Tomb Raider - Thoughts From A Long-Term Fan

Posted by dankempster (2249 posts) -
So this is how it feels to be relevant...

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.

Yamatai is both a beautiful and a deadly place to explore

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.

The reimagined Lara, and the story that unfolds around her, are two of the game's strongest selling points

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).

Tomb Raider's puzzles are great. It's a real shame there aren't more of them

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.

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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.

I'm finally rocking one of these beauties

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.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

#1 Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw (6087 posts) -

Hmmm. I think you might've sold me on the game when you mentioned that upgradeable weapons and the like. I really like little elements like that in my games nowadays. I still don't think I'm going to buy it until it really drops in price, but that write-up definitely helps nudge me towards an eventual purchase.

Moderator
#2 Edited by Dagbiker (6939 posts) -

Yah, I agree, I think people, and Square Enix, built the game up as a story first adventure game. But Tomb Raider was always a Third Person Shooter. That is not to say they did not make an excellent game with an excellent story.

I liked it, I found my self pointing out dumb things she would do, or things that would happen, but I do that with all games now. Having played a lot of games, and being very jaded to game mechanics. But, it still is a great game and well worth the $50 on steam ( i don't know how much it is on other things ).

Also, best fan mentions in credits ever.

#3 Posted by MegaLombax (384 posts) -

Good review. I couldn't help but to compare Tomb Raider with the Uncharted series. While I thought the story telling in Uncharted is still unrivaled at the moment, I absolutely loved the pace and gameplay of Tomb Raider. The multi-tiered weapons felt extremely rewarding, the gradual change in Lara's personality throughout the game was intriguing to watch, and I actually cared about the collectibles as they added depth to the story.

Though I've read several complaints about the script, it didn't really bother me to be honest. Overall, an amazing game by Crystal Dynamics. Definitely my favourite game thus far this year. Also, as @dagbiker had mentioned, best fan mention in the credits ever.

#4 Edited by JZ (2125 posts) -

Yeah it's real good

#5 Posted by Ravenlight (8040 posts) -

Overall, I enjoyed the new Tomb Raider. Mostly the exploring/collecting bits. Could have done with less shooty-stabby overall. Story takes a weird power-fantasy turn as soon as you get the alt-fire for the rifle. But then it takes a different, "fuck it, this is awesome" turn when you start fighting the new types of enemies.

Totally agree with OP's point about the puzzles. The ones the game did have were pretty good but it seemed like a real lackluster amount for a game that's historically been all about puzzles (and dinosaurs, I guess. That's a different story.).

#6 Posted by TangoUp (307 posts) -

I was thinking the same thing regarding the similarities between Batman AA and Tomb Raider. I played AA after TR and it immediately struck me how TR had incorporated some elements from the former. For example, pulling doors down, the zip line, upgrades adding new moves etc.

Tomb Raider is a strange game to me because while I don't hate it, I don't love it either. There are a variety of pros and cons for the game but let's start with the environment.

Art Design/Game Environment: On one hand, having a fixed location made sense due to the story the game was trying to tell. The environments were still varied enough by mixing up cliffside vistas with ancient villages and military bunkers from WW2. Additionally, the worn down wooden and stone buildings patched with scrap from crashed ships was a nice realistic touch. On the other hand, I am not a fan of skulls, bones and rotting flesh as part of the environment. However realistic you want to try to keep it (and there was nothing realistic about the million skulls we see arranged in nice makeshift living room shelves) it's not fun to move around in such an environment. Add the bunkers and the crash beach and the environments are really dreary to trudge through. I get why they are there, but I don't like traversing through them.

Leveling Up/Skill Acquisition: This was a highly superflous mechanic of the game. While gaining XP has somehow become a fad in recent games to add the semblance of an RPG element, it is pointless if there is no RPG element to speak of. There are three 'skill trees' in this section and none of them diversify gameplay. I don't understand why I have to unlock all level 1 Hunter skills to be able to acquire level 2 Warrior skills. It is not an RPG at that point and it is simply a staggered stream of new abilities. I prefer gameplay to be sandboxy from the beginning because if you are only ever going to be able to utilize your advanced abilities in the last sections of a campaign then it better have a new game plus feature so you can utilize them through a re-run. And this is where the story again compromised gameplay. I get that she's supposed to be green, but not going by the extensive hiking experience she seemed to have with her father and Roth.

Narrative: I agree with some video review (was it gametrailers?) that said the characters all follow some sort of a stereotype - gruff Scottish dude, lionhearted old man, geeky kid with glasses trying to impress sexy chick, angry black woman, gentle giant, ditzy damsel in distress etc. Only Lara and to a certain extent her boss seemed to have any extra dimensions to their characters. Now I didn't mind the 'narrative dissonance' about Lara's first kill yada yada yada (I just don't understand why she screamed 'Oh God' after killing her would be rapist) and I actually liked the supernatural tint to the story. But it is very uneven. Like how Lara is strung up in a room of skinned bodies but she is kept intact? I mean ok, that's only the second time it happened in the same campaign so whatever. Or how Nazis and Axis forces have once again made their presence felt in a game. facepalm.

Gameplay/Unlockables: There a re a few ways devs try to incorporate replayability into their games when they aren't simply including multiplayer for the sake of it. One is tying achievements or collectibles into unlocking costumes/skins or weapons and special modes. The second is by encouraging differing modes of gameplay with different results. The only sandbox here is the choice of weapons. For my first run through, I limited myself to bow and handgun since that seemed 'realistic' but apart from one large area in which you must use stealth to avoid greater enemies, combat is quite straightforward. The changes occur in the large set piece events like the gondola or the end level for example. So again Batman AA should have served as a good template here as well. I wouldn't recommend buying TR at full price.

There are extremely few games this generation that are Indiana Jones like, the only ones I can think of are this one and 'that other trilogy' but it just seems like this TR came too late in this cycle. It could and should have had a great string of titles and this game should have come out 3-4 years ago because what it does here would have been 'fresh' then. Right now it just has the franchise name to thank for its publicity. Nevertheless, it is a good reboot, let's hope they can innovate rather than iterate.

#7 Posted by Nictel (2380 posts) -

I feel exactly the same about the game, I however couldn't have worded it so eloquently.

#8 Posted by LiquidPrince (15843 posts) -

Awesome read. I agree with you on a majority of the points you made and similarly to you, I did not find the transition from her first kill, to the woman that she is at the end of the game at all jarring. One thing I think I'd like to point out is that I think the majority of the games enemy encounters could be handled in a stealthy way. In fact there are very few instances where I can recall that I hadn't taken out at least half of the enemies before I was caught and forced into full on combat.

#9 Posted by dankempster (2249 posts) -

@sparky_buzzsaw: It's well worth your time, I promise you. I'd perhaps advise finishing Anniversary first, assuming you want to see the end of that, because I'd imagine it'd be pretty difficult to go back after playing the reboot. Then you could safely skip Underworld (the weakest part of that trilogy) and move straight on to Tomb Raider.

@megalombax: I've just finished playing the first Uncharted, and I can kinda see where people are coming from with the direct comparisons at this point, although I suspect it won't be completely clear until I've played Uncharted 2. Also, thanks for jogging my memory about something I should have mentioned in the blog - the document collectibles. I love audio logs and the like in video games, so to have the extended story gradually pieced together by those served as a real incentive to explore the environments for me.

@liquidprince: Having read your comment, I think I'm going to have to come back to the game later in the year for a second run through, and to really try and avoid full-blown combat situations. It seemed like it would be a much more satisfying way of playing the game. Perhaps I just suck at staying hidden.

@tangoup: Thanks for your detailed reply. There are a few things we disagree on, but seeing as they're largely outlined in the blog itself I won't drive my opinions on those matters home a second time. I agree with you completely about some of the environments being too 'mutilated-body-parts'-heavy, and I'm glad they only constitute a small portion of the island. Skulls and bones bother me less so. I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it's because I've played enough games of this type to think they're par for the course at this point. I also agree that the game's auxiliary characters aren't very well fleshed-out and adhere pretty strictly to action-trope archetypes, but I didn't find that bothering me too much if I'm honest - Lara's the central figure here, and I think she's handled brilliantly. I guess I would have appreciated a bit more depth to the character of Sam, though - making her a more interesting character might have made me as a player feel more eager to save her.

#10 Posted by Humanity (8810 posts) -

I gave the game a 5 star review. It certainly deserves it. The little touches are what make it so great. The fact that you have complete air control when jumping makes platforming feel extremely fluid. The cover system that doesn't require you to press a button to magnetically stick to a wall is nearly flawless. Even smaller things like Lara turning her head towards objects of notice like ammo, or collectibles - there were a few times where I was hunting some dream catchers to shoot and she would look off to the left right at it. I think it's such a high production value game that it's weird Brad would knock a whole star off because he had issues with the story, considering he loves StarCraft, the quintessential gameplay over story title. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion though, and I think it's excellent - can't wait to see where they go next, especially after finding that last Geo Cache collectible.

#11 Edited by p00rdevil (158 posts) -

Not previous Tomb Raider fan so I can't compare this outing to any of the others. Never played Uncharted either so I can't compare to that franchise, which seems to be a common thing to do.

In fact I have never played any game quite like this. The closest I can think of is Metal Gear 3. But Tomb Raider is far more focused on over the top action, in creating an intense experience of flying by the seat of your pants and hanging on by the skin of your teeth.

I went into this game thinking it was going to be mostly about roaming through dungeon size tombs full of puzzles, enemies and loot. Actually the game is mostly negotiating surface environments while engaging a lot of baddies determined to stop you. At it's core the game is a shooter more than it is a game of exploration and puzzle solving. Which is fine because it is very well done. Everything the devs tried to present as a gaming experience succeeds in a grand way.

So they have a new fan of the series here. That said I would like to see the next installment break away from having so much predetermined gameplay. There is a little bit of variance in how to approach environments and enemies, but not a whole lot. I think one game in the series like this is enough, and to keep the game vibrant the next installment should feature a change in direction. Not that this style of game is bad - it's great! - but once is enough.

But even if they don't change it up and the next game is a lot like this one, I will probably pick it up and play it anyway, because this team knows how to make a great game. That is a proven fact.

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