Tomb Raider Review

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Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Feral Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix, Feral Interactive
Played on: PC
Release Date: March 4, 2013
Time Played (Steam): 14.9 hours
Paid: N/A

Tomb Raider is one of the video game industry’s more venerated franchises.  Since its inception in 1996, the series has seen many incarnations on many platforms, including home consoles, handhelds, PCs, and mobile devices.  However, despite all the different versions of the game, Lara Croft (the protagonist) has remained mostly unchanged.  Many are no doubt familiar with her classic outfit of a light-blue tank top and brown short shorts that are somehow classified as acceptable for the act of raiding tombs.  Her appearance and role as the sexy, badass archaeologist gained her quite a reputation in the gaming world, though not necessarily for the best reasons.  As a means of remedying this, Square Enix decided to take the Hollywood approach to the Tomb Raider franchise and give it a gritty, realistic reboot; the hope was to establish Lara as a strong-willed survivor who was defined more by her skills and personality than her looks.  And thus, 2013’s Tomb Raider came to be.

The story of Tomb Raider kicks off with Lara setting off on her first expedition: sailing to the island of Yamatai with the crew of the ship Endurance.  When the ship is caught in a sudden storm, Lara is thrown overboard and separated from her friends.  After being captured by a strange man and subsequently escaping, she is forced to adapt to her situation in order to survive the island, find her friends, and escape.  So begins a series of adventures that see Lara travelling across the island, scaling radio towers, sneaking through ancient temples, and of course, raiding tombs.

By and large, I enjoyed the story of Tomb Raider.  It felt like a summer blockbuster movie in that it didn’t have a deep, involving plot, but was able to stay interesting enough that I remained engaged as it took me from one setpiece to another.  A lot of that comes down to the way that the story is presented.  Periodically, the action will be interrupted by cutscenes that flesh out the broad strokes of the narrative.  However, if you choose to take the time to explore the environment, you can uncover documents and artifacts that will further fill in the details; everything from the backstory of the Endurance crew to the history of Yamatai is covered if you know where to look.  While I was initially turned off by this approach, it gradually grew on me.  Part of me wishes that the game was more up front with its complete story, but it helps to prevent things from getting bogged down with exposition while still allowing the player the opportunity to fill in the blanks.  Also, I found the ending to be quite satisfying.  The story concluded in a way that didn’t really feel forced, and set up potential sequels while not making them feel mandatory or expected.203160_20160815220014_1One complaint that I have with the way the game’s story is told is how it occasionally came across as trying too hard.  Now, I get that the idea was to make Lara’s “job” as a tomb raider seem less glamorous than it has sometimes been painted as.  And in many ways, they succeeded.  By the end of the game, Lara is a wreck.  In close-up shots, you can see cuts and bruises covering her body.  Dirt, mud, and blood are caked on her skin.  Her clothes are ripped and worn while still managing to keep her outfit sensible, despite how underplayed some of the damage is.  Trust me, as someone who gets paranoid when they snag their tank top with a hangnail, I think I can safely say that Lara would be forced to fashion new clothes for herself or risk a wardrobe malfunction.

Speaking of clothing changes, a small issue I ran into was that if you switch Lara’s clothing over to one of the DLC outfits, her animations and actions do not change accordingly.  As such, what was supposed to be an intense scene where she cauterized a gaping wound in her side turned into her screaming while she awkwardly prodded her hiking jacket with a hot poker.  I switched back to the default outfit after that.

Anyway, the reason I say that the game seemed like it was trying too hard is because there were times where it seemed to almost get some sort of twisted pleasure from pummeling Lara with anything and everything; presumably, the goal being to play her up as a strong-willed action hero.  And I can appreciate that to an extent.  You want to have Lara getting shot at, thrown over waterfalls, sliding down filthy tunnels, etc.?  Fine.  But allow me to spoil the opening of the game once Lara is on the island (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens).  Before you even get to the title card for the game, Lara almost drowns; is captured and hung upside-down in a tomb; falls on a piece of rebar, which buries itself in her side until you (the player) pull it out; and is assaulted and almost captured by two savages.  Oh, and if you die while trying to escape the tomb, you are treated to a lovely cutscene of Lara being brutally crushed to death by boulders.

I felt like the game was a teenager trying to show me how dark and edgy it could be.  It threw on a gothic rock band t-shirt and dyed its hair black, and that was alright.  But then it saw the approval in my eyes and said, “Wait, no!  I can do more!” as it put ten coats of mascara on its eyelashes.  And as I desperately tried to say, “Stop, Tomb Raider, please, you’re embarrassing yourself,” it began furiously scribbling circles of eyeliner around its eyes with one hand, while scrawling My Chemical Romance lyrics in a pentagram-covered black notebook with the other.  I think you can see what I’m getting at here.203160_20160815224450_1The characters are something of a mixed bag.  Discussing Lara requires going into the gameplay at length, so I’ll start with the secondary cast.  Overall, they’re not that memorable.  Each one of them fits into an archetype for this kind of narrative and stays there pretty firmly.  You’ve got the superstitious one who believes all the mystic legends about the island.  Then there’s the stuck up one who blows Lara off at first, but eventually comes around to her way of thinking.  Add in a friend who ends up acting as a damsel in distress for much of the game, and a creepy, suspicion-drawing journalist.  Sprinkle in a couple of characters whose existence I kept forgetting and garnish with a surrogate father figure.  Leave for an hour to simmer.  Even the main villain seems a bit underdeveloped.  He tends to be pretty one-note, and almost every encounter with him seems to boil down to him and Lara yelling at/taunting each other for a minute before he sends a group of henchmen to their inevitable demise and runs away.

Speaking of the untimely demise of henchmen, let’s talk about Lara and one of the big controversies that surrounded this game when it came out: ludonarrative dissonance.  For the uninitiated, ludonarrative dissonance can be described as the disconnect between the narrative a story is trying to tell (particularly the ways in which certain characters are framed) and their actions in the game, generally thanks to player influence.  In Tomb Raider, this manifests in the disconnect between the way the game attempts to paint Lara as a scared, inexperienced young woman before allowing the player to make her into a brutal murderer.  One of the most glaring cases of this is near the beginning of the game, where Lara is assaulted by a man and ends up killing him.  Sad music kicks in, she falls on the ground and starts crying, and the whole scene is painted as this horrific moment where a woman’s innocence has been shattered.  Then within five minutes you are attacked by a group of bad guys and are expected to fill their bodies with bullets, arrows, or a combination of the two as quickly as possible.  By the end of the game, I had Lara acting like she was in a zombie movie; she mercilessly stomped through battlefields with a shotgun at her side, unloading shell after shell into her enemies until they stopped moving.  Even in sections where the player has no control, she does things like jabbing a climbing pick into someone’s back before clawing them in the face with it.  Even her friends seem completely ignorant of Lara’s brutal killing rampage, as moments after watching Lara gun down a gang of thugs, they all cheered and thanked her for rescuing them.  I mean, I get that it’s a kill or be killed situation, but still.  When the game turns around and tries to paint Lara as a sympathetic, fragile character who has been unfairly forced into this scenario, I can’t help but think of all the times I was expected to skewer people with arrows without a second thought.  To the game’s credit, it does try to throw some of this back on the player near the end, but it just as quickly seems to blow it off as being “not that big of a deal” to avoid having to address the fact that the Croft-inflicted body count numbers in the hundreds.

When it’s not making me get into thought-provoking discussions about the ethics of my actions, the gameplay is incredibly satisfying.  One of the first things I mention to people whenever I bring up this game is, “The bow feels SO GOOD.”  I don’t know what it is, but it has the perfect combination of snappiness and subtlety that makes it a joy to use, whether you’re stealthily taking out guards one at a time or unleashing a flurry of volleys that would make Legolas jealous.  As you progress in the game, you can even unlock new ammunition types that let you tailor its use to your fighting style.  One particularly entertaining moment came when a group of two or three enemies were camped out in a bunker, firing almost non-stop at me.  I switched to my fire arrows, stood up, and started unloading shot after shot into the bunker, attempting to hit my foes, but not being too concerned with it.  As the bunker gradually filled with flames, my enemies stopped yelling and started screaming.  Once the screaming stopped, I knew I was good to carry on my merry way.  And that’s how I simultaneously had a wonderful time playing Tomb Raider while a part of my soul died…203160_20160402012035_1If you don’t enjoy the bow and arrow (shame on you), the game provides you with a good variety of weaponry that can be upgraded as you progress through the game.  Whether you’re wielding a pistol, a shotgun, or something else, you always have a method of dispatching your enemies.  Ammunition for all weapons is scattered generously through the environment (at least on the Normal difficulty), and I never ran into a time where I felt like I was being gated off from certain options due to a lack of ammo.

When you’re not mercilessly dispatching scores of enemies, most of the rest of the game is centred around environmental exploration.  The game takes some inspiration from Metroidvania-type games, implementing a simplified skill tree that allows you to unlock new abilities for Lara that assist you with exploring the island further.  As you progress, you will gain new skills that allow you to access previously inaccessible areas elsewhere on the island.  In this way, the game encourages backtracking, as there are tons of collectible artifacts, journals, and caches in every area.  In fact, upon completing the main story of the game, my completion rating was only at 74%, and I suspect that for some it may be even lower.  To the game’s credit, it not only provides a fast-travel system that lets you jump to different locations on the island without having to spend hours running back, but also has unlockable maps that show the location of each collectible.  It’s still up to the player to locate them and discern how to obtain them, but it’s nice to have the extra help as an option.

As you explore the island, you’ll be hard-pressed to not be impressed by the detail on display here.  Despite coming out three years ago, the game still looks gorgeous by today’s standards, especially if you’re playing on PC and can max out the game.  One of the optional effects that can be enabled is TressFX hair, which, while only affecting Lara, makes her hair flow in a way that is surprisingly realistic, which is a great improvement over the plasticky haircuts that everyone else gets stuck with.  Otherwise, whether you’re in the great outdoors or exploring a dank, dark tomb, the game looks like an Indiana Jones movie turned video game.  The ways that sunlight glistens off the water, torchlight brings soft illumination to cavern walls, and crows caw at you before flying away as you walk by brings the environments to life in a way that is simply stunning.  There’s a good reason why I took over 100 screenshots while playing.203160_20160815225905_1Speaking of screenshots, special mention should go to the HUD, or rather, the lack thereof.  Everything is completely dynamic.  If you get hurt, the edges of the screen will start to turn red, and things will darken.  If you gain experience points, switch weapons, or discover a new location, a brief pop-up will appear to show what has happened before fading out, allowing the game’s visuals to take center stage.  I always appreciate it when games do this, as it makes it that much easier to capture the artistry on display for later viewing.

The sound design is also incredibly well-done.  Depending on your environment, taking a moment to stop and listen will yield chirping birds; chittering bats; peaceful, yet eerie wind chimes; and more.  It’s incredibly immersive, and made me wish that I had the means to play the game in an environment more conducive to a surround sound experience.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the game’s score.  It wasn’t bad in the context of the game, but I found that it ended up sounding like a generic action movie soundtrack on its own.  It did a good job of complementing the action on-screen, but was generally unremarkable otherwise.

The game has a multiplayer mode, but seeing as it came out three years ago at the time of writing, it should come as no surprise that basically nobody’s playing it.  There are still groups on Steam that have scheduled playtimes for it, but I was unable to participate in any in time for this review.  If it faithfully integrates the mechanics from the main game, I could see it being quite enjoyable, but your mileage may vary.203160_20160829165830_1Tomb Raider is an excellent game.  It took me a while to finally get around to going through it (what else is new?), but once I did, I regretted not doing it sooner.  The game is just so incredibly well-constructed; you can see the care and attention that went into designing each location, voicing the characters, and animating each step that Lara takes.  I have some minor quibbles with it: The story and characters felt fairly cookie-cutter, many of the environmental puzzles felt a bit too straightforward, and the ludonarrative dissonance liked to crop up at times, to comical effect.  However, having completed the game, I have two main thoughts in mind: I want to go back and try to get all the collectibles, and I want to travel back (and forward) in time with the series to experience the games that came out prior to and following this game’s launch.  And I consider it to be an impressive feat that this game has managed to take a series that I previously dismissed and make it into one that I’m dying to dive further into.  Just as one of the game’s taglines was “A survivor is born”, I think that in the process, a new Tomb Raider fan has been born.

8.5/10

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