I remember the last game like Tomb Raider I played. A once strong and stoic character whom the gaming community respected was getting a reboot, one that was supposed to make said character feel more real and vulnerable. Someone who was once a deity of gaming was going to be taken apart, put through the wringer, and made to feel human. I was excited to see a new take on this character, as the last time I had a look into her personality was back on my GameBoy Advance.
You may have determined by now that I’m not talking about Uncharted 3. I’m talking about Metroid: Other M, a game that was supposed to make us see Samus Aran as more than just an attractive and incredible woman in a space suit, but instead made most of the gaming community cringe with despair. For the first time ever, Samus was going to speak and we were going to get a deep and raw look into her innermost thoughts. Much to my (and many others’) chagrin, all that ‘raw emotion’ came across as submissiveness. She had to recieve permission from her commanding officer to use functions in her suit to keep her alive, and was reminiscing on adventures from days gone by with a teenage sense of meloncholy. Other M’s portrayal of Samus did not make me understand what made her tick. It did not make me feel closer to her, and it did not make me feel as though I had seen her in a new light. It made me feel sorry for Samus: because not only had a grand opportunity for story telling been wasted, but a great character had been perverted.
So it was with this in mind that I went into Tomb Raider worried. I never had much concern for the Uncharted comparisons. After all, I enjoyed Uncharted and besides; everyone spent so much time calling the first one “Dude Raider” that I felt like Crystal Dynamics knew that they would need to alter the gunplay and climbing enough to make them feel different. No, I was worried for Lara as a character. It wasn’t enough for me that they had brought her generous bust down to realistic size, made her clothes more practical, or were willing to have her get hurt. I wanted substance with all this gritty and new style, I wanted to be interested in Lara. If she was supposed to be this classy, interesting adventurer, why was the gaming community gossiping about her recent adventures behind her back and treating her like some cheap hussy? While I can’t speak for past entries into the series, the newest Tomb Raider makes Lara Croft and her style of adventuring not only unique, but reestablishes her as an important character with nuances and feelings; not just curves and guns.
Title: Tomb Raider
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: March 5th, 2013
Platform: Multi (PS3 reviewed)
Before I delve too deep into why I love this game, it is important to establish one thing Tomb Raider should have brought from Lara’s history: puzzles. Though there were times in the game when I found myself wondering where to go next, the moments never lasted long and had nothing to with a difficult puzzle. Indeed the hardest puzzles in the game are really just finding all the collectibles, and even that is remedied with
Batman’s detective mode Lara’s survivor instincts. With a press of the L2 button everything around Lara becomes black and white with interesting things in the environment being highlighted with gold. I suppose these instincts aren’t as broken as some games with similar functions, as the effect wears off when you move; but when you put something like that in a game series with a long history of puzzles, it makes things feel broken and cheapens the experience. None of the hardest puzzles are really part of the main story anyways, as all the tombs in the game are optional. Fun though these tombs are, they are all quite short and just make you want more. This desire isn’t a bad thing, but when you compare these short and separated brain benders with the action that fills the mainstay of the game, you are left wanting for more Zelda-like puzzles.
Indeed every area of the game is accomplished in feeling varied and different, which almost adds to the disappointment I felt for the lack of challenging puzzles. From a stormy cliff face, to underwater caverns, ancient Japanese villages, and even a shanty town with a large pulley system; all of Tomb Raider could be compared to a Super Mario game with it’s rich and varied locations. And with so many interesting locations brimming with architecture, I could never help but wonder why the developers didn’t see more opportunities to challenge the player’s intellect. That is to say, the game looks gorgeous. Even the things that aren’t supposed to be pretty, like cuts and bruises on Lara’s skin have a gritty level of detail that adds to the “I need to survive” mentality of the game. That is one thing I particularly enjoyed about Tomb Raider’s pacing that I wish more games shared: once combat has died down, you’ve got time to admire the area and search for pickups. It sounds small, but even the majesty of Uncharted didn’t always allow me such luxuries in each chapter. It’s a welcome thought for completionists like me.
Though I gushed about Lara’s depth earlier, her supporting cast does not share such intricacies. Most characters fall into a certain archetype, even if the fall is subtle. From the elder mentor who knew your father, or the spunky best friend, to the large tribesman who treats Lara like a little sister; it isn’t hard to relate them to someone you’ve met in a game before. I found the narratives told in the scrolls and journals you find more interesting than the thoughts of my travel companions. Unlike my fellow 3PP reviewers, I was willing to forgive some weak character development because my guess is that after this game’s success we will be seeing more of this new Lara; but not more of her companions. Tomb Raider is still largely a solitary adventure after all, and we get to see plenty of emotion and development from Lara.
What I enjoy most about Tomb Raider‘s emotional moments is how the game tries to envelop the player in the moment via gameplay. By far one of the strongest moments of the game, and any game in recent memory, is the first time the developers put a gun in Lara’s hands. Lara picks up a handgun, time slows to an incredible crawl, and the player is left to aim at the enemy running towards you. The catch is that poor Lara is wobbling left and right like any inexperienced shooter would, making the player miss several times and mounting a sense of worry as game over draws near. The moment is both quick and intense, but creates one of the best senses of urgency I’ve experienced in a game in a l0ng time. This feeling persists through the early parts of the game when Lara is still learning and truly struggling to survive, as the game puts players in some situations that are startling, mature, and make Lara feel very human. From gruesome deaths at the failure of a quicktime event, to a tense moment where our protagonist fights off potential sexual assault, Tomb Raider proves it has grown into a mature woman and no longer needs the cheap tricks of scanty clothes to earn its very M rating.
The climbing is par for the course for just about any third person adventure game, with X having you jump and ascend ledges, circle letting you drop below, and in a small twist the square button is often used to cling to walls when losing grip, or to use tools to ascend special rock faces. Touches like this are small, but go a long way in making me think of Tomb Raider as more than just Uncharted starring Lara Croft. As for combat, most situations can be approached guns blazing (a viable, but unwise option) or with a sense of finesse and stealth; allowing you to squeeze extra amounts of experience points out of each execution. There were entire sections I found myself doing entirely differently from Sam, simply because I approached with more caution and kept quiet. The aforementioned experience points will eventually lead to you leveling up and allowing you to pick a new skill, all of which are surprisingly useful. Leveling up may be slow, but I was never left thinking, “This skill seems useless” (I’m looking at you, FarCry 3). Despite your enhancements, you can still expect to die frequently at some parts, usually due to the sheer staggering number of enemies descending upon you. At times you will being to wonder how there are even any survivors left on the island, as you feel as though you have slaughtered them all.
Other minor complaints I have revolve around a lot of things that I feel like the developers wanted to do more with but scrapped for one reason or another. Early on the game has you hunt a deer because Lara is starving, and though it seems to be leading up to some kind of interesting hunger system; the game does nothing more with it, other than letting you know you can hunt and scavenge animals for EXP and loot to upgrade your weapons. These weapon upgrades are a simple system that works well, doesn’t waste your time with superfluous attachments, and feels rewarding when you find rare parts that allow you to acquire a whole new tier of weapon; but something about it still felt like it was once something more complicated. I wonder if Crystal Dynamics once had larger systems in place to add to the survival feeling, but trimmed them down to make the experience feel more concentrated.
Unlike my fellow reviewers, a few minor complaints didn’t stop me from having a blast with this game. If you’ve never played a Tomb Raider before, please do yourself a favor and jump on board now. This is a strong way to reboot the series, and I hope we see more of the new Miss Croft in the future. Welcome back, Lara. The new look suits you.