Tomb Raider Review
Sony PlayStation 3Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360 and PC
It seems odd that such a well-known action heroine, perhaps the archetypical gaming female lead, should land on the ageing current generation of consoles as gamers around the world start to get distracted by the forthcoming onslaught of novel hardware. Odder still when the adventure we’re joining Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, on is a reboot and origin story all in one. Despite this once you sit down and play it, enjoy it and immediately fall in love with it, you’ll not mind. It’s a reminder of the cyclical nature of gaming or the Ouroboros effect if you will. A reminder that here shines upon the medium as a whole helping to ensure an Indian summer for the current gen and lending hope that the beginning of the next will start with such quality.
Crystal Dynamics have delivered a fantastic overall package in this latest addition to the Tomb Raider canon. They have made a decision to start afresh with Lara Croft and in so doing have contemporised the gameplay and kicked off a new character development narrative. This game opens on a ship - the Endurance - captained by Conrad Roth, treasure hunter and rugged fifty-something man who’s seen it all and somewhere along the way has accepted the responsibility to look after Lara, seemingly imparted to him by her parents after their disappearance. Lara and the team are searching for the legendary island of Yamatai, home of the Sun Queen - a place no-one before has yet found. She proposes the reason is folk have been searching in the wrong place and to locate this island world they must head forwards into the Dragon’s Triangle, Japan’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. A crazy idea of course but one that Roth and Grim his helmsman are happy to follow, against the wishes of the remainder of the team - Dr Whitman the Lead Archaeologist, Reyes the Chief of Security, Alex the Engineer, Jonah the Cook and First Mate and Sam the Documentary Producer and uni friend of Lara’s.
The Dragon’s Triangle of course gets them and the Endurance endures no more, splitting in half and nearly killing all onboard including Lara. Eventually she finds herself on an island, separated from the rest of her team and nearly immediately captured by some unknown third-party. So begins the game proper. Lara at this point displays the logical fear and anxieties anyone in this situation would. Later her insecurities and lack of confidence are also borne out - she’s not cut out for this. She has a great interest in treasured relics and finds but she’s not a treasure hunter, a fighter - a survivor. Of course she is Roth tells her at one point - she’s a Croft.
We see and help Lara grow throughout this story. Once we’ve escaped capture the mechanics of the game become more clear. The perspective is third-person throughout this action adventure and the manipulation and control of Lara always feels solid and fluid. She moves effortlessly around the various large and small areas, providing a feeling of control more inline with a 3D Mario than a fully motion capped Nathan Drake. Early on she has very little capability, starting out cold and wet and needing to just survive. She lights a campfire. She hungers and you learn to shoot arrows after salvaging a bow from a fallen soldier. You shoot game with said bow and so on. The first one to two hours is really getting used to Lara, and her getting used to the place she finds herself and the realities therein. She is scared, uncertain and unknowing but equally she has to survive and help the others do the same - she feels a certain regret having suggested heading this way in the first place. During this time you learn via veiled tutorials how the game will work - you can collect salvage by looting dead bodies found, or smashing crates. With salvage you can upgrade gear, like your bow to allow for better accuracy, quicker shooting or stronger effects. As you salvage and scour and complete objectives you gain XP and enough XP gained yields a skill point. Skill points can be used on improving your survival aspects, your hunting abilities or more. The player is free to do what they want but limited by their current level and certain prerequisite skills.
From various previews and trailers it had seemed that Lara would be placed in an open world area with campfires acting as hubs, from which she can set out to complete an objective, return and refresh, before starting again. With this, XP and the skill tree, things could have gotten really complicated and moved towards an RPG type setup, taking gameplay away from the cinematic action adventure seemingly desired by the developers. Thankfully this doesn’t happen. It’s all very slick and satisfyingly moreish. Yes, you have campfires but you don’t have objectives a la your sandbox game of choice. What’s needed is very linear with some scattered optional tomb raiding and treasure hunting along the way. You have multiple campfires and you can head back and forth but you’ll want to go one particular way to further the game. Where the campfires as hubs come into play is in hunting for treasure - you can fast travel between many to search for things you missed - or to upgrade your skills. Again, this is very simple. Salvage is one currency and gear can be upgraded by using a certain amount per upgrade. XP is not visible and you only spend skill points. It makes for a quick fire way to become a stronger proposition, to focus on what you want and to not get in the way of the main game of killing, hunting and tomb raiding.
Killing, then. A major part of this game and something you’ll come to love even if it’s not something you remember from previous Tomb Raider games - this is a reboot, and changes have been made. Importantly, the changes work. Lara is not a killer - she doesn’t even believe she is a survivor. But she has to be. To that end she kills a man, a man who doesn’t rape her as per the concern a year ago in news reports, but a man who does touch her, intimidate her and scare her. As well as halting her progress. The killing is not easy for her, but after this first the floodgates open. The transition to killer is fast but a necessity. Lara comments on how surprisingly easy it was to kill, despite having never done it before. But you can see why - to get out alive, with her friends, it’s all that can be done. So she does it, and she keeps doing it.
The shooting is handled very well. Over time you collect various weapons from your bow to a shotgun or grenade launcher, and many have multiple firing modes. A flick of a direction on the D-Pad chooses your preferred weapon, and a second flick alters the shooting mode. You might fancy shooting fire arrows into the bad guy’s head and seeing him burst into flames, or prefer a rifled headshot or two. Either way you can go in all guns blazing and eventually you’ll either die and restart, or make it to the end of that group of baddies - no respawn here - or you can try and be a bit more subtle. There’s very little more satisfying in the game than sneaking up behind someone and stealth killing them, followed by taking out the next guy with a quiet arrow to the head. You can power up your arrow shot and tighten your aim to make it easier. If you’re lucky you’ll still be hidden and can do it again. The bow is the most enjoyable weapon in-game and something you’ll likely want to upgrade to its full as quickly as you can. The shotgun has a nice recoil feel to it, the rifle enjoyable quick firing and the pistol highly accurate. But it’s the bow that will get the most, regular use. Upgrading your weapon, as well as building your skills up is something you’ll love to do and won’t want to stop. How much of a tangible benefit there is is hard to say, but it’s definitely cool. Learning to finish an opponent off with a particular weapon and headshot, or napalming them with your armour-piercing arrow is clearly desirable.
The character arc Lara goes on is well-matched by the narrative put in place by the game’s creators. Things are very cinematic, clearly inspired by Uncharted - which is fitting as that will have been inspired in turn by Lara’s previous outings - as is the style of play. But what we have here is a more fluid platforming and action experience (still with clearly marked climbable walls and hookable cliff faces) which happens alongside a mouth-opening storyline, without ever causing the jaw to hit the floor in stunned amazement as Drake’s second adventure may have done. The influences from recent games are clear to see throughout and not limited to Naughty Dog’s key player. Batman’s Detective Vision is reapplied here (if sufficiently skilled) when it comes to treasure hunting - as is the homing beacon style waypoint - and Assassin’s Creed is bubbling away under the surface a little too. It’s good though that no single title has influenced this game, ensuring that it creates its own feel and distinct gameplay.
At times the control of Lara is taken away from you to focus more on the spectacle, but it never stops you from doing the big things you want to be a part of and you’re put back in charge just before you start to question why you’re not. Within this the game is very linear but it hides it well by fully realising each area, allowing you to go off the main path and get rewarded for it - either by finding a GPS cache, a relic, an old document or something else (lighting various statues for example to complete a challenge and gain extra XP). There are a lot of things to do here and a wealth of information pertaining to the island of Yamatai and its history. It’s entirely optional to collect, but definitely adds to the mystery. One thing taken from today’s gaming world is the fact that tombs you can raid are entirely optional. Quite surprising given the game here, but eventually understandable as each tomb is a standalone single room puzzle which yields great treasures (salvage, weapon parts and XP) on solving, but doesn’t further the main story. This might anger some but it’s really minor, and you do still get to raid tombs, solve glorious simple to medium difficulty puzzles ranging in executional difficulty from straightforward to downright frustrating. They’re actually quite welcome in this guise as they allow a breather from the fast-paced main storyline, given there are no enemies. It’s purely Lara against the environment and minds of times past.
There is a multiplayer mode in the game, too. Tomb Raider is not obviously in need of such an addition given the quality of the single player offering here but any big game launch these days has to have something multiplayer about it, in order to capture the interest of those who want to run around online fragging friends and strangers alike all across the world. What’s provided here covers all the usual bases. You can choose your faction (good or bad), change your character (although you can’t be Lara Croft until many level-ups frustratingly) and change your weapons loadout. There are various types of game mode, for instance a capture the flag alike where the goodies want to get a radio beacon working and the baddies want to stop them and steal their batteries. Everything you would expect from a third person multiplayer setup is provided. Varied maps, rounds within a given game, the possibility to invite or to join a random game. It’s slow to load a game at the start and between rounds and matchmaking can be a painfully slow process too but once in there was very little - if any - lag noticed. The bottom line is it does the multiplayer as well as anything but it will hold very little sway as it doesn’t fit with the game fundamentally, nor does it do anything better than alternative offerings.
The game looks and sounds fantastic. It really is at the height of visual quality, standing head and shoulders with some of the best work on PlayStation 3 like God of War 3. There are long draw distances, glorious vistas and textured characters. There are multiple enemy models and we didn’t encounter any obvious framerate issues, with everything moving solidly and fluidly. The lighting effects, especially when combined with the time and weather changes provide some special moments. It’s basically a pleasure to watch. It’s also a pleasure to listen to, with the voice acting excellent across the board and sound effects - as well as music - well done, fitting and varied. On the whole it’s technically excellent, with a normal loading time on first boot-up but otherwise nothing substantial throughout, between cutscenes and the bits you play. Like the game itself, the technical accomplishments ensure there’s very little to complain about.
The remarkable thing here is that Crystal Dynamics have rebooted the Tomb Raider series, told an origin story of how the globe-trotting archaeological action figure came to be, all wrapped up in a contemporised package delivering examples of all that is good about games today, all whilst making it feel like a Lara Croft game. There is nothing here which fails, and very little to criticise. This is a near-perfect realisation of the third-person action adventure genre.