Tomb Raider Review
I can't help but think of the return of Tomb Raider in grand fashion to be anything but a shining success story. After years of decent (but not great) sequels and re-hashes, Square Enix and sub-publisher Eidos had finally kicked Core Design off of the franchise and replaced them with Crystal Dynamics, the developers of the original games. And a couple more, much better games followed, but the holy grail seemed to be what we're looking at today: Tomb Raider, the reboot to put all other Lara Croft-starring prequels and reboots to shame.
While you're going to find a lot that's familiar in this 2013 iteration of Tomb Raider, you'll also see plenty that's new, making this feel like the freshest, most original iteration of the franchise in many years. This young Lara starts out inexperienced and vulnerable, but she's got a knack for figuring out ancient mysteries and puzzles, and during the course of this game, she'll find that she's got the stomach and grit for combat, as well.
Of course, it doesn't start that way. The first hour of Tomb Raider, which alternates between teaching the player Lara's range of movement and abilities in combat, basically beats the crap out of her about thirty different ways. The developers take your suspension of disbelief and essentially mangle it the same way they beat Lara down, throwing it around and kicking and stomping it until you come to one of two conclusions: either they went too far with putting Lara through the grinder, or she's just a superhero with regenerative powers. Either way, you're going to be reminded repeatedly that you're in a video game, especially when Lara lands on a chunk of rebar, impaling what seems to be her left kidney, and then manages a ten-foot jump within minutes.
Then ass-kickings like that continue for over an hour.
Lara is forced to actually start killing creatures and eventually people as she figures out that, much like the island in the show Lost, the island she and her crew have shipwrecked on has a tendency to pull people in with storms and magic, and then won't let them leave. Plenty of people have suffered the same fate, and now these, er, "natives" are desperate to scavenge anything. They learn pretty quickly about Lara and the crew she showed up with, whose original goal was to find the secret of an ancient Japanese queen-goddess. That whole plan gets thrown out the window, though, as Lara works with her ex-shipmates to fight off the natives (generally through some exciting and fun third-person action) and eventually try and find rescue off the island.
Unfortunately, the rest of the crew and the rest of the game's cast of characters aren't so well-crafted as Lara is, and they seem wooden and half-baked compared to her. It wouldn't matter so much, but every time they share a scene with her, it becomes clear who Crystal Dynamics spent the most time on. They did pick the right character to put the most love into, of course, but having her constantly rely on and interact with a cast of secondary characters - something that's not really been a part of Tomb Raider up until this point - may not have been the best concept in creating this game's plot, not when there's such a stark contrast in detail between Lara and everyone else.
Still, Crystal Dynamics and PC developer Nixxes (also responsible for the excellent PC port of Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Human Revolution) came out swinging, with great visuals and solid level design. There are multiple paths through many of the game's areas, plenty of little secrets to find, and optional tombs that harken back to what Tomb Raider was originally about. With that said, I can't go much further without mentioning that most of the non-optional time spent in this game will be simply trying to survive, complete a linear set of story objectives and fight off the island's new inhabitants. The game doesn't require you to spend much time in quiet exploration or solving ancient puzzles. That stuff is there in small amounts, but they're side missions, which is kind of weird for something named Tomb Raider.
It's easy to play this game as a fairly generic action-platformer where you're swinging, jumping, and climbing to the next required objective at one point, sneaking around if you feel like it, shooting or firing your bow at enemies the next, and generally just playing a pretty standard third-person shooter. If that's what you want, you got it, and for the most part, you don't have to go examining artifacts or diving into optional tombs. Of course, bothering to doing these things will get you more experience points with which to add survival and combat skills, and you'll also gain more salvage for upgrading your gear, but you could easily make up for missing that stuff by exhibiting good spatial awareness and using solid aim in combat. I like that Crystal Dynamics has allowed for both approaches, but admittedly, the aim of this Tomb Raider is a little different from the original, where combat was less of a focus.
I don't feel like that makes this reboot any less fun, though, because I think it's been proven over the years that the most compelling thing about this series is Lara herself, not necessarily the ruins or the puzzles. I wouldn't have been able to say the same a decade ago, but it's pretty clear now that even if this was an all-out action game with hardly any exploration at all - and this reboot isn't near to that point - it'd still be a great game as long as our famous protagonist has her signature personality, look, and movement.
And speaking of her look, you'll likely notice that Lara has been getting made a little bit more realistic with every iteration of the game in the last few years. In this case, she's still got a shapely frame, but it's been slimmed down again just a bit to give her just enough of an athletic build that things finally seem right. Sure, it's still weird that this drop-dead gorgeous chick, now in her late teens or early twenties, is off discovering things seasoned historians have never found and eventually brutally killing guys twice her size, but hey, if it's worked just fine for a good sixteen-plus years so far. To me, the less believable thing is really the extent of her injuries at the beginning of the game and the lack of recovery time she has before she's magically finding the power to pull off superhuman levels of endurance. Still, we're talking about video games here, and the story does get pretty wild as it dives more into the mythology of the goddess queen Lara originally came here to figure out.
Eventually, Tomb Raider turns into a mostly linear action game with the odd puzzle, all of which sits alongside many side objectives that make up something that's much closer to the game I wished Crystal Dynamics had made. Still, I understand why it went this way: Tomb Raider's exploration was better than its action in the past because of the strengths of the developers, and now they're finding new strengths. Moving forwards, it's clear that the success of this game means another sequel, and I'm hoping that next time around, we see a little more brain-bending and exploration of ancient places than we do cover-based shooting and low walls to duck behind, something that's become almost like a must for AAA action games in the third person view.
There are plenty of little touches that break up the full-on action, though, like the tools Lara gains to help her get to previously inaccessible places, along with some interesting ways to change her from the hunted to the hunter in some of the more high-tension scenes. (I'm being deliberately vague because it's better to figure these out for yourself.) All of this does just enough to keep you motivated and enjoying the new toys you get and situations you encounter, and eventually Lara starts really putting the fear of God into her enemies - although it comes just a little too late in the game for my tastes.
The PC port of Tomb Raider started out a little rough. The game shipped with some crash issues on Nvidia cards which took a few days to fix - something I noticed got little attention from gamers, what with the SimCity launch debacle going simultaneously. Also, there's a new hair-rendering technology called TressFX, which drops frame rates drastically on Nvidia GPUs (slightly less so on AMD cards) and delivers hair physics for Lara that goes down to the strand, but the tech still looks a bit strange as the hair hovers a couple of inches above Lara's shoulders as it flows and sways, making it something that feels gimmicky and not really ready for prime time. Luckily, the rest of the game's visuals are done much better, with a solid range of detail options and easy tweaking along with great texture quality and PC-only special effects that make this version of Tomb Raider easily the best-looking one.
There's a multiplayer mode included in the game, but frankly, I hate it. Something about the movement and gunfighting in Tomb Raider lends itself to single player very well, but I just don't feel like it translates to fun when fighting against each other. The small maps and low player counts make these modes a simplistic run-and-gun affair, even with the gametypes that go beyond basic Team Deathmatch. Sure, all players get Lara's full range of mobility so that everyone can traverse levels quickly, but it's the core action that's the problem. Overall, the online play feels very much like an afterthought that was tossed in to pad the feature list on the back of the box, simply because that's just what publishers think a big-budget action game is supposed to have. No one in a position of making important decisions seemed to care much for whether this game should include it.
Tomb Raider delivers a slick, fun time with plenty of collectibles, great action, and an excellent main character. It's not exactly what those of us who played the original might have been expecting in a reboot, what with third-person cover shooting and linear platform action dominating the time spent playing. Rather than being in confident control of her adventure, Lara starts out fragile and desperately trying to survive, and that theme manages to permeate throughout the entire game. It works, but it's going to wear thin quickly if Crystal Dynamics relies on it for too long, so I hope that they expand things out and give Lara her confidence back for the next game. Tomb Raider might not be what we expected and the online play is a bust, but this is still a wonderful solo game that really rounds out the excellent selection of new titles we're seeing for a month like March.
Disclaimer: This review was based on a downloadable PC version of the final game provided by the publisher.