Tomb Raider Review
This unique blend of blockbuster set pieces and open-ended exploration makes this not only the best Tomb Raider title, but one of the best action-adventure experiences you can have in a video game.
Remember Lara Croft: the big-breasted, tough-as-nails female explorer from Tomb Raider who fights dinosaurs with pistols akimbo? What if they removed all of those distinguishing features and re-imagined the series from scratch- would you still want to play? Strange as it sounds, Crystal Dynamics‘ choice to remove Lara Croft’s badass persona and characteristic double D’s from the new Tomb Raider feels better for the series than those things ever did. This unique blend of blockbuster set pieces and open-ended exploration makes this not only the best Tomb Raider title, but one of the best action-adventure experiences you can have in a video game.
The events of Tomb Raider 2013 take place entirely on a remote Japanese island located in the heart of the “Dragon’s Triangle,” a sort of Eastern Bermuda Triangle that may or may not have supernatural forces at work behind the scenes. After washing up on the coast of the island, players are tasked with leading survivor Lara Croft to safety. The opening of this game, which subjects the girl (and the player) to a slasher-flick-esque cavalcade of horrors, definitely sets the tone for the story. This isn’t a friendly place, and Lara’s fresh-out-of-college naiveté doesn’t help her situation much either.
Half of Tomb Raider is spent in sectioned off, yet open areas that are crammed to the gills with collectibles to find and alternate paths to take. With a Metroid-esque progression system, players are constantly teased by areas they will be able to access later with new skills or items. Even better, there is a very concise fast-travel system to facilitate your exploration. The closest comparison I can draw is to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, giving players the freedom to explore the environment while staying more contained than in a traditional open-world title. The other half of Tomb Raider involves high-octane scripted sequences and gunfights with enemies. This portion of the game has a unique flavor of its own, with an RPG-like upgrade system allowing Lara to specialize in a broad range of combat skills.
As Lara progresses through the story, she will gain new weapons and tools. While her cobbled together bow and climbing axe may seem like meager starter weapons waiting to be replaced, they are in reality some of the most useful puzzle solving tools in the game. The bow can not only silently take down enemies or distract them with a well-placed near-miss, but it can be upgraded to set things ablaze, pull objects with rope, and much more. Similarly, the climbing axe can be modified to open varying sizes of treasure chests, climb sheer rock faces, and even become an effective melee weapon. Later in the game Lara can find more traditional weapons like a handgun, shotgun and assault rifle, each of which have interesting puzzle solving uses of their own. For example the shotgun can shoot down wooden barriers blocking your path, and the assault rifle can get a grenade launcher attachment to destroy even tougher objects. It’s nice to see the exploration aspects of Tomb Raider permeating even the weapons; this helps the two halves of the game I mentioned feel more intertwined.
The main enemies in the game are the “Solarii,” a huge cult of castaways worshipping the long-dead Japanese ‘Sun Queen,’ coincidentally the same one Lara and her archaeologist friends originally came to study. Essentially portrayed as objectively crazy men prone to sexually assault Lara at the slightest provocation, they serve nicely as relatively guilt-free targets. In encounters they can be fairly intelligent, making good use of cover and flanking techniques. Oftentimes they’ll communicate with each other about your position and when you’re reloading or vulnerable, and it all feels very visceral in the moment. As Lara’s arsenal fills out, the ways to take out enemies theoretically increase, but it always seemed like the combat wanted me to do a few specific things. Several times I would try to break from the one or two cover points I’m asked to hole up behind, only to be quickly and efficiently gunned down. It definitely feels like the combat encounters were balanced for very specific tactics per scenario, and you’ll likely have to come to terms with that if you’re going to have any fun with the gunfights. There are also a few laughably poor stealth sequences, which amount to creeping up behind enemies who are content to stare at walls, waiting to be taken out. Failing these will simply start a gunfight with the remaining enemies though, so you don’t have to participate if you’d rather not be sneaky.
What carries the weight of many of the more constrained combat scenarios is the ability to selectively upgrade Lara’s skills. By killing enemies, hunting game or finding secrets around the island, players will net experience points. That XP can be spent at campfires across the island toward either “Survival,” “Hunter” or “Brawler” skills. The upgrade system does a great job of making it feel like Lara is organically learning to fend for herself while on her adventure. For example, at the outset of the game Lara has no melee attack at all; the best she can do is push enemies out of the way. An upgrade in the “Brawler” tree then lets her throw dirt at enemies to blind them. Later, she can stun them by attacking with her climbing axe, and only after all these can she actually use the axe as a melee attack to kill enemies. As you can imagine by this evolution, there is also a subtext of Lara’s devolving psyche within these combat upgrades. This is probably best shown by the “Hunter” skills. The first upgrades in this arc simply let you carry more ammo or take better aim with your bow, but later skills give you more XP for “killing with finesse,” and the final skills give Lara brutal up-close executions. It’s an interesting example of the player narrative telling its own tale, as the rest of the story in Tomb Raider doesn’t really address this issue.
Collecting items throughout the world can also net “salvage,” the currency used to upgrade weapon properties at campfires. Here you can modify your machine gun barrel to increase damage, or attach grenades to your arrows so you can shoot fiery explosions from your bow. Most of these simply amount to killing enemies faster, but it’s nice to be able to continually trick out your favorite weapons. Opening salvage crates also intermittently reward you with gun parts, which can eventually allow Lara to change out her WWII-era machine gun for an AK-47, or switch her “trench shotgun” for a modern pump-action shotgun. It’s a bit comical to think of this inexperienced girl fashioning a Kalashnikov out of a few spare parts, but it serves the gameplay well enough, and the leveled-up guns net pretty significant changes in combat.
The island of Yamatai itself is a beautiful place, and traversing it can be breathtaking. With very tight art direction and environments densely packed with set dressing, there’s always plenty to look at. Downed planes in the jungle, clusters of corpses in WWII bunkers and grim ship graveyards juxtaposed with ancient Japanese Shinto shrines really give the locales stories all their own. The textures are as rich as the environments, absolutely crammed with years of dirt, grime and rust to give this game a true “1977 Star wars” lived-in quality. Lara herself is not immune to the muck of this place, and her character model gets sufficiently grimy as the story moves forward. With much of this game centering around strong storms, the environments look fantastic when dynamically breaking or splintering as the winds pick up.
The PC version also features AMD‘s new TressFX technology for Lara’s hair, allowing the rendering of each individual strand to blow freely in the breeze. This effect looks absolutely gorgeous, but definitely comes with a performance hit, so make sure your system has resources to spare. Playing through the entirety of Tomb Raider on PC however, I’ve found it to be very well-optimized. With minimal framerate hits occurring during uber-close-ups (again, because of Lara’s hair), the game ran like butter, easily clearing 60 frames for the majority of the experience. The PC version also features a robust benchmark tool that is launched from the game’s menus, where you can change graphics options during the test to see what works best for your rig.
The HUD in Tomb Raider is very minimal, underscoring the lonely feeling of exploring an uncharted island. Instead of icons staying on-screen, Lara can enter ‘Instinct’ mode to highlight the path to take or find where her objective might be. This emphasis on being cinematic shows through much of Tomb Raider‘s design sensibilities. For example, you never see a load screen in the entire game. Instead, the waits are hidden during playable sequences where Lara is entering caves or other environments. Similar to 2012’s Max Payne 3, this feels very slick. In a refreshing move, skinning animals and looting bodies are near-instant, allowing you more time to focus on the actual game. With 2012’s Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed III both forcing players to wait to complete these actions, it’s nice to see at least one game accelerating the process. Animations are extremely rich, highlighting each misstep and lack of grace that comes with Lara’s inexperience and the voice acting, while better in some characters than others, is for the most part very good. In a nice touch, all of the collectible journals and items Lara finds are fully voice-acted, adding to the immersion. This feels like a game where every part of the design works toward a cohesive vision, and all the pieces fit together just right.
Also included in the Tomb Raider package is a multiplayer mode, which expands a bit on the mechanics of the singleplayer game and allows some Call of Duty-style weapon upgrades. The two teams of Survivors or Solarii can square off in standard Deathmatch modes, or two Tomb Raider-exclusive concepts: Rescue and Cry for Help. Cry for Help involves activating radio transmitters around a map as Survivors, while the Solarii attempt to prevent this by stealing the transmitters’ batteries. In Rescue, the Survivors have to capture certain supplies around the map and bring them back to base, while the Solarii simply have to hunt down the Survivors. These two modes are pretty interesting and the multiplayer’s base mechanics are solid, but in reality you’re likely to find more compelling (and populated) online experiences elsewhere.
It seemed like a longshot that this aging series could so easily become relevant again, but with the right amount of storytelling competence and general polish Crystal Dynamics has done just that. Tomb Raider does feel like it cherry picks the mechanics of other modern franchises, but it wears that fact like a badge of honor. Now that we’re leaving the dinosaurs and double D’s behind, I can’t wait to see where this new direction takes Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider / Crystal Dynamics / Square-Enix / March 5, 2013
This review was conducted on a retail Steam code provided by Square-Enix.
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