As one of gaming’s longest running franchises, Tomb Raider has fared better than most. Lara Croft has proven capable of weathering multiple console generations, reboots, and platforms while keeping what made the original game so appealing way back in 1996. After the success of the last “trilogy,” Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing board. They wanted to reboot it again, this time injecting it with a grittier, darker origin story for Ms. Croft.
Were they successful? Let’s find out.
Before I get into this, you should know that I’m not a huge Tomb Raider fan. I loved the first game, but other than that I’ve only played a few of the other games. With this game, I saw it as my chance to return to a series I once loved. I also love me a gritty origin story.
If I had to compare Tomb Raider to something I’d say it’s Uncharted meets The Descent. When it focuses on the latter, that’s when the game is at its strongest. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often enough as there’s a pretty substantial section of the game that consists of a lot of explosions and gunfire.
I don’t know why developers are so afraid to stray away from excessive action. Had this game replaced more of its arena fights with creepy tomb exploration and puzzle-solving, it would have been significantly more enjoyable.
With that said, this game rocks.
Even though it relies a little too heavily on gunfights, at least they’re done really well. Taking cover is easy and popping out for a second to implant an arrow — or a fiery arrow if you’re feeling frisky — into the eye socket of the nearest goon is even easier. If you’re the freaky type who likes getting up close and personal with your prey there are stealth takedowns and melee attacks, distributed violently with your climbing axe, for when you want to get in someone’s personal space.
All this might make Lara sound like an unstoppable killing machine, and, well, she totally is. That innocent girl you see in the trailers is gone about an hour into the game, replaced by a death-dealing femme fatale we’ve grown to love over the years. This is a little unfortunate.
I wanted her transition from innocent explorer to crazed, Reaper woman to be more gradual. The first time you kill a man is intense, and unforgettable. Unfortunately, five minutes after that traumatizing kill and you’re using your bow to break necks. It’s a little jarring.
I have this same issue with Uncharted. Its developer so desperately wants to make the character you control seem like an everyday man, or in this case, woman. They want them to be someone you can empathize with, someone you can relate to. I don’t know about you, but after I’ve killed my 300th goon, I’m no longer relating to this character. They’re my death puppet, I’m their puppeteer, and any unsuspecting fool who is stupid enough to get in my way will have their face bashed in with a rock.
Yes, you can do that too.
The story has an emotional side, but it wouldn’t be quite as successful if Jason Graves wasn’t the man behind it. I know, I’m a little bias, because he’s definitely one of my favorite video game composers and I might’ve interviewed him last weekend, but it’s still great. It can be haunting and unsettling — two things Graves does very well — or orchestral and dramatic, depending on the set piece.
I was surprised by how much variety there is in the environments. I mean, you’re on an island, so that definitely limits the locales a bit, but that doesn’t keep Crystal Dynamics from tossing snowy mountains, a big ship graveyard, a massive shantytown, and a forest brimming with pissed off wolves into the mix. I never got bored, and you can travel freely between the camps that are scattered about the island to return to previously explored areas so you can get any hidden items you may have missed your first time through.
The camps are important for more than just fast-traveling around the map. They’re where you’ll be using the skill points you accrue from slaying enemies to unlock new abilities. They’re divided into three groups that focus on your hunting, surviving, and predatory skills, each of which centers around a specific area of Lara’s badass nature. You can choose to focus on improving your animal hunting skills, your goon-demolishing skills, etc. but eventually you’ll gain enough experience to unlock them all.
You can also use the camps to unlock new weapons, or more specifically, new versions of weapons you already own or you can use the scrap parts you find to improve the ones in your arsenal. The customization options are numerous and include stocks, barrels, sights, silencers, and a myriad more for each weapon. The bow is my weapon of choice, and that too has many different upgrades and attachments.
Tomb Raider does one thing extraordinarily well, and that’s exploration. Good thing too, since that’s the name of the game. Err, well, tomb raiding is the name of the game, and in my opinion there aren’t enough of those. The tombs are all optional, but the rewards make them worth it.
The tombs are one of the game’s primary sources of puzzles, which is a shame. I had most of my fun exploring these abandoned tombs because they were the only places that forces me to think. Everywhere else consists of “shoot this before it shoots you,” so the tombs offer a welcome reprieve from all that.
I have a couple small gripes that don’t take much away from the experience even though they do get annoying.
The first is the HUD, which can’t be disabled. Seeing the XP I gain from each kill or item I pick up breaks the immersion, and I hate the constant pop-ups about crap I’ve unlocked in the main menu.
There are also the Quick-time events (QTEs). I have to talk about them. They’re used far too often for my taste, though never on the same level as say, a game like Resident Evil 6. They’re far less numerous than RE6 and they’re used in more interesting ways, but there are still too many of them. I think it’s safe to say QTEs were the cause of 90% of my deaths, because they don’t always grant enough time to react as a QTE should. Or maybe I’m just lacking the Q bit.
Tomb Raider takes a few pages from successful stealth games with the silent weapons and takedowns and the open level design that offers numerous ways to navigate the environment. Sadly, once an enemy sees you, everyone sees you. I had a guy notice me, yell out before I could force-feed him a fire arrow, then a guy on a mounted turret just shot into a thick rock wall I was hiding about 200 feet away. If I jumped, he aimed a little higher. It was ridiculous.
Oh, and there’s a very obviously tacked-on multiplayer, but it’s lame and no one should care about it because three months from now it will go the way of similarly tacked-on multiplayer options and no one will be playing it.
The Final Word: Crystal Dynamics has done the impossible. They’ve taken one of gaming’s most iconic franchises — and arguably its most well-known female character — and reinvigorated both with a reboot that is most definitely an early contender for 2013 Game of the Year.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Tomb Raider.
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