Amidst a PR flurry a survivor is born
Reboots have it rough these days. Trying to appease both fans of old and series newcomers is a balancing act I don't envy. Crystal Dynamics set out to redefine how people perceive Lara Croft in their latest Tomb Raider reboot and distance themselves from the buxom, sex laden image of the past. Gone are the long camera pans creeping up Lara's backside or superfluous shower scenes, and in comes a gritty story of a young girl becoming a hardened adventurer through a trial by fire. While there might not be anything sexy about the new Tomb Raider, what you will find is a compelling story driven game backed by some truly brilliant gameplay that stands tall among its contemporaries.
The story of a young explorer
Lara Croft is a young female on her first archeological expedition funded by her best friend Sam to find the mythical island of Yamatai, home to the Queen Himiko. Aided by a childhood mentor, her close friends and a washed up archaeologist hoping this expedition-turned-documentary to revitalize his career, Lara gambles the remainder of their funds on following a course that will lead them all to the eye of the storm. It so happens her hunch was right, and soon the crew along with Lara become marooned on a mysterious island. What follows is a brutal adventure that has Lara come head to head with the fanatical Solarii cult leader Mathias and uncovering the mystery behind the island and it’s link to Queen Himiko.
Crystal Dynamics has talked a lot about making the story a lot more personal and human as compared to the older games in the series. They do a fine job of portraying Lara as something close to a human being in the realm of videogames by way of an emotionally loaded plot and subtle character nuances. For instance, as you travel throughout the island's more hair raising locations Lara will often vocalize her fears in the form of talking to herself in hushed whispers which help to reinforce the fact that she is just a young girl that fell into this nightmare and quite understandably is not enjoying herself. She never cracks jokes or makes light of the situation and the tone throughout the game is quite somber. Very quickly it is established that this is an extremely hostile environment and in a dramatic scene where Lara has to take someones life for the very first time it’s evident that in order to survive it’s either kill or be killed. While many folks have found a strange disconnect between these dramatic narrative scenes and the more traditional gameplay that follows, I personally didn’t find it any more egregious than other games in this genre. If anything, the serious tone that follows the story makes it all the more believable than a game like Uncharted where you’re literally cracking jokes while murdering hundreds of faceless enemies. At the least Lara isn’t visibly enjoying herself and the insane cultists on the island make it quite clear that if they catch her they will kill her. Thats not to say there aren’t a few narrative goofs here and there, like your friends greeting you with a cheery “hey what’s up Lara” when meeting them up right after the harrowing ship crash. These moments are few and far in between in an otherwise quite well executed story of survival and friendship.
All story beats aside, Tomb Raider plays wonderfully. Lara is responsive to all controls and the movement is just floaty enough to offer good jump control while not feeling like you’re playing under water. In a game where you’re constantly jumping over bottomless pits and scaling impossibly tall structures where one wrong move means a game over screen it’s a relief that movement is both fluid and precise where you always know exactly how your character will behave. Tomb Raider does a good job of subtle color coding to let the player know which surfaces are scalable and which jumps you’re supposed to make by way of scuffed up walls and painted ledges. This system is helpful and not at all intrusive, feeling like part of the environment without having to rely on glowing ledges that break any sense of immersion. Overall Crystal Dynamics has managed to introduce a lot of situation awareness without relying on gamey elements like big glowing prompts. Apart from the few moments where QTE's prevail, Lara will shift her body or head in such a way as to let the player know if she's readying for a jump or if theres is something of interest nearby.
The structure of the game is fairly linear, with Lara always moving forward in order to accomplish some story related goal. The areas through which you traverse will either be quite open or offer the illusion of being so playing into the feeling of exploring this huge mysterious island. Level design is constantly varied while retaining the prevalent theme of old, decrepit ruins just waiting to fall apart under your feet. You will encounter huge galileons gutted open by the rocky beaches, World War II era planes caught up in the dense foliage, or ancient Japanese temples filled with skulls and bones. Crystal Dynamic’s story of ships and planes mysteriously crashing on the island has given them the ingenious advantage of mixing and matching all manner of set pieces keeping each area feeling distinctly different. Since the Solarii tribe has been inhabiting the island for quite some time and live off these unfortunate wrecks you will often encounter ancient ruins with various forms of crude machinery constructed from salvage. What’s most important is that Tomb Raider has great atmosphere, keeping the player immersed in it’s game world. One moment Lara is racing down a bridge that’s crumbling beneath her feet, falling and stumbling to safety only to eventually slide down into a pit of blood and bones changing the pacing instantly from heart pounding action to that of caution and horror. All these areas are wonderfully crafted with an abundance of detail that make them a blast to explore.
Central to all this exploration are the various camps that Lara encounters along the way. As you kill both enemies and animals and loot various ruins you’ll earn experience as well as currency in the form of salvage. You can spend these points at the camps to either upgrade various abilities both passive and active, or enhance your weapons by spending salvage to unlock upgrades in the form of bigger magazines and faster reloads. It's also a nice touch that all the modifications are conveyed cosmetically on your weapons, adding a nice sense of progression. By the end of the game the bow Lara carries around looks nothing short of a death machine. The camps also allow Lara to travel to previously visited locations in order to find missed collectibles. While the story is mostly linear, the entire island is broken down into zones, each complete with it’s own set of camps for easy access.
A new way of exploring
The brilliance of Tomb Raider’s gameplay is that as you unlock new abilities and equipment, previously visited areas take on a whole new life as you notice brand new places accessible with your new gear which you were previously oblivious to. The game does an incredible job of both giving the player clear indicators of where you can use a specific piece of equipment, while at the same time blending these indicators with the environment in such a way that you only notice them after being introduced to them. This is also where Tomb Raider mostly differs from it’s predecessors. Exploring the island and finding places where you can use a new piece of gear largely replaces the tomb raiding from past titles. A good way of looking at it is to think of the entire island as one huge tomb that you’re progressively exploring, rather than the old school design of level specific catacombs with machiavellian pulleys and pressure plates. The game does offer optional tombs along the way which more closely resemble those of past titles, offering puzzle solutions that require Lara to manipulate the environment in a way to gain access to a prize chest at the end - but these are tiny in scope, literally occupying one small room with a very basic solution. Exploring them will net you extra salvage to spend on upgrades as well as a treasure map to the area that highlights all collectibles on Lara’s map in the form of GPS caches, relics or journal entries. The relics are 3D models that you can spin around while Lara gives a fun little voice-over factoid about the item, while the journal entries help fill in the background of the island and are genuinely interesting fleshing out the main story a bit. The GPS caches are the only collectible that doesn't offer any immediate reward apart from finding them, but you will have to collect them all if you want to reveal the final “mysterious” journal entry.
With all this emphasis on exploration and platforming you’d think the combat would probably be secondary or simplistic. Thankfully nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Tomb Raider is probably the first game I’ve ever played to successfully implement an automatic cover system that not only works, but feels and plays really well. When running around Lara with automatically crouch down in front of low walls and take cover, peeking out to shoot when you hold down a trigger to aim. You never stick to cover when you don’t want to and unsticking is as simple as walking away from it. It seems very basic but many games have tried and failed to do just this. When enemies haven’t spotted Lara she will automatically crouch down and sneak around, allowing for a bit of stealth in a handful of sections. The combat abilities you unlock scale remarkably well with the story. Lara is quite fragile in the beginning of the game and will go down quickly when assailed by firearms. As you steadily upgrade her toughness and add a repertoire of evasive and offensive moves the balance begins to tip in your favor and the hunted becomes the hunter. The one major complaint in terms of story cohesion are the unlockable weapon finishers that you can perform on downed enemies. These are quite brutal execution moves that do seem somewhat at odds with the story and apart from looking cool from the gameplay perspective, are completely at odds with the notion that Lara needs to kill to survive. One such move has you put the barrel of your shotgun right under a cultists chin before pulling the trigger, while another has Lara grab an assailant and gut him from crotch to head with a continuous volley of machine gun fire. Despite feeling out of place, they do look pretty neat.
A great experience
Tomb Raider is an extremely successful reboot. While at times it seems to fight with it’s own identity and it seems like Crystal Dynamics tried a few concepts only to completely abandon them later on (you encounter hostile animals in a single scripted event only to never deal with them again) this only serves to keep things fresh and the action moving forward. The visuals are top notch and the framerate keeps up for the most part on the 360 version, with occasional dips into lower digits when you’re out in larger environments like Shipwreck Beach. There is a multiplayer component but it’s nothing to write home about and the visuals take such a massive hit in order to keep the online action moving smoothly that only die hard enthusiasts will dedicate any amount of time to it. Tomb Raider has a lot of callbacks to past entries in the series including the signature double pistols that I was almost hoping by the end of the game Lara would rip off the remainder of her torn pants to assume the symbolic shorts and tank top status but, perhaps luckily, this never happens. I had a ton of fun with Tomb Raider from beginning to end. At no point did the game linger too long in a single place. The action kept moving briskly forward introducing new elements at all times. I highly recommend it to old and new fans alike.