Game Review: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider, 2013Reviewed on Playstation 3, Official Website

Rated “M” for Mature

Like many older gamers I was first introduced to Lara Croft in 1996 on the original PlayStation. By today’s standards it controlled terribly and featured a murderous camera. The environments were blocky and the movement digital and unnatural. Lara may have been cool, smart and strong, but she also looked like a blind arthritic carved her from driftwood with a trowel.

I devoured the game. When I finished it, I immediately started it over and devoured it again.

While the franchise remained an A-list staple over the next two decades, spawning eight sequels, numerous reissues, spin-offs and two theatrical movies, it never again regained the impact or acclaim of that first game. The games generally remained good, not great, and despite drastic creative changes, were ultimately overshadowed by more ambitious adventure franchises like “Uncharted” and “Prince of Persia”.

Crystal Dynamics saw this decline – it was impossible not to have – and deserve high praise for taking such drastic action to address it. With this game they tossed all of Lara’s convoluted history. They deconstructed the character down to her foundation and rebooted the franchise completely. It was a risk but one that, mostly, paid off.

The story will be familiar to most gamers: Lara and her cohorts, attempting to rediscover a lost Japanese kingdom, are marooned on a foreboding island populated with madmen and monsters. Lara, an untried college student, wanders the island ravaging its fauna, harvesting its fauna and murdering literally hundreds people. Along the way she has chance meetings with her friends where she decides almost immediately to leave them again.

Such a Gamey Game

One of the things that set “Tomb Raider” apart from other recent games, for good or ill, is how it embraces its gameness (for lack of a better word). While the visuals, characters and story push reality the rules of Lara’s universe are obviously, sometimes painfully, game rules.

You’ll perform inhuman feats of acrobatic prowess to reach a tiny platform, hundreds of feet in the air… and find two fat guards sitting around as if they were born there. There’s no way for them to have gotten up there, but there they are.

As you explore you’ll find diaries of your friends, enemies and former inhabitants containing interesting background information. The location and context of these make absolutely no sense. Why, for example, would a member of your crew write a gut-wrenching letter to their daughter and leave it on the floor of the local geothermal caverns?

You’ll break into an ancient tomb covered with centuries of dust. You’ll solve a puzzle – one involving collecting heavy objects to manipulate a seesaw, by the way – to reach a long-forgotten chest that opens to reveal… an upgrade to your machine gun.

The gameplay gates are glaringly obvious. That door? It can only be opened with an upgraded axe. That door next to it that looks almost exactly the same? That can only be opened with a rope arrow. That barrier of loose board and barbed wire is completely impregnable. Wait until you get the shotgun, however, and one shot destroys it instantly. That other one? Well, that one needs a grenade.

There are dozens of other examples where reason is completely ignored to support gameplay needs. Base camps, complete with joyful, roaring campfires, appear when needed in the oddest of places. Ammunition absolutely litters the ground. Many crates can only be accessed by burning the net in which they hang because a character as resourceful as Lara wouldn’t be able to untie a knot.

The game absolutely celebrates these nonsensical callbacks to classic video game logic. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is totally up to you.

This is a triple-A title and it shows. The visuals, audio and physics are high-quality and hyper-realistic. The environments are large, attractive and multi-dimensional. The “lost” island kingdom is home to both a huge amount of ancient architecture and a widespread collection of modern infrastructure. The latter being the result of a WWII-era Japanese occupation.

As we’re continually told that the island “never allows anybody to leave”, it’s unclear how the Japanese of the 1930s reached the point of building office buildings, massive cable-car systems and labyrinthine research facilities. This is a game that doesn’t suffer deep inspection.

If this description has summoned up visions of “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” (one of the best games of all time) or “Far Cry 3” you’d on the right track. In terms of gameplay “Tomb Raider” is much closer to the former but favors the latter in story. Fans of either franchise should find something to like.

The island is in the grip of a supernatural force that maroons ships and crashes planes. The survivors have banded together under the charismatic leadership of a dangerous madman who claims he knows how to appease the forces controlling the island. Elsewhere a cadre of powerful, ancient warriors guards a terrible secret. The Japanese mythology does provide some novelty, but the story has a definite “been there, done that” feel.

On the positive side, the gameplay is finely tuned and extremely satisfying. Lara’s near-supernatural acrobatic abilities remain intact. This is fortunate as the island’s architecture is ridiculously vertical. Villages are built at the pinnacles of towering rock splinters, pinned to sheer cliff walls and nestled on slick waterfall ledges. Instead of roads the modern Japanese seemed to favor cable-driven gondolas, zip lines and extensive catwalk built directly over lava pools.

Combat is satisfying, but limited to a collection of four archetypal weapons. You begin with a climbing axe simple bow and arrow pilfered from a long-dead corpse. The axe, after an upgrade or two, doubles as an effective melee weapon. Later you acquire the basic firearms: a semi-automatic pistol, a machine gun and a shotgun. All of these, and your fighting and survival skills, are upgradable.

You’ll likely find yourself favoring the bow throughout much of the game. Not only is it one of the most powerful weapons but it also allows for stealth kills and, with the right skill, ammo retrieval (although ammunition is rarely an issue). It also, eventually, features alternate fire modes that let you destroy certain forms of cover or set enemies on fire.

No, Lara doesn’t retain her signature two-pistol fighting technique. This makes sense considering the positioning of this as an origin story. Stick around to the end, however, and you’ll see a clever sequence that let’s you know it wasn’t forgotten.

Combat is punctuated by clearly telegraphed large battles. Most of these involve Lara hunkering down for extended periods of familiar cover-based “pop and shoot” gameplay. Enemy types are split into predictable sub-groups each with their own tactics and weaknesses. Many areas offer stealth options although they’re rarely required. Numerous environmental hazards, including traditional exploding barrels, are available to assist sharp-eyed players.

As expected the game alternates between combat set-pieces, climbing segments and basic (often physic-based) puzzle solving. All areas can be revisited to acquire previously inaccessible loot, complete collection quests or hunt animals for experience points. On normal difficulty, at least, the game was rarely frustrating. For those that care the trophy set is reasonably generous as well but completing it requires significant dedication to the multi-player modes.

With the notable exception of the main villain, who is terrible, the acting is quite good. Lara embodies a sense of fragility and vulnerability that transitions meaningfully to confidence and determination as she moves through the story. The script falls to cliché more often than not, but at least they’re good clichés. To its credit the story keeps things nice and straightforward throughout. There are no momentum destroying exposition dumps or ridiculous twists as the plot winds down.

The new “Tomb Raider” is worthy of the legacy of Lara Croft. The simple, classic story and expansive environments will appeal to adventure buffs and the combat, while light, satisfies. Smartly the game doesn’t attempt to redefine the genre it created. It’s enough, at this point, just to prove beyond a shadow of any doubt that Lara still deserves her place at the table.

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