Proverbial Jon Reviews...
A famous explorer once said...
If you have ever shared in the previous exploits of a certain Ms Croft then you'll probably go into the latest Tomb Raider entry with more than a few expectations; tombs to explore, dangerous environments to traverse and violent aggressors to fight. Crystal Dynamics' reboot, the self titled Tomb Raider, features all of this and more but there's something not quite right.
It would be unfair to compare Tomb Raider to any of the previous games in the series, it is a reboot after all, so I won't offer such an analysis. Instead I offer an examination of the game based on its core theme; survival. This is Lara Croft as we've never seen her before. As the game opens we see a fresh faced and innocent Lara tossed mercilessly from her ship, the Endurance, as a freak storm tears it apart. Shipwrecked and lost on a mysterious and forbidding island Lara must utilise and hone all her skills to survive and rescue her friends from the clutches of a murderous cult.
She's not the same Lara
Adventure found me
Despite the chaotic opening scenes the game takes a slower pace for the first hour or two, introducing Lara to each new element one by one. It's both fitting for her situation and also makes for a well implemented tutorial.
Lara is as nimble and lithe as she's ever been and moves better than ever before. Traversing the terrain is a treat and as the story progresses Lara can unlock a variety of new tools to aid in her adventure including a torch that can be lit and extinguished more or less at will, a climbing axe for scaling rock faces and prying open doors and an upgrade which allows her bow to shoot rope lines between specific points.
The world is beautifully realised and all loading is cleverly hidden, making for one seamless experience. The levels are linear for the most part but occasionally open up into large hub areas which offer many paths and more than enough collectables and secrets for those willing to explore. Tombs have been relegated to optional single room areas with a single puzzle. Solving said puzzle will award the player with some upgrade items but there are few ancient wonders to be found inside these limited locations.
Lara gets herself in some high places.
Where did she go? Find her!
The combat has been revamped and plays like a competent third person cover shooter. Enemies are tough, fast and smart; using the environment well to suppress and flank Lara's position. Taking cover and staying on the move is vital in this game; Lara is no space marine and it doesn't take many bullets to bring her down, utilising her many evasive and countering moves is the key to surviving most gun fights.
As far as offensive options go Lara has access to a range of weapons from her signature bow up to shotguns and rifle. Special kills and the discovery of secrets award XP which increase Lara's overall level and allow the player to unlock certain skills. Collecting various forms of salvage that can be found scattered across the environment is essential for upgrading Lara's arsenal and adding further combat options.
I can't do this without you!
But therein lies the problem. From the beginning of the game it is made clear to the player that Lara is young, inexperienced and totally unprepared for the trials she must face in order to survive. Her hands shake when she holds a gun, she hesitates when she realises what she must do and she breaks down in tears after her first successful kill. But once the player takes control, Lara becomes an unstoppable force and an unparalleled weapons expert.
There is a large amount of disconnect between the theme of survival the game so desperately pushes and the gameplay that is presented in between. In the first hour the player is instructed to hunt deer to eat and survive. This element is never used again in the whole game. Sure, you can hunt animals and harvest fruit from bushes but Lara has regenerating health and no visual feedback about her condition; stamina doesn't have to be managed, wounds don't have to be treated and hunger is never an issue beyond the first night. There is a surprising lack of survival gameplay despite the obvious opportunities.
Don't worry, she can take him on.
Lara, you're all right!
The best analogy I can make is if you took the gameplay from Gears of War unchanged and put it over a storyline about a young girl fighting for her survival in a hostile jungle. The gameplay and the story just don't match up. This is the conflicted feeling that Tomb Raider gave me. Sure, the combat is well implemented and incredibly fun but when a young Lara is being awarded points for taking enemies down in interesting ways after only a few hours of picking up a gun I'm quickly pulled out of the story.
Lara is also incredibly resilient to physical damage... but only in cutscenes and scripted sequences. Tomb Raider features many scenes where Lara survives crumbling caverns, collapsing buildings, high altitude falls and raging river rapids. She is thrown against metal panels, tipped down holes, crashes through wooden walls and is even impaled a couple of times. It all feels a little surreal and gratuitous and completely at odds with the overall serious tone of the game. Sudden QTEs within these moments can mean the difference between life and death. If mowing down mobs of attackers and being repeatedly thrown around the environment is considered survival, then it follows that most video games are clearly about survival.
The cast is a veritable who's whom of expendable stereotypes. Fiery female who has a problem with the protagonist? Check. Geeky technical specialist who harbours a secret crush on the protagonist? Check. Vaguely ethnic spiritual guy with an explanation for everything? Check. Self centred publicity hound only in it for the money? Check. Gullible damsel in distress who always lands herself in the enemy's hands? Check. Father figure mentor who unconditionally believes in the protagonist's abilities? Check.
The quickest way to demolish a building? Lara.
I've got to find them
I honestly wish I was oversimplifying the plot but these descriptions are about the extent of the characters' development, save for a few text files scattered across the island in implausible locations. Aside from Lara, no one seems to take the island's threat seriously. Lara cheats death on multiple occasions and yet her friends favour splitting up constantly over sticking together. At one point the most geeky and defenceless of the groups is sent alone into the wreckage of their ship with the justification that "he can look after himself." No one acknowledges Lara's transformation from girl to hardened adventurer and aside from one comment from the main antagonist about how many people she killed, Lara's mass murder seems to go mostly unnoticed.
The storyline at large is pretty decent although it does take quite a few hours to move away from Lara's friends and start to focus on the island itself. Those who enjoyed the supernatural elements of previous instalments won't be disappointed with Tomb Raider's plot, even if the superfluous characters do serve to bring it down a notch. There are some subtle hints of possible discord between Lara and her parents and seeds are defiantly planted that suggest Crystal Dynamics are far from done with Lara's development as a character.
It would be impossible to reach the end of this review without saying that Tomb Raider possesses more than just a passing resemblance to the Uncharted series. Although, despite various brave attempts, Tomb Raider doesn't quite attain the same levels of charm as Nathan Drake and company.
The extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are...
Tomb Raider is an incredibly fun game. It looks great, it plays brilliantly, there's suitable depth to the combat and the difficulty curve never feels anything other than fair. But Tomb Raider is also a game that suffers under the weight of its own convictions. Lara Croft has successfully undergone a transformation from mid-nineties sex symbol to headstrong and respectable young woman but the process itself was imperfect. There's a really great idea somewhere in Tomb Raider that could have made Lara's story all the more potent but I feel that it might just have got lost in the woods.