A Touchdown from Half-court
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
A survivor is born. That’s the important theme behind Crystal Dynamic’s attempt at reinvigorating the Tomb Raider franchise with their much-anticipated reboot. But is this fresh take on Lara Croft’s humble origin a survivor story worth telling, or an adventure best left forgotten? Find out in this spoiler-free look at a legend in the making.
Tomb Raider is a game at odds with itself, unable to break away from seemingly-mandatory gameplay elements in order to reach its full potential. But before I dive into that, let’s focus on what the game actually is, instead of what I wish it was. Tomb Raider is a third-person cover shooter. Put simply, it’s a mix of Uncharted and Metroid, or more recently, Arkham Asylum. Before you say it’s unfair to judge Lara’s latest adventure based on a game that came after the Tomb Raider franchise was established, here me out. Uncharted set the new standard for action adventure with its large set piece sequences, requiring Nathan Drake to run, jump and climb his way out of burning buildings, sinking boats and otherwise precarious platforming situations. The entire franchise is basically a platforming sequence, followed by a cover-based shooting sequence, followed by a cutscene, then repeat. Tomb Raider is exactly that as well, except it also offers the open-world island of Yamatai to explore. This free-roaming environment is where those elements of Metroid or Arkham come into play, as the game requires backtracking to discover hidden collectibles after obtaining story-mandated gear upgrades.
The story of Tomb Raider begins when the ship Lara is aboard, called The Endurance, crashes and leaves her and the small group she’s traveling with stranded on Yamatai, an island located near Japan. The crew is traveling together in search of archeological discoveries, and contains: A lead archeologist, a chef, a mechanic, a camera woman, the obligatory tech guru, experienced adventurers and friends of Lara’s father “Dicky” Croft named Roth and Grimm, and obviously Ms. Croft. Once they are stranded on Yamatai, the adventure, and their struggle for survival, begins.
It’s very obvious throughout the entirety of the narrative that survival is the main theme, with a focus on Lara and her struggle to overcome such severe circumstances. When Lara first ventures further inland, she’s on her own, and so hunting for food and building a fire are the first steps of her journey. During her first hunting excursion, Crystal Dynamics does an excellent job of making Lara’s first kill feel emotionally resonant; it’s obvious she feels unnerved and sympathetic, only doing what she has to do in order to survive. From then on throughout the story, the importance of life and, similarly, the heavy burden Lara feels whenever she’s forced to take a life, are consistent throughout the cutscenes. However, this isn’t the case during gameplay segments, but more on that in a moment.
While the plot is interesting enough, unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of plot twists. It’s easy to spot from very early on just exactly how the rest of the story is going to transpire, which admittedly takes most of the fun out of things. Luckily, there’s plenty else to keep you excited and on the edge of your seat during the game to make up for it.
Another unfortunate gripe I have is that Lara’s expedition team doesn’t quite get the character development they deserve. It’s very apparent through story events that players are supposed to emotionally invest in these folks, but they’re never given proper time to explain who they are or why they’re relevant. The developers try to make up for this by interspersing flashbacks whenever Lara makes camp for the night. These flashbacks are shown through various recordings from the camera Lara has on her, which depict the days at sea leading up to their inevitable predicament. Additionally, there is a lot of backstory dedicated to both the island and its inhabitants told via collectible “documents” that are scattered all across Yamatai. But I find that to be a cardinal sin in gaming. It’s one thing to flesh out side stories and give players the opportunity to learn more about a game’s lore via collectibles, but using them to tell key character development points is absolutely unacceptable. Telling me that, “if you want to understand what’s going on or why these people matter, just find all the hidden collectibles” is completely unjustifiable. That being said, when the story focuses on Lara, as is does for the majority of the game, it does a great job of making her a strong protagonist.
On the subject of female protagonists, a hot button issue in our industry, I think lead writer Rhianna Pratchett deserves a lot of praise for her work transforming Lara Croft into a respectable leading lady. Brought to life by some very solid voice work courtesy of Camilla Luddington, Lara is strong willed, courageous, and possesses the keen instincts she needs to not only survive, but eventually overpower her foes. She is NOT a damsel in distress, nor does she need a man to rescue her. She uses the training she’s learned, combines it with her extraordinary instincts, and applies it to get herself out of most situations. Does she occasionally need rescuing? Sure, but no more than the Nathan Drakes and Commander Shepards out there. She’s an icon in the making, and this story certainly establishes that with an exclamation mark.
During the final hours of Tomb Raider, the narrative provides a satisfying conclusion to the game, including an extremely gratifying introduction to Lara’s trademark dual pistols. Overall, the epilogue manages to provide a worthy ending to the story while also giving just a small taste of what’s on the horizon for the budding archeologist.
All the Right Moves in All the Wrong Places
Gameplay in Tomb Raider is exciting, fun, but mostly, not at all what I was hoping for. I had envisioned a game where survival was a key component of gameplay, where hunting and foraging and finding a place to make camp would be crucial to getting off Yamatai alive. Unfortunately, what I got was just your average third-person cover shooter. After the initial hunt, things like searching for food and foraging are completely tossed aside, with the only benefit to doing either task a measly XP reward. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall the game ever telling me I could forage food at all, I just happened upon a bush that was glowing while using my “survival instinct” and pressed the corresponding button when prompted. I’m not sure why this feature is even in the game if it’s not going to be of any importance; and worth such insignificant experience points that it’s a fruitless endeavor. Basically, this game that heavy-handedly reminds you constantly about the theme of survival doesn’t actually contain any survival gameplay at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the gunplay and the Uncharted-esque platforming work well, with Lara often using the environment to her advantage due to the fact that she’s hopelessly outmanned and outgunned. But, there’s this incredible disconnect between what I see during cutscenes and what I see during gameplay. For example, and out of context this really isn’t a spoiler, there’s a scene where Lara is looking for supplies in a destroyed airplane. The cutscene depicts an emotionally-battered Lara who goes out of her way to apologize to the long-since deceased pilot while she searches his person for supplies. The very next gameplay segment following this scene sees Lara mowing down dozens of enemies while shouting, “That’s, right run. I’m coming for you. I’m coming for ALL of you!” like she’s Rambo. This happens throughout the entire game, and the end result is an entirely disjointed experience. The narrative tells the story of a young girl doing what she must to survive, while the gameplay tells the story of a stone-cold killer who, by the end of the game, has slaughtered literally hundreds of men.
There’s also a strange imbalance in enemy AI. On one hand, Lara’s adversaries are smart enough to flank her, flush her out of cover, and even rush her in groups. Yet on the other hand, they take cover and leave their heads sticking out just waiting to get picked off with a well-placed headshot. (For reference, I was playing on “hard” mode so I can’t be certain if enemy tactics change based on difficulty.) I’m not a programmer, so I’m not sure exactly how to fix this issue, but it’s a noticeably strange disconnect.
The second aspect of gameplay, the “adventure” part of this action-adventure, is the platforming. This basically consists of Lara scanning the environment using her “survival instincts” (think “detective vision” or any of the million examples from every other game nowadays) to see what objects she can interact with and, once upgraded, where collectibles are hiding. This inevitably leads to large action set pieces full of exploding huts, free falls off high ledges and everything else you’ve seen in Uncharted, all accented by the use of quick time events. While I admit this is complete personal bias, I found these segments to be less-than-thrilling, only because it felt like I’d seen it all before as Nathan Drake. But, for those experiencing these things for the first time, I imagine it will be enjoyable if not exciting. I would also like to point out how much I appreciate the fact that Tomb Raider autosaves every time you do something worth saving during your open-world adventuring. Picking up a new collectible, looting salvage off bodies for upgrading gear, climbing a steep cliff, Lara’s got you covered. The game guarantees you’ll never have to recollect anything, and for that I tip my hat.
The final bit of gameplay worth mentioning is the optional Tomb Raids you can go on. Don’t get too excited though, these heartbreakingly-undercooked excursions see Lara tackling a simple physics puzzle each that takes little more than a few minutes to solve. If Crystal Dynamics take anything away from this initial outing, let it be that these optional dungeons have to be much more detailed and challenging next time around.
So what we have here is the excellent third-person shooter I deserve, but not the one I need right now. I’ve given a lot of thought to how the team could fix this particular first game in the series to suit the theme of survival and here’s the solution I’ve come up with: Get rid of all the guns. If killing and combat have to be such major components of this game (which they don’t by the way), then do so in a manner that suits the tone. Let Lara keep her bow and various arrow types, keep her close-combat melee weapon, but get rid of the guns. (I mean seriously, the girl’s got a grenade launcher.) Instead, replace this obsession with gunplay with an emphasis on silent stealth kills, and implement a trap-making system. Lara, at this point in her life, shouldn’t have the ability to outgun dozens of men in an enclosed firefight. But she should be able to use the environment and her wits to take them out. Bear traps, rope traps, fire hazards, explosives, whatever; give Lara the tools she needs to be a silent stalker. But what of Lara’s dual pistols, you ask? Well, given the way things play out in the story, I’d say it’s fitting to save them for the sequel.
Gorgeous, Breathtaking, Excitable… and That’s Just the Island
Visually speaking, Tomb Raider is a beautiful game. The island comes to life with an assortment of weather effects, a real-time day/night cycle, wild life, and spectacular lighting effects. Characters look distinct enough to be recognizable at a glance, and the first time Lara gets a good look at the entire island I promise you will stop and stare. But even more than that, what really makes the visuals ultimately satisfying is the progression of Lara’s journey.
As Lara overcomes all types of incredible obstacles, she will sustain a number of injuries, as well as upgrade her gear along the way. These injuries and upgrades stick with you the entire game. By the time the game is over, Lara is battered, bruised, bloody, cut, and scarred; and all of this happens a little bit at a time as the story progresses. It really makes you feel like you’ve been on this adventure right along with her, trying to remember how she looked all innocent and clean on that boat before everything went wrong. Additionally, upgrading weapons and gear gives them an aesthetic overhaul in addition to unlocking new abilities, so it’s very satisfying to upgrade weapons and see how much better Lara’s equipment becomes by the time she’s ready to kiss Yamatai goodbye. It all adds to the immersion, making you feel like you’ve been trapped on the island for a lifetime, seeing just how much she’s changed over the course of the game.
A Lonely Island Full of People
Since we’re living in an age where you can’t play anything by yourself, it’s no surprise that Tomb Raider includes a multiplayer component. Since the match types and playstyles are fairly run of the mill, it doesn’t require much explanation. There are a couple of objective-based match types, each a variation of capture-the-flag and capture-and-hold, and then there’s the obligatory Team Deathmatch mode. While the experience doesn’t feel “tacked-on”, as it was developed entirely by Eidos Montreal and thus did not take away developer resources from Crystal Dynamics, it certainly feels unnecessary in an otherwise solitary experience.
The multiplayer mode features a leveling system that opens up all the usual suspects as you rank higher and higher. Reaching new levels will grant access to better weapons, perks, and of course, new characters to play as; with the ultimate goal of being allowed to play as Lara awarded to those willing to reach level 60. It keeps the incentives rolling at a brisk pace and helps make the time spent online feel like a worthwhile investment, but I don’t think it will increase the shelf life of Lara’s reboot by much.
One thing I happen to take issue with is the number of achievements Tomb Raider graciously offers fans of the multiplayer experience. There are a total of 15 achievements dedicated to online multiplayer, out of a possible 50, and I think that’s too many. Now, I’m not an achievement whore, but I do take pride in my wall of “completed” games displayed on my Xbox Live profile, as I do my PS3 platinum trophies. So, to take a game that should be focused solely on the single-player experience and lend so many achievements to the online scene feels unfair. I’d have much preferred an exclusively single-player game, but since another team developed the multiplayer, I didn’t think I’d feel cheated. I was wrong.
If you’re curious about seeing what Tomb Raider’s online modes have to offer, but don’t have an Xbox Live gold subscription, fret not. In a move that can only be described as “classier than a chalkboard”, the game comes packaged with a whopping 2-week trial, as opposed to the standard 48-hour fare most titles offer. Good on you, Tomb Raider.
Light at the End of the Tomb
Tomb Raider is a whole lot of fun, and perhaps that’s why I’m so hard on it. I really wish I didn’t enjoy the gunplay so much, because it really has no place in this game, given the story Crystal Dynamics is trying to tell. It’s a shame because you can tell through the strong narrative that they knew exactly what kind of game they wanted to make, but in the end it came down to turning a profit. I can’t say for sure whether it was Square Enix that decided the game needed to be more approachable with mass market appeal, or if CD decided to make the shift in tone all on their own, but at the end of the day, we all lose. Instead of taking a chance and making a unique, personal, emotionally-driven game of survival, Tomb Raider settled for just another shooter. Perhaps it will sell more copies this way, but it also makes the game a perfect example of everything that’s wrong with the gaming industry: What could have been innovation wrapped around a game that “matters”, turned out to be the same old, same old.
Still, when it comes down to it, Tomb Raider is a solid experience through and through. What the team does do, they do well, as both the gameplay and narrative are well executed. While it’s hard to be left yearning for more with thoughts of what could have been, the game is undeniably fun. If you’re in the market for a third-person shooter featuring Lara Croft, this is for you. Hopefully, Crystal Dynamics can find a way to meet my expectations half-way when the inevitable, yet welcomed, sequel comes round.