In attempting to reboot the series and re-imagine its famed protagonist’s origin story, Crystal Dynamics has chosen to tackle the unenviable challenge of redefining the storied and revered Tomb Raider series. It is undoubtedly a well timed and much needed reinvention though. Recent offerings from the franchise have exhibited an unmistakable creative exhaustion which threatened to render Lara Croft, one of gaming’s most iconic ambassadors in popular culture, increasingly irrelevant in the crowded landscape of her video game birthplace.
Now, I am by no means what you might call a Tomb Raider ‘fan’, but I am somewhat familiar with the series. I have hazy memories of playing some of the early games on PS1, and I vaguely remember enjoying them, but I gained no especial fondness for the series in doing so. Since then I’ve casually tried my luck with one or two of the more recent entries, but they were also largely unmemorable experiences. So, I wasn’t quite coming into this new game with a blank slate, but my pre-existing notions and expectations were nonetheless few and far between.
Let me begin by saying that what impressed me most when playing Tomb Raider was how convincingly, compellingly lifelike the character of Lara Croft is – it is easily the game’s greatest triumph. The actress who served as Lara’s voice actor and who provided her motion capture is truly to be commended for her consistently excellent performance. The effort expended on creating an extensive and varied range of animations to make Lara’s movement seem natural and authentically realistic pays very obvious dividends: watching Lara clambering up a wall or diving from cover to cover, the illusion that she’s dynamically reacting to her surroundings is established and maintained very well.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how fully fleshed out Lara really is as a character – insomuch as she actually genuinely seems like a real person – and how artfully the complexity of her personality and motivations is conveyed. This game, unlike many others, doesn’t condescendingly assume that you’re a simpleton incapable of intuiting how a character is feeling from their dialogue, facial expressions and body language. Thankfully, Lara Croft is no longer the expressionless polygonal model she once was, she now benefits from sophisticated facial animation which allows for the provision of subtle cues as to her reaction to something or her general emotional state. It is in this way that you begin to connect with the character on a personal level, as you have to instinctively decipher the nuances of meaning from these unconscious responses as you would with any real person. When this emotional insight is crudely presented to you via a barrage of patronizing soliloquies conveniently and unambiguously explaining a character’s precise feelings and thoughts, you do start to think of the on-screen characters as merely shallow husks utilizing robotic mimicry of human behavior. In this game though, the characters generally don’t seem like insensible automatons, they seem like real people, and you begin to relate to them as such.
Initially, you don’t really know much about Lara as there is only minimal exposition detailing her backstory and explaining her presence in the story’s scenario, and even this information takes the form of offhand references which you’re left to interpret. Of course, as has been reiterated to death by the game’s marketing, you see Lara Croft evolve into a ‘survivor’ in this game. I was, however, glad to discover that you aren’t beaten over the head by the way this character development is communicated. The transformation she undergoes is depicted with admirable tact and finesse, and her brutalization is realistically gradual and unpleasant. You’re firstly given cause to pity Lara, to empathize with her raw anguish and despair, for she has been thrust into an unimaginably trying ordeal which she was completely psychologically unprepared for. When she breaks down and sobs uncontrollably in response, emotionally overwhelmed by the awfulness of her situation, it’s definitely effective in how it tugs at your heartstrings. From that pivotal turning point onwards though, you see her begin to adapt mentally and physically. It feels like you can actually see her naivety and self-pity being slowly stripped away as she learns to cope with the island’s unseemly rigors. Not far into the game, there’s a really emotionally powerful moment which intrinsically changes Lara as a person and serves to abruptly rob her of her remaining innocence. She thereafter adopts an attitude molded by begrudgingly accepting the horribleness of the things she has to do in order to survive. With her naivety obliterated, the resulting void is filled with rugged determination and grit. I was worried that this process of toughening would continue to its logical conclusion, with Lara becoming overly cold and cynical, but the writers wisely elected for her still intact sympathy and kindness to remain prominent in her actions. All in all, the way that Lara slowly becomes the battle-hardened and intrepid adventurer we know her to be is an extremely engaging process to bear witness to, and it really impressed upon me how far we’ve come in terms of the depth that characters can display in video game storytelling today.
Tomb Raider’s actual gameplay is an enjoyable and well balanced mixture of combat, exploration and puzzle solving. You might be a little dissatisfied with the exact ratio of this mixture, but I doubt you’ll be able to take that much issue with it as each aspect is represented pretty abundantly nonetheless.
The kind of gunplay I’ve come to associate with the Tomb Raider franchise is a combination of heavy lock-on and strafing which ultimately devolves into ridiculously running in circles around enemies whilst pumping them full of bullets. Thankfully, the designers chose to forgo this legacy of clunky shooting mechanics in the combat gameplay of this latest entry. In fact, the combat you’ll experience in this game has been brought in line with what gamers have come to expect from the average modern shooters, which means you’ll repeatedly be taking cover and popping up every so often to exchange volleys of gunfire with enemies. This is absolutely derivative, but it’s a formula which is popular for a reason, and it is executed fairly well here. This cover based combat plays it safe and never really tries to innovate upon the standard formula, but it remains decidedly satisfying throughout nonetheless. Although it takes a little getting used to, the cover mechanic is refined well in this game, as you only need to approach cover to automatically hide behind it and then you go about aiming normally to peek out and shoot. So, the combat gameplay won’t blow you away in this game, but unless you’re excruciatingly fatigued by cover shooters at this point, it will still provide a fair measure of gratifying fun.
I appreciated the inclusion of an upgrade mechanic for Lara’s skills and weapons, as it works well to give you a real sense that you’re tangibly progressing in terms of your abilities and firepower. The skill tree isn’t a branching one however, so you are really just proceeding through a checklist of upgrades until you’ve unlocked them all. When you’ve earned enough XP and amassed enough resources to unlock all the upgrades for both Lara and her tools of destruction, there’s a distinct sense of empowerment as you really do feel like she’s evolved into a formidable bad-ass. You see her begin the game merely trying to distract or hide from enemies and you follow her evolution all the way until she embodies an accomplished and talented killer able to dispatches groups of enemies with graceful ease – it is in this way that you really feel like you’ve witnessed her undergo a complete and radical metamorphosis.
The exploration gameplay aims for a little more complexity than the comparatively safe conventionality of the combat gameplay. As the story progresses, you unlock different abilities which allow you to explore hitherto inaccessible parts of the environment. Again, it’s nothing you haven’t seen done before, but the formula is iterated on a little in various way. I especially liked the novelty of your bow being used to shoot rope lines you can then shimmy across. Basically, scaling walls, vaulting over obstacles and sliding across zip-lines is enjoyable no matter which way you cut it.
Interestingly, this game features a lesser emphasis on puzzle solving than you might expect from a Tomb Raider game, but the occasional occurrence of puzzles during the main story was completely sufficient for my tastes. None of the puzzles are really challenging, especially not with Lara’s ‘Survival Vision’ ability which highlights elements of the surroundings relevant to solving the puzzle (and feels distinctly like cheating somehow), but they have just enough difficulty to require a little lateral thinking now and then.
I was a little taken aback that the majority of the tombs you come across in your travels are akin to optional side missions, and if you choose to bypass them and proceed onwards, you can progress in the main story regardless. Personally, I elected to explore every tomb I encountered. In terms of their design, I liked that the tombs weren’t composed of unrealistically elaborate and intricate architecture, that they resembled what you’d expect a real tomb on an island like this would look like: a small cavern with minimal and respectful decoration. This measure of authenticity really grounded the idea that Lara is performing the patently Indiana Jones style of quick and dirty archeology when exploring them, because they feel like genuine burial places instead of the inexplicably massive systems of catacombs and crypts which abounded previous games in the series. I was not pleased, however, to find that the tombs are essentially shallow puzzle rooms, and that when you complete them you’re merely presented with the same animation of Lara opening a chest and gasping as she beholds the same assorted junk she found in every other tomb she’s raided so far. Beyond the generous allotment of in-game resources you receive, I would have liked some small visual reward like perhaps a relic unique to each tomb for Lara to examine.
I have to say, there’s a reason why the game’s tense and exciting opening section was demoed so extensively: it is probably the game’s strongest and most resoundingly memorable part, and one of the best introductions to a game I’ve experienced in recent memory.
The game’s actual story is inoffensively unremarkable and features a familiarly plodding sequence of revelations concerning the supernatural elements at play. There is, of course, the requisite sprinkling of thoroughly predictable plot twists which will make you groan at how cliche and unsurprising they are. Lara is accompanied by the stereotypical ragtag bunch of other survivors, but these characters actually surprised me by being halfway interesting and fleshed out a little. Though all of these supporting characters benefit from competent voice acting, the actor responsible for bringing Lara’s mentor/father figure Conrad Roth to life sheerly outshines the others with a standout performance and I’d have really liked to see more of him. The main antagonist is a pretty uninspired rendition of a crazed cult leader and provides a fairly ineffective villain for the player to despise; additionally, his character has woefully underdeveloped motivations unless you take the time to read the journals scattered about the game which go about elucidating them, and even then they still seem rather flimsy.
Unfortunately, the game has some serious pacing problems. Some parts are rushed before you have chance to enjoy them and others are prolonged until they’ve considerably overstayed their welcome. An example of the former would be that I felt the early section of the game where Lara is simply trying to get to grips with surviving on the island was prematurely concluded. I would have liked to follow Lara as she struggled to learn how to fend for herself for a good while longer, undertaking all the tasks required to hunt and cook her own food, to make her own shelter, et cetera. I wanted a better sense that she was having to figure things out as she went in order to survive nature’s unforgiving challenges. The hunting and gathering gameplay really seemed like it could have real promise but as soon as it gets introduced, it’s promptly shuffled to the side and unceremoniously forgotten.
The best example of the latter is the game’s uneven storytelling. Despite the narrative being fairly straightforward, it’s nonetheless stretched out via various contrivances to the point where certain dramatic elements are diluted and entirely lose their punch. It was especially jarring to see the story’s impetus be repeatedly injured by several anticlimactic moments. The rate at which the story progresses and the disorderly manner in which it is presented means that Lara’s objective at any one time becomes increasingly difficult to determine. The revelation about the island’s supernatural element is a perfect example of the narrative being stretched far too thin. The uncovering of the island’s mystic power is simply prolonged to the point of absurdity. Despite all the evidence one would need to piece together the truth being repeatedly provided by the preternatural phenomenon and telling accounts Lara encounters during her exploration of the island, it’s only near the game’s conclusion that the penny finally drops and Lara melodramatically realizes there is otherworldly magic at play. Lara’s skepticism and disbelief are simply milked for far too long, and, in turn, your incredulity at this will be too.
I thought that Tomb Raider presents a disappointedly half-hearted pretense of being open-world. You can fast travel back to camps you’ve visited to re-explore their corresponding levels, and use abilities you unlock later in the game to enter previously inaccessible sections there but it just feels like a half-baked design choice. I also constantly felt like I was missing out on exploring parts of the map because I hadn’t the patience or inclination to venture into every tangential nook and cranny, and besides the prospect of finding collectibles there was no real incentive for me to want to do so. Personally, I think the game really shines best during its more linear action sequences, which are often exhilaratingly visceral, and I would have preferred that the game embrace that design philosophy more.
Playing on the PC with the graphical setting on ‘High’, I found that the game ranges between being extremely pretty and outrightly gorgeous. Some of the environments you encounter are really stunning both in their showcasing of an engaging visual style and impressive graphical prowess.
Finally, I want to address two relatively small things which really bugged me during my time with the game, even though these are problems which probably won’t affect most other players. I was repeatedly frustrated by the button prompts you’re presented with during the many QTEs. I really wish that instead of showing the generic symbols associated with the ‘interact’ and ‘melee’ keys they had just showed the relevant keys themselves. So many times I had to repeat a QTE event over and over again because at some point in the chain of button prompts I’d mistake the key I needed to press in response to the symbol being shown and have to start it all over again. Additionally, when playing the game with subtitles enabled – which I’m often wont to do when gaming because I dislike missing lines of dialogue – I found the presentation of the subtitles very lacking as they are simply text backgrounded by a solid black box, and these little subtitle boxes are ugly and distracting.
All things considered, I really enjoyed playing Tomb Raider and experiencing the rich world it creates. The game has a few niggling problems, but my experience with it was far more than the sum of its parts. I came into playing it with few expectations, and left it with the Tomb Raider franchise having firmly planted its flag on my gaming map. This game would have been impressive had it just been a standalone IP, but that it is also so adeptly breathing new life into an existing and much loved franchise really makes it an extraordinary accomplishment. As Tomb Raider’s remarkably poignant final scene came to a close, I realized that the game had inspired within me a potent desire to see where Crystal Dynamics takes this reborn Lara Croft next.
- Lara Croft’s character is extremely well developed and fleshed out, and the nuances of her character arc are conveyed with laudable subtlety
- The gameplay is largely uninventive, but it remains varied and fun nonetheless
- Graphically, the game is decidedly beautiful, and there are some really impressive animations
- The game’s pacing leaves a lot to be desired, and the story is disappointingly by the numbers
- A few small irksome niggles can make for frustrating distractions
- The half-hearted implementation of an open-world element is unfortunate
Article from Gamersyndrome.com