Tomb Raider Review

Rebooting any franchise is historically fraught with peril.  Attempting to reinvent a property for a new audience while retaining the previous fanbase is easier said than done, and more often than not results in splitting audiences between both visions.  Despite these hurdles, Crystal Dynamics took on the arduous task of redefining Tomb Raider, and by extension, iconic hero Lara Croft.  After a lengthy development cycle and several unfortunate public relations missteps, Tomb Raider 2013 released with a wide variety of expectations and baggage.

Does it deserve the level of animosity that many direct at it?  Did it fully realize a grounded and relatable young female hero that some were looking for?

The answers to those questions cannot be boiled down to simple yeses and noes.

The game throws a young Lara and her wayward companions, who’d set out to discover the lost island of Yamatai, shipwrecked due to dangerous waters. Regrouping upon arrival, our hero embarks on a crash course in survival as she experiences firsthand the harshness of both the terrain and the mysterious antagonist force that presides over the island.  The tone is significantly darker and more oppressive than previous entries in the series, focusing on the physical and emotional struggle of a young woman dealing with intense life threatening situations that most people would collapse under.  In actuality, it is closer to a horror game at times than your typical action-shooter.

In typical Tomb Raider fashion, the gameplay consists mostly of environment traversal and gun combat, though the emphasis becomes more and more combat-centric as the campaign progresses.  Experience points are gained constantly; these can be spent on upgrading weapons or melee skills at various campsite points on the map.  The island is very complex and massive, and there are little collectibles throughout that help motivate the player to search every inch of an area, both for story nuggets or for in game experience.  Everything about this game from a mechanic standpoint is incredibly well designed, from the solid, tight controls to the variety of skills and weapons you can unlock to the way in which new areas become available to the player as new abilities are unearthed.  You can really see where the team at Crystal Dynamics looked at all the prolific games this generation and borrowed all the right things from them.

The game ends up feeling a little bit “Uncharted,” a little bit “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” and a little bit of a lot of other successful shooters. While some might decry it for not taking more bold, original chances in terms of gameplay, I think that learning from the best can only benefit everyone, and this game is a shining example of that philosophy.

Where Tomb Raider really stumbles is how it marries the ambitious narrative elements at play in the story versus the tone of the combat sequences.  There are many moments where the cut-scenes drive home just how painful, traumatic, and seemingly hopeless Lara’s situation is, yet immediately afterwards it will awkwardly cut back to standard run and gun gameplay where she barely seems phased.

Another example of the dissonance between the tone of the narrative and the mechanics of the game is the constant barrage of on screen prompts, experience notifications, and mission updates.  Just about everything you do in this game comes with a very “video gamey” update that undermines the dark, grounded presentation of the story, and serves to remove the player from the narrative experience.  While these updates may be done in service of a more satisfying gameplay experience, they come at a cost.  One almost gets the feeling that there was a divide as to what direction to take the game and these moments are the result of that.

Another weak point would be the segments where Lara and her crew converse for significant periods of time, which really show the development team’s weakness when it comes to writing, acting, and animation.  While Naughty Dog, creators of Uncharted, set the high bar for writing, voice acting, and mo-cap in games this generation, it’s made clear that Crystal Dynamics has a lot of work to do in realizing believable characters with quality performances in games.  I hope that if we see another entry in this new Tomb Raider series, the developers will really look closely at these parts of the game. Such scenes killed the momentum of the gameplay and made me loathe all of Lara’s friends because they were goofy, awkward, and melodramatic.

In the end, we’re left with an extremely ambitious, gorgeous, and generally fun to play action-adventure game with really effective moments that just didn’t quite nail the story elements as well as it could have.  This version of Tomb Raider has a lot of potential, and with the groundwork laid for future sequels, there is reason to be hopeful that the next game could be everything this game was and more.

Review Haiku:

Quality gameplay
Lara Croft’s return to form
Story needs some work

Pros:

- The environments are beautiful and fun to traverse.
- Combat is solid.
- The bow is an awesome weapon.

Cons:

- Goofy story and writing.
- Limited side quests.
- Tons of quicktime events.

Score, if you’re into that kind of thing: 8/10


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