With many of the official gaming sites and bloggers setting up their Game of the Year 2013 lists, one game seemed to be on their lists that I still had yet to play through until recently – the reboot of the iconic Tomb Raider franchise.
I’ve read and watched plenty of reviews and while many seem to be singing songs of praise, I’ve run across a fair share of negativity concerning the overall plot and its linearity. Tomb Raider has been sitting on my shelf since April so I finally sat down to give it the ol’ college try. Is the majority right in stating that Tomb Raider is, indeed, Game of the Year material, or is it just another case of over-hyped AAA mediocrity?
As Lara Croft and her crew set sail aboard the vessel Endurance in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai, they end up in a Bermuda Triangle of sorts that lays waste to their ship with violent storms. The survivors eventually reach the shore of a nearby island inhabited by previous shipwreck victims who have formed a cult of sorts, complete with ritualistic murders, cave paintings and an overall belief in the paranormal Oni (Japanese folklore demons).
Predictably, the island ends up being Yamatai and as the titular heroine, you’ll explore the island, rescue your crew-mates, fend off wolves, avoid death traps and witness the re-characterization of Lara Croft from the ground up. From her initial escape from death to her infamous breakdown as a response to her first human kill, this Lara Croft has a lot more human emotion than any other rendition thus far.
Sadly, that emotion is quickly lost as you start painting the walls with brain matter and brutally killing your assailants with explosive-tip arrows. She remains quite human throughout the cut-scenes and narrative, but the actual gameplay doesn’t reflect this at all. Granted, it would have been tricky to accomplish this without throwing in a bunch of overused sound clips of “Oh God, why?!” and “Can’t we just talk this out like fucking adults!?“, both of which would have ended in a gunfight either way.
One thing I noticed early on was that Crystal Dynamics were not afraid to kick the ever loving shit out of Lara any chance they could get. She’ll fall off cliffs, smash in to rocks, get impaled by debris and physically abused by cultists, and that’s when you pass the QTE’s. Dying in Tomb Raider is brutal, watching Lara get mauled by wolves or falling to her death in the ocean, making matters worse by ending up impaled on the jagged rocks beneath the current. Crystal Dynamics nailed the brutality and delivered more than a fair share of cringe-worthy moments at Lara’s expense.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints where Tomb Raider is essentially Uncharted with a female lead, but Tomb Raider: Legend (which introduced the exploration mechanics) released in 2006 while Uncharted didn’t release until 2007. Technically, Uncharted borrowed certain ideas from Tomb Raider and improved on them tremendously and now Tomb Raider has learned from their mistakes and improved them yet again.
Gameplay similarities aside, Tomb Raider offers a more open world (albeit sort of linear) where each zone can be revisited at any time in a Metroid-vania style and use new gear to access previously inaccessible areas for collectables, weapon upgrades and additional XP.
Lara can earn XP by killing enemies, discovering new areas, completing collection-based challenges, getting stealth kills and hunting animals. Each level gained allows the allocation of a perk point in to one of three categories – focusing on exploration/survival, weapons and melee combat – to unlock new abilities like dodge-counters, using her Survival Instinct ability to locate treasures or the option to finish off downed enemies with brutal, point blank shotgun blasts.
While out exploring, you’ll also finds salvage that can be used to upgrade weapons beyond their primitive or rusted states. Lara’s only weapons are her bow, a pistol, a shotgun and an assault rifle, so don’t expect anything groundbreaking or fancy. I was half-expecting some sort of wilderness crafting system to make spears or crude blades from animal bones, or even lay traps (which you can do in multiplayer, oddly enough). Considering the only thing you gain from hunting animals is XP, there really is no form of “survival” mechanic in Tomb Raider aside from, you know, not getting shot or failing QTE’s. I wanted more of a Snake Eater experience, I guess, but it ended up being a lot more action oriented instead.
Still, the weapons offered are effective, especially when upgrading your bow to launch napalm arrows, gaining the ability to use your climbing axe as a melee weapon or adding a silencer to the pistol for stealth kills. I didn’t come in expecting rocket launchers or anything, but for a game that advertised itself with plenty of sneaking around and stealth killing, those opportunities were few and far between as enemies usually just poured out at me between cutscenes and I was forced in to cover-based firefights.
Graphically, Tomb Raider has some amazing environments but falls victim to the now-expected dull color scheme. Lara’s character model and motion capture were well done, but her crew and assailants were bland with one-dimensional personalities. Still, reaching a new area was always exciting, fun to explore and there were plenty of awe-inspiring, vertigo-inducing climbs to make.
For a game about exploring tombs, the linearity of Tomb Raider seemed to be at the top of the complaint list for most people. Objectives and routes are always shown by your compass or using Survival Instincts. Tombs are also sparse and generally reward XP or a piece of a weapon upgrade, so finding and completing their puzzles wasn’t really something the game emphasized.
Still, what Tomb Raider offers in terms of exploration and combat, it did very well. Controls are responsive, exploration never felt bland and each zone was refreshing, but as far as linearity goes, Tomb Raider has never really been a sandbox game. This new reboot definitely does its share of holding your hand, but zones are generally open for you to explore, find collectables, upgrades and complete challenges for XP. You’re always free to explore the entire zone before making your way to the progress marker to continue the story, and even after finishing up the campaign you’re free to continue along on Yamatai if you wanted to finish upgrading your weapons or head back to earlier zones with your new gear to check out what you might have missed.
The Verdict – B
Overall, Tomb Raider was a satisfying experience, albeit not what I had expected. I went in thinking it was going to be more survival focused; maybe a hunger or temperature meter, having a reason to hunt animals aside from easy XP boosts, lay some traps, wilderness crafting, etc., and I also expected a lot more tomb raiding. What I got was an action/adventure game that seemed to perfect what it originated in Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006 and Uncharted mastered in 2007.
It’s not as linear as you might be lead on to believe and has a solid leveling/upgrade system. Plus, I’m a sucker for Metroid-vania style games that let me go back and explore deeper with new gear.
Is Tomb Raider Game of the Year material? To me, no, but it’s a solid game that was a lot of fun despite its predictable plot, terrible cast of characters and short campaign length. These shortcomings were outweighed by responsive controls, fun exploration mechanics, solid gunplay and an intense pacing throughout the entire game.