Review: Tomb Raider

Junch straps on his dual pistols, infinite space backpack and braids his hair into a ponytail in preparation to play the next Tomb Raider installment- oh wait, they’ve changed up her image?  She doesn’t have any of those cool things yet?  Her bewbs are more realistically sized now?  What’s going on?  Read on to find out.

In the old Tomb Raider games, the environment itself was the narrative, puzzle, and reward. The world itself, geographically and spatially was what drew gamers to it. You had to traverse precarious ledges and jump to neatly tucked away holes that could only be spotted with a keen eye from the right angles and entered via a string of precisely executed moves. Solutions were so obscure that most gamers had to grit their teeth to push through, use walkthroughs, or just plain give up altogether.

Environment is still key in the new Tomb Raider game but it isn’t as heavily focused upon as before. In the spirit of making a wholly accessible game, the hardcore exploratory and platforming puzzles that made up the backbone of the old Tomb Raider games have now been reserved to single rooms. This means that if you find yourself scratching your head as to how to solve them, you can just as easily walk away and continue the story proper. There is a good reason to explore these rooms though, the rewards let you upgrade your Lara to be more pwnage (the upgrading mechanic I will touch upon a little later). I just wish that they weren’t so much about cranking levers, fiddling with man-made contraptions and timing leaps of faiths, and more about complex death-defying platforming through natural environments.

Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics are marketing their Lost-like island as an open world, but in truth, it’s not really. It lets you quick travel between campfire waypoints, but if you open the map, you’ll see that it’s pretty much one straight path to the finish line – you can’t actually jump from A to C narratively, and then circle back to B. You have to go from A to B to C.

But what “open” world is there, is really fun. It’s like playground pockets for you to explore, both horizontally and vertically. Those bits are in true Tomb Raider spirit, slowing the pace down so you can take your time exploring every nook and cranny. Some are so expansive that you have to just stop and ask yourself in amazement, “Where do I begin?” Every other time though, you’re being funnelled through a thrilling rollercoaster ride on a single set of tracks. There are a fair number of quick-time events, and explosions that go off all around you, and you have to run through ‘em like a proper movie star. But those are the kind of things that make triple-A blockbuster games a lot money nowadays isn’t it?

The game is helluva pretty. When you see the dense, lush foliage, and the light filtering through the trees, for the first time, it is beautiful sight to behold. And this is the same throughout the entire game, there are some interesting places – ruined temples with gilded Buddha statues, abandoned WW2 bunkers, a Nepalese-esque shanty – you really do feel like you’re going on an adventure through some hidden mystical island. I would even call it a cut above the already nice-looking stuff in Far Cry 3. Lara Croft herself is well animated, she looks and moves like a real person, but that comes as no surprise seeing as they mo-capped Camilla Luddington the whole way through. If you play on the PC, AMD has this extra feature called tressfx which means that every strand of hair on Lara’s head billows in the wind realistically. But also drops the frame rate by a bajillion.

Story-wise, Lara Croft is written younger, more naïve, and will go through a series of physical and emotional traumas in order to grow to become the iconic heroine we all know and love. Rhianna Pratchett, the game’s writer, sure loves to put the heroine through some gruesome stuff, and it succeeds in making us more invested in her survival. I enjoy sitting my friends down and having them play through the opening sequence, watching their reaction at that bit when Lara gets skewered by a really long and definitely rusted nail.

Though I found it interesting that a game intentionally written with a realistically empowered female character, then has her being helped by three supporting male characters who coincidentally ALL die so that she could either be saved or progress further in the story. In that weird way, she is just as much the damsel in distress as capable heroine. It’s an interesting tension to consider but disrupts my infatuation with her gritty survival kickass-ness. She always seems to lower her guard around these men and is trusting of her safety in their midst.

As for the whole narrative, it’s a rather predictable story featuring a dumb paper-thin cast who remains for the most part, thankfully, separated from Lara waiting about for her to solve all their problems and save them from the island’s mustache-twirling villain. The game is at its strongest when it’s just about Lara leaping about, traversing rocky cliff edges by her fingertips, and exploring beautiful, natural landscapes.

My favorite feature though, has to be the archaeology bits. Whenever you come across loot chests that contain random artifacts from the island’s past, Lara would enthusiastically launch into a little bit of a history lesson. And while it is a bit of a disconnect, especially when just a moment earlier you might be running away from bloodthirsty island savages, it really captures the spirit of what tomb raiding is all about. The artifacts yo!

It’s probably a good time to talk about the combat. It’s serviceable. As in, the guns shoot just fine, and the bow and arrow is a pretty kickass weapon, but I just don’t like the bits that involve killing people too much. There are several reasons for this: 1) the combat sequences all take place in stupid closed-off “arenas”, and most times, you’re forced to actually take out all the enemies before progressing, 2) there are way too many full-on, heavy combat bits in the later half of the game. There’s even one bit where you take on an entire army of undead samurai; it’s just fatigue-inducing. Just give us a handful of combat bits paced out nicely throughout the lovely platforming bits.

The skill tree mechanic is the most pointless addition to the game though. There are only so many choices to make that if you’re hardworking enough to level up enough points, you will eventually get all the skills. It just becomes a case of which skills you’d like to have first, and which ones you can afford to delay. The early-game hunting ones are useless because there is only ever one time when Lara gets hungry in the entire game, at that’s the first deer hunting objective. Did Crystal Dynamics forget to keep using that game mechanic for the rest of the game?

I’d much rather have left the skill development to a slow-but-steady dripfeed throughout the game. After all, we get given crucial abilities like the rope arrow, fire arrow, and the ability to traverse cliff faces with a climbing axe at the game’s discretion, so maybe they can just tell us when we’ll be able to whack someone with that same axe, or pick up dirt from the ground and throw it at an enemy’s face. Because yeah, we kind of need to level up to learn how to do that (read: sarcasm).

That and the combat are small niggles in an otherwise wholly fun adventure romp. When the game forgoes its weird supernatural plot about some evil bitch witch queen from feudal period Japan and is just purely about Lara’s struggles with all the odds against her, it is an incredibly rousing, emotionally engaging experience. For this alone, I’d say she is a significant addition to the modern day hall of gaming heroes, a palate cleanser from this generation’s overtly-machoistic soldier-men who don’t shed tears or show vulnerabilities. As a video game character, this new Lara is written to be more human than most.

Certainly, everyone will compare this to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise, because that one also has a protagonist running and jumping through exploding buildings, plane wreckages, also exploring temples, picking up treasures and fighting off evil humans and the occasional magical shit.

But remember that Tomb Raider did that first many years ago. So what’s Tomb Raider got that Uncharted doesn’t? Or does it matter? No, it doesn’t because only the most raging of fans care to have these sort of “Drake’s the ultimate gaming Indiana Jones wannabe”, “No, Lara shot first” type debates. Frankly, I’m just happy that as a PC gamer, I could get to play a cinematic epic adventure game seeing as PS3 has a lame exclusive-thing going on with Uncharted.

So welcome, new Lara. If after getting skewered on a lot of sharp objects, face-bashed a couple of times and dropped from high places a few more, makes you want to continue adventuring through deadly-death-trap filled ruins, then kudos to you, you masochistic thing you. I look forward to it.

Better run Forrest.

Talky talk

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