Review: Tomb Raider
I never had any desire to protect Lara Croft or to play as her. I never found her particularly attractive as an icon or video game character; her enormous breasts and hot pants only served to fuel my disinterest. I bring that up because the look of her character seemed to be constructed with the sole purpose of demanding such an attraction (the first Tomb Raider being released in 1996, my little nine-year old adolescent self was part of the target demographic). I never doubted the quality of the games or the fact that they were critically-acclaimed, but right off the bat I was just one of those people who could not wrap their head around how exactly he was supposed to take this character seriously. This all changed in 2011.
That was the year that we received the first teaser trailer for the reboot of Tomb Raider. ‘Reboot’ is a word that we throw around a lot these days, particularly because it is a trend that cannot be escaped. Everything imaginable has been rebooted, reimagined, reinvigorated, or revived in some way, shape, or form. Reboots have been mostly confined to the mediums of television and film, and there have been examples where they have worked out (Casino Royale, Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk) and where they have failed miserably (Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek).
Games have started a similar trend of reviving or attempting to reinvigorate older intellectual properties (DmC: Devil May Cry, New Super Mario Bros.), though it is not as widespread as it is in the two aforementioned mediums. Also, the lines can be a bit more blurred when it comes to video games. Tomb Raider was such a big deal for me personally because it represented such a tonal shift from a series that I previously found unappealing – that teaser trailer made these last two years feel very, very long.
Tomb Raider faced a number of challenges. Developer Crystal Dynamics took the formulas and paradigms of the original series – and its off-shoots – and turned everything on its head. Amidst obvious complaints related to the direction of the series, unfair comparisons to Uncharted and ridiculous accusations of subjecting the character to “rape” in order pander to the lowest common denominator; Tomb Raider fought an uphill battle at times.
As a Star Trek fan, I understood the resistance to taking a formula that more or less had worked and tossing it aside in order to reboot the franchise and bring in new fans. Unlike Star Trek however, Tomb Raider did not need to turn a trick in order to bring on these new fans. This new characterization of Lara Croft is constructed around the attributes that made her popular in the first place (with the exclusion of certain exaggerated parts of her body, thankfully).
At the same time, Lara has become so much more accessible to a wider and more mature audience – the amped-up action and score are a huge part of that as well. The tombs, exploration, and puzzles are still there, just in a different capacity. As for the relation to Uncharted, the scaling of walls and other climbing mechanics are similar, but past that there is nothing about Tomb Raider that I find familiar outside of Lara Croft.
Nathan Drake is on par with a superhero (a video game hybrid of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones); he kills hundreds of people with little to no remorse, is right about everything all the time, and is portrayed as being virtually indestructible. His knowledge and passion for the artifacts that he goes after are what drive him and what define his character. Croft shares a similar body count but the game’s storyline lingers on her first kill and the trauma that it causes her and we watch her grow and build her courage.
Everything that Lara is able to accomplish is at the will of her fear and her instinct to survive and stay alive. There are much more connectable, human traits to Lara; her emotions and actions are believable (due in part to a great performance by Cammila Luddington) and realistic even when she is placed in many unrealistic scenarios. Rhianna Pratchett (Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge), the game’s writer, has managed to reconstruct a more relatable and believable character.
The teaser trailer – first shown two years ago – serves as the introduction to the game. Following a massive storm that hits their ship (the immodestly named “Endurance”), Lara and company are hopelessly stranded on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The island is located within the Dragon’s Triangle, a treacherous area 100 kilometers off the south of Tokyo. Not only are they stuck on the island, but their supplies are low, and they must contend with an aggressive group of men on the island who are kidnapping members of the group and doing everything in their power to make sure that Lara and the rest do not get away.
In addition to a brilliant reinterpretation of the Lara Croft character, Ms. Pratchett manages to craft a balanced story laced with just the right amount of action, drama, and mystery. I thought of it as mixture of core elements of Tomb Raider infused with Lost, The X-Files, Cast Away, and an adult version of Lord of the Flies. The product of Ms. Pratchett’s writing is the intense cutscenes and action sequences that you see throughout the game, peppered with energetic and impassioned dialogue, there is arguably never a dull moment and there is a negligible amount of moments or events that feel forced.
This is all augmented further by the original score provided by Jason Graves (Dead Space, numerous Star Trek titles). Mr. Graves’ score is thunderous and has a vibe similar to that of Bear McCreary’s work on Battlestar Galactica. It is understated, creepy, and fast-paced when it has to be. On top of which, the music is dynamic, and comes in at the most precise moments, thus heightening tension and awe in the player. The game’s dynamic camera adds to this as well, and in conjunction with the script, cutscenes, and score, lend to a truly cinematic video game experience.
The gameplay is obviously the heart of Tomb Raider. For the little things in the game that do not work, there are scores of things that do. You will be doing a lot of shooting-from-behind-cover and running-and-gunning in this game. There is a compact arsenal at your disposal that will allow killing waves upon waves of enemies that you encounter. Lara’s skills as a scavenger, hunter, and brawler can be upgraded for increased effectiveness in addition to upgrades that can be made to her weapons. The enemies and Lara’s weapons are where most of my complaints arise.
Every person you encounter has either had a serious prayer session with Jesus Christ, is an altered super-soldier, and/or is simply jacked up on every narcotic substance known to man. They do not go down fast or easy, even when you have them dead to rights. They see and hear everything (except when it pertains to an arrow whizzing by their face… they do not hear that). It is during stealth portions of the game when this superhuman A.I. really stands out. If an enemy turns around at the wrong time, you will be found – that is without question. However, not only is that enemy aware of you, you will also alert every. Single. Enemy. In the entire region.
In an instant, they know exactly where you are (even in the dead of night) and their accuracy is impeccable – any shot will hit Lara, no matter how fast she is running, no matter how much distance there is between her and the enemy, no matter what obstructions are in their way. This sometimes – albeit, rarely – is compounded by waves of enemies that at times are seemingly never-ending.
Despite a few missions that result in constant game overs, Lara fares well against her attackers. The bow is the bread and butter of this game’s selection of weapons. It is highly accurate, easy to aim, and possesses the least recoil next to the pistol.
Once you acquire the upgrades for flaming and napalm arrows, every other weapon in the game seems more second-rate than they did at the very start. The arrow in itself is accurate; the flaming arrow slows down the enemy and can blow up gas containers as well exploding enemies carrying dynamite. Napalm arrows are highly volatile and explosive. The pistol is accurate at short to medium range, though it is best at medium range for headshots.
I use the term short range lightly however, as an enemy that is right on top of you can take numerous shots to the head and chest before going down, or taking you with them. The issues with recoil and unrealistic power also make the shotgun and assault rifle both equally worthless; even if you obliterate an enemy’s chest at point-blank range with a shotgun blast, they do not go down. If you use the assault rifle as the way it is intended, you end up looking like Frank Drebin; your reticle just goes all over the place.
You simply cannot fire any of the weapons in rapid bursts due to the high amounts of recoil, and others are just not powerful enough. I tended to stick the bow and arrows (especially when you get a hold of flaming/napalm arrows) since it was accurate tool and doubled as a weapon for silent takedowns; I used the shotgun sparingly, with the pistol and assault rifle for lining up headshots when possible. The axe is also useless in combat when it is not being used for silent kills. Every swing in mid-combat causes the camera to jump around to angles that take the player’s eye off the action and can lead to their demise.
The action inhibits areas of the game that could have very easily added up to a frustrating experience, and transforms the title as a whole into one of the best action experiences ever this generation. Tomb Raider just does so many things right that I very easily forgot about the god-like A.I. and the nerf guns I had at my disposal. The cover system is unlike what you would see in most games.
Notably, games like Uncharted, Gears of War, and Mass Effect all employ a cover-system based on the mechanic that by pressing a button near an object that will provide cover; the protagonist is drawn to it via a force similar to an electromagnetic seal. This is not the case in Tomb Raider; Lara simply crouches behind cover, and the game never makes it feel like she is stuck to one spot or is on a track. It also encourages more of a stick-and-move tactic which in turn lends a more fast-paced and desperate feel to the gameplay.
For those that are interested in attaining a perfect completion, there are many additional quests for the player to embark on once they have completed the primary story. Fast-travel via the numerous campfires encountered over the course of the game allows easy exploration of areas of the island that may have been missed; this allows the discovery of hidden items, treasures, and the exploration of tombs.
Tomb Raider also continues the trend of traditionally single-player games being released with a multiplayer portion. Though I was initially apprehensive, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by what Crystal Dynamics were able to deliver. Much like Mass Effect 3 and Uncharted 2/3, the tone and construction of Tomb Raider’s multiplayer portion is identical to what is established in the main game. All the weapons, upgrades, and traps present in the main game are available in the multiplayer – with a few extras. Coupled with terrains and maps reminiscent of the game, and Jason Graves’ score, the Tomb Raider multiplayer achieves what every multiplayer should strive for: the feeling that it is an extension of the single-player experience and not simply tacked on.
Lara Croft is part of a small (but growing) group of video game characters that are struggling to adapt to the changing climate of the industry and demands of the audience (both Western and Eastern alike). Much like DmC: Devil May Cry was for Dante, Tomb Raider is the new lease on life that Lara Croft that needed, and the reboot of the series that all fans of great stories and action in video games can appreciate.