Review: Tomb Raider

27 03 2013

Although it may damage my “gamer cred,” admittedly, I have not been acquainted with Lara Croft prior to this title. After my first outing with Ms. Croft, I’m now an official fan, but at the same time our understanding of who Lara Croft is may have changed forever.

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The story begins as you might expect for standard adventure fare: an expedition crew goes in search of a mythic land in the heart of the Dragon’s Triangle and a brutal storm shipwrecks Lara and company on an unknown island. The difference is, this isn’t the same Lara Croft that people imagine when they hear the name. This is Lara before she knew she was Lara; this Lara is shivering, scared, and bleeding. Lara must sharpen her resolve and master the wilderness, outsmart her foes, and unravel the mystery of the island because the only other option is to die trying.

Tomb Raider is not only a story of survival, but also of growth and becoming. Contrary to the game’s tagline, Lara shows us that survivors aren’t born, they’re made; forged in the heat of the beating midday sun and doused in the night’s chilling rain. Through an unrelenting gauntlet of life-and-death gunfights, endless climbs up jagged cliffs, and bone-cracking falls (loooots of falls), players will watch Lara go from a sobbing mess of featherweight shark-bait to the one that says “Bad Mother Fucker” on it. Her appearance becomes rugged with scrapes, bruises and grime, her aim becomes steady and true, she’ll begin to retort to enemies’ threats, and she eventually unleashes some raw execution moves that would almost make even Kratos flinch.  Lara’s growth arc goes from blood, sweat and tears to just blood and sweat as she takes ownership of her situation and responsibility for her own life and the lives of her crewmates. When one is brushed with death so many times, they can’t help but change their colors.

But despite all the hardening up, at its core the narrative is about the softer, human side of Lara. Lara starts off the game vulnerable, fragile and afraid, and at the end of the game she is still all of those things but she’s found her courage and will to carry on. The plot does a great job maintaining a sympathetic image of Lara throughout the story primarily through the cast of supporting characters, the doomed exploration crew of the Endurance, that Lara must both protect and rely on. These elements serve as a deconstruction of the gun-slinging action heroine front that Lara has always been cast as, and reminds us that behind that nocked flaming arrow and underneath all that dirt and mud, there’s a person there.

The gameplay itself feels like an amalgam of the best aspects cherry-picked from Uncharted and the recent Batman and Resident Evil games. It will draw many comparisons with Nathan Drake’s series of games but tonally is quite different; much grittier, edgier and severe, more hold-your-breath than breathtaking. The player’s time will be divided between navigating Lara through expansive wilderness and ruins, scavenging for junk to improve equipment, bloody dirty firefights and heart-stopping action sequences. While I felt that the various elements of gameplay had nothing that I hadn’t seen before, each aspect is superbly done with a great amount of polish.

The game is masterfully paced, instilling both a sense of breakneck immediacy and a wanderlust and intrigue that beckons the player to venture and explore. The flow of the advancement reminds me most of Batman: Arkham City in which acquiring new tools and equipment figure into the progression, opening new paths that were hidden or inaccessible before in a way that revisits old locales with a perspective refreshed by a new ability and never feels like backtracking. While the meat of the action is in the main story arc there are indeed, as the name would suggest, tombs to be raided. There is an immense amount of challenge and enjoyment for completionists in seeking all of the extras and collectibles, hidden high and low in dark crevices scattered around the sprawling map. I made my way through the singleplayer experience in about 14 hours with 86% completion.

The combat is streamlined and frantic. At its most basic level when a fight breaks out it plays like a cover shooter, and you’ll want to lunge for cover as soon as it starts because it only takes a few good shots to put you down even with an improved health upgrade. Lara automatically ducks behind obstacles while moving about freely rather than “snapping” to a cover position which works very well and is simple and uncumbersome. It’s a real godsend for that since you’ll find yourself flushed from cover frequently by enemies who have deadly accuracy with their grenade type weapons (it’s like Lara’s fighting a roster of MLB pro pitchers sometimes). Oftentimes enemies will try to outflank you and close to melee distance, where things get really nasty. Lara has precious little she can do except panicked dodges when enemies crowd her but eventually she learns deadly counterattacks to surprise enemies that close in expecting easy meat, hewing them savagely with her crude improvised weapons. The combat can be quite deadly even on normal difficulty, but the difficulty can be toggled at any time in the pause menu.

If there was one thing that could have been improved, I wish the survival aspect of the game had more emphasis and ambitiousness. While hunting, foraging, and scavenging are prevalent throughout the game, none of them is imbued with the sense of significance or import that I was expecting from a game with the word “survivor” in the tagline. For one, these activities are never a necessity. There is no starvation or thirst mechanic to speak of; these activities are completely elective and carrying them out simply rewards you with some extra experience used to improve Lara’s skills. Additionally, the scavenging and rummaging for materials in the game is very abstracted; doing so rewards you with “salvage” points which are used as a universal currency to improve weapons and tools. I would have preferred a more robust and thoughtful survival/crafting system but this barebones system still gets the job done and at least provides the incentive to do such activities. But for me the most jarring omission is the complete lack of first aid or healing that is an immensely significant trope within survival stories. Sure, there are some story missions where Lara has to retrieve medical supplies for herself or a wounded ally, but the application is completely offscreen and never comes up as a gameplay element. Instead the game opts for the common 5-second magically regenerating health harkening from such games as Call of Duty which for me removes a lot of the threat and danger that could have enhanced the tension. And, since there is no healing items, crafting parts, or sustenance to carry around, the game also completely lacks any kind of inventory management, although I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing seeing how many games manage to implement it poorly (*cough* Resident Evil *cough*). Tomb Raider seems to give survival gameplay a nod rather than a fair shake and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence still features the best survival gameplay of any game I have tried to date.

There is also a multiplayer offering but it seems kind of like a tack-on. It features common deathmatch/team oriented modes with customizable loadouts and character selection. It is reminiscent of the multiplayer in the Uncharted games, in terms of both the general gameplay and the staying power. While the multiplayer isn’t really the main draw of the game it is nice that it’s available and certainly doesn’t detract from the game as a whole.

Overall, Tomb Raider is a triumph of a game with an engaging narrative, compelling gameplay, and gripping visuals, hitting all the right notes for a blockbuster action-adventure game while setting itself apart from the crowd as a unique entry and a cut above the rest. I recommend this game very highly to anyone even remotely curious on this reinvention of one of the golden oldies of action-adventure gaming. Whether this was meant to be a reboot or simply a prequel remains to be seen, but I look forward to my next outing with the new Lara Croft. I hope she’ll get another opportunity like this to show us who she is, not just what she can do, with a spotlight both on her exploits and her substance.


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