GAME NAME: Tomb Raider
DEVELOPER(S): Crystal Dynamics
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix
PLATFORM(S): PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
GENRE(S): Action Adventure
RELEASE DATE(S): March 5th 2013
Rebooting a beloved series is always risky. While a reboot can offer the opportunity to revitalise a series and it’s characters, fans invested in the mythos can prove a vocal stumbling block. Luckily, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics pull it off in Tomb Raider, a re-imagining of the classic series that first debuted on the Playstation back in 1996. Heroine Lara Croft is stripped back to the basics that will shape her character in future titles, a young archaeologist hungry to make her mark on the world.
This hunger shapes the opening of the game, with Lara and the crew of the Endurance searching the coast of Japan for treasure. Unfortunately they become caught in a terrible storm while exploring the Devil’s sea, an area of water more deadly than the Bermuda Triangle. Within seconds of starting Lara’s life is at risk as the ship is literally torn apart around her. Surviving the wreck, Lara finds herself stranded on an island, separated from the rest of the surviving crew. You’ll spend the next few hours being slowly introduced to the various mechanics that work together to create the core game, shaping Lara into the character we know she’ll become. Flashbacks and dialogue work together to paint a picture of a Lara in training, learning skills she’ll need from the characters she must now help.
However, this creative decision leads to what is my largest problem with Tomb Raider, the growth of Lara Croft within the game. As has been discussed at great length during the development cycle of the game, making Lara vulnerable was a key aspect for Crystal Dynamics, especially as the game starts out. While Lara is not completely useless when she first awakens to find herself trapped by a mysterious individual, her skills are largely untested. While perhaps physically prepared for the adventures ahead, mental toughness is another matter and is definitely explored in those opening hours. Lara expresses regret and reluctance to kill either animals or humans. However, while these expressions of her humanity help to shape our view of Lara, they often clash with the action that immediately follows, leading to moments where Lara butchers a group of men seconds after asking how she can justify the taking of a human life.
Failed humanising attempts aside, the story in Tomb Raider moves at a pleasing pace, allowing Lara to explore a large island that is split into sectors. While it first appears to hint at open world exploration, Tomb Raider is in fact a very linear title, moving you from area to area as the story demands. Each area has an extensive list of both collectibles and challenges, although many require you to return to the area at a later time, perhaps once you have unlocked a skill or ability. This fast travel is handled slickly via campfires, with Lara able to freely move between campsites when at a fire.
As previously mentioned, as the story progresses we see a substantial growth in the character of Lara Croft, from young woman eager to make her mark on the world to seasoned warrior/mass murderer. Nowhere is this growth more obvious than in the XP system. Lara earns XP for completing all sorts of tasks, from taking down enemies and hunting animals to solving puzzles. Accumulate enough XP and you can purchase new skills and abilities for Lara, furthering her growth. You’ll have the chance to unlock all sorts, from an ability to see collectibles through walls to combat dodge counters to make taking down the scores of enemies a little easier, or even upgrading your weapons in a bunch of interesting ways.
Many will be quick to label Tomb Raider as nothing more than an Uncharted clone and while I do feel that’s a little harsh, it’s not that far from fact. Lara is catapulted from combat scenario to combat scenario via huge spectacle events, which usually play out in the form of quick time events. This is a formula that Naughty Dog have all but perfected over the Uncharted trilogy. While Tomb Raider never quite hits the summer blockbuster highs of Uncharted 2, it also varies it’s gameplay slightly when introducing Lara to tombs for her to raid. Unfortunately, these largely consist of a single puzzle, and one that is painfully obvious in it’s solution. This is helped in no small part by Lara’s “survival instinct” vision mode, which allows players to see what’s what in the environment and how they should go about passing whatever currently stands in their way. I would have given up several hours of soul searching and emotional growth of Lara to spend more time exploring ancient tombs, given that this is obviously also key in shaping Lara into the character we all know and love. Unfortunately, we are never given this option, although perhaps this will come with DLC at a future date.
Despite these complaints, you never notice them when you are actually playing the game. Load up Tomb Raider and any gripes you have melt away as you find yourself absorbed in a gripping action adventure, watching Lara grow into something more familiar. The combat is smooth and satisfying, with tight controls and an excellent cover system that looks realistic. Instead of sticking to an object, Lara moves fluidly, taking shelter where the opportunity presents itself. As you progress into the latter third of the game your worries about the dichotomy of Lara’s actions and complaints fade as she becomes more experienced at the art of killing men cold, with the character voicing thoughts along the same lines. Tomb Raider walks a fine line in many senses, almost falling into a hole where a player might question the quality of the title due to early faults of the writing and pacing, but the overall quality of the gameplay experience blows that away as the game draws to a conclusion.
Visually, the game is stunning, with PC definitely being the way to play the game. The PC port was handled by Nixxes, who have previously done sterling work on both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Sleeping Dogs. While the console versions look very nice, they do suffer from some framerate issues from time to time when the action gets intense. However the PC version, utilising AMD’s new TressFX technology, no video game character has ever had hair look this good, especially in the wind and the rain. Individual strands people, we’re through the looking glass here! Seriously though, both Lara and the environments look gorgeous. There are multiple moments where I would scale a cliff or emerge from a forest to find myself just amazed at the vista in front of Lara. Admittedly I have a powerful machine, with an AMD card that’s optimized to take full advantage of TressFX, but the fancy hair tech isn’t limited to AMD’s cards they way Nvidia do with their PhysX so everyone can give it a go, if their machine has a graphics card that up to the task. You will see a performance hit though, my system dropped a few frames per second with it activated but some Nvidia card owners have reported an upto 20 frames per second hit. The audio is also top notch, with the guns sounding nice and punchy the few times I used them, although I preferred to stick with the bow where possible, it’s just so much more satisfying and fits with the story of Lara learning how to survive on her own.
I came away from Tomb Raider with an odd mix of emotions. While playing I had been swept away by a mix of heady action, top notch combat and gorgeous aesthetics, but upon leaving the game I suddenly remembered a small list of annoyances and inconsistencies that somewhat rankled me. However, even upon returning to the game to search out more of the many collectibles, my worries melted away and I once again was absorbed by Lara and her adventures. It’s a credit to the experience Crystal Dynamics have crafted here that once you are actually playing, you simply don’t care about what are, in reality, minor flaws. Flaws that are, with any luck, teething problems for a studio trying to reshape what this series and character are. With stunning visuals, a well directed Hollywood style experience, tight gameplay and a real sense of replayability for those among us who like to chase that 100% completion, Tomb Raider cannot be seen as anything other than a rousing success.