousand others as if they were falling off of an assembly line before deciding she wants to explore the world almost immediately after the fact.
Compare this to Far Cry 3. Jason Brody and Lara Croft are both unlikely heroes who are subjected to hideous punishment after landing on an island full of crazy people, and they have to go through hell on Earth to save the people most important to them, all while learning how to be stronger to survive and win. However, Jason’s story is more feasible within the confines of its own internal logic. Jason might be an okay shot but he’s not great, and he has to learn to use the environment to survive by learning the basics from experimentation and Dennis. He’s obviously fit enough to perform basic parkour and gunplay, but he’s not doing insane jumps or anything until much later in the game, and even then he’s no gymnast. The game also spends its time exploring the slow mental degradation Jason goes through as he murders countless islanders in order to save his friends, exploring the psychological price one pays in this environment, and the ending implies that Jason is permanently scarred from his adventures. Lara comes equipped with a lot of skill beforehand and lacks only the faith to use it, and while Lara quite obviously is having something of a psychological breakdown during the game, it has no interest in discussing that, or the price of violence, or anything to that extent. Hell, the whole experience is played up as a good one at the end of the game, as Lara, flush with the knowledge that magic exists, decides she’s going to run right off on another adventure instead of, say, seeing a psychologist to treat her obvious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s really very stupid. Fun, but stupid.
Look, I’m not going to question whether or not Rhianna Pratchett is a good writer here, as I thought Overlord and Prince of Persia were fine, while Risen, Heavenly Sword and Mirror’s Edge were… less so, so we’ll call it a push. What I am going to say is that this was clearly not her best work. The writing is, in essence, bi-polar here, as it always seems to want to present either one possible tale or another but never seems to be comfortable making the effort to commit to something. Lara is traumatized early on when she has to kill a man, but then kills thousands of others without the plot questioning the long term effects such a thing has on her sanity. The islanders are presented as doing what they need to do to survive and shown as normal dudes, but then we find a river of blood and a room full of starving prisoners for no adequately explained reason. The plot falls into obvious action movie tropes, turning Lara into an obvious badass and making her villains EEEEEEEEVIL, but does things that imply the game wants to ask questions about the morality and psychological effects of the situation that it simply has no actual interest in asking. Are the islanders crazy cultists, or are they just dudes who bum smokes and porn mags from each other and trying to survive? Is Lara traumatized from her killing of a man and slowly descending into psychosis, or is she just a repentant action hero out to kill dudes to save her friends? The end result is a game that’s unwilling to commit to being an interesting character study but seems embarrassed to be considered a popcorn action game, and the plot tries very hard to convince the player that what they’re seeing is IMPORTANT AND SIGNIFICANT when it’s as dumb as its predecessors, but is simply trying harder to pretend it isn’t. It’s less meaningful character development and, as J. Rose suggested to me, more I Spit On Your Grave, and the fact that it’s pretending it isn’t doesn’t make it any less so.
IS IT A GOOD TOMB RAIDER GAME?
Absolutely not, but it’s not trying to be. Tomb Raider could more accurately be described as â€œAssassin’s Uncharted Far Cry into Dead Spaceâ€ based on how many other games it’s borrowing from, but of all of the franchises it so desperately wants to be, Tomb Raider is the absolute least of those. Now, that’s not a bad thing per say; Crystal Dynamics was clearly not interested in developing another Tomb Raider game as we had come to know them, and the technology available on the market was clearly capable of handling a more involved game than one involving lots of jumping puzzles. Tomb Raider does a fine job of expanding the series into a sandbox action game and makes good use of the elements it employs, to be sure.
It’s just not a Tomb Raider game at all.
Jumping puzzles are infrequent and generally not terribly complex to solve, and even the hidden tombs that exist can be solved inside of a couple minutes. The game is incredibly combat heavy, so much so that it’s essentially the focal point of the experience. Active Time Events are also all over the place, and while the first few hours are far heavier with them than any other point in the game, you’ll see plenty of ATE’s pop up, far more so than in any of the prior Crystal Dynamics games to this point. The game focuses on upgrading Lara and her gear significantly as the game goes on for the purposes of improving her combat performance over most everything else, and the exploration elements the game does showcase are often solved with better tools over creative platforming. Oh, and the game features far more violence than the universally T for Teen games that preceded it, though outside of the aforementioned â€œshooting a man to surviveâ€ cinematic and a scene where Lara swims through a river of blood for literally no reason except that someone thought it looked cool, there’s never any point to it. The game is essentially a gritty nineties reboot of Tomb Raider, featuring a redesigned costume, lots more swear words, and lots more violence, and if the cover art had been drawn by Rob Liefeld it wouldn’t be a surprise.
DOES THE GAME JUSTIFY THE NEED FOR A REBOOT?
No, and I would argue that the original Lara Croft would have actually fit into this game world better than the twenty-one year old character we were given.
Think about it: the new Lara is twenty one years old and, from what we can gather, is a recent college graduate (judging by the picture she has of her and Sam) who is skilled in archery, marksmanship and gunplay in general, gymnastics and acrobatics, woodland survival, hunting, basic medical treatment, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, rock climbing and so on. To borrow the point from Cracked’s own David Wong, it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, approximately. Even if we assume Lara spent five thousand hours learning everything she’s capable of doing here and is some kind of amazing prodigy, it would have taken around fifty thousand hours to become proficient at the above, or about seventeen years of constant eight hour a day practice. Feasible? Certainly. Believable? Well, unless she’s been practicing from age five, not really. Further, her emotional transition from shellshock to killing lots of dudes is handled in an uneven fashion, making the game hard to take seriously more often than not as a result.
The original Lara, on the other hand, has no such issues. Her first appearance, Tomb Raider, came out in 1996, at which point she was pushing twenty eight, which offers plenty of time for her to spend on experimentation, training, learning and general development of her badass capabilities. She survived a ten day trek down the Himalayas at nine years old, spent her life travelling with her father around the world and learning from private tutors, and generally learned how to be Indiana Batman because that was her entire life starting prior to her tenth birthday. That character would likely be just fine on an island full of crazy people who want her dead, killing them without much of a consideration, because her entire life has been unconventional, and further, wouldn’t cause the viewer to question the experience since, well, that’s what she does.
That’s the point, really: the developers could have cast the original Lara Croft into this game and it would have made more sense than this game does.
Tomb Raider is a perfectly fine experience, if a stupid one, and if you don’t think very hard about it and don’t care about the original games much, it’s probably one of the best experiences you’ll have this year. It looks amazing, sounds excellent, and plays quite solidly across the ten to fifteen hours you’ll spend in the campaign, not including time spent in multiplayer. Lara is a multifaceted main character who is quite versatile and fun to play as, and the world she’s placed into is full of awesome set pieces that are fun to explore, as well as lots of combat that’s generally intuitive and offers you plenty of variety in how to dispatch foes. If you’re expecting it to in any way pay off the claims of the development team, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The plot is bone stupid, taking the core elements of Far Cry 3 or Resident Evil 4 and applying just enough navel gazing to make you feel like it’s more intelligent than it actually is, until you reflect on it for five minutes. The game in no way plays like its predecessors, instead aping many sandbox action games of the past few years for its concepts, is needlessly violent in comparison to its far less violent counterparts, and does nothing to justify itself as a reboot when the original character would have worked better within the confines of the experience. Viewed purely on its own merits, Tomb Raider is a mechanically and artistically interesting experience that’s absolutely worth playing, and a good starting point for a new franchise, but as a reboot it tries entirely too hard to be more intelligent than it is and wants nothing to do with the prior games, so keep that in mind.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Tomb Raider is the sort of game that’s easy to love if you weren’t terribly interested in the franchise anymore and have no expectations, as it’s an absolutely fantastic experience mechanically and artistically, but it in no way pays off its developmental hype and shares only its name with its predecessors. The game is often jaw dropping in its visual design, both artistically and technically, the sound design is very well directed and assembled, and the game is mechanically interesting all around. Lara as a character is very fun to play as, and features a large roster of tools she can use to survive and do in her opponents, whether you’re playing through the story, exploring for goodies or jumping into the (simple and occasionally laggy) multiplayer, making the game easy to enjoy on its own merits. However, the game in no way pays off the promises made of it in development, as the plot is your basic dumb action movie plot with some odd introspective bits thrown in that are completely disconnected from the rest of the game and its â€œmow down dudesâ€ plot and mechanics. Further, the game is more Assassin’s Creed/Uncharted than Tomb Raider due to its heavy focus on sandbox exploration and combat over anything else, is often needlessly violent when its predecessors were not, and generally would have worked better with the original character over the rebooted one as an experience. Taken as a gaming experience, Tomb Raider is an awesome time if you play it with your brain off, as it’s beautiful and a lot of fun, but it tries entirely too hard to present a story that’s not as intelligent as it thinks it is and makes every effort to be everything that the prior games were not, making it easier to appreciate the less thought you put into it.