OXCGN’s Tomb Raider Review
A Survivor is Reborn
by Daniel Geikowski
©2013 Daniel Geikowski
On one hand, a game is usually rebooted due to a decline in popularity of a franchise, where a fresh start and new perspective is required. Therefore, various changes and mechanics are implemented, sometimes with characters being overhauled in order to generate new interest in the series.
On the other hand however, altering much of the core themes, characters or mechanics can have disastrous effects. Developers risk damaging their product even further and possibly losing the last remnants of an audience they were so desperate to retain.
Time is also a factor on the popularity of a franchise. As time goes on, and more entries are released, it is only a matter of time before fans begin to lose interest due to stale or overused mechanics, bland characters, and cliched storylines.
And it succeeds.
Tomb Raider successfully reappropriates the franchise for a new generation of gamers thanks to updated mechanics, along with two very important things: a believable main character and a well-told story.
Lara is determined to ‘make her mark’ on the world, in order to separate herself from her famous father, Richard Croft. Lara is the student of Dr. Whitman, a celebrity archaeologist, who is attempting to find the lost civilisation of Yamatai in order to gain further popularity.
On board the ship Endurance, Lara is certain that the lost nation is situated somewhere within the Dragon’s Triangle, a dangerous region where numerous ships and aircraft go missing during violent storms.
Much to Dr. Whitman’s disgust, the team decide to trust Lara’s instincts, and head into the Triangle.
It’s not long before she is knocked unconscious by an unknown enemy, waking up in an undisclosed cave that’s littered with graphic rituals and sacrificial offerings.
Lara manages to free herself, venturing out into the unforgiving wilderness of the island.
A Survivor Is Born
It’s more than a story of a group of shipwrecked survivors battling enemies in an attempt to escape an unknown island. It’s a story about how dire situations can change one’s character.
Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara Croft’s evolution from a naive, frightened woman into a self-sustained, hardened survivor.
It’s a tale that can be appreciated in various ways, by various gamers.
It’s an empowering tale for women, highlighting equality for males and females alike. It goes to show that anyone has the ability to adapt and survive deadly situations, regardless of gender.
Crystal Dynamics have managed to create a narrative that doesn’t force a radical feminist agenda onto players. The whole male versus female train of thought is so outdated; Lara is a role model to males and females alike.
Playing though the campaign, the moment in question was blown entirely out of context, and in actual fact plays a pivotal part in engaging Lara’s survival instincts going forward.
It’s a tale about character, not gender.
Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable story, with various objectives keeping players’ interest in the narrative. The most engaging aspect of the narrative, however, is watching Lara constantly overcome obstacles, challenging her inner character in her transformation into a true survivor.
While Tomb Raider is a reboot for the series, it doesn’t fall into the trap of a ‘gritty, realistic’ reboot that occurs in so many games and movies nowadays.
The story itself is well-paced and quite lengthy. There was one point in the game where I was certain I was nearing the end, only to be thrown a curve ball, and continued to play for another three to four hours.
Whether it’s a rainy forest, an ancient windswept temple, a shipwrecked beach, or a mountain-top village, these varied environments help maintain player interest throughout the game.
There is a nice balance between the natural and man-made environments as well. Forests and mountains are broken up with visits to wartime bunkers, research facilities, and rickety shantytowns.
Each area has it’s own unique feel, and provides many challenges and puzzles for players to overcome.
There are even multiple routes to take in order to reach an objective, although there is not really much incentive to play through again in order to take a different path.
Each of these areas have various Camp Sites, which allows Lara to rest, spend skill points, upgrade gear, and most importantly allows players to save their progress.
Specific sites even allow players to fast travel to previously visited locations, in order to collect items, salvage parts, complete challenges or solve one of Tomb Raider‘s many puzzles.
Jack of All Trades
The gameplay style has and will continue to draw comparisons to the Uncharted series, and while we can argue that Uncharted learned from Tomb Raider, this current entry is a totally different animal.
Tomb Raider has a more serious underlying tone, successfully portraying Lara as a typical, relateable everywoman, whereas Nathan Drake is constantly giving wisecracks, blowing things up, and seemingly bumbling his way through events.
More than that, Tomb Raider manages to produce a healthy balance of exploration, action, combat and puzzle solving.
Much like the title suggests, there are plenty of tombs to raid, none of which have anything to do with current objectives. They’re there purely for exploration purposes.
Many puzzles are required to be completed throughout the campaign, and some actually require some serious thought. Puzzles are one of the hardest things to get right in game design, as you’ve constantly got to challenge the player without going overboard.
Crystal Dynamics have maintained a steady learning curve of puzzles, most incorporated newly-acquired items in order to complete. Puzzles slowly grow to require multiple items to complete, and feel satisfying once the player has navigated them.
It’s not all puzzle-solving, though, as Tomb Raider gets the blood pumping with action.
Lara constantly gets smashed by her surroundings.
It helps further solidify to the audience that Lara’s exploring an ancient place, and enemies aren’t the only thing that can kill her. Some of the more graphic deaths will come from the environment. Being crushed and stabbed by rocks… you know, all of the good stuff.
Speaking of enemies, Tomb Raider features a variety of enemies who want to violently end Lara Croft’s life.
The most common enemy is the Solarii, a group of murderous individuals who have been trapped on the island for years, driving them to complete heinous acts in order to survive.
There are also some wildlife that like to attack Lara, with wolves hunting her early on.
It’s a shame though, as I always fondly remember wildlife being a constant threat in previous entries, and would like to have seen a more present and constant threat from wolves, bears, snakes, etc.
The human enemies come in various types, ranging from brawlers, scouts, basic riflemen, as well as explosive experts. There are even the powerful tank enemies that are always a joy to take down.
Combat does feel really visceral in the early stages, with Lara frantically trying to survive, whereas over time, combat becomes somewhat trivial, as Lara becomes more adept, with a couple of exceptions.
Like many action games, A.I. plays a major factor in the overall challenge and enjoyment. Sadly, the A.I. insisted on rushing toward me, eager to receive an arrow to the face. A rare negative on what is overall an enjoyable package.
The Warrior’s Path
Much like some recently-released games, the bow and arrow takes stage front and center in Lara Croft’s arsenal. However, in Tomb Raider, it’s used for more than just killing, but also solving puzzles, making it more diverse than other titles offering the use of a bow.
The bow, along with other weapons available to Lara, are able to be upgraded at camp sites. However, specific parts are required to be found in salvage heaps littered across the island, forcing players to head off the beaten track.
Salvage is needed to upgrade all weapon components, and functions as the currency used in Tomb Raider. It can not only be found in crates across the island, but Lara can also pick it up from dead enemies and wildlife.
Players are able to get access to fire arrows, explosive arrows, reinforced arrows, as well as rope arrows. Rope arrows open up new avenues of gameplay, allowing players to form bridges to previously inaccessible areas. Not only do these arrows assist in combat, but puzzles as well.
The pacing of the acquirement of new items is well-spaced, as players aren’t being crammed with new gear at the beginning.
Once players have strengthened their gear, or unlocked a specific item, they are able to travel back to previous areas, in order to complete puzzles that were impossible to do at that point in time.
Other weapons available to Lara include the a pistol, shotgun and assault rifle. These are pretty stock-standard weapons that required upgrading before I felt any real need to constantly use them. The bow, on the other hand, proved consistently useful throughout the campaign.
While killing things is fun, it’s not all for nothing. Killing enemies, along with collecting items, rewards players with Experience Points (XP).
Upon earning enough XP, Lara gains a Skill Point, which allows her to unlock a new skill while resting at any one of the many camp sites littered throughout the game.
Skills are divided into three sets, being Survivor, Hunter and Brawler.
Survivor relates to movement, item scavenging, and increased XP gain. Hunter upgrades Lara’s ammo capacity and effectiveness with certain weapons. Brawler focuses on melee combat, countering and finishing moves.
The skills tie in really well with the overarching narrative.
In the beginning, with Lara starting out, she is very limited combat/survival-wise. However, as she develops into a hardened survivor, her skills and capabilities also increase, becoming a strong and formidable character.
Apart from going around and collecting salvage, various types of collectibles can be found. These range from artifacts such as masks, figurines and coins, to numerous GPS locators and journals left around by the Endurance crew and previous island inhabitants.
These journals do a great job of providing a substantial backstory to Tomb Raider, even offering a greater insight into the Endurance crew Lara has been stranded on the island with. Even though some of the characters are quite cliche, they are all solidly voice acted.
In conjunction with a pile of collectibles to find, each area has specific challenges to complete.
These are fairly simple, mainly tasking the player to look in obscure and out-of-reach areas. Most challenges will consist of destroying totems, effigies, or posters, or unearthing burial ruins and other dusty things.
While they are nothing special, completing these challenges reward players with bonus XP, thus enticing them to undertake them in order to boost their skills. Completing these challenges and collecting these items also unlock character models and concept art, for those artistically-interested gamers out there.
These tombs each consist of multiple puzzle mechanics that players have learned and utilized in the surrounding area, and require a bit of thought, along with some fairly quick reaction times. Completing these tombs rewards players with large XP bonuses, weapon parts, and salvage.
It’s here where Tomb Raider shines, as players are able to freely explore and traverse the various terrain without any fear of repeated combat.
The game has received a high level of visual polish, from the detail shown in each character, to the beautiful environments showcased throughout.
By far the most visually impressive aspect is Lara herself. The hero of the series has undergone some drastic visual changes since the original Tomb Raider, and her current design reflects a more realistic character.
Lara looks fantastic, going through multiple visual changes as she progresses through her journey, gaining cuts and scratches, only to be patched up with makeshift bandages. By the end of the journey, Lara well and truly looks as if she has gone to hell and back.
To be honest, all character models are well-detailed, from the shabby Solarii, to the creases in Roth’s faces, to the detail in Jonah’s tattoo.
As previously stated, the vast majority of the voice acting is well delivered, Lara especially. You can really feel her pain as she bangs and crashes into and through many of the island’s obstacles.
The game’s various levels look and feel top-notch, packing plenty of variety. Players won’t get sick of the many tombs and caverns seen within the game, as they pack plenty of artifacts which differentiates them from the others.
After spending some time within the bowels of the Earth, players are greeted with a gorgeous open vista, whether that be a lost village, and ancient temple, or dense forest. The areas are well situated and spaced, giving players a breath of fresh air every so often.
The game’s weapons sound very solid and meaty, matching the screams of the enemies Lara uses them on.
Overall, there was hardly any negatives to point out in terms of visual or audio components. Although I experienced no graphical or audio hiccups, I did view a weird glitch where all the characters froze in one cutscene.
Survival of The Fittest
Multiplayer offers four different game modes: Free-for-All, Team Deathmatch, Rescue and Cry For Help.
Multiplayer casts players as characters from one of two factions, either the Survivors of the Endurance or the violent Solarii.
Free-for-All and Team Deathmatch are pretty much self explanatory, and are your run-of-the-mill versus modes.
Rescue, however, tasks the Survivors to go around and collect Medical Supplies, and return them to a capture point, all the while evading the Solarii, who attempt to kill them.
Cry For Help also tasks the Survivors with activating emergency radio beacons, while aiming to prevent the Solarii from stealing their precious batteries.
While there is nothing new or groundbreaking here, there is some fun to be had.
It’s your typical multiplayer foray, with the shining light being level traversal. The various maps allow players to jump and climb walls and ledges, in order to take up positions above enemies, in order to eliminate them with the bow unawares.
Players can also use ropes to quickly traverse open areas, or close the gap between themselves and an enemy, before driving a climbing axe through their skull.
It’s a well implemented mechanic, which ties into the aesthetics of the single player experience, preventing it from being a stale, bland multiplayer inclusion.
That being said though, overall I felt that the multiplayer was an unnecessary inclusion.
Sure, it’s an attempt to become an overall package and provide longevity, but it seems as if multiplayer modes are being tacked on to every franchise nowadays.
I’m not saying the multiplayer offering was horrible, just that I felt that it did not receive the same level of focus and dedication compared to the single player campaign. It felt like a basic multiplayer offering.
It might be the times changing in the business of video games, but for me personally, Tomb Raider has always been a singleplayer game, focusing on a large, epic narrative.
If Crystal Dynamics were so committed on including multiplayer, why not incorporate it into the narrative, giving it its very own storyline, much like co-op in Far Cry 3?
A New Hero
Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have done a superb job of taking a once popular but ailing franchise, and rebooting it for fans new and old to enjoy.
Tomb Raider should be used as an example of how to successfully rejuvenate a series that has become stale and seemingly lost its way.
Gamers from various backgrounds will find something to enjoy in Tomb Raider.
Whether it’s the story of a frightened woman transforming into a hardened survivor in the face of adversity, or the blend of action, role-playing elements, combat and puzzles, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had.
While the enemy intelligence and combat is lacking somewhat, it’s a small blemish on what is arguably a near flawless game.
Tomb Raider is one of the best games of 2013 so far, and I have no hesitation in saying that it is a ‘must buy’ title.
I, for one, can’t wait for Lara Croft’s next adventure.