Tomb Raider is a curious game.
It starts with a bang, rather, an explosion. The ship she was sailing on gets, well, shipwrecked. Lara Croft is now a battered survivor on an island. The initial prospect of playing a brand new characterization of Lara Croft was exciting. They wanted her to have real human emotions. Crystal Dynamics actually made her the star, and not her well-endowed figure. She still is attractive, mind you, but in a more realistic, down-to-earth runway model sort of way. She has the inkling to be an explorer, and is drawn to an island. After things go bad, she gives the camera man a serious expression and sets off to find her shipwrecked-and-missing friends.
The first thing you’ll notice and the first thing Crystal Dynamics is incredibly willing to show you, is how beautiful the game actually is. There are immaculate set pieces with lighting hitting just the right spot between the trees as you emerge from a cave or dense foliage to view the world around you. In warmer climates at night, you’ll get the cool blue tones with a heavy sort of mist settling around you. Insects seem to dance in every direction, and woodland creatures fear the pointy end of the arrow you have aimed at them. Tomb Raider wants to reinvent itself. You just can’t have a normal woman doing extraordinary things anymore; they have to go through an ordeal to get there. They have to bleed, cry, sweat, shake, and they must get injured, a lot. Lara gets banged up pretty well, and when she repeatedly falls through shaky, rotten floorboards down a chute, hitting walls, and then hits more shaky, rotten floorboards, you wonder exactly how someone can well…survive. That’s an issue I have with this game: in its attempt to mimic realism, they still want to throw as many improbable events together and have Lara survive just in the nick of time. I call it the “2012” effect. Not the date but the movie. You know, John Cusack and Amanda Peet speeding down Los Angeles, while entire buildings are falling around them, some pieces missing their car by inches. That’s how I felt playing Tomb Raider. We understand that she is going through an ordeal, but having her fall four to five stories, clinging with her fingertips to a platform to break her fall, and then that platform to give away and for her to do a “Link Roll” onto a wooden pier like thing, and run while the boards and falling beneath her foot and so on. It makes for a fun experience to watch, but I simply shook my head in disbelief. Tomb Raider had a brilliant concept, but too much happens in short spurts that it breaks the illusion of playing a real character trying to survive.
It would have been far worse had Lara controlled poorly. Thankfully, she doesn’t. There are rock solid mechanics at work here. Shooting feels nice and smooth, hit detection went without a hitch (a headshot registered every time, and enemies were actually prone to getting hit by bullets. You’d be surprised just how many games I’ve played where that was not the case.) Shotgun, Rifle, Pistol and Bow are all assigned to the D-pad (yes I was playing with an Xbox controller.) Jumping, running, climbing, pulling, pushing and other moves are smooth as butter to execute. No issues with how the game controls. The camera stayed on me, and never hindered the gameplay whatsoever.
I just wished the game made sense in some areas. Shotguns can blast open these strangely nailed together wood sections covering doors. Rifles with the grenade launcher attachment can blast open wooden doors with debris scattered around it. But these instruments of destruction will not work with anything else. Everything is wooden in Tomb Raider. Wooden chairs, tables, lamp posts, stairs, walkways, and so on. None will be affected by the explosive power of a grenade launcher. I suppose it’s a minor annoyance, but if your game has a sort of “Uncharted meets Battlefield” sort of cinematic style, it’s quite odd that some stuff just doesn’t fall apart the way it should. More importantly, Tomb Raider has some odd boundaries it can’t quite cross. I was terrified of going in deep water for fear of “instant death”, and yet, slightly shallower water only inches closer to land is traversable, yields rewards and hidden goodies, but I didn’t know it because the rule is rather picky by what body of water you choose to stand in. I didn’t notice the significance of collecting goodies, nor did I know that some area-specific side quests, well…existed. The lack of information was odd; because only about two thirds through the game did I realize I missed a bunch of stuff. I had no idea that I could blow up a land mine for xp until I did it by accident. These are not game breaking aspects of Tomb Raider, nor did they detract from the overall pleasant experience of leading Ms. Croft from one injury to the next, but they were noticeable enough to get a small rise out of me.
Tomb Raider is a game that wishes to contend with a genre it created. It popularized the “Indiana Jones” style of game. It showed great prowess in all aspects of a “grand adventure”. Lara moved like Johnny Five back then, and her likability was mostly due to her being the only female in an industry dominated by sweaty, pimple-ridden, hygiene-and-sleep deprived men (/cliché). She was the “new thang”. Now, she attempts to redefine herself by competing with Nathan Drake from Uncharted. But instead of doing what she does best, they chose to mimic his success with their own Uncharted adventure, by creating rousing characters and a lively island with water physics.
Did I say rousing characters? I’m sorry. They are not. In fact, Lara Croft would have been much, much better without them. Heck, they weren’t there for most of the entire game, yet I’m supposed to care for a brunette, a fat man with a Mohawk thing, and a black woman who blames me for everything. Other characters include the stereotypical nerd with glasses who wants to prove himself, the ship’s captain who looks like Robert Shaw from Jaws, and a “shape shifter” character (read: a person who can be good or bad depending on the situation) that reminded me too much of Harry Flynn from Uncharted 2. None of them had anything interesting to say. They just sat around and hated me. They blamed me for ruining their lives, and subsequently, didn’t trust me. They had, besides one plot point, nothing actually to do, so my opinion of them varies from “unnecessary” to “waste of pixelated life”.
It comes down to one additional area that I’m still a bit iffy about. Lara is not a killer. She does not give me the “I’m going to kill everyone on this island” feeling. She’s mad and upset about the current circumstances, but in no does that develop into a “death does not frighten me!” sort of sentiment. I don’t understand why the game chooses this path later on. It doesn’t fit with her character, and the arc is about as wild as the polygraph that Ben Stiller takes with Robert Deniro in Meet the Parents.
Now, let’s review. Tomb Raider is an adventure game of sorts. It has the rousing ambition to become a raucous adventure. I suppose that playing this game only a month or two after Far Cry 3 is not a good thing, because Tomb Raider puts Lara on a wild ride. Not me. Every bridge that collapses, every wooden (I swear to you that everything is wooden) structure that falls apart after every footstep you take is reacting to you, passively. It’s not you, but the game’s idea of an ordeal from a spectator watching it all unfold on a television screen. I want to be the one with some control over where I am going. I want to the person laying the track for a rollercoaster, and not sitting in the back, waiting for the game to show me an experience. It’s odd. I wanted to come away from this game, sweating and exhausted (playing the game) and I simply felt…nothing. I want a challenge. Ninja Gaiden was one of the best games I’ve played (for the original Xbox) it had a terrible story, subpar level design, but the rock solid mechanics meant there was no excuse for you to not beat those guys. There was literally nothing I could say to defend myself upon dying dozens of times in a row. It shows just how important challenge must be, especially for a game that wants to showcase Lara’s unwavering ability to persist and prevail despite great odds. Tomb Raider showcased Lara’s incredible strength and agility, by using all her supposed might to climb a wall with an icepick sort of tool and jump great distances to reach higher areas, but what did I do as the player? I pressed right on the stick to move, A to jump, and timing my collision with an opposite wall so I can dig my beloved ice pick with a quick tap of the X button to prevent falling to my death. The timing was the challenge in this act. Did I ever question Lara’s supernatural abilities? No. Should I of? Yes. Crystal Dynamics wanted us to feel for this poor woman in a dire situation where an ancient civilization may or may not want to use one of their own crew to revive a god. But did I get equally weepy when Lara suffered a loss or dragged herself onto a dry rock to rest after surviving a drop that would have turned most people into a Rorschach inkblot? I wasn’t tired because nothing of remote difficulty was asked of me. It’s like being the guy who watches his family lifting heavy furniture into a moving truck and not “getting” why they are complaining of sore backs. The exploration factor was the equivalent of using an outdated Garmin on a backpacking trip. If I’m running along a wooden platform with a steep cliff face only a foot or so away, I should, as the player, fear death. I didn’t because there was an invisible wall that protected me from accidently falling off. Only if I literally turned and jumped off would I die. It’s the unpredictability of a player running too fast or being too careless that a ledge should be a ledge. You should die.
With more weaponry on my person then the average military shooter, I never feared death. I suppose that’s why Crystal Dynamics felt Lara should act the same way. I never ran out of ammo. I never died unless I was being overly careless, like using a shotgun and bum rushing baddies with equally well equipped firepower. At one point, I sat back and realized that this was not the game I thought it was going to be. Lara Croft. Holding a rifle with a silencer and grenade launcher attached? A grip to reduce recoil? a scope to snipe baddies? How does that make any sense within the context of either old or new Lara?
Truth be told, the game does not suck. Not even remotely. Most of my complaints are leveled at story or characters (the crew) and with the action heavy set pieces that make her story of survival and “overcoming great odds” seem more unbelievable by the moment. It’s with the Quick Time Events that splatter themselves all over the game. Tomb Raider has a beautiful island, created with a love for foliage that borders perversion. It has the right atmosphere, it’s a bit creepy in some areas, and most of the gameplay elements work incredibly well. Its story decides to whip itself into a fast paced Michael Bay frenzy near the end, and that is how we are left. It goes like this: Sailing, Trauma, Redemption, and Vengeance, followed by bloodshed and vengeance, then a hint at a sequel, French horn, credits. When I think of Tomb Raider of yesteryear, I think duel wielding pistols, mummies and mind destroying puzzles. When I think of this game, I think of the old fisherman running down the dock to escape the large submerged object breaking the pier apart piece by piece in Godzilla.
Do I feel that this is an origin story worth playing? Hell yes. It’s a fun game. It has explosions and emotion, and well…People die. Could it have been toned way down? Without a doubt. Tomb Raider as a newly rebooted franchise has ambition now. Tomb Raider: Underworld was a great game, and I thought that it was just as fun. It didn’t have grit like this game, but it did have intelligence. It did not want to cater to an action movie sensibility nor did blood color the walls, floor and characters like this game. It was a levelheaded action/adventure game (back when you could have both in equal parts.)
What Crystal Dynamics needed to do was study Far Cry 3. That game had emotion in spades. I cared for all of the characters. I cared about Vaas, because he was a bit misunderstood. But everyone had a role to play that made sense. I never felt claustrophobic. Jason Brody was definitely a killer by the end of the game, but that’s because of slaughter and not because of an external natural force like Tomb Raider. I can’t even explain why Far Cry 3 felt more genuine, it just did. It showcased a wider range of emotions, and that doesn't mean (like Tomb Raider) going from sad to despondent. Crystal Dynamics needed to imagine the crazy story happening over the news, or possibly an interview with Lara Croft. Imagine her describing the whole ordeal, the initial excitement of finding a long lost civilization, and the very serious change in tone afterwards. It needed a level of care that wasn't heavy handed, but natural. It needed a break to really change the tone. Uncharted does this, too. In those games, we had drama, with some horror and humor added in. There was a variety of emotions to replicate a real human’s always changing state of mind. I suppose that Lara was less of Elena from Uncharted, and more like Gina Carano from Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire”.
Tomb Raider is a curious game. It has rock solid movement and shooting mechanics and the environments are rich in their design. Sounds and music are appropriate, with Lara’s new French horn laden theme working real well to establish the mood of the game overall, and a story that is fun and adventurous. The sequel will hopefully put more control back into the player’s hands, and less into the action-heavy areas with preposterous amounts of explosions that seemed determined to take me out of the experience. It’s exciting for the franchise to return, as this is why I recommend this game. There needs to be more adventure style games, with loot in chests and mythology coming to life, I’m all for it. But some changes need to be made for the player to truly understand Lara Croft’s battle for survival.