Review: Tomb Raider

TombRaider

Tomb Raider is a series that started back in the 1990s on the PlayStation that featured a buxom gal named Lara Croft running around fictional ruins from sometimes fictional dead civilizations.  Most of the attention for these games focused on the cup size of the main character and whether she was a positive portrayal of a woman.  A smaller portion of people talking about these games actually played them.  Full disclosure, I am one of those guys and I used to really like those games.

Even fuller disclosure, don’t try to play them today.  The graphics are an awful, dark, blocky mess, the controls make the tomb raider move with clear knowledge of the level’s blocky geometry, and her animations are so stiff and uniform it becomes more like instructing a robot to move forward three squares than playing a game where you want the main character to move forward to the edge of a cliff.  (Super Mario 64 came out the same year as the first Tomb Raider, so it is not like smooth controls were unknown at the time.)  Ms. Croft’s prowess largely consisted of jumping back and forth while holding down the fire button for the infinite ammo dual pistols to take out some crude collections of polygons that sort of looked like lions and dinosaurs.  But despite the many faults of the original PlayStation Tomb Raiders, I always enjoyed them for the tone they set.  Lara would explore largely silent dungeons and tombs and music would only kick in to add dramatic effect.  The spartan sound design and lack of direction made it seem like she actually was exploring some long forgotten place.  This sense of isolation helped make conquering the puzzles and platforming elements more meaningful as it felt like you accomplished it, not simply ran through a script pressing buttons when the developer wanted you to.  The lack of any immediacy made it more believable that one was exploring a tomb whose traps would continue to spin and doors remain locked forever until you determined how to deal with them.  It never felt like an action movie, but carefully proceeding through a dungeon.  The tomb was the real enemy, not the creatures in it.

Thirteen games, two movies, and a number of what I would generously describe as both “plainly awful” and “awfully plain” comic books, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have released a rebooted version of the world’s biggest tomb raiding franchise.  Like with the earlier games, there has been a lot of talk about the implications of the new Tomb Raider rather than the game itself.  After the first gameplay demonstrations were released, people needed to blog and podcast about how horrible it is to see a woman grunting through physical adversity like a man.  The expression of latent sexual urges and tacit endorsement of violence against women would accompany playing the game, so said the Internetz.  That seeing Lara get up after being impaled on a piece of metal was a display of grotesque torture, but if it were Indiana Jones it would have been heroic. 

A more succinct summary is that for some, seeing this stuff happen to a woman makes it weird.  Interviews with employees of Crystal Dynamics did not help matters much with really odd statements about the considerations they had about redeveloping the brand and the character.  I remember at one point hearing that they added more “baby fat” to their original Croft character model to make male players want to “protect” her, not just play the game.  Thankfully, none of that comes out in the game.  Despite the gender politics and all of the creepy talk about the development considerations, now that the rebooted Tomb Raider is finally out players can get past all of that and just play the game for themselves.  If they do, they will find it to be a thoroughly enjoyable game that requires no knowledge of the prior games, movies, comics and certainly no hint of what anyone said about the game’s concept or development. 

The game begins with Lara Croft on an expedition to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai.  She has some expertise in the area, so she’s not just on the boat because she is the daughter of a famous, and missing, explorer (though she is that as well).  Accompanying the voyage are a cast of characters one might expect in any Hollywood blockbuster adventure movie.  There’s the thick Samoan dude who is in touch with the Earth, Lara’s best gal pal, a blowhard who is a reality television archeologist, as well as, of course, a tough military guy and father figure rolled into one.  Most of these characters are forgettable, but since they are only around for a few cutscenes and occasionally on the radio, it doesn’t matter that they are so commonplace.  One of the men on board has a bit of a thing for Miss Croft and she is oblivious to him.  He is a nonentity in the game until a certain point in the story when he reveals his feelings to Lara.  The player will remember that this background noise of a dude exists just as Lara does.  I do not know if it was intentional to put people into the mindset of the main character, as opposed to plenty of obvious shots of the dude pining for her like with Allen and Shion in Xenosaga, but it was a genius idea and flawless execution if it was.  He was as useless and not really there to me as he was to Lara.

The reason Yamatai has been lost for so long is that it is in the Pacific equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, the Dragon’s Triangle.  Unexplained storms descend upon the area seemingly out of nowhere, and generally old salts know to steer away from the area.  Lara guesses this lack of exploration in the area is why the mythical island is still hidden and convinces the crew to brave the Triangle.  As you might predict, a storm catches the ship and causes it to smash into rocks on an island that is not on any map and is not supposed to be there.  Even though she swims to shore, Lara is separated from the group and has to try to catch up with them.  In doing so she realizes that the survivors are not alone on the island.  A madman named Mathias is commanding a cult named the Solarii to kill all of the survivors and bizarrely kidnap others.  What flows from there is a coming of age story accented by explosions and bloodletting in the best traditions of modern video games.  It tells the story of an innocent young woman who very quickly turns into a seasoned veteran of combat and danger who will do whatever it takes to survive.

The island she comes to is honey-combed with dark passages littered with bones and more than a few gaps to jump over and rock walls to climb.  When human settlements are encountered every building looks like it is either tied together garbage that washed up on shore, World War II-era bunkers or made by people long dead whose bodies have never left.  Throughout everything is a sense of otherness.  Something is wrong with the island of Yamatai.  From the unexplained storms to the fanatics leaving offerings to dead religions, something is strange.  There are references to a Himiko, the Sun Queen who controls and sees all that happens on her island.  Like the best adventure pulp yarns, for most of the game Lara has no idea whether there are crazy people on the island and just a series of coincidences, or actual oni [demons] and magic spells keeping them on the island.  At some point she will realize that she needs to do more than survive and deal with whatever is keeping her there, something that does not allow anyone to leave.

Though it was billed as open world, this game is that in the barest sense of that term.  It is closer to a Metroid setup than Far Cry.  As the game goes Lara will come on a few revisitable, open spaces with a base camp (read: save point) which will all be connected by linear sections of gameplay that cannot be replayed.  In these she will run and jump through exploding temples or slide down hills shifting momentum to avoid spikes, but ultimately getting from point A to B in a flashy way.  The only reason to Fast Travel from a new base camp to an older area is to use the few upgrades that Lara will acquire to get to out of reach places with collectibles.  As an example, she gets a bow pretty early on and will eventually be able to make rope arrows that can sink into specific anchor points to create rope bridges.  These points just look like part of the background at first, but once she gets the upgrade it is impossible not to think of all the places that are now accessible.  Lara doesn’t get anywhere near as many pieces of new tech and means of traversal as Samus or Alucard, but she does get enough to make revisiting areas worthwhile to find hidden things.

Survival is the theme of the game but there is no real mechanic to impact this.  Hunger is not a stat to be dealt with and killing animals or picking fruit off of bushes will only award additional salvage and XP.  A survival instincts sense can be used, but all this does is temporarily turn the world black and white and highlight any interactive objects or enemies.  This detective vision-like mode is not the only similarity between this game and Rocksteady’s groundbreaking Arkham Asylum.  As the game progresses, just as Batman and his costume got progressively more shabby, so too will Lara.  Mud will start to cake on her, dried blood and burns will appear on her skin, and her clothing will get ripped and torn in the least tantalizing way imaginable.  The change in character shows through as well.  Crawling though slime pits next to skeletons and creeping around spikes in dark caves will have visibly less effect on her psychology as the game goes on.  None of this has any impact on the gameplay, but it does help to drive home that she is changing as the game goes on and how this character goes from being a history nerd to a tough as nails explorer. 

In line with this progression, there is a lot of hand wringing the first time Lara is forced to take the life of a man who does not look like he wants to do anything nice, but there is none of that for the next two hundred or so guys that she’ll kill in what starts to look less and less like self-defense.  Maybe the laws on murder are more relaxed in Yamatai.  Whatever you call the act, she’ll be doing a lot of it with a pistol, bow, shotgun and machine gun.  All of these items can be upgraded with the game’s “Salvage” currency to have alternate modes of firing, more damage and faster reload times.  Upgraded weapons will usually have a small change in appearance (i.e. longer muzzle, a newly padded arm stock), which is always a nice touch.  The shooting is fine primarily because it is expected that most of the shooting will be done behind cover, which Lara will automatically duck behind if enemies are present.  Much of her mobility is removed when she aims a gun, so it is not possible to run around and shoot with abandon like a first-person shooter, or even an older Tomb Raider.

Shooting usually comes about because Lara gets spotted.  Many segments of the game start out as stealth sections but end in a bloodbath.  The bow and later a silenced pistol can be used to take out enemies with a quiet headshot, but it is hard to gauge what exactly will alarm an enemy.  If two enemies are patrolling, one behind the other, sometimes it is possible to shoot the one in back and then kill the other with no consequences, and other times the guy in front will freak out and make a big deal about an arrow coming out of the jungle and appearing in his buddy’s head.  Similarly it is hard to gauge when an enemy will spot Lara.  A few times the game let me sneak up on guards when it looked like there was no way they wouldn’t hear their approaching doom, and other times they spotted Lara almost immediately.  On the plus side, I never ran into a stealth situation where getting caught meant anything more than having to shoot a bunch of cultists, which I would have done anyway, albeit quietly.

Lara sometimes may take a break from surviving on the island of the damned and shooting to find some collectibles.  These are all optional but do have the benefit of netting salvage and XP. There are documents that will cut to a screen of text where someone reads what is on the page so that Lara can stare into space while listening to accounts of the island and its people, filling in some of the lore associated with the Kingdom of Yamatai.  There are also little treasure chests that contain 3D models of artifacts to look at and glowing film canisters called GPS Caches.  For the camping geek, these allusions to Geocaches – a real world game where players hide containers (caches) and post their GPS coordinates online so others can go find them – are a fun addition but there are far too many of them make it worthwhile to find them all.

The most interesting collectible by leaps and bounds are the optional tombs.  The larger areas that can be revisited have one or two of these hidden areas for Lara to discover and access once she has the right tool.  Even without a treasure map or FAQ these are fairly easy to find as wind will blow and gently knock against small bells whenever she walks near an entrance and often the nearby walls are covered in odd, religious symbols and codes drawn in chalk.  Clearly people have lived on the island for a long time and visit these holy sites with some frequency.  After finding the entrance, Lara will go through a series of dark tunnels or caves to eventually emerge in a large cavern containing a base camp and a man made structure of some kind.  All of these look unique and range from silent tombs that have been carved out of the sides of a cave to free standing wooden structures, constantly assaulted by unexplainable, hurricane force winds that cause their window coverings to slam against its walls in a deafening racket. 

Every tomb contains a platforming puzzle of some sort that will have to be conquered.  Switches will need to be hit at the right time to make things move, flame arrows will have to blow natural gas pockets and rope arrows will pull back objects to either position them or to cause them to swing and knock into something else.  To be sure there are puzzle aspects to the main game, but the emphasis there is more on action than on problem solving, which was the hallmark of the PlayStation era Tomb Raider games.  These bite sized, fun little tombs are a calming diversion from the campaign and feel more like the original games.  Alone and largely in silent tombs, Lara will have to use her wits if she wants to get to the big treasure chest at the end.  Doing so will prompt a big “TOMB RAIDED!” message, which is at the same time an impressively dumb thing to display and a great touch.  These optional objectives were probably my favorite part of the game. Tombs, they’re back.

Since the game has it, I would be remiss not to mention the multiplayer.  There is a progressive unlock system – the more players play, the more optimal guns and skins they will have available – that seems to be the standard in modern multiplayer games.  The modes are fairly basic and the maps are pulled from the main game, but not with the exact same geometry.  This might be a selling point for the game if the core shooting was not as functional as it is.  None of the guns feel like they have any impact and neither the Survivors nor the Solarii have enough pep in their step to make the gunplay fast and exciting.  The result is a kind of shooting that is slower than games like Halo or Call of Duty, but not as impressive and forceful as Gears of War.  Throw into that a limited selection of gun types and you have a brand of shooting that works great in the single player game but is not fun enough to make likely that anyone will be online playing this game six months after launch.  It is fun to have the ability to climb on rock walls and go down zip lines to reach new vantage points, but once a map is learned it is very easy to know where the best spots are and take out anyone silly enough to very slowly climb to them, just begging to get shot.

Drab multiplayer experiences aside, the new Tomb Raider is an unforgettable experience.  Invariably it is going to draw some comparisons to the Uncharted games as they are similar.  Both games involve people with a rudimentary understanding of archeology running around in crypts and old temples, climbing on things, and killing hundreds of people with small arms fire.  Both games are a mix of platforming, puzzle-solving, and shooting. But giving Nathan Drake a British accent, breast implants and a bow would not make him Lara Croft.  Exploration and a drive to just survive, not hunt treasure, widens the gap.  The vastly darker tone of this Tomb Raider drives any comparison out the window.  Lara does not crack wise or seem amused by what is happening.  That can tend to happen when one is getting burned, beaten and shot in an effort to survive.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ The setting is detailed and evocative
+ Upgrade system makes it feel like there is a reason to see all there is to see
+ Fun optional areas to explore

Cons:
– Dull Multiplayer
– Unnecessary amount of trivial collectibles (yes, there is a necessary amount in some games)
– On the wrong brightness settings the game is a dark mess

Game Info:
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: 3/5/2013
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (8 players online)
Source: Game rented by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.