Tomb Raider Review
Lara goes through hell, for your entertainment.
There was a time when Lara Croft had the world at her feet. Life-sized cardboard cut-outs, glossy posters, full page magazine spreads, provocative 3D renders, television commercials; no matter where you looked, Eidos Interactive’s busty English archaeologist was practically plastered on everything back in the late ‘90s.
Lara soon found herself on a downwards spiral, struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing and constantly evolving medium.
Lara’s rapid ascent into mainstream stardom was unheard of for a video game character. Somehow, probably due to her comically sized-bosom, Lara managed to chart territory which was usually reserved for the likes of Hollywood actresses and female musicians, successfully escaping the tomb of negative connotations that surrounded video games to become one of the hottest properties across the globe.
The top-heavy heroine raided the dreams of every young male and empowered numerous women in equal measure with her strong personality, intelligence and quintessentially British touch of class. Yes, Tomb Raider’s duel-wielding wonder woman was love at first sight for gamers, but eventually, Lara’s mass appeal – much like her cup size – began to diminish.
Lara soon found herself on a downwards spiral, struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing and constantly evolving medium. Gamers simply lost interest in Croft’s exploits, despite the best efforts of Core Design – the original developer behind the Tomb Raider series.
Eventually, the baton of one of gaming’s most beloved franchises was entrusted to developer Crystal Dynamics, who did their utmost to restore Lara to her former glory. But, even though vast improvements to the ageing formula were clear to see, Lara had suddenly lost her long-standing monopoly of plundering ancient artefacts There was a new competitor on the block; a charismatic, cocksure adventurer called Nathan Drake. And he’d stolen the jewels of Lara’s crown in the most spectacular way possible.
Though few would have thought it all those years ago, Lara was teetering on the edge of obscurity and in danger of falling to the dreary depths below.
Crystal Dynamics knew a drastic change needed to happen. They had to rethink, refresh and reboot a series that gamers had grown up with, and one which they ultimately cherished. To do so, they had to break the mould of the series’ past, remove the pre-existing ideas gamers had about Lara Croft and attempt to carve out a brand new identity for England’s finest export – no easy task considering Lara’s previous popularity.
Remarkably, Crystal Dynamics have achieved exactly that. Not only have they produced the best Tomb Raider game in the series to date, reinventing a classic character for a modern-day audience, but they’ve manage to create an impressive platform for further instalments to build upon, securing Tomb Raider’s legacy and re-establishing its relevance in the industry today and beyond.
The Tomb Raider series has always been strangely devoid of evocative scenes; you shot the odd tiger, trapped a butler in a meat freezer, and watched Lara’s body crumple into a heap of polygons after a misjudged jump – the latter was never pretty.
Crystal Dynamic’s 2013 reboot makes a number of positive steps to reinvigorate Lara’s dwindling fortunes. The most commendable of which is the emphasis on creating an emotional attachment between Lara and the player.
Although we were all deeply fond of the pony-tailed pathfinder, the Tomb Raider series has always been strangely devoid of evocative scenes; you shot the odd tiger, trapped a butler in a meat freezer, and watched Lara’s body crumple into a heap of polygons after a misjudged jump – the latter was never pretty. Nevertheless, throughout the series, a discernible and palpable sense of danger was noticeably absent. Lara was quite frankly, disposable.
But not anymore. Miss Croft has been transformed into a genuinely believable character this time around. You care for her, fear for her and you’ll be with her every heart-skipping step of the way, willing her on as she goes through utter hell (for your entertainment).
A Delightfully Dark Beginning
A young, inexperienced Lara and a mish-mash team of adventurers set sail aboard The Endurance in search of a forgotten Japanese civilization known as “the Yamatai”. With their expedition proving fruitless thus far, and with Lara desperate to emulate the discoveries of her illustrious father, she manages to convince the crew to enter the Dragon’s Triangle, a treacherous area with a mythical reputation akin to the notorious Bermuda Triangle: once you go in, you never come out.
And so the legend proves true, as the crew’s ship is hit by a ferocious storm, ripping apart The Endurance, leaving the team shipwrecked on a remote, seemingly desolate island. As Lara awakes disorientated from the crash, she sees her team rallying round and checking for survivors in the distance. But, just as she’s about to reunite with her fellow, washed-up wanderers, Lara is blindsided by one of the island’s deranged zealots. When she returns to consciousness, she finds herself cocooned in dirty bandages, surrounded by dead bodies, hanging six-feet off the ground in what could best be described as an underground hell.
It’s one of the most disturbing scenes in the game, one which will linger long in the memory, and a shocking statement of intent by Crystal Dynamics. This new Lara Croft is fragile; vulnerable; and scared.
Terrified and alone, Lara’s natural instincts kick in: it’s kill or be killed; adapt or die; survive at all costs. In a desperate, manic and incredible introduction to the game, Lara manages to escape the sinister clutches of her disturbing captor and embarks on a perilous quest to find her friends and leave the island – hopefully with her life intact. However, it soon becomes clear that rounding up her cronies is but a small piece of one twisted and complicated puzzle. No-one has ever managed to escape this island. Something won’t let them…
This Is A Lara, Lara Fun
The first few hours of Tomb Raider are by far the most accomplished, despite the ugly appearance of one too many quick-time-events. Every action carries a sense of meaning. Every step is filled with a touch of dread and tangible suspense. It’s when Lara is at her lowest ebb, shivering from the cold, physically distraught. She’s forced to go back to basics – preying on the surrounding wildlife, fashion crude tools, and rely on the comforting warmth of mankind’s first discovery to light the way to safety.
For those first few hours I honestly felt like I was there on that horrible island, walking side-by-side with Lara, holding back the urge to just curl up into the foetal position and sob like a baby. It was the most compelling game I’d played for quite some time and I was all set to dish out the top marks and scream my love for the new Tomb Raider from the rooftops. Unfortunately, though, as the game progresses, that brilliant beginning slowly fades from memory, as though it were a separate game entirely.
It’s Simple Rambology
I can sympathise with the conundrum Crystal Dynamics faced in how to move forward after setting such a high precedent. Because clearly, during the eight to ten hour campaign, Lara has to evolve from a skittish baby deer to a capable and an assured explorer. I totally understand that. In all honesty, it would’ve probably been exhausting if she was constantly struggling to survive for the entire eight to ten hour campaign – I think we’d all probably need counselling afterwards if she was. However, the transition between delicate little flower into full-blown Rambo, complete with bow and arrow, is so stark, so dramatic that it comes close to completely eradicating the developers’ hard work in one swift, murderous swoop.
To put it into context, Lara will kill hundreds of men throughout the game – without hesitation – and generally, without mercy. At the beginning, this was acceptable. Remember, it’s kill or be killed after all, and Lara is genuinely horrified at having to take another man’s life the first time around. But after that supposedly landmark, life-changing and disturbing event, it’s as if she simply doesn’t give a damn; to hell with the emotional consequences. She might as well have taken Metallica’s 1983 studio debut album literally: Kill ‘em All, Lara.
Lara’s ugly transformation into a mass murder machine is a huge backwards step and forcefully shackles Tomb Raider with idiosyncrasies we’ve seen all too often in other titles.
Lara’s ugly transformation into a mass murder machine is a huge backwards step and forcefully shackles Tomb Raider with idiosyncrasies we’ve seen all too often in other titles. When Lara starts spouting one liners such as, “I’ll kill you all, you bastards!” I found myself shaking my head in disappointment. (Of course, I’m paraphrasing here – you need to emphasise the “Ba” for that British twang.) Again, I’m fully aware that she has to evolve, but why does this evolution have to involve killing over 1000 people in the space of one campaign?
The experience system in the game is supposed to reflex this education of hard knocks. Actions such as foraging, hunting and of course, violent slaughtering, rewards the player with experience points, which can be used to upgrade Lara’s skill sets and grant her new moves and perks. But in the end it’s a huge missed opportunity to return to the survival element on which the game could have followed, and re-enforces the fact that Tomb Raider is happy to embrace this new notion that all gamers love grotesque violence. Because once you’ve hunted your first animal for Lara to feast on – which happens right at the beginning – there’s literally no point in shooting another creature ever again – apart from gaining more experience. So this whole hunting mechanic is essentially pointless other than serving to give Lara more skills to kill her enemies with more finesse than a highly-trained assassin. Why?
Thankfully, Tomb Raider also contains a number of secluded tombs to raid – fancy that! Unfortunately, the tombs take a firm back seat this time around. They’re entirely optional in fact, and usually take about five minutes to complete. Hopefully we’ll see grander, more elaborate tombs and puzzles in the inevitable sequel as opposed to a focus on homicide.
An Ode To Uncharted
So, let’s address the obvious, gigantic elephant in the room. If you’ve played any one of the three Uncharted games, you’ll immediately notice umpteen similarities in Tomb Raider’s cinematic presentation and gameplay style. I absolutely hate comparing games to one another – it’s something I strongly try to avoid – but to say that Crystal Dynamics have been somewhat inspired by their sternest competitor is a gross understatement.
The way Lara shuffles through tight caverns, the cinematic camera angles, the “Crap! This place is gonna blow!” escape sections. They’re all here, and admirably, they’re all executed to aplomb. However, and it’s a big however, there’s so many of these controller-gripping moments that it’s done to the point of overkill. Lara quickly comes across as annoyingly clumsy and supernaturally invincible in equal measure. You can figure out when she’s going to fall, lose her footing, or when she’ll be placed in a difficult situation. It’s like riding the ghost train at the theme park for the third time – it’s still fun when the ghosts appear, but it’s predictable. You’ll be stunned to see how many buildings and objects miraculously explode and automatically crumble. You’ll be less surprised by the way that Lara will somehow survive each and every time. So much for being vulnerable…
A Grim Cast
Where Tomb Raider falls awfully short is the characters and their interactions with Lara. With the exception of Roth and Jonah, who actually seem to have an ounce of charisma, it’s impossible to care for any of Lara’s so-called friends. Considering the story’s main plot revolves around reuniting, saving and escaping with these sorry individuals, it’s difficult not to feel apathetic towards this goal. Oh, and the less said about the character Samantha, who plays an integral role in the story, the better. She might as well have been a deaf mute. Awful.
While the story is reasonably solid throughout with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, the actions of the other characters are frequently unexplainable. Bizarrely, your team seem totally at ease with the situation, content to run off with reckless abandon throughout the game with no regard for their personal safety. Lara on the other hand is constantly fending off waves of evil foes and has gone through the ringer and back. Even when she does catch up with them, they’ll abandon her or teleport miles away on the island after a brief conversation – it’s as jarring as it sounds. The contrast between the two parties, especially during conversation, verges on the surreal.
Raider Of The Lost Art
In regards to the visuals and presentation values, Tomb Raider is a technically stupendous achievement. It’s a breathtaking spectacle, with incredible lighting effects and attention to detail. On the PS3 version the performance was excellent, with absolutely zero screen-tear and only a handful of framerate drops during hectic scenes. It’s a close match for the sumptuous visuals of Uncharted and an astonishing coup for Xbox 360 owners who can finally experience a game which comfortably holds its own against Sony’s graphical showcase.
It would have been easier to have reeled off all the positive elements that Tomb Raider has to offer, all the boxes of a modern blockbuster title have been ticked, including the now obligatory and surprisingly decent multiplayer offering. But because Crystal Dynamics have repackaged and spruced up an already compelling proposition, reinventing an icon but not much else, the negative and safe design choices claw their way to the surface upon further reflection. And, while the qualms outlined above may be deemed admissable by some, the lifeless cast and meaningless relationships between Lara and her team cannot. Nor can one woman’s alarming lust for blood. But hey, it’s great to see Lara Croft back in the spotlight. You go, girl!
Prefer moving pictures and sound? Then check out our video review here.
A review copy of Tomb Raider was provided courtesy of Square Enix. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Tomb Raider is a triumphant reboot, make no mistake, but it’s sullied by too many safe design choices, a tame cast and a frustrating tendency to rely on the past successes of others. Tomb Raider could have been so much more. It’s a must-have purchase for Xbox 360 and PC owners, but if you own a PS3 there’s a better team of explorers to choose from... Nate, Sully, Elena and Chloe to be precise.