By dankempster 11 Comments
It was with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I approached playing the new Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics' long-awaited reboot of one of this industry's most recognisable franchises. See, I've been playing Tomb Raider games for a long time. My relationship with Lara Croft spans roughly fifteen years, through the good, the not-so-good, and the downright terrible. I'll spare you the details here for the sake of space, but anybody wanting a more comprehensive picture of my history with the series should check out this retrospective blog I wrote back in December. Suffice it to say, I've raided a lot of tombs in my time, and I'm very familiar with just how variable the quality of the games has been.
For the most part, the excitement has outweighed the worry. Crystal Dynamics had already proven themselves as developers worthy of handling the franchise with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006, in itself a series reboot that marked a sharp about-turn following the incredibly stale and buggy CORE-developed Angel of Darkness. With that kind of successful track record in terms of modernising the games, I was confident that they'd be able to do it again. A small amount of worry rose from the repeated delays (I can remember when this game was scheduled for a Winter 2011 release, guys), which brought back memories of the seemingly interminable wait for Angel of Darkness and the huge disappointment that instalment ended up being. But for the most part, I've been waiting calmly and patiently, quietly certain that once again the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics would deliver the goods.
And having played through the game at a pretty steady pace last week, I'm happy to say that for the most part they did. Tomb Raider feels like a logical progression from the foundations of the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, refining the exploration, environment traversal and combat mechanics to a mirror sheen and augmenting them with all manner of modern gaming tropes like upgradeable gear and a persistent progress/reward model. Those things might sound at odds with what you'd expect from a Tomb Raider game, but everything is so well integrated into the experience of actually playing the game that they feel like sensible extensions of what's already there. It's by no means perfect, but if Tomb Raider is an indication of the direction Lara's heading in for the next generation of consoles, then I think it's safe to say there's plenty of life left in the ol' girl yet.
Without a doubt my favourite aspect of playing Tomb Raider was the actual exploration of the island of Yamatai. The various environments that make up the island are consistently gorgeous, and every area is a joy to move through and explore. The platforming is much the same as it was in the last three Crystal Dynamics games, which is fine by me - as far as I'm concerned, that's one aspect of the franchise that didn't need an overhaul. There's plenty of incentive to explore thoroughly, too, thanks to the many collectibles and challenges that the developers have filled each area with. Even now, a week after finishing the game's storyline, I'm finding myself dipping back into the game for an hour or so each day to hunt down more documents and relics. I'm grateful for the rudimentary fast travel mechanic too, which let me press on through the story at my own pace safe in the knowledge I'd be able to come back and hunt for collectibles later.
The gear aspect of the game was handled brilliantly, I thought. The gradual receipt of new and improved items is tied directly to Lara's ability to progress through the game and more thoroughly explore areas, so they serve as a brilliant pacing tool. This also made backtracking feel nowhere near as boring as it does in your average game, because Lara's expanded arsenal of gadgets opens up new ways to traverse old environments. The way it's all presented is reminiscent of the series' iconic inventory screens, but the impact on gameplay is much more analogous to the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum. I was acutely aware of the comparisons drawn between Tomb Raider and Naughty Dog's Uncharted series in the run-up to release, but although I haven't experienced any of the Uncharted games (yet - more on that later), Arkham Asylum seems like the most fitting comparison to my mind due to both games adopting the same 'Metroidvania'-style approach to their overworld design.
I was initially very sceptical of Tomb Raider's implementation of weapon upgrades, experience points and character progression, but playing through the game has converted me. The fact that pretty much everything Lara can do carries some kind of experience reward, coupled with the nature of the perks you can spend that pool of experience on, supports the development of Lara's character from an inexperienced archaeologist to a bona fide survivor. The weapon upgrades feed into this notion of Lara's character arc too - she has to collect salvage (which in itself grants experience) and weapon parts from the environment, and then use those to apply upgrades, in a way which implies she's improvising in order to stay alive. To have a character's personal development reflected in the gameplay like that supports the story no end, and certainly made me feel more attached to Lara, and more empathetic towards her as a character than I might have been otherwise.
Speaking of which, I should give some acknowledgement to Tomb Raider's story and characters, both of which are undoubtedly the strongest the franchise has seen in a long time, if not ever. Similar to another Tomb Raider game, The Last Revelation, the game's decision to dispense with globe-trotting in favour of a single location results in a more cohesive and clearly-presented story. True to form for the series, there are ancient artefact macguffins and a hint of the supernatural, but these things aren't overdone and serve to make the game feel like a Tomb Raider title without going overboard on the craziness. The biggest improvement is in the handling of Lara herself, though. Camilla Luddington does a brilliant job of breathing new life into the reincarnated heroine, making her seem more genuine than the sultry wise-cracking Lara of games past. The physical redesign also goes a long way towards making her more relatable. Yes, she's still gorgeous, but she's no longer the balloon-chested caricature she once was. Finally, it's incredibly refreshing to see Crystal Dynamics reinforce this new, more positive image of Lara by not including a wealth of skimpy unlockable costumes in the game like they did in the last three games. Thanks for not pandering to the lowest common denominator this time around, guys.
I mentioned above that despite being quite invested in the franchise, I'm by no means oblivious to its flaws, and there are certainly a few of those present in Tomb Raider. Contrary to what Brad said in his review, I didn't find the speed of Lara's transition from first-kill trauma to capable gunslinger particularly jarring in the context of the game. What I did take issue with was the nature of the combat itself - it's mechanically sound and fun from a gameplay standpoint, but the frequent shoot-outs don't really fit the vibe of the game. Given the game already takes so many cues from Arkham Asylum, I would have liked to see the developers extend that one step further and implement some more stealth-combat possibilities and opportunities, reducing the frequency of the gunfights (and by extension, probably making them feel much more like the last resort people like Brad seemed to want them to be).
There's also the issue of puzzles, or more specifically the dearth thereof. Having spent a decade and a half desecrating the burial grounds of countless ancient civilisations in the guise of Miss Croft, it's difficult for me to cope with the concept of a Tomb Raider game that doesn't prominently feature environmental puzzle-solving on an epic scale. Yet Tomb Raider sees fit to tuck most of its puzzles away in optional areas, a decision that's frankly a little baffling given how excellent Crystal Dynamics have always been in terms of puzzle design. The campaign certainly isn't bad because of a lack of puzzles, but I think it definitely would have benefited from a couple more moments where the action receded and Lara was placed into a jam that required a little lateral thinking to get herself out of. What is there is great. It's just a shame there's not more of it, and that it's treated so incidentally.
Tomb Raider means different things to different people. To me personally, it carries the promise of a solid, satisfying combination of three core facets of gameplay - exploration, puzzle-solving and combat. All of the best Tomb Raider titles have delivered an engaging blend of these things, and while Tomb Raider redresses the balance of the trinity slightly, it definitely doesn't go so far as to tip the scales. It's an excellent game, more than worthy of carrying the name of the franchise in my humblest opinion, and has me very excited about where Crystal Dynamics are going to take Lara next.
So there you have it - a few thoughts on the Tomb Raider reboot from someone who probably cares a little more about Lara Croft than he should do. As for what I'm playing now, I'm being pretty non-committal at the moment. I'm dabbling with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, which my sister got me for my birthday last month, and so far it seems to be just as good as its predecessor. I'm also playing the occasional match of Pro Evolution Soccer 2013, another birthday present from my friend Duncan. I downloaded an online option file not long after receiving the game, which essentially replaces all the generic teams and kits with hyper-accurate edit files, and I have to say I'm hugely impressed by the quality of the edits. It all adds an extra layer of authenticity to the experience, making it that little bit more immersive and enjoyable to play. If, like me, the lack of licensed teams and kits in the Pro Evolution series bothers you, I highly recommend downloading this.
The biggest development in personal gaming news, though, is my acquisition of a PlayStation 3, a purchase that's been several years coming. I'm now on the hunt for any great Sony exclusives I might've missed over the last half a decade or so - so far I've picked up the first two Uncharted games, Heavy Rain, inFamous, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Gran Turismo 5, but any recommendations you want to throw my way would be greatly appreciated. Those of you who've already sent me suggestions on Twitter, I thank you all and have put most (if not all) of your suggested games into the Saved For Later section of my Amazon basket. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (X360)