After several long weeks of battling my arch nemesis, technology, I am finally able to deliver my report on one of my favorite, albeit underrated, franchises. Tomb Raider first came to us in the mid 90’s on a train of platforming trends. After a few strong releases, the series starting taking blows to its popularity, until finally it felt like people just stopped caring. Even if Tomb Raider had been laid to rest after Underworld, you could still say that the franchise had made a huge impact. Lara Croft is one of the most iconic characters ever birthed into gaming. Her status was no doubt immortalized in pop-culture, but with little interest being shown in her gaming debuts, it appeared that Lara’s adventures had just been too taxing to resuscitate the series.
Enter Tomb Raider, rebooted. In what must have been one glorious final effort, developers Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing boards to reinvent the series passed on to them from Core Design. What shipped was the dictionary definition of successful re-imagining.
The Birth of a Survivor
The typical plot formula for nearly every Tomb Raider occurrence puts Lara up against some sort of shadow league, both locked in a struggle to obtain a powerful artifact for their own purposes. Pretty bread and butter for an adventure story. Sub-supernatural themes help to beef up the plots, usually with the inclusion of ancient mysticism or pseudo-magic. These extra elements are never so focused on to seem implausible though. They add just enough flavor to appear as if there’s more to the world than meets the eye.
Crystal Dynamics trashed the first half of the model to rewrite Lara Croft’s origin. This latest installment starts Ms. Croft and crew on a mission to find a long lost Japanese empire called Yamatai. More specifically, they’re pursuing the shamanism fueled story surrounding the culture’s ruler, Queen Himiko, also known as the “Sun Queen”. Against the recommendations of the expeditions chief archeologist, the vessel Endurance attempts to brave a region known as the Dragon’s Triangle. Unsuccessfully. The ship is torn asunder by powerful storms, tossing the passengers into the ocean and leaving them for dead on the beaches of an unnamed island.
Lara is pitted against the elements, wildlife, and hysterical island inhabitants driven on sacrifice and fueled by the promise of escape. The goal is not sugar coated; find a way off the island. The story continues to evolve as Lara’s shipmates, most notably Sam, are constantly captured and need to be rescued. At first, the story didn’t really seem all the impressive or noteworthy. There exists a mediocre amount of background information within the cutscenes and dialogue, but exploring your surroundings offers a vastly bigger glimpse into what is really going on. Scattered across the island are documents and journals that tell tales of previous inhabitants and their struggles against the forces at work.
Even with the extra meat, I can still see a lot of similarity to other adventure stories. Most of the narrative felt stuck between a violent reboot of Homeward Bound and Indiana Jones. However, the execution was flawless. All of the elements that make for great story telling were here. Believable characters, realistic settings, motives that we can relate too, the whole shabang. Before getting my hands on Tomb Raider, I was nervous on how Crystal Dynamics would carry over character traits into my experience controlling Lara. The community apparently agreed, often crying out that it as impossible to create a the illusion of an innocent Lara Croft through cutscenes, only to make the player slaughter their way to freedom as if it were a daily requirement. These reservations were addressed with little effort.
The first human life Lara snuffs really drives her reluctance and inexperience home. The sequence involves Lara temporarily escaping capture before being seized by a particularly burly Russian named Vladimir. There’s a quick time event as Vlad caresses Lara’s thighs that, if failed, leads to a quick death via choke-hold. But there was something far more sinister going on. Crystal Dynamics quelled rumors of a possible rape scene long before this game’s release, but this is clearly the scene that sparked controversy. Whatever the “official” direction this sequence meant to go, I got that vibe that Vlad’s motives were of a more carnal nature. Lara is an incredibly attractive young woman trapped on a island inhabited almost exclusively by men, and I would have found it insulting for the narrative not to acknowledge this fact.
Lara is able to thwart her rape/murder after wresting the man for his gun and blows a hole clean through his skull. Within seconds she drops the gun, falls to her knees, and descends into a sobbing, hyperventilating mess. The developers transferred this emotion to the gameplay through Ms. Croft’s dialogue and through the volume of her encounters. The first few battles I found myself in started with Lara screaming from behind cover that her assailants “didn’t need to do this” and she “just wanted to pass”. Despite the numerous battles I was engaged in, I never felt like this character was conflicted.
As the story progressed and secondary characters started dropping like flies, Lara’s attitude evolved to match. By the time I reached strongholds where enemies would pour from the wood-works, there had been enough character progression for me to slaughter my foes without feeling like Lara is torn between a timid personality and a murderous hate queen.
The New Look
The environment is drool inducing. The first hard look of the island after escaping initial bondage has been burned into my retinas and will likely stick with me for years to come. The sun flares reflected off the cliff rocks and danced across the screen as wave after wave crashed against the shipwrecks below. A scene made out of Hollywood. Even beyond what’s rendered, the conceptual inferences induced by the island’s design really sparks ones imagination. Most of what you can see, you can get too. Vista style panoramas dot the island and are married perfectly with the cinema style camera work.
The island’s topography was designed, rendered, and textured to feel somewhere between reality and fantasy. Most of the regions look plausible, but too good to actually exist. There was clearly an attempt made to break up the monotony of the extremely Himiko’s rage induced spirit storms also helped to vary up the climate as well. Torrential rain and the occasional snow fall break up long bouts of sunshine.
I was a bit reluctant to see Ms. Croft redesigned. Part of what made her such a prominent figure in the gaming universe was just how ludicrously disproportional her appearance was in relation to her job title. You’d be hard pressed to say those impractical sweater cows didn’t make up ninety nine percent of her fame. But man, Crystal Dynamics came through. I fell in love with her all over again. She’s every bit as beautiful as the bimbo we knew before, sans the sex icon vibe. She even bares a striking resemblance to the stunning model Megan Farquhar. Her outfit is significantly less promiscuous, but it looks every bit like something Lara would wear in her younger years. Her attire evolves with the punishment she receives across her adventure. Her clothing tears and her skin becomes increasingly cluttered with cuts and scares.
Sit down, Angelina Jolie.
Unfortunately, secondary character’s didn’t get much of this attention to detail and the tertiary characters suffered even more. Several closeups featuring antagonist Father Mathias were pretty rough to get through, as the textures on his raincoat look blurred and dated. The emphasis on ranged combat over melee combat kept me at a distance from the island’s vanilla foes, so I couldn’t determine if their models were flawed in any way. I will say that enemies have slight variations between them, even if their subgroups are labeled the same. Head gear and accessories are swapped, as well as belts and bandoliers, meaning there were never ten cloned henchman #3’s on the screen at once.
Only on one occasion, where the floor disappeared for a brief moment upon exiting a building, did I run into any graphical hiccups. There’s a lot of talk about the engine being buggy, with textures vanishing or meshes just failing to load, but I can’t say I saw anything out of the ordinary. The game’s structure looks rock solid.
Rebuilding the Platformer
Keeping with the theme of reinvention, this reboot felt in no way familiar to previous installments. But it felt exactly how it needed to feel. Where puzzle solving was a near mandatory inclusion for a player’s resume in past adventures, puzzles here have been minimized. The play area has been opened up enough to appear current with trends in the industry, but linear enough to be reminiscent of classic platformers.
The inclusion of minimalist RPG elements offers a new twist for previously shallow character building. The skill system is detailed just enough for me to craft my own Croft fit to my play style, but not so intricate that it subtracted from the primary genre. There’s also a pretty simple upgrade system, where “salvage” can be looted from corpses and containers and then traded in at campsites for modifications to any weapon in Lara’s arsenal.
Moving to and fro across the island is fairly seamless, even when not using the built in fast travel system. Most locations are accessible through moderately complex jumping, scaling, and zip-lining. Some areas remain off-limits until appropriate tools are procured, which is a welcome tip of the hat to dungeon diving. The developers didn’t want to subtract from the realism of the environment, so traversing elements, such as craggy walls, destroyable doors, and posts are only slightly textured to stand out against the backdrop. Using a function called Survival Instincts, the world fades to a washed out grey and points of interest become highlighted in a lambent yellow.
The combat took cues from a generic pool of third person action but vastly improved upon them. I’ve played a lot of third person perspective games that I felt would have been flawless if control had been improved. Here, the camera pans intelligently around Lara at your whim, and only became hung up when I tried to get a closer look at Lara via colliding the camera with walls. Weapon control is very easy to get into and doesn’t take much to master.
The fluid cover mechanic works incredibly well for every occasion, but none more so than the clear drive towards stealth. No more button timing when dodging from cover to cover. Lara automatically takes refuge as she nears objects. Enemy AI deserves a nod, as they often work together to flush you out of cover with a plethora of flammable cocktails. Unfortunately, there’s a failure to create a sense of dependency on Lara’s full arsenal, which would have benefited the atmosphere with a deeper sense of survival. As long as both the bow and handgun are kept up to date, there’s no need anything else.
I frequently draw issue with voice actors these days, no matter the medium. Crystal Dynamics managed to pull together a cast that accurately portrayed their respective characters and their emotions. Actress Camilla Luddington, who also provided the motion capture for Lara’s model, delivered one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever heard. Even beyond the dialogue itself, every grunt and cry from Ms. Luddington perfectly conveys the tremendous amount of effort being put forth with every leap and every roll. One particular scream after Lara was forced to use a heated arrowhead to cauterize an open wound had me cringing in my seat. This quality of performance is extended to every character who isn’t Reyes, who just didn’t sound all that into her role.
The sounds of combat fused nicely with the score, which often changed according to the situation. I preferred the combat score over the music of the overworld, which put me in a Valium-like daze any time I tried to focus on it for extended periods of time. However, this isn’t to say the score was short on quality. Composer Jason Graves really went all out, and even created a brand new glass based instrument to better compliment Lara’s expressions.
At the end of the day, Tomb Raider proves to be a success in reinvention. The only true shortcoming for this title came in the form of longevity. This is typical for games of this sort of genre, but Crystal Dynamics did make an effort to entice players back to the island after the credits roll. There are several challenges and achievement/trophies to be obtained, but attentive players will be able to nab these in one go. My first playthrough came in just under twenty hours on hard with a completion score of 100%. Hopefully, Crystal Dynamics will reconsider their DLC approach and begin development on more single player content, as there is ample room and an abundance of potential left wide open.
Tomb Raider is one of those games that I’d recommend to anyone, no matter their gaming preferences. It’s a masterfully crafted experience with an emotionally charged narrative, that’s easy on the learning curve for players who may be inexperienced with platformers, and spicy enough to give the elitists the depth they cry out for. This will remain on my shelf for life. Welcome back, Lara Croft.
(Reviewed on Xbox 360)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7.0/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 8.5/10
Lasting Appeal – 6/10
Overall – 9/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Ratings: M (ESRB)