While flawed, this is a brilliant mix of mechanical, art, music and sound design into something resembling an artistic statement. Sure, it's not high art, but it's a brilliant move forward for the genre.
Why Haven't I Played Tomb Raider?
Why Haven't I Played Tomb Raider? Well, the previous three games in the franchise weren't exactly stellar, though I do hear good things about Gaurdians Of Light, and their sales reflected the series status as an also ran. With games like the Uncharted series continually schooling Tomb Raider, it was clear that a rethink was in order for one of gaming's biggest icons. Lara Croft, one of the first great female protagonists in video game history, was about to be reborn, in probably the best way possible.
Tomb Raider, as a series had always been focused on exploration and isolation. As Lara Croft you were almost always on your own, exploring desolate tombs and ancient civilizations. traversing and fighting your way through the enemies and puzzles encountered. The idea of Lara accomplishing so much on her own, without any direct aid from any companion, male or otherwise, is what made her something of a role model for many players. As a result, when the games became more about the scenarios and less about the character, they suffered.
This game, is the culmination, the peak, of Lara as a character, as a concept in the pop-culture sphere. It remakes her, turning her into, not a sex symbol, but into a survivor. This is one of the few games I can remember playing where every mechanic, every puzzle or scenario and every piece of story fully enriches and supports the core of the game, lara croft. One of the most brutal experiences I have ever played through, Tomb Raider is a game for the ages. Let's dive deep into one of the top game of the year contenders.
The story of Tomb Raider follows lara, as she and her crew are shipwrecked on a mysterious island in the Dragon's Triangle. Assaulted from all sides by a mysterious cult, Lara must find a way for her and her crewmates to get off the island safely, while also trying to uncover the source of the mysterious storms that brought them here. The overall story arc focuses more on the concept of lara as a character, and every twist and turn, every revelation allows her to grow into one of the strongest female heroines of the past decade of gaming.
Lara Croft gets severely brutalized in this game, and I do mean severely. She gets impaled on metal rods, beaten within an inch of her life and is almost always being hunted down by ruthless enemies. She traverses through hallways filled with corpses and detritus, and comes face to face with undead samurai. Make no mistake, this is a baptism of fire for Lara and the game's narrative, while at times clunky and clice ridden, brings a new level to character narrative.
The main enemies of the game are the solari cult, formed around the mastermind Mathias, who has been driven mad by the isolation on the island as a result of its powerful storms. The solarii constantly harass the survivors of the crew, whittling the group and its collective sanity down. the Solarii, and the accompanying supernatural forces present on the island, offer a compelling foe for Lara to match wits and resources with.
The combination of the challenge imposed by the enemies, often a stumbling block for the games as art narrative (how is a game supposed to be art when you can die?), and the psychological growth of Lara is one of the finest acheivements in the form so far. Without the foes to battle, Lara cannot grow as a character and this dynamic vindicates the otherwise conventional story mechanics at play here.
While Lara's arc is handled rather well, you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the plot is a little undercooked. Several twists and supernatural turns are to be found here, and most you can see coming. The crew surrounding lara has a surprising amount of depth, but beside lara they almost all turn out to be shallow as a result, though there is one man, named Roth, who helps to enable Lara's indpendence in the plot as a whole, in a rather touching manner too.
The meta narrative, that of Lara developing her archeological and survival skills is handled well. though some may lament the story dropping the literal survival aspect after a certain point, the drop of focus in that area allows the rest of the narrative to spring forth as the pheonix fire it is. If the game had made us stop every once in a while for food, what purpose would that have served? Both for Lara's character growth and for the game's pacing? Literal survival is not what the game is about, the game has its say on what killing deer does for lara, born out of necessity and relates it to the larger plot on hand.
The archeological narrative, in which Lara explores the island to uncover clues about its past, ties in to the main story. Lara is trying to uncover why the island has its mysterious hold on people who get stranded there, the exploration of the various tombs and the finding of documents and artifacts helps to enhance both the main and the meta narrative. Though there are a few collectables and side objectives that fall a bit short of the mark...which we'll get to later.
Once Lara scales a literal and symbolic mountain to save her friends and stop Mathias, her journey as a character is complete. Her transformation from a slightly cocky, terrified woman into a full fledged battle-hardened warrior is one of the most compelling experiences In video game history. That the arc succeeds despite some cliches and weirdly inert twists is a testament to the possibilities of the form.
Music and Sound Design
I think its pretty obvious that the sound design is brilliant. The sound assets in this game perfectly recreate the experience of scaling mountains, hunting enemies in a rainforest, and solving puzzles in a lonely, desolate tomb. The effective use of silence and volume dynamics allows each moment to have its own special impact. The guns and battlescapes are surprisngly excellent too, with no guns that sound like pea shooters like in the previous games. A lot of money obviously went into producing one of the most fully realized soundscapes in years, and I'm glad that the money was spent.
Dialogue wise, there isn't what I would call a poor performance in the game, but a couple of the thugs and goons might be described as "lacking emotion". Most of the time they are taunting lara, yelling out commands and generally being nice and threatening, but get them in a cutscene and suddenly they get all cartoonish.(show you killed my brother and now i'm going to kill you)
The music for this game is a classically inspired orchestral score. While many of the cues sound similar to themes in other games used for similar situations, a lot of it is actualy pretty well done. Sure there's nothing super memorable here, I can't even think of a great track while i'm writing this, but it serves its purpose, and no more no less.
This is one of the most beautiful environments I have ever had the pleasure of playing in. Some of the backdrops and areas in the game are awe-inspiring, with mountain ranges, coastal ruins and blood soaked hallways showing off the graphical fidelity of the engine. While I didn't have much love for a segment in a stalactite choked caved, most of the other levels are inspired, if not in imaginite terms, at least in world building terms. While there are some occassional hiccups here and there, like a mountain backdrop that's obviously a 2d matte and an odd addiction to white ropes even in ancient tombs, this is one game that certainly can overwhelm the visual sense with its environment design.
The animation quality is another top notch feature in the game, and should seriously be awarded some kind of equivalent to an oscar for its excellence. Like Max Payne 3's superb animations, this game handles the little details in character movement and expressions in a way that enhances immersion without distracting the eye. From the way enemies react to lara, to the drawing of the bow, there's an attention to detail here that certainly deserves recognition.
And that's just scratching the surface. Character designs, weapon details, the setpiece moments that define action adventure, everything here helps develop the world that lara is to explore and conquer. Tomb Raider is one of the most beautifully detailed game worlds that I have ever played through.
Mechanical and level design
Unlike previous games in the series, where lara's deaths were always bloodless and devoid of kinetic feeling about the consequences, the various ways that the game shows Lara dying really pound home the consequences for her. As a result this game turns into one of the more involved and tense action adventure games. She will get strangled to death, impaled, and pathetically gunned down. There's no quarter asked from your enemies, and none should be given from you as a result.
This right here is how you turn one of gaming's great weaknesses and turn into a tool of artistic expression. While many gamers are concsious of the need to not die during gameplay, not many are shown how much it affects the characters they play. I know that i felt like shit every time I allowed Lara to die, be it from bashing her head on the rocks after a mistimed jump, failing a quicktime event (which we shall get to later), or hearing her cries of pain after a bunch of enemies flank her. I have never felt so involved in keeping a character alive in a video game, and that is a singular achievement right there. Give this game the awards for design already, it deserves it just for that feeling.
The enemy AI, in regards to their ruthlessness, actually holds up quite well....On hard mode. Pro-tip, in order to get maximum challenge out of this game, switch to hard mode, otherwise the game is too easy. Don't worry, you won't die too often if you play smart. On hard mode, the enemies are able to tango on an equal level with lara, making every encounter more tense, your tactical mistakes will be punished, but not on the level of Ninja Gaiden on normal difficulty. The enemy AI will flank lara if they have the option, attempt to flush her out of cover with explosives and generally prove to make lara earn her ascension.
While many people have had problems with how well lara is suddenly able to handle guns and her bow so soon after acquiring them, I don't have the same problem. While it would have been nice to have her ability to handle fire arms be somewhat limited in the beginning, the guns themselves handle such as to help emphasize the brutal aspect of the game's narrative flow. They hit hard and take no prisoners, just like Lara and her enemies. See the connection? I can see where many would have a problem, but to me, the feel of the weapons as they shoot is much more important than learning how to shoot them, as it adds more to the themes of the game as a baptism of fire for the character. Hindering the players ability to be able to hit the targets and survive would only have hurt the game in favour of some probably arbritrary magic number of code where she suddenly gets better at shooting.
The way lara handles has been overhauled from previous games. Instead of handling like a ball rotating on top of a stick, Lara handles..well..beautifully. The decision to press a button to jump and climb, as opposed to the stupidity of Assassin's Creed 3's single button for eeverything nightmare, makes traversing the environment feel more natural and intuitive, and helps make the exploration aspect of this game avoid becoming a slog for the sake of being a slog.
The game also stays true to the series past, with a huge emphasis on puzzles when raiding the various tombs scattered about. The Puzzles, while they wouldn't embarrass Prof. Layton anytime soon, aren't so simple as to insult the intelligence, and can be solved by anyone with half a brain.
Seeing as this is a survival game, and that Lara needs to grow as a character, what better way to unite the thematic and mechanical halves of the game than with a skill tree. As lara kills Solarii, explores the environments and collects salvlage, she will gain experience points to unlock skills. Most of the skills tie in to the brutal nature of the game, as most of them apply to direct combat and finishing moves, but a couple of the skills are almost entirely useless. Like a skill that allows you to suddenly scavenge mechanical parts from dead animals or one that allows for easier hunting which, after having passed that plot point eons ago I did not care much for.
While many would prefer this game to be open world, I found that the levels serve their purpose. Too much ability to explore would further tip the balance of the exploration in this game into narrative ruin. I think the developers went just far enough, with big open areas with lots of collectables and tombs hiding about, for them to justify limiting the experience. Yes, lots of areas are linear, I don't care, they serve their purpose, and you get battlefields which allow for lots of inventive combat strategies and routes, so you're not locked into a corridor like in Cod a lot of times. Focus is the key word here and the developers were right to keep the focus on narrative progression.
there are a few more issues with some aspects of this game's design that I will now gladly rip into. ya know, to avoid seeming like i'm just kissing this game's ass, like a critic should always do.
To wit, the fucking quicktime events. Full Disclosure, a lot of the quicktime events are tied to a physical action by lara and a lot of them work quite nicely. The flailing of the analog stick to shake off a foe, the stressfull assault on the X button to pull a metal rod from Lara's Body, those work, those are awesome. But when you are in combat, or a custcene you can be a little less prepared for these moments and the unforgiving timescale of many of the quickitme events caused many a restart from the last checkpoint, though thankfully the checkpoints when such sequences occur are usually pretty close to the fail point. Because of the fact that a lot of the QT events actually work as intended, I can't just dismiss the mechanic, but please, try harder next time Crystal Dynamics.
Another mechanic that doesn't work so well is the inclusion of some, frankly bizarre, side objectives. While the documents and artifacts scattered about encourage exploration to explore more of the game's narrative, the GPS caches, Bird's Eggs, and frankly huge amount of salvage boxes scattered about can break the immersion a little bit. Compounding the little errors is the fact that you can easily find maps which reveal the location of every single item in an area, ruining the exploration side of things a bit. You can forgo use of the map if you want by using the helpful map filters though so it's a minor quibble.
Some of the more gamey apsects of Lara's past show up now and then to help break my beloved immersion. Like the huge amount of white rope everywhere, even in long abandoned tombs. Or the liberal scatterings of explosive barrels. Lara has access to an instinct mode which highlights where she should be going, meaning that you know when you are allowed to explore simply by looking for a bright yellow searchlight and saying, fuck the plot some Bird's Eggs need to be collected.
These gamey aspects and flaws are an understandable concern for many gamers, but I find that the main character arc overhelms the flaws.
In the end, Tomb Raider just does so many things right that any flaws just become background noise. Sure they're there, but they aren't sabotaging the experience, no game is perfect and no game will ever be. Many had written off the Tomb Raider series as one aimed squarely at the teenage boys demographic and, to be fair, they had a point with Underworld and Legends. But this game doesn't re-intrepret the character so much as ressurects her, returning her to her rightful place as one of gaming's great icons. In terms of its excellence in mechanical, narrative, art, music and sound design, this is a bonafide game of the year contender, and game that pushes the boundaries of games as art. Welcome Back Lara.
Rating 4.5/5 Essential