Tomb Raider Review8 Mar 2013  by
There was a type of player that would occasionally fire up the old Tomb Raider games specifically to kill Lara Croft. Yeah, you know who you are. You were annoyed or frustrated (or a sadist) and just wanted to let off some steam, so you’d have Lara swandive off the nearest cliff or keep her underwater until she gurgled and drowned.
Crystal Dynamics have apparently taken this to heart, because this Tomb Raider reboot could very easily be called Lara Croft Gets Brutalised by the Environment (although I concede that’s not as snappy). As you’ve probably seen in videos, within half an hour of gameplay Lara’s been shipwrecked, knocked out, hung upside down, impaled with a spike, nearly crushed by boulders, soaked through and frozen by rain, attacked by wolves, and has probably fallen and slid through one or two holes. By the halfway mark, the environment has upped its game and started attacking her with waterfalls, trees, and avalanches. At least one mandatory objective is essentially “seek medical attention.” If you morbidly enjoyed watching Lara suffer at the metaphorical hands of the elements, new Tomb Raider has you covered.
I was not one of these people. In fact, I wasn’t actually a Tomb Raider fan at all. Lara had no character whatsoever, and the environments didn’t particularly captivate me; I like exploring in games, but the first few Tomb Raider games always felt vast and empty. They weren’t bad games, but they simply weren’t for me.
As far as I’m concerned, new Tomb Raider remedies all of these issues. This might not bode well for those who cut their teeth on 1996 Lara, but I suspect there’s plenty here for everyone to enjoy.
First and foremost, Lara is now a character rather than a sexualised caricature. Tomb Raider essentially tells the story of what happened to turn Lara into the acrobatic adventurer we all know – which is probably why she has such a bad time with nature. She’s athletic, certainly, but she’s nonetheless an inexperienced student who’s out of her depth. This Lara doesn’t gracefully do a handstand as she pulls herself onto a ledge; she merely hauls herself up. As such, she’s not exactly experienced with cave-ins sending massive boulders her way.
She’s well-written and well-voiced right the way through, and this keeps her believable and likeable even when the constraints of the game force some of the characterisation out the window. For instance: the time from her killing another human being in self-defence and dry-heaving over the horror of it, to her engaging in a gunfight with multiple assailants, is about 60 seconds. Yeeeeah.
It’s an eyebrow-raising moment (and, indeed, the first few hours of the game are easily the weakest in terms of both gameplay and plotting; they’re the most linear and give you the least options, and play out as slowly as a survival horror game to build up the tension) but if you can put that aside then Lara’s growth as a character works pretty well throughout. As the plot proceeds she gains confidence, strength, and determination, and it’s pleasant and enjoyable both to go through this adventure with her and to watch her grow. While I certainly can’t do 90% of the things she does here, she’s nonetheless a lot more relatable than the Lara of old.
Sadly, the other characters don’t get quite so much screen time and suffer a little because of it. Diary entries scattered around the game provide extra insight into both the minds of the characters and into the possibly supernatural goings-on that have trapped so many people on this mysterious island, but this is pretty much the only real characterisation offered to a few members of the cast. These documents are all well-written, well-voiced, and are absolutely worth seeking out, but a fair few of Lara’s band of survivors do fit snugly into the role of “necessary plot device” rather than “believable and likeable character.” The writing and voice acting is of a high enough quality that it’s hard to mind too much, but not caring about the survivors does detract from the pathos and drama of some later scenes.
Secondly, this island is actually an enjoyable place to be, in a virtual sense. (Well, barring the ferocious wolves, the local cult of lunatics, and the fact that nature really has it in for Lara.) The environments are lush and inviting/dark and creepy, and are littered with things to find and to do. Each region of the game contains the aforementioned documents as well as relics that give Lara a chance to show off her archaeology chops, GPS cache markers that are scattered around for the hell of it, salvage crates that usually contain materials for upgrades, and a fair few region-specific sidequests.
You’re never short of things to do, and simply exploring is a real joy thanks to how good traversal feels. The regions are well laid-out, often offer multiple paths (some of which are blocked off, Metroidvania style, until you get more equipment later in the game) and are full of hidden nooks and crannies. Once Lara gets a bit of extra equipment she starts to feel more like the adventurer you remember; she can scale a cliff face with a climbing axe, connect one post to another with a rope arrow, and then rocket down the new zipline by hooking her axe handle over it. Working out how to get from A to B can be a big part of the experience, and in the bigger areas, there’s usually more than one way to do it.
It’s not, however, a strictly open world – the island is an amalgam of big regions, a la Batman: Arkham Asylum, and just like that game you follow an entirely linear critical path which nonetheless offers you plenty of chance to wander off and explore. This isn’t a bad thing thanks to the depth the aforementioned regions have, but it’s still a bit of a shame that this gigantic, lush environment feels like a discrete set of areas rather than a huge explorable island. The area boundaries are fairly well hidden – there are no loading times when walking from one to another – but I never really had the sense that the beach where I started was just over that mountain I could see in the distance. Although the game probably would’ve made Lara fall off it anyway, so maybe that’s for the best.
Besides traversal, you’ll be doing a lot of shooting. Lara’s still into killing off wildlife, although for the most part the only real animal threat is that of wolves so big they’ve apparently evolved to digest spinach, because everything else around – from crabs to gulls to boars (no dinosaurs or particularly rare and endangered animals, I’m afraid) – is just there to be hunted for experience points. Instead, your main threat is the Solarii, the cult that have set up shop on the island and are the primary antagonists throughout the game.
As with traversal, combat offers options. Other than picking which of Lara’s weapons to employ (which are upgraded both as the plot proceeds and as you gather salvage), you’ve also got the option of going in guns blazing, or playing it stealthy and picking off guards silently with your bow. The latter almost inevitably devolves into the former, and while it’s still reasonably intense and exciting, there’s really little new in the combat stakes. It’s a hell of a lot better than the combat in every other Tomb Raider game, but it’s pretty much Just Another Cover Shooter, and while Lara can’t take much fire, it’s also rather easy once you get used to rolling from cover to cover and dodging melee assailants.
This emphasis on combat has caused puzzles to fall to one side a bit, and they’re now mostly found in the optional tombs dotting the areas. They’re generally logical and – as with most other aspects of the game – satisfying, with a heavy focus on physicality. Most involve working out how to weigh something down, or manipulate the environment to help you get from A to B; there are even some timed elements, such as when you have to catch a rising elevator before it gets too high to reach, and then leap off it onto a distant ledge before Lara’s weight causes it to sink too low.
The one aspect of the game that really doesn’t work too well are the QTEs, and there’s one reason for this: the PC version, at least, does a piss-poor job of explaining how they work. In order to save Lara from repeated bouldery doom when you play this: if the QTE involves two concentric circles, press melee attack – not the Use button – after the big circle shrinks into the smaller one. Because the game never explained this to me. Because it likes crushing Lara with boulders.
That aside, the PC port is superb. I unfortunately can’t side with what is apparently the entire internet, because the only crashes I suffered were when I alt-tabbed. The game looks gorgeous, almost universally controls fine with mouse and keyboard, and offers plenty of graphical tweaks for those who want them (for the record, the screens here are from my computer running on Medium detail). There’s no FOV slider but the game mostly zooms out on its own when needed, and the only real issue I hit was that the multiplayer apparently offers no option to disable voice chat, which meant I had to unplug my webcam or torture my teammates with constant echoing gunshots.
Tomb Raider‘s only real problem, in fact, is that it doesn’t go far enough. It feels a little… safe. The multiplayer is fine but feels entirely like a bolt-on; combat is exactly what you’d expect; the puzzles are clever but way too few; the traversal and exploration create giant joysplosions in my brain, but not as much as they would if the world itself were a bit more open and cohesive.
But maybe it’s a little churlish to complain about that, and as complaints go, “playing it a bit too safe” isn’t really a huge cause for alarm. This is the first entry of a rebooted franchise and it’s a really, really good one. There’s still plenty of room for both Lara and the game to grow, and I’m eager to see these mechanics – and Lara’s character – evolve as this series hopefully continues.