Review – Tomb Raider

tombraiderbanner12013 will be marked as the year that famed heroine Lara Croft made her remarkable return to the gaming industry. Despite some truly engaging innovation and an origin story that promises an emotional connection to the title that supports its various gameplay mechanics, the true question is: is this the Tomb Raider that fans have been waiting for, or is this a DMC: Devil May Cry type of reboot that caters more to the new fans rather than the traditionalists? By the end of this article, you should have your answer!

Whether you’re a new school raider or an old one, it is undeniable that we live in an age where we expect games to look just as brilliant as the play, fortunately the new Tomb Raider delivers. The island is amazing to look at and everything is rendered pleasantly. The developers really managed to achieve a sense of variation between the different areas of the island, without separating the tone and distancing the player. No matter where Lara travels, it still feels like the same island, but it also still feels fresh and never grows boring or too familiar.

The downside of this all is the colour palette. Whilst the scenery is graphically decent and capable, the game does suffer from the stereotypically bland earth tones of this generation, with dark browns and greens dominating the majority of the screen, especially late into the game and during the night-time gameplay. Characters are decent but still fail to be eye-popping, with Lara’s hair far from lifelike. In general however, the game is pleasing to view, but it may be wise to adjust your television’s contrast settings when playing.

The occasionally dullish visuals do nothing major to detract from the overall game experience and just in case anyone does grow somewhat bored of gawping at Lara’s environments, the game’s developers have made sure to deliver the full package by setting the game up with a solid story that grasps its audience more and more over the course of the game.

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The plotline is simple: young Lara is the protégé of a famed archaeologist and part of the “Endurance” crew on a mission to uncover secrets of a mysterious island and it’s previous inhabitants, namely its queen. After being caught up in a freak storm, Lara and her team are separated and thus begins our adventure. Fans of CW’s on-going Arrow series may enjoy the similar tones that the show’s Oliver Queen shares with our game protagonist Lara: stranded and alone on an island and destined to claim the soon to be signature Bow and Arrow as a weapon of choice.

The story is not entirely original, but at the same time is not entirely unoriginal, and its journey is for the most part an enjoyable one. Despite a good atmospheric environment and a story crafted to motivate gamers all the way to the end, no Tomb Raider game would be totally complete without Lara’s fierce brand of acrobatic gunplay…

…which is why some may love the gameplay and some may actually hate it. Lara has changed over the years, and whilst she has gained more in some areas, she has also lost a few things in the transition. The more obvious changes like the long single braid, unnecessarily tight top and fitted shorts are evident from the game’s beginning, but some fans may endure the adventure waiting for aspects of Lara’s previous adventures that are not quite present here. For example, Lara does defend herself with weaponry during this new adventure, but due to the developers attempts to ground her as a more realistic human being, semi-ridiculous ideals such as back-flipping while wielding twin pistols with automatic pinpoint precision are missing here.

However do not misconstrue the brilliance that the game offers just because a few traditions have been broken: Tomb Raider is a refreshing experience with just enough genre familiarity to prevent the title from feeling alien. The game casts players as series icon Lara Croft in a rebooted prequel (that makes sense right?) to all previous titles, and because of this both Lara and her skills have a lot of growing to do. This is where the upgrade system comes into play. The great thing about this aspect of the game is that it ties in to the game’s story and as game playtime racks up and upgrades are slowly acquired, the player will find themselves reinforcing the idea of Lara surviving on this island by using her wits and anything she can get hold of as a weapon.

To be able to upgrade weapons, Lara must find and collect “salvage”; debris and scrap that in large amounts provide Lara with sufficient amounts of material to modify her weapons, which in turn can improve anything from recoil to ammo capacity. Lara can also collect “weapon parts” which once again are useless individually, but with enough parts collected can alter a weapon’s design and power, this change surpasses that of a basic modification as it strengthens the weapons overall and also grants access to further weapon mods previously unavailable.

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Both “weapon parts” and “salvage” can be attained from looting the bodies of fallen enemies or exploring Lara’s game-world,  which despite having clear objectives, is for the most part a non linear space of exploration which Lara is free to roam (for the majority of the adventure). The traversal in this title is comparable albeit distinguishable from the games in the Uncharted series. Players will climb buildings and even cliff-faces (with the help of Lara’s new signature climbing axe) to reach previously unexplored terrain and also leap from platform to platform as they explore the mysterious island that the story revolves around. Occasionally you may discover an optional secret tomb – these segments of the game are sure to be a treat for classic Tomb Raider veterans as they act as a throwback to the gameplay found in early instalments of the TR back-catalogue.  These tombs are usually fairly short, offering perhaps 15minutes of gameplay at a time and much, much less for the experienced puzzle solvers, but regardless the nod to Lara’s previous existence will be undoubtedly appreciated.

Outside of tombs, rock climbing and environment traversal, Ms Croft will also encounter enemies to diversify the game and evoke tactical solutions. Any player brave enough or suffering from a “Rambo” complex may attempt to take every battle head on, but Tomb Raider is not a title that allows its hero to absorb tremendous amounts of damage without consequence, and more cautious players may find themselves resorting to a stealthy approach. The majority of enemies in Tomb Raider can be taken down without arising suspicion or having a chance to alert their comrades. This method can be done a multitude of ways: shooting an explosive barrel will often disperse and defeat enemies before they even have a chance to react, stealth takedowns can be activated by attacking unaware enemies from behind, and for the marksmen among us, a well placed arrow will silence any would-be attackers. The game also makes use of misdirection, and simple things like shooting a wall, can gain an enemies interest and force them to break visual contact with their group, making them all the more easier to pick off one-by-one.

Defeating enemies gains experience points which can be spent on modifying Lara’s own personal abilities. This in turn can affect her combat tactics and also how she views her surroundings. These “skill points” (as the game refers to them) together with “weapon upgrades” and “weapon modifications”, can be upgraded at camps littered throughout the game.

Most noticeable in regards to the game’s combat is that the game can be played entirely with the bow for the most part – this is a good thing as it makes every other weapon acquired feel like more of a bonus just for the benefit of variety – this is similar to the way that many claim to be able to complete the campaigns in Dead Space 1+2 with simply the plasma cutter. Regardless, combat is a breath of fresh air, but for some will only truly amaze when a few skill points have been used and Lara has become a smarter combatant.

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Tomb Raider is a good game, arguably a great game, but it is not without its flaws.

Although the combat grows to feel fairly organic, initially Lara feels limited and useless. Players will have to put in at least a couple of hours until their acquired skill points open up the combat system and allow them to view its potential.

The game is QTE (Quick Time Event) heavy, and for a lot of the adventure, especially the first 2/3rds, it is a nuisance that forces repetition of certain segments and players will see certain cutscenes several times before moving on, with each viewing lessening the tension and ruining the tone.

Story wise, the game is capable, but certain moments feel uninspired. Lara’s highly talked about first-kill, will be a let down for some as it may fall slightly short of the positive hype surrounding it.

Another issue regarding story is the passionless reunions. Lara seems fairly neutral when supposedly reuniting with the friends and crew mates that she initially gets separated from in the game’s beginning. You would think that a young woman would have tears to shed or even hugs to collect, but she is presented to be quite calm during these moments, which is enough to take away from the emotional intensity that the game’s promotion promised.

For all the game’s visual accomplishments, small details like Lara’s hair seem to be unpolished. Other visual annoyances are also apparent to those who consider the subtle details; unlike famed Nathan Drake, some of Lara’s weapons are missing from her person unless in use.Equipping the bow after discovering the shotgun later in the game will cause the shotgun to disappear and vice versa. This is obviously a small gripe, but one would think that at this stage in gaming, such things would not be overlooked. It’s difficult to emphasise with a character “struggling” to survive when they hold the ability to magically stash weapons when being unused. Later on Lara can add a silencer upgrade to her weapons, which feels stupid as this undermines the need for the bow’s stealthy attacks.

The game potentially ruins future weapon upgrades for players by sabotaging them with information that would have had more impact if kept from them until the last moment. An unweary journey through the game’s menu will reveal weapon attachments not yet available and therefore spoil what could have and should have been a pleasant surprise unveiled later on in the game.

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Further contradiction to the survival theme is the game failing to follow up on hunting animals. Early on players are told to hunt deer in order to feed Lara, and although initially a nice touch, this turns out to simply be an interesting method of practising players in mastery of the bow weapon. After this one initial hunt, Lara apparently never feels hunger (or cold) again. Continued hunting offers nothing other than snippets of EXP which is obviously great for farming, but it would have been great to see a better usage of these slain animals, and maybe to have taken a page from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and required Lara to eat in order to regain health or stamina.

Rope climbing is another issue here as we see Lara grow and slowly improve her skills elsewhere in the game, but for some reason, as soon as she climbs a rope for the first time while hanging upside, she moves like lightning – this is not so much a deal breaker but just noticeably weird.

Finally the optional tombs are rather short…in fact they’re very short. It is great to have a throwback to the classic Tomb Raider titles, but considering just how brief these throwbacks are, is there actually much point? Although some may be grateful, others may be infuriated by the quick distractions and feel that these tombs should have either had a lot more or just vanished from the game entirely.

Fortunately for the all the bad points the title offers, there exist just as many (if not more) positive ones to oppose them.

One of the best aspects of Lara’s new outing is the freedom that characters are given. Exploration is both fun and rewarding, and completionists will love the large landscapes. Combat is amazing and innovative and the abilities unlocked via usage of skill points really contribute to Lara’s transition into the battle hardened explorer that she inevitably comes to be. Lara’s automatic cover system works perfectly and gone are the days when players need to have a single button just for crouching. If enemies are nearby Lara will automatically duck and stick to cover – this is a great touch and allows the game to feel all the more real.

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Collectibles will keep the playtime up and motivate players to stick with Lara just a little longer while they find all there is to be found. It’s a joy to explore Lara’s world. Aside from the collectibles available in the game, perhaps the strongest form of replay ability here is the multiplayer (although undoubtedly some may steer clear to avoid tainting their memory of Tomb Raider as a franchise and what a Tomb Raider game should be).

Tomb Raider is the first home console game to feature Lara in a multiplayer environment. The idea is relatively interesting and despite the complaints of many gamers upon hearing the news of the game’s inclusion of a multiplayer component – who can truly complain when given free expansions to the games they enjoy? In regards to Tomb Raider’s multiplayer, the closest comparison would once again be Uncharted, although Tomb Raider is clearly not as fine-tuned. Both revolve around third-person action in traversable environments. Tomb Raider’s multiplayer component is far from a game breaker and many will appreciate its inclusion in the game, however unlike its Uncharted counterpart, Tomb Raider’s multiplayer is not strong enough to justify a purchase of the game on it’s own merits. The multiplayer is best considered a fun extra rather than being considered as a separate entity to the main game. The multiplayer could have been rather solid if more elements from Lara’s campaign were implemented; things like the “dirty trick” technique would have brought innovation to the multiplayer and possibly prompted strategic escapes from your enemies, reinforcing the “survivor” theme that the game marketed itself on. It would have also been great to see Square-Enix “borrow” a thing or two from Nathan Drake’s popular multiplayer – after all, isn’t it logical to study the greats and learn from them?

Uncharted 3 features character creation, something not necessarily needed but definitely liked by fans, so after Zachery Levi’s hosting of Tomb Raider Developer’s Diary resulted in the inclusion of his own character model being playable in the finished game’s multiplayer, it does raise to question why exactly the developers never thought to incorporate a character creation system. How great would it have been to load up Tomb Raider, go to multiplayer and see “Create-a-Survivor”?

The ability to grab victims and yank them over ledges while hanging would have been fun, but sadly Lara & co are not even capable of shooting while hanging, let alone pulling off any of Drake’s advanced moves – in fact players are unable to shoot without aiming first with the left trigger. However the biggest flaw is the matchmaking, which seems to do nothing to balance players, and moronically will pitch level 3 players against those at level 47 – this is ridiculous. On top of this crucial error, players with a strong kill streak will enter extinction mode, which prevents dead players from respawning. This means that until the executioner is defeated, you will fail to respawn and will be forced to watch the top player accumulate kills and set the distance between you further and further apart. It does feel to some extent that Square-Enix squandered what could have been greatness, however considering the strength of the single player campaign (which will undoubtedly be the driving force behind a purchase of the game), I felt no disappointment towards Tomb Raider’s Multiplayer.

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Tomb Raider is a joy to play and a brilliant experience. Fans of the original games who have trouble letting go, may experience withdrawal symptoms at the lack of intensity in regards to puzzles and tombs. But those who manage to maintain an open mind or newcomers to the series will find one of the most engaging and innovative third-person action adventure games brought to consoles in the last 2 years. The additional multiplayer does possess errors in its design, but still provides something extra to the game for those who desire any excuse just to keep on playing. Tomb Raider is a quality title and well worth its asking price and those searching for an enjoyable third-person title should look no further. It is sad that the game will undoubtedly be compared to Uncharted, but anyone who tries the game for themselves will realise that this game is a lot more than an imitation. In essence, Tomb Raider is nothing but a solid return to form for one of gaming’s biggest icons.

Tomb Raider scores a 9/10


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