Game: Tomb Raider
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Platform / Shooter
The Tomb Raider series is one of the longest running in PC gaming. Starting way back in 1996, the games obviously chart the adventures of Lara Croft. After a series of games where most of the budget seemed to go into increasing the number of polygons in Lara’s chest, the series was revitalised when it was taken over by Crystal Dynamics. You’d never get a sense of this from the title though, with this being yet another of those modern sequels that hijack the title of the original game despite being entirely different.
This version of Tomb Raider is actually a prequel to the rest, starring a younger and thankfully more realistically proportioned version of Lara. Set before she became a seasoned adventurer, the game sees her as part of an expedition stranded on an island that seems to be inspired by the one from Lost. In a change from the other games, here the focus is on survival.
The idea behind the game is to attempt to show Lara Croft become the character we know. Controversy over stupid comments made by the executive producer Ron Rosenberg before the game was released aside, the idea of portraying a more vulnerable character is a good one. Not because, as those pre-release comments were suggesting, because the player should want to protect her because she’s a woman or any other such sexist nonsense, but because a vulnerable character is far easier for most of us to relate to than the muscly thugs of most games. The story of the game runs with this, following Lara as she fights for survival in a hostile environment, adapting rapidly to the situation. The gameplay has an almost sadistic knack of putting her through the most awful situations as virtually everything collapses or breaks under and around her, leaving her battered and bruised. Make a mistake and the death scenes are brutal, often featuring her impaled on spikes. The first time she kills a man as he tries to assault her, we see her horrified reaction to what she’s just done.
However hard the story works at this, it’s often undermined by the gameplay. Ten minutes after Lara’s horror at killing someone for the first time in her life, you’ll find yourself crouched behind cover killing dozens of men in a seemingly endless battle. There’s more combat here than in any of the earlier games. Even less fitting is the message popping up exclaiming “KILLER HEADSHOT!” every few seconds and giving you bonus XP. Similarly, you’ll get bonus popups for the extremely brutal finishing moves in close combat. It’s like the story and the gameplay elements were developed independently.
This mismatch between gameplay and plot is one of the key problems with the game, since taken individually both elements are quite well done. The cutscenes portray Lara as a far more believable character than usual, and while you spend most of the game exploring on your own, there’s a distinct focus on her relationships with the other members of the expedition. These others are reasonably well written, though they never really escape their fairly generic roles, and it’s clear that most of the work has been put into the characterisation of the heroine. Her feelings of responsibility for the situation they’re in is a major theme that recurs throughout.
The actual plot of the game features an island where apparently planes can’t land since mysterious storms appear and bring them down. (Sounds familiar somehow.) On the island are a mysterious group of strangers. (Thankfully, I don’t think they’re ever referred to as “the others”.) They turn out to be a cult worshipping Himiko, an ancient Japanese queen. It’s based around Japanese legends, which in true Indiana Jones style turn out to be true. It’s a pretty good plot and keeps the game moving and is told in a cinematic way. Unfortunately, it’s borrowed the shaky camera style that seems to be so popular in films these days for the cutscenes. I can understand it being suitable in certain films, as it makes the camera into a character, being handheld by someone else. But here, there isn’t supposed to be anyone carrying a camera around after her, so having it shaking all over the place is not only irritating but distracting too. The game does flow extremely well from cutscene to gameplay and back again. Perhaps it flows a bit too well, since there were times when Lara was running along in a cutscene and then would suddenly die before I’d even realised I was supposed to take control again.
In terms of gameplay, the biggest departure from the earlier games is the fact that it’s a cover shooter a lot of the time. As mentioned earlier, you’ll often end up crouched behind walls shooting at huge numbers of enemies. It feels like it would rather be Uncharted than Tomb Raider during these fights. For all of that though, the combat is pretty good taken on its own terms. For a change, the main weapon you get at the start of the game is a bow, which actually makes it feel slightly different to normal. You’ll later get hold of a pistol, shotgun and assault rifle, and these can be useful during the bigger battles, but I found myself using the bow for the majority of the time. The guns are mostly useful for obstacles, such as barriers which can be blasted away with the shotgun. When using the bow, the arrows can be set on fire before shooting and you can also fire rope arrows to create routes to new locations or to pull down obstacles.
The best thing about the bow, and the one that sets it apart from other similar games, is that it can be used for stealth purposes. If you’re not thrown instantly into the battle, you can often observe the guards positions and try to take them out silently while they’re away from the others. This is helped by a “Survival Instinct” mode which can be briefly activated, highlighting all enemies and useful objects in the area. The places where you can do this are extremely satisfying and genuinely feel stealthy in a way that even some dedicated sneaking games don’t manage. It’s just a shame it doesn’t happen more often.
Platforming doesn’t play as big a part of the game as it previously did, though when you do have climbing to do it works well enough. You have a hook to use to cling onto certain types of surface to climb them along with the usual abilities to hang onto ledges and leap across gaps. It’s fairly simple but mostly enjoyable. The main disappointment is for all the other action. Whether you’re running across collapsing platforms or in certain scripted fight sequences, it sometimes feels like the game is practically playing itself. There are lengthy chunks of the game where it seems you barely have to do more than press up to walk forwards and occasionally press a key that pops up for one of those dreaded Quick Time Events. These sequences seem to be getting out of hand in gaming in recent years, where it seems like they’re being used as an excuse to not have to design any decent gameplay mechanics when they can just tell you to press a random button. The game is still entertaining, but to take control away from the player so much needs more justification than can be provided by a series of action scenes that don’t seem like the sort of thing that couldn’t be done by us anyway.
The game has a basic levelling system, where finding various collectibles or performing certain actions grants you XP, eventually allowing you to obtain extra skills such as faster climbing, carrying more ammo or gaining additional combat abilities. You can also find various bits of scrap which can be used to upgrade your weapons to make them more powerful, increasing firing rate, range or damage caused, and eventually even allowing you to fire explosive arrows.
The biggest disappointment is that, considering the name, there isn’t much actual tomb raiding being done. The bits where you do go to tombs that most resemble the earlier games in the series are almost all optional extras. When you do find these optional tombs, they’re all surprisingly short and you generally find that no sooner have you got there than you’ve found the treasure chest and are leaving less than 10 minutes later. This is where most of the puzzles are in the game, but they’re very straightforward. It’s a long way from the intricate puzzles of Tomb Raider II, where you could often spend hours exploring a single level.
Other than what I’ve already mentioned, there’s not much wrong with the game. (Though it does have a rather strange day-night cycle. At one point I stepped into a passageway at night time and emerged out of the other end a few seconds later in bright daylight.) In general terms it’s a very good game, with good combat and an involving storyline. If they just fit together with each other a bit better it would be hard to fault it. As it is, Tomb Raider is a good game, but it falls short of being the great one it could have been. It still comes recommended, but make sure you know what you’re getting and don’t go into it expecting something it isn’t.
Save System Review: Checkpoint saves, but they’re very regular and I never had to replay large chunks of game again. Difficulty can be changed mid-game too.
Graphics: Excellent graphics, with the island looking very impressive. Characters look very good too, and the new TressFX technology makes Lara’s hair look very impressive.
Sound: Nothing to fault with the sound and the voice acting is good throughout.
Bugs: In one cave the floor and walls became invisible and I had to leave and come back in to fix it, but otherwise everything was fine.
Gameplay: Solid combat and some exciting sequences, even if it does seem to take a bit too much control away from the player at times.
Storyline: A pretty good storyline with decent characters. It’s also very well told. Not a masterpiece, but a better than average game story.
Arbitrary Final Score:
If you like this, you might also like: Other Tomb Raider games, Uncharted, Lost
A welcome resurrection or should the series have been left in its tomb? Give your opinion on our forum.