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Review: “Tomb Raider” is the Cream of the Croft

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Let’s cut to the chase: Tomb Raider knows exactly what it wants to be and executes that vision extremely well, and thank goodness for that. Over the course of fifteen years and nine games, the once iconic Tomb Raider franchise lost its way, a particular indignity considering the games were ostensibly about exploring, not getting lost. Thankfully, everyone loves a good origin story, and Tomb Raider does not disappoint. It has learned from the successes of action-adventure titles like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed while managing to maintain an identity of its own. Most importantly, it’s damn fun to play.

We’ve seen many different versions of Lara Croft over the years – top-heavy explorer, butler-murdering femme fatale, Angelina Jolie – but none have had the charm that this younger, fresh-faced Lara does. Camilla Luddington’s performance is nothing short of terrific, offering up a compelling character study that draws you into the game. This is Lara’s first expedition, and, boy, is it a doozy. Shipwrecked, faced with impossible odds, Croft must go through the crucible – morally, mentally and physically – to determine what exactly she’s made of. It’s survival of the fittest; Lara Croft goes through hell and back, but she’s made of sturdy stuff and her origin story is suitably epic.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-YFtaYE-qQ]

Unlike our old pal Nathan Drake, you don’t immediately brandish a firearm in Tomb Raider. Lara’s first kill has a visceral impact; she’s visibly affected by her actions. However, the transition from archaeology-obsessed traveler to cold-blooded island vigilante seems a bit sudden, one of the few developments that doesn’t quite seem to gel with the rest of the game. More than once, I raised an eyebrow after I had just choked a man to death with my bow and lodged an arrow in his friend’s eye socket when, just an hour or so prior, Lara had been wracked with guilt over the first life she took. It’s a minor quibble, but  it did take me out of the game for a moment. That being said, this is a game about survival, and if Lara didn’t adapt the way she did, well, she wouldn’t have survived.

Lara’s compatriots, however, don’t enjoy the same rich character development that she does. That isn’t to say that they’re two-dimensional, but they don’t make you care about them in quite the same way that you cared about Nathan Drake’s cohorts in the Uncharted series. In any event, you’re all shipwrecked on the most dangerous island since LOST went off the air and Lara is wracked with guilt over the danger in which she’s put them. Saving one’s friends and loved ones is always a noble cause, but it’s difficult to get invested in them when you’re way more invested in Lara and her journey. That being said, the story has several “oh shit” moments that will keep you deep enough into the story that you probably won’t have time for an inner monologue like this.

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Don’t let Tomb Raider‘s first 60 or so minutes dissuade you. As Lara squeezes her way through claustrophobic caves, hunts down her first deer, fends off wolves and deals with more Quick Time Events than two copies of Resident Evil 4 being played at the same time, one starts to wonder if the rest of the game will have that same super cinematic, on-rails feeling. Fortunately, that feeling quickly fades as the training wheels detach, leaving you to venture into the wilds of Yamatai on your own (with far fewer QTE’s per capita. too).

Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics give the players a surprising amount of control, letting them loose in sprawling maps, keeping a steady flow without rushing the player from set piece to set piece. More than once, I found myself looking around and admiring the scenery, taking in a moment of tranquility on this island paradise/hell because I could. Endless waves of wolves and soldiers did not respawn to force my hand. Climbing was a joy, as Lara leaped and lifted herself over increasingly insurmountable peaks. Whether you’re soaring down a zipline or maneuvering mid-air to sink your pickaxe into a rock wall, you rarely feel hemmed in by the invisible wall phenomenon of other games. For being stuck on an island, it felt as though I had a surprising amount of freedom.

Graphically, the game is stunning. While not quite on the level of Crysis or Dead Space 3, Tomb Raider‘s forte lies in the little details that make up for any perceived inequalities. For example, rather than mystically appearing out of thin air, Lara actually puts her torch down on the ground when she needs to pull out her climbing axe to jimmy a door open. My jaw literally dropped when I saw that happen for the first time. It may seem like common sense, but to see it implemented in a big budget action game was a treat to my inner stickler for realism. From breathtaking, explosive setpieces to the small wonder of Lara’s hair blowing in the breeze, this game is awfully easy on the eyes.

The game is well-paced and, even though you know it’s on a linear track, you feel rewarded for exploring every nook and cranny, looking for relics, hidden tombs, dog tags, GPS caches and all manner of ancient tchotchkes that will scratch that completionist itch. With the push of a button, you can activate Lara’s “Survival Instincts,” remarkably similar to Assassin’s Creed‘s “Eagle Vision,” which allows you to detect nearby enemies, collectibles and treasures, so you won’t be tearing you hair out. Combat is a joy, which usually isn’t the case in games like these. Crystal Dynamics has crafted an elegant, free-flowing combat system that feels natural and gives you a sense of accomplishment when you manage to lay the smackdown on a crazed cultist about to disembowel you with a machete.

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While it borrows quite a bit from other third-person shooters and adventure games, the cover system is to be lauded. Rather than sticking to the wall like it’s flypaper, Lara intelligently and fluidly takes cover when enemies are near by. Whereas other titles take a Whack-a-Mole approach, enemies actively target your position, throwing explosives and laying down suppressing fire to draw you out and force you to scramble to a more advantageous position. This makes each encounter an active, engaging experience for the player, giving you cause to celebrate when you finally manage to take down your opponents.

I must say, I’m a bit blown away by the breadth and variety of ways in which Lara can be mangled, murdered and mashed. It never feels gratuitous, but whenever I died (and I died quite a few times) I was always impressed that I never saw the same animation twice (except for one particularly perilous parachuting sequence). The same depth was applied to the crafting system. You accrue salvage and scrap metal from enemies and various containers scattered around the island, which you can then use to upgrade your weapon’s components. Likewise, you gain experience for discovering the game’s many collectibles, taking out enemies and completing objectives, which you can then put into one of several skill trees which make Lara more deadly and survivable. It’s a robust system that encourages that “just one more checkpoint” mentality, a hallmark of a truly addictive game.

The multiplayer mode is most similar to Gears of War, pitting two teams of four – Survivors vs. Cultists – against each other in a variety of modes like deathmatch as well as some objective-based modes too. While not as robust as something like Gears of Wars multiplayer, it’s a worthwhile distraction for when you need a reprieve from the main campaign. It’s kind of like the side dish you order for the table, but let’s be real: we’re all here for the delicious entree.

Final Thoughts: Despite employing a sometimes heavy cinematic hand, the game is endlessly fun, smartly borrowing elements from other recent popular games and weaving in enough originality and ingenuity to make a well-written, polished product. For a franchise that seemed like it was on life support, this is a resounding sign of life.

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