Tomb Raider (PC), Review
Tomb Raider teeters back and forth on a rocky edge between moments of awe-inspiring beauty, and rudimentary gameplay mechanics that should have been sealed in a tomb and done away with long ago.
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
It’s been a while since we saw Lara Croft in a proper console adventure, with the last entry in the main series being 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld. So when Crystal Dynamics announced their intention to give everyone’s favorite well-endowed adventurer the reboot treatment, it was met with universal praise, not to mention a slew of E3 awards in 2012. As a fan of both the first and second iterations of the Tomb Raider franchise, I fully embraced the idea of a series reboot; but I think 2013’s Tomb Raider is the kind of game that could split fans of the series directly down the middle. On one hand, the revitalized story of young Lara Croft is fresh and exciting, and the slick presentation is exactly what the series needed. On the other, the game struggles at times to find a happy medium of gameplay. Tomb Raider is definitely more in line with the action-oriented Tomb Raider: Legends and Tomb Raider: Underworld, with some different ideas that don’t always work in Lara’s favor.
This probably goes without saying, but the graphics in Tomb Raider are absolutely stunning, and they’re easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game. Crystal Dynamics wanted a cinematic experience, and boy have they achieved one. The story follows aspiring archeologist Lara Croft, who sets off on an expedition to the Japanese nation of Yamatai in search of the ancient Queen Himiko and a trace of her followers. But when her ship crashes on shore and Lara and her crew are captured by hostiles, a hardened Ms. Croft must do whatever it takes to survive, and rescue her friends from the island’s deadly grasp. Camilla Luddington does an amazing job of breathing new life into Lara’s character, and the supporting cast of voice actors is just as superb. The first time that Lara is forced to kill is a particularly moving scene. The backstory is filled in by finding journal entries that are penned by the other members of the Endurance crew, and watching video camera footage that Lara and friends had recorded before the crash.
Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: yes, there are a lot of similarities between the Tomb Raider reboot and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. You’ll balance on logs, hang from crumbling ledges, and even fight those heavy-duty riot shield guys we’ve seen give Nathan Drake such a hard time in the past (and what they are doing in a Tomb Raider game is simply beyond me). The first half of the game suffers largely from what I like to call “Uncharted 3 Syndrome,” where the developers will rip control away from you at regular intervals in favor of integrated cut scenes. Sometimes the game even tricks you into thinking you are actually playing, when it’s really just another guided tour to simulate real gameplay. In the first two hours of Tomb Raider, I was lucky if I could play for a full minute straight before running into some sort of cut scene. However, it’s not nearly as bad as the interactive movie that was Uncharted 3, and you are given much more freedom the farther you go on.
Even though it’s a reboot, Tomb Raider borrows many ideas from other game franchises that were released in the interim between new Tomb Raider games, to varying effects. Lara can upgrade her weapons and skillsets by resting at campfires, and she can even fast travel between them, similar to the bonfires we saw in Dark Souls. The gruesome death scenes take a page right out of Dead Space 2’s book, with gory animations of Lara getting crushed to death by boulders, pierced through the chest by tree branches, and most horribly, stabbed through the neck by rusty metal pipes, which seem a little excessive for a Tomb Raider game. The story does so much to make us sympathize with Lara and her struggle, that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch the vulnerable young Lara brutally murdered every time you make a mistake. There’s even an out of place “Survival Instinct” mode that turns the world to black and white, and lets Lara locate interactive objects in her surroundings similar to Batman: Arkham City.
Fire plays a huge role in Tomb Raider, and you will have to utilize a torch to solve many of the game’s environmental puzzles or open caches of salvage parts. There’s also a cool hunting mechanic that’s sadly abandoned after the opening sections. As you progress in the game, Lara will unlock a number of simple abilities that augment the way you play, like rock climbing equipment and rope arrows, and let you return to previously inaccessible areas. The rope arrows are the coolest of these features, which let you pull down structures, climb across to new areas, and even pull unsuspecting enemies off their feet (and if you’re lucky) over a cliff. This backtracking is mostly used for finding collectables you may have missed, or gaining entrance to the game’s “optional tombs.” The optional tombs are a great idea and net some pretty nice rewards if you choose to complete them, but they largely consist of a single room with a simple environmental puzzle. I was expecting twisting labyrinths of platforming bliss that harkened back to classic Tomb Raider adventures, and really put your platforming skills to the test. It seems like they were mostly included to give the game that “open world” push and boost its replay value.
The game has a loose element of open world exploration, with several larger hub areas that are connected by a series of more linear ones. There are tons of artifacts, documents, and GPS locators to find in each, but earning treasure maps through optional tombs sort of takes away from the exploration of past Tomb Raider games, as everything will be added to your map as clear as day. Given the semi-open world nature of the game, I was surprised to see that Crystal Dynamics didn’t choose to incorporate a mini-map on the main game screen. Thankfully, you can still place a waypoint beacon on your map, which lets you follow it to a collectable’s location using your Survival Instinct feature. But the semi-open format works for what Tomb Raider sets out to achieve, and it lays the groundwork for some pretty nice set pieces, like parachuting through a forested valley or sliding down some slippery inclines.
The second half of the game is extremely action-oriented, which would have been fine, except for the fact that gunplay in Tomb Raider is just not very good. Now don’t get me wrong, wielding your bow feels great, but there’s just something “off” when it comes to shooting your guns, and there are too many “last stand” moments in the game where you are pinned down and forced to fend off wave after wave of bad guys. I’m not sure if it was because I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting, but the enemies just tend to bum-rush Lara at every turn, essentially rendering your bow and arrow useless at such a close range. Hand-to-hand combat is abysmal, with a “scramble” move to dodge incoming attacks and an often ineffective melee counter. The only way to defeat the riot shield guys is by dodging their close-quarters attacks, and then retaliating with gunfire: which leaves you vulnerable to the other three guys who have already made their way to your position to help out their friend. It’s a huge departure from the fantastic stealth-based combat in the first half of the game, where a shaken Lara is encouraged to use her bow from a distance, or sneak up on enemies from behind for a swift and silent kill.
But hands down, the biggest disservice in Tomb Raider is the horrendous overuse of unforgiving Quick Time Events. There is one spot in particular early on in the game, where Lara is unavoidably tackled by a wolf in a cave, which initiates a multi-layered QTE. I literally had to play it 37 times (I counted) before I managed to complete it. The lack of instruction and microscopic margin of error that leads to instant-deaths make the QTE’s stupidly frustrating, and makes you question if you are even performing the on-screen inputs the way the game wants you to. Moments like these are extremely off-putting to the gamer, and I almost didn’t even want to continue playing the game afterwards.
As if the idea of multiplayer in a Tomb Raider game wasn’t weird enough, the focus on poor gunplay mechanics leaves the multiplayer in this Tomb Raider reboot a bit of a lackluster mess. I will say that it does do a pretty nice job of incorporating elements from the single-player campaign into the mix, like rock climbing and zip lining, and environmental traps placed by opposing players make for some gruesome surprises, but overall the whole thing just feels incredibly tacked on, and something I hope is left out for future installments of the series going forward. So in the end, Tomb Raider teeters back and forth on a rocky edge between moments of awe-inspiring beauty, and rudimentary gameplay mechanics that should have been sealed in a tomb and done away with long ago. A beautiful world and fun platforming segments are countered by disruptive quick time events and sloppy gunplay mechanics. But all in all, the total package is still extremely impressive. If 2013’s Tomb Raider is just the first entry in a new set of games for the series, then I am more than excited to see all the fascinating places that Crystal Dynamics takes Lara to next.
Story – 9/10
Graphics – 10/10
Gameplay – 8/10
Music – 10/10
Multiplayer – 6/10
Replayability – 8/10