Murder Girl Fun Time
Lara just fell onto a piece of rusted rebar. It's okay, she got it out. Wait, she's bleeding out. It's okay, she put her hand over the wound.
Lara just stepped onto a bear trap. She's fallen and she's in pain. It looks like that might have broken something(s). Wait, no, it's okay, she's gotten up.
Lara's fallen from a thing. That was a huge fall. It's okay. She's okay.
Lara just parachuted into a tree and hit a branch before falling sideways onto the earth. Okay, anyway, moving on, like nothing happened.
“[...] like nothing happened.” would perhaps be the most apt descriptor for all the physical turmoil Lara goes through. She goes through a lot, with much of it carrying stunningly little consequence. The cutscenes tell a story of misery and hardship, while the rest of the game tells a tale of ultimate badassery. There's a moment, a brilliant little nugget, when the two mediums coincide, where doing anything strenuous, like jumping onto things, causes so much pain that Lara's health dips to its lowest. Only then does the pain feel tangible. Your inputs hurt Lara. It's a shame the game doesn't explore this further.
But despite this failure of developer Crystal Dynamics' attempt to mediate these two warring sides, the cutscenes and the parts you play, Tomb Raider is a flipping blast to play. It's just so unexpected, because marketing said it was This Game, while the reality is that it's really That Game and That Game is outstanding.
Tomb Raider is a linear-but-not-linear-openworld-kind-of-but-not-actioney-but-not-too-actioney-platform-thing game. It does a lot of things while being good at all of them, like the actioney-but-not-too-actioney bits. The combat is, in exactly one nebulous word, fluid. There's a cover system, but it doesn't snap. It's kind of like there's nothing at all, but when you aim to take a shot, Lara will contort and bend over in whatever way makes sense so that you pop out of cover for a clear shot. Almost every combat situation will have one or two guys who constantly try to flush you out of your position, so your best bet is to get of there and find a new position, fluidly.
There's a great dynamic in all of it. Actions feel improvised, because they are, and with only four weapons in the game that all have clear, distinct roles in combat and a handful of enemy types that don't become outrageous I-shot-you-in-the-face-like-seven-times bullet sponges, it's a fun thing to be in. It ain't high concept art and it isn't going to question gaming culture or whatever the heck, but as a game of systems and mechanics, it's super polished and super duper fun.
The game's just slick; slick like whale fat spread on an icy surface with a butter knife that has some butter on it. Navigating the environment is slick and as a result, also fun. You'll often circle back to previous areas in clever ways that creates a really great sense of this island being a cohesive whole; while I hate bringing up specific examples, the comparison to Arkham Asylum is most fitting. Tomb Raider follows that same tack in its transition from one environment to the next. Not as well, but certainly gives the game a weird, quasi-openworldness feeling. It's not freeing, but nothing about the game feels restricting either.
Crystal's failure, then, is its narrative being unable to cope with how fun the game is. The game is all about player empowerment; Lara starts off strong and only becomes stronger and if you Ctrl+F the word “dissonance” in almost every major review, you're probably going to get at least three results. I mean, it's been overused to the point that it's definitely earned its place in the video game review vocabulary pantheon, standing right next to the great ones, like “visceral”, but dissonance explains it well. But, uh, the game's really fun, so yeah. Not all of the story is in completely opposite world either and a lot of it is innocuous and a little interesting... sometimes. You'll often watch Lara talk to herself, as her usual isolation from the rest of the crew means she's gotta slam down the exposition to someone and in this case, to herself.
Multiplayer? I wouldn't be able to tell you. I played two half-rounds and it was fun, but I wish they outsourced it to someone either than Eidos Montreal. What if one of them had a totally amazing idea for the next Deus Ex or what if one them thought Thief's new highlight “focus” ability was actually the worst idea? But no, they had to toil away at this little part of the game that will have its playerbase die within the month. And these handful of developers will feel so creatively bankrupt after it all that they decide to go on Kickstarter to jumpstart their ultra-innovative game, but no one cares so they kill themselves by slitting their wrists with Deus Ex CDs that were sharpened by a sharp corner of a USB containing Thief 2. Amazing creative talent, literally dying. Good job, Square-Enix.
But other than indirect manslaughter, Tomb Raider is an outstanding game. It's so apparent why the game took so long to come out and for a triple-A, must-appeal-to-everyone video game, there's a real passion that's emanating from its gigabytes of focus-tested data. Great job, Crystal. You've semi-rebooted and then actually-rebooted a series. That alone puts you in a special place, but more than anything, you'll be known as a developer worth paying attention to.