Reviews

Tomb Raider (2013) – Review

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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Crystal Dynamics. Eidos Montreal (Multiplayer)
Publisher: Square Enix
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer 2-8 players
PEGI: 18+

Reinventing a beloved franchise is a dangerous thing, as the recently released DmC: Devil May Cry showed. There’s always going to be arguments over what constitutes a good reboot. How much like the original should it be? What elements should it keep and what elements should be chucked in the design bin?This new Tomb Raider takes us back to Lara Croft’s roots and tells the story of how she became the kick ass explorer we all know and love. Yet this certainly isn’t the Tomb Raider of old – it’s a new beast, one that adheres to a highly cinematic style that fans of the Uncharted series should be familiar with. And that’s the last Uncharted reference you’ll be seeing in this review. So there.

The game opens with our heroine on a ship named  Endurance, heading out to the Dragon’s Triangle to investigate a mysterious island that goes by the name Yamatai. Tagging along is Lara’s mentor Roth, her best friend Sam, a man making a documentary and a few others that make up the main cast of the game. Of course things quickly start to go wrong, and a storm destroys the Endurance, leaving Lara and her friends shipwrecked on the island. What transpires is a tale of survival,  a tale bout how far Lara is willing to go to stay alive and get herself and her friends off  this island that is inhabited by a group of cultists intent on killing them all. As you progress through the game the mysterious nature of the island is revealed, bringing in a heavy supernatural element and some doses of, “the hell was that!?” It’s a strong and enjoyable tale of discovery and adventure, but the true focus is on Lara herself as she goes from survivor to hero, her transition from 21-year old girl that’s completely out of her depth to someone who thrives. Her will to survive and how far she’ll go to stay alive is the driving force behind the game, and it’s expertly done. Lara’s voice actor, one , delivers the great writing with impact and emotion, while superb animation and beautiful cinematic moments help sell Lara as a real person. There’s no shying away from brutality here, either, as Lara gets beaten, battered, drowned, shot, impaled and more throughout her journey, surviving numerous falls and excruciating injuries, all of which her character model show. Realistically Lara should have probably been dead within the first hour or two considering the punishment she takes, but it just gives her character determination as she clambers to her feet once again and continues onwards. It’s easy to become engaged in the story because you care about Lara – she’s the perfect blend between vulnerable and badass. I wanted to help her to survive this hell-hole and escape. It’s powerful, emotional stuff.

The new Lara Croft, already looking a bit bruised and battered.

The new Lara Croft, already looking a bit bruised and battered. And bloody.

Tomb Raider goes a long way to emphasis Lara’s emotional state and create a realistic picture of someone just trying to survive a harsh and unforgiving environment, and because of that the jarring disconnection between the narrative and the gameplay is painfully highlighted. In a strange way, it’s a testament to the game’s superlative writing that it’s so noticeable here. As gamers we’re pretty used to characters thoughts and feelings not matching up to the on-screen action – Far Cry 3 is a good recent example, with Jason trying to deal with the trauma of killing someone while seemingly having forgotten the 20 or so pirates he massacred on his way around the island. Games do this all the time, and so we’ve become accustomed to just ignoring it, but Tomb Raider does such a good job of drawing you in and of portraying Lara’s emotional state that you simply can’t ignore it in Tomb Raider. Lara’s first human kill is a harrowing scene and helps us get invested in Lara’s character – she’s retching, sobbing and clawing at the ground. It’s a brutal scene that’s somewhat marred by the fact that minutes later the game has turned into cover-based shooter and Lara is going to town on people. By the end of the game you’ll have killed hundreds of enemies. This wouldn’t have felt quite so bad if it had been done in a way that made every kill feel like a necessity, but it doesn’t: you’ll set enemies on fire with napalm arrows, stick pickaxes in people’s heads, pull them off cliffs and shoot them through the head at point-blank range. There’s even a skill you can unlock which rewards you for close up brutal kills. Later on Lara say’s she’s surprised by how easy killing is, which goes a little way towards explaining things, but the simple fact is that it doesn’t feel like Lara is just surviving by killing – it feels like she’s thriving, and that doesn’t match up with the demeanor portrayed in her animations and acting. There’s a different between just killing to survive and jamming pickaxes into skulls. Later in the game if Crystal Dynamics have perhaps made her stand up straight and move with more confidence, it would have sold this transition from simple survivor to badass killer, but they don’t, and that takes away a bit of the impact. Likewise Lara’s first animal kill, which is also an emotional and somewhat distressing scene, has its impact lessened by the fact that slaughtering animals bags you XP, but has no other reason for being in the game. Simply said, I have no problem with Lara going from simple survivor to brutal killer, but I just didn’t feel the transition was handled all that well. It’s a reminder that within the game industry storyline and gameplay are still viewed as entirely separate things.

That all brings me neatly onto the combat, something of which you’ll be doing a fair amount of in Tomb Raider. Lara’s default fighting stance is a crouch, and when she gets near cover she’ll automatically hunker down behind it without the need for any button pressing. It’s a system that feels natural and works  well, especially when coupled with the game’s other defensive mechanic, the Scramble button – simply tap that and Lara will scramble, in a beautiful bit of animation work, desperately across the ground, making her harder to hit and letting you move from cover to cover in relative safety. Lara’s arsenal of weapons is fairly limited as befits someone scrounging gear from the land. She’s limited to her trusty bow, which has the longest range and is arguably the game’s sniper rifle, a submachine gun, shotgun and pistol, all of which can be upgraded along the way by gathering Scrap. For instance you can strengthen the limbs of your bow for more damage, increase the clip sizes for your guns by cobbling stuff together and create napalm arrows for some added enemy misery. The core shooting mechanics feel solid, and there’s a sense of danger that’s portrayed well by the simple fact that sticking your head out of cover is often lethal. You’ll need to make good use of Scramble, too, because the game’s enemies often hurl firebombs and explosives, while others will charge you, forcing you to move from cover to cover. Despite all of this, though, Lara’s head-on confrontations with the islands cold-hearted inhabitants aren’t all that great, they merely suffice. They’re fun, they do their job, but they can’t truly contend with some of the best examples of the third-person genre, and honestly they feel a little out of place within the game’s narrative – Lara doesn’t feel like she’s surviving in these encounters, she feels like she’s thriving, blasting straight through enemies with ease which doesn’t really match her portrayed demeanor very well.

It's going pretty well, really.

It’s going pretty well, really.

The few times the game gives you more open combat locations feel more in tune with what the plot is going for. Here you’re given the chance to sneak around and put to great effect Lara’s kick-ass bow, which is silent and deadly. Your pistol may make a nice bang when you pull the trigger, but nothing quite beats the satisfaction that comes from planting an arrow in someones neck. Rather than tackling enemies head-on, it suits the narrative more to have Lara use her wits, speed and agility to thin the ranks of her foes – this feels more like surviving than thriving. Lara’s brutal yet clumsy stealth kills simply help to seal the illusion that’s she’s desperately trying to survive, rather than coolly just blasting through enemies like they’re barely even there.It’s a shame that there’s not more open combat scenarios as I found them to be far more enjoyable than the plain shoot-outs where it came down to simple whack-a-mole gameplay. Here the combat goes from being merely good, to be great.

The story does also make a few other errors along the way. While Lara is a fantastically written and incredibly engaging character, one of the best that I’ve seen in a good while, her supporting cast of characters are a pretty boring lot. Lara’s various friends all have solid voice-acting, but they’re a collection of bland stereotypes and cardboard cutouts that needed to be fleshed out so that they could stand proudly beside the Tomb Raiding heroine. Likewise the local nutcase Matthias, who leads the islands inhabitants, never gets enough screen time and characterization to truly fulfill his role. Truth be told, though, even with its flaws Tomb Raider’s story is a damn good one, and that simply comes down to how engaging Lara is, and how invested you get in her survival.

Yamatai really is an awesome place.

Yamatai really is an awesome place.

Mind you, the highly cinematic style that Crystal Dynamics have chosen to use for Tomb Raider has a lot to do with it, too. There’s a stunning level of detail present within the gameworld and its cinematics, and when coupled with the deft cinematography you’re in for a treat. Outside of the cinematics the camera doesn’t give up on its job, either, and is always beautifully placed to best show off the action. In the first hour the game does rely on cinematics far too much for its own good, but they serve the story so well in building up the tense and heavy atmosphere that it’s easy to forgive this. As the game progresses I do admit that there were moments when I found myself a little annoyed by how often cinematic moments popped up – crawling through an incredibly tight, flooded tunnel brandishing a flaming stick builds the tension well, but after a while it becomes frustrating when my interaction with the game is limited to me just pushing the stick forward. There’s quite a few moments like that, and I found myself split between enjoying such moments for their fantastic production values and getting pissed off at them because I was essentially watching a glorified movie at times. The best example of all of this came when I was climbing a radio tower: rather than an epic platforming challenge, it was a series of cutscenes, but bafflingly the game kept giving me control of Lara back, at which point I’d push up on the stick, move five feet and activate another sodding cutscene. It did this three times, and left me feeling bewildered. Why give me control of Lara if you’re just going to make me move five feet?

This largely just comes down to me, though. The modern trend of having heavily cinematic games is one that I struggle to form an opinion on that I won’t just change the next day, because to me a game should be as interactive as possible, and yet there’s certainly a lot of merit to games adopting a film approach. Few games get the balance between cinematic and gameplay right, and despite my complaints, Tomb Raider does get it largely right. It has outstanding, exciting, intense set-pieces that easily rival some of the best examples from the genre and creates a sensation of tension and atmosphere better than any game I’ve played in a while, and there are also moments when the game marries the cinematic feeling with actual gameplay nearly perfectly – a high camera view as Lara moves across a thin tree suspending above a massive drop, for example, or Lara’s beautiful animations as she makes a death-defying leap, ensuring that they always have me holding my breath.

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Lara spends a lot of time hanging off of things.

We’ve also got to stop and chat about the quick-time-events as well. QTEs can be great when done correctly, and utterly irritating when not. Tomb Raider has the dubious privilege of its QTEs being both. My main gripe with them here is how the opening hour to two hours is filled with QTEs, but then they disappear and just pop up every now and then throughout the game, meaning you’re never quite sure if you should relax in case another one of the bloody things pop up. In those opening hours they also made it rather hard to focus on the cutscenes. However, there are a few moments where Crystal Dynamics nails them, using them to bolster the gameplay nicely.

Almost as central a character as Lara is the island of Yamatai itself, a place so packed full of detail and gorgeous scenery that I often found myself stopping to simply take in the view. There’s some stunning vistas around the island. Despite what it was made out to be during the build-up to release, though, the island of Yamatai isn’t a playground – your progression through the land and through the game as a whole is largely linear. As you move through the story Lara gains new tools that allow her to move about the island. It’s the fairly standard Metroidvania, or Batman: Arkham Asylum, for newer gamers, approach to game design, but it works well and the pacing of Lara’s upgrades is spot-on, as is the natural way in which she finds and incorporates new gear. For example Lara finds a coil of rope that she ties to arrows so that she can cross chasms, while a climbing axe lets her get up those troublesome cliffs. A fast travel system is present throughout the island, and so using these new tools discovered on your journey you can venture back to areas you’ve already been through and use them to access new areas, but really there’s not much reason to explore the explore the island. There’s very few large areas on offer that allow for a true feeling of exploration, and the areas that you can access with new tools are usually little more than just a room or small space. There’s not much in the way of reward, either: there’s no visually cool places to find or unique items to acquire by exploring, instead you’ll find a bit more Salvage and perhaps an artifact, though to be fair those and the various diaries and letters and such do at least give you some neat back story on the island itself and its strange past.

Tomb-Raider-Review-3

There’s some terrible cliche joke about not looking down that would be perfect for this screenshot. NOTE: remember to edit to this screenshot caption before you put it in the review. Don’t forget.

In a nice touch, once you’ve finished up the main storyline you can go back to the island and simply wander around, mopping up those Collectibles as you go.

Though Tomb Raider is a fairly combat heavy experience there’s still plenty of time for death-defying platforming, which, as you would expect, serves as your main means of navigating the dangerous island. There’s absolutely no restrictions on where you can attempt to leap to. There’s no invisible barriers to stop you, nor will Lara refuse to make the jump – you’re at perfect liberty to throw yourself off a cliff – yet despite this platforming is simplistic and easy. The path you need to take is always very clear, and even if you do struggle to see the way forward there’s also Lara’s Survival Instincts, which highlights the route you need to take, and it’s pretty damn hard to fail a jump, because the game is very forgiving when it comes to timing, so unless you’re utterly hopeless you’ll likely never die during platforming sections. The only time I killed myself was when I got adventurous and wanted to see if that branch over there could be leapt to, or if I could make the gap between the side of this cliff to that building down there.  On the one hand the simplicity of the platforming and the ease with which its done lends to the sense that sometimes Tomb Raider can feel like an interactive movie, where you’re essentially running through a glorified cutscene, and yet on the other hand there wasn’t a single leap where I didn’t hold my breath and tense up, despite the fact that I knew Lara would make it. Again, it comes down to the stunning motion capture and the cinematic nature of the game, as well as being engaged in Lara’s character that each leap, shimmy, drop and zipline slide is a breath-holding, death-defying moment. As a result, though it’s easy, platforming is satisfying and fun.

In a nod to the series name there’s a total of seven optional tombs for you to find and raid scattered around the island, each of which ditches combat in favor of platforming and puzzling. These seven tombs are each a highlight of the game,  which is why it’s a shame that they’re really nothing more than a token nod to the game’s name that last just a few minutes apiece – completing all seven tombs barely amounts to 20 or 30 minutes of gameplay in total. Each tomb is a small area with a small puzzle that’s usually physics based and requires a bit of clambering. The puzzles are simple, easy to solve, and yet are always fun to complete, with the reward being a hefty dose of XP and Salvage, as well as a treasure map showing you the locations of the various collectibles in the area. These small sections left me wishing that Crystal Dynamics have chosen to incorporate more of them in to the game. It also left me wishing that they’d thrown some puzzle sections into the main storyline as well.

Who is willing to bet we'll see more tombs as DLC in the future?

Who is willing to bet we’ll see more tombs as DLC in the future?

That also brings us onto the subject of XP and Salvage. Like most games these days Tomb Raiser incorporates an XP system that allows Lara to level up and learn new skills as she makes her way across the island. XP is usually gained by killing the folk that are unlucky enough to get in your way, and then spent on a small but solid offering of different skills. There’s nothing too spectacular for you to choose from, but it does lend a nice sense of progression to the game, even if the brutal execution skills you can unlock feel at odds with Lara’s character. Likewise your hard-earned Salvage is used to upgrade your weapons, explained as Lara simply scrounging parts and managing to do some DIY work on her gear. Clip sizes can be increased, bow limbs can be strengthened and more. Meanwhile, sets of weapon parts can be found around the island that constitute a serious upgrade if you gather together all three components and put them together,  turning your regular shoddy bow into a more powerful recurve bow, or your basic pistol into a more kickass tactical pistol. Combat isn’t the most challenging so it never feels like you actually need to upgrade your limited weapon selection, which is a shame given that going back to explore locations is based around getting Salvage and parts, but once again it lends a nice sensation of progression to the game, and the visual changes that come from building better versions of your gear and upgrading are nice to behold.

Once you’ve worked your way through the 12-15 singleplayer campaign, we come to the much discussed multiplayer, a surprising addition to a series that has always been focused on giving us a singleplayer experience. The good news is that the multiplayer side of the game is completely functional. The bad news is that it’s not very good. Despite claims that the multiplayer wouldn’t wasn’t tacked on , that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s shallow, bland and pointless. To be entirely fair to Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal, who were  the team responsible for developing it, the multiplayer most likely wasn’t tacked on to the game, and plenty of thought probably went in to creating it, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling tacked on.

Lara can kick ass. Some things never change.

Lara can kick ass. Some things never change.

Multiplayer takes on the form of the islands crazy cultists versus the survivors of the Endurance shipwreck in 4 vs 4 action across just five maps and four modes. While the selection of maps may be small, at least there’s some interesting ideas to be found in the modes. There’s the standard Team Deathmatch and Free For All options present, but Rescue offers up a neat concept in that one team is tasked with retrieving five medical kits while the other team must kill them a total of 25 times. Meanwhile Cry for Help tasks you with stealing the other teams batteries while they attempt to activate radio beacons. These modes work well, and for obvious reasons are more interesting than the staple Deathmatch options. As for the maps they incorporate some of the traversal elements from the singleplayer game, so you can use a climbing axe to scale cliffs and use ziplines to get around a bit quicker. You’re also free to clamber up on anything that’s reachable. Interestingly there’s also a sprint function, which is oddly absent from the singleplayer. A final twist comes in the form of environmental traps, such as snares and lighting rods, that can be set by players, a feature that we’ve seen from the Uncharted series. (Okay, fine, so I did make a second Uncharted reference)

Alongside that the typical progression system is present, with XP earned for kills and victories and new gear unlocked as you move up through the ranks, which you do at a fair pace. Weapons, upgrades and skills must all be purchase using Salvage, so you’ll have to choose what you want carefully. A little bit of extra Salvage can even be earned by exploring each map, though the two power weapons, which come in the form of a Mini-gun and Competition Bow, are far better reasons to do so.

Yeah, f*ck you, deer!

Yeah, f*ck you, deer!

So, what’s my problem with the multiplayer, then? The simple fact is that the combat which worked quite well in singleplayer just doesn’t translate effectively into a competitive format. The action is serviceable, but doesn’t feel particularly exciting or interesting. Despite a few good ideas, it simply feels bland and largely pointless. Connection problems and serious lag also plagued my time with it, and even just two weeks after release there doesn’t seem to be very many people playing. Finally, there’s some serious balance issues in the Cry For Help and Rescue modes which skew the advantage to one team or the other considerably. My conclusion, then, is that in the inevitable sequel multiplayer either needs a major overhaul or needs to simply be removed entirely.

Oh, and why can’t you fire from the hip in multiplayer? That just feels weird when you’re using a shotgun.

In some ways Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider is a fairly generic action game. It adheres to most of the tropes we expect to see these days, with an emphasis on shooting and high-octane cinematic set-pieces and engrossing, and doesn’t do much that we haven’t already seen. The mixture of skillful platforming and puzzle solving that the older games were known for has pretty much disappeared, and so in that regard Tomb Raider has arguably lost what was at the core of the series in order to appeal to the modern action crowd. It’s an understandable decision on Crystal Dynamics’ and Square Enix’s behalf, if a bit disappointing. However, despite my negative sounding words, Tomb Raider is one hell of a ride from start to finish. Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer for Tomb Raider, has given us a modern Lara Croft that’s the most engaging character I’ve seen in a while, and Crystal Dynamics have created a fantastic action game with some outstanding cinematic qualities. Occasionally it can feel like a movie with game elements rather than a game with movie elements, but it’s never boring. It’s thrilling from beginning to end, and as such is a great return to glory for the franchise. Hopefully in future installments we can see more emphasis on the puzzling and platforming, but for now this is a game I can easily recommend.

The Good:
+ Never a dull moment.
+ Lara’s actually got a personality!
+ Stunning set-piece moments

The Bad:
- Multiplayer.
- The Tombs need so much more meat to them.
- No puzzling in the main storyline.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Crystal Dynamics’ telling of Lara Croft’s early years is a great action game that delivers intensely cinematic gameplay and set pieces. Lara’s back, and better than ever.

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7 replies »

  1. “Of course this new Tomb Raider game isn’t technically a reboot, rather it takes us back to Lara Croft’s roots and tells the story of how she became the kick ass explorer we all know and love.”

    Yes, it IS a complete reboot. It is not an origin story in the continuity of the previous games that leads to the Lara of previous games. The developers have been very clear about this. This game takes place in a new Tomb Raider universe with a new Lara Croft and an entire new continuity. Please amend your review so that the facts are straight.

    • Whoops, that bit was supposed to be amended before publication. Sadly the updated version was lost when a HDD decided that explosions were fun, and I must have forgotten that this one didn’t have the edit.

      Cheers for reminding me!

  2. Great review! I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. I wasn’t the biggest Tomb Raider fan growing up, but this looks too good to pass up.

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