Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Tomb Raider Review (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
For the last few years, whenever you’ve wanted an ancient artifact recovered, or a dastardly world-ending scheme prevented, Nathan Drake has been your man on speed dial. And he’s had a good run which will inevitably continue in the next generation of gaming consoles. But there was one before him; one who could do everything he did but with certain style. She’s been absent for a considerable time, and her last fully-fledged game was somewhat of a disappointment both critically and commercially, but Lara Croft is back–and she means business. Tomb Raider is not only a great rebirth of one of gaming’s most famous heroines but also the start of something that’s sure to be a kick-ass new iteration for Ms Croft.
Tomb Raider takes Lara Croft right back to her foundations, before the tomb raiding became a profession, and before she felt able to hurl wisecracks at her enemies while fighting them to the death. After sailing the seas with a reality TV crew looking for the infamous Yamatai–an old Japanese island said to house the Sun Queen Himiko–and being stranded on the hostile land they were searching for, Lara begins her journey into becoming the legend we all know her as, and it rarely fails to leave the appropriate impact.
Lara Croft’s rebirth does a fairly good job of dragging the icon back to her roots and making her go through hell to return. She will flinch at having to kill a deer for food and she will scream and shout at enemies that are trying to kill her. It’s clear that this Lara is not the one you last saw traversing tombs like it was a playground obstacle course, and although it works for the most part, it can be a little inconsistent, unfortunately.
For example, Lara will sometimes be visibly distraught at something that’s happened to her in one scene and then in the next, she will be throwing insults at her foes as though the last few minutes have been wiped from memory. It generally subtracts from what is an otherwise well-developed character arc and it sometimes feels as though Crystal Dynamics weren’t quite ready to let go of the old (or new, if you’re pedantic) Lara whilst keeping the rebooted version at the same time.
Regardless of the occasional inconsistency with Lara’s character, Tomb Raider really does put Ms Croft through the metaphorical meat grinder. The game’s narrative truly is a dark, moody and heavily miserable affair from start to finish, which is unsurprising given the nature of the plot and the surroundings being used to effect. Character punishment is used heavily to wear Lara down before rebuilding her in time for the game’s conclusion, and it works terrifically. The same cannot be said for the story’s more stereotypical–and frankly uninteresting–secondary cast but they aren’t the main focus here; Lara is, and her journey from naive newcomer to adventurous heroine is charted exquisitely, even if it does spread endless amounts of misery to get there.
Speaking of Tomb Raider’s story: it’s mostly a success, blending elements of human survival with the more traditional mythological elements famous to the series in order to create a story that feels fresh and familiar at the same time. Lara’s journey to uncovering the mysteries of Yamatai and in turn foiling the Sun Queen’s nefarious plot isn’t the most unique of affairs, and some could say it borrows quite heavily from the Uncharted series, but it’s compelling and exciting nevertheless, and nobody said there wasn’t room for both franchises to exist concurrently. Certain plot points were far too predictable (naming no names!) but on the whole, Tomb Raider’s story does an excellent job of keeping you engaged for a varied amount of time that depends on how eager you are to blast through it at the expense of exploring the island and absorbing the atmosphere that’s thick everywhere you go.
As previously mentioned, Tomb Raider suffers from an ensemble cast of characters that feel inadequate and are written with certain stereotypes at hand, from the speaks-her-mind hard-ass African woman, to the gentle giant and the egotistical genius. That being said, there is one character besides Lara that truly shines (perhaps more than any of them combined), and that’s Yamatai.
Lara’s maiden adventure sees her battling the harsh wilderness of Yamatai against soldiers and weather phenomena alike. For a game of this nature, the environment needed to feel alive and breathing in order to make the threat feel threatening. Exploring the island occurs via the use of ‘base camps’ that act like teleportation hubs that when discovered and activated, enable fast travel to that location. Similar to last year’s Far Cry 3, Yamatai feels brimming with life, from the gorgeous shipwrecked Endurance on the beach, to the hidden monasteries buried beneath the Earth and the mountaintop bases peering over perilous cliffs. No area of the island feels the same as any other and it gives Yamatai a unique identity similar to that of the aforementioned Far Cry 3.
On top of that, Yamatai benefits from feeling grounded in history–in turn giving it personality and intrigue that makes uncovering its many secrets an absolute joy. There are old sailing vessels marooned on the island, World War Two tanks and weaponry positioned in various points and so forth. Also, Tomb Raider is full of collectible items, from ancient relics to documents left behind by previous inhabitants. Not only does discovering them feel fulfilling but they add to the lore and intrigue surrounding the game’s environment.
As well as having a huge list of collectible items available to discover, Tomb Raider uses them as a way to promote exploration from the beaten path. Yes you will discover documents, relics and GPS caches on the path you’re destined to take but the vast majority are scattered in areas you needn’t even visit if you didn’t want to, and some even require moderate puzzle-solving in order to reach. Having them integrated into the game in such a way not only persuades you to spend more time absorbing the game’s luscious locales but expands the game’s length in a way that doesn’t feel forced or artificial–and you will want to spend as much time in Yamatai as possible beyond the modest 10-12 hour-long story.
Tomb Raider’s story is mostly a success, and it heralds a new era for Lara Croft that will surely see her retaking the crown she lost a long time ago, but things aren’t all good. If there’s one thing people expect from a Tomb Raider game, it’s the tombs. The games of old had huge areas with many tricky puzzles to solve in order to complete the level, but this iteration barely features any of them. Sure, they’re there and there’s a fairly decent number of them, but they’re one-room, one-puzzle and entirely optional affairs that almost require no thought process to complete, which is incredibly disappointing considering Yamatai’s elaborate history that could’ve yielded some magnificent environments to conquer. But there’s always DLC, right?…
Despite a disappointing lack of even remotely difficult tombs to raid, Lara Croft does not suffer in the gameplay department. In fact, it’s quite easy to declare that this Tomb Raider features the strongest, most fluid and effortless combat in the entire franchise. Frankly, Lara is an absolute dream to control, whether you’re climbing scarily-looking buildings, sticking an axe through an enemy’s forehead or just running from A to B. It’s remarkable how Crystal Dynamics managed to make controlling Lara such a refined experience, and that also covers the game’s vast upgrade system.
Killing enemies and collecting the island’s many trophies awards Lara with XP, which in turn unlocks skill points to use to upgrade Lara’s abilities in three separate skill trees. Tomb Raider doesn’t have the deepest of unlock systems, it has to be said, but it does a good job of adding something RPG-like into the game.
You can also purchase upgrades for Lara’s weapons by collecting salvage (which sort of functions like the game’s monetary system) and using it to unlock new attachments, such as increased damage, silencers and so forth. Again, this is a very basic upgrade system being used that isn’t unlike anything else you’ve seen in other games, but nevertheless it still feels robust–and again, by having salvage crates scattered all over Yamatai, there is even more of a need to explore the island outside of the game’s main route.
Unlike previous Tomb Raider titles, Lara’s rebooted adventure sees an increased focus on gunplay with enemies of mostly human variety. It does threaten to add an element of ‘generic action title’ to the game at certain points–particularly with areas involving respawning enemies–but it helps that Tomb Raider’s gunplay is absolutely solid on all fronts, notably with the newly-included bow and arrow. Again, like Ms Croft’s on-foot escapades, engaging in gun combat is completely smooth to the point where it feels ridiculously so, which also includes the game’s cover system.
Tomb Raider is a third-person title involving guns so as is the norm for modern day games, it inevitably had to have a cover system. However, unlike other titles, Lara moves in and out of cover automatically when enemies are present, requiring no work from the player and adding to the game’s overwhelming fluidity. Also, with no default crouch function, the automatic cover system provides surprisingly strong stealth mechanics that remain so even with occasionally hivemind-like enemy AI. And when you add the fantastic bow and arrow into the fray, Lara’s ability to pull off kills with minimal attention runs parallel to the game’s more action-focused scenes, with both feeling incredibly refined.
Even though Tomb Raider has a brilliant gameplay style that feels sublime from start to finish, the over-use of pesky quick-time events endanger what is otherwise a wonderfully engaging story. Their frequency becomes lessened as the game progresses but having a pivotal cutscene stopped because you failed to mash a certain button at the right time quickly becomes tiring, especially when the time-frame for you to hit said button is narrowed down even further. Quick-time events are arguably used to involve you in the elements of gameplay that would otherwise require no effort from you, but instead they feel irritating and like a test of how quick on the mark you are rather than a tool to immerse you in the game. Tomb Raider, fortunately, is an engaging game but moments that rely too much on reflex-orientated gameplay lessen its impact.
In the multiplayer department, Tomb Raider unfortunately demonstrates just how much it didn’t need an online competitive partition. It plays fairly well, granted, and there are plenty of options there to encourage continued play (such as unlockable weapons, challenges etc.), but it feels far too generic and unnecessary. Its two saving graces are in its strong map design and use of traps to maim enemies that fail to observe their surroundings, but it pales enormously in comparison to its singleplayer counterpart and it would be a surprise if its community still thrived several months down the line.
Whether you’re playing offline or on, Lara’s newest outing forever remains visually impressive. The last Tomb Raider title to be released before this year–Underworld–was back in 2008, and since then significant advances have been bad in video game graphics. As such, Lara’s newest adventure is a stunning graphical success, with fantastic set pieces and gorgeous views that simply require you stopping what you’re doing and admiring the view. There’s one particular moment close to the beginning of the game where Lara first witnesses the destroyed Endurance shipwrecked on the beach before the Tomb Raider logo flashes up on screen, and moments like these demonstrate just how far this aging–yet still popular–franchise has come.
Fortunately, Tomb Raider doesn’t lack in the audio department either. For example, all the weapons in the game sound punchy and somewhat realistic, and the voice cast are particularly strong. For this version of Lara Croft, actress Camilla Luddington took the reigns of the intrepid explorer and she manages to bring life to the heroine in ways the franchise hasn’t really achieved before. Her work succeeds in making Lara’s traumatic experience feel every bit as character-defining as it needs to be, and when Lara is traumatised, you will know it and you will feel it and this contributes massively to Tomb Raider being as immersive a game as it is.
If there’s one thing you take away with you after playing Tomb Raider, it’s the knowledge that Lara Croft really is back with a vengeance–and with a game like this behind her, she’d have a hard time being beaten. Tomb Raider is not only an enjoyable–if occasionally predictable–experience but it succeeds in ushering in a new era for a series that could’ve easily fell down the abyss of forgotten classics. It has been a very long time since Tomb Raider felt anywhere near this good, and to say that Crystal Dynamics have hit the sweet spot would be an understatement. If Nathan Drake is now missing a crown, you can rest in the knowledge that Lara Croft has retaken what originally belonged to her.Tomb Raider Review (Xbox 360, PS3, PC),