Author: Lydia Sung
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Monday, March 4th, 2013
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/tomb_raider_2013/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Tomb Raider isn’t exactly the reboot gamers asked for, but it was nonetheless necessary for this near-forgotten franchise. Lara Croft was iconic, yes, but also increasingly irrelevant. Enter Crystal Dynamics, a studio plenty familiar with the series now given free reign and an opportunity to revitalize a legend.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft lives by these words. Crystal Dynamics aimed to tell an origin story, one that explains how our heroine was transformed from a young university student to a hardened survivor. During her ordeal, Lara is groped, beaten, thrown in the face of death approximately every five minutes, and more or less put through hell.
And what a transformation it is. Lara goes from naïve to dogged to downright angry over the course of many hours, from killing deer to mowing down anyone dumb enough to get in her way. It’s a long and often uncomfortable journey, during which I sometimes wondered if maybe there is such a thing as “too much realism.” By the end of all this, however, one thing’s for certain: nobody messes with Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider begins aboard the Endeavor, where Lara accompanies a small team of researchers and hired hands to the Dragon’s Triangle on an archeological expedition. Everything goes horribly wrong when the ship is torn apart by the mother of all storms, marooning the survivors on an island just off the coast of Japan. Turns out, they did arrive at their destination – it just happens to be occupied by violent scavengers and psychopaths.
Lara’s transformation is an interesting one to see. For the first hour of the game, she’s mostly frightened and confused. Rightfully so, yes, but the woman’s a quick learner and doesn’t take very long to realize the kind of danger she and her friends are in; that, and she’s the only one who seems capable of doing anything. So we see Lara go from killing animals for food with a makeshift bow to blowing up a small army of men with her homemade firearms, all while screaming, “Get the hell out of my way!” and “That’s right, run! I’m coming for you, you bastards!”
Crystal Dynamics makes an effort to really capture her growth through atmosphere. At the start, with only a crappy bow and her wits at her disposal, the environment really does feel more daunting. The player is no less familiar with the island than Lara, and the fear of being attacked (and outmatched) is clear. But as you progress, arming Lara and upgrading her skills and arsenal, learning the lay of the land, you start to feel much more acclimated to how things work. This change is reflected both in Lara and the player, and as she grows more bold and her enemies more aware of how screwed they are, we see her evolution arrive in its final stages. When Lara becomes a badass, you’ll feel it too.
Part of her growth is reflected in the gameplay as well, in a rather straightforward and literal way. Lara’s abilities and weapon mastery can be improved using skill points, allowing the player to basically build her into any sort of fighter they like. The Brawler category strengthens her melee prowess by unlocking more hand-to-hand attacks, for instance, whereas Hunter governs Lara’s proficiency with ranged weapons, whether we’re talking bow or shotgun.
The game makes no effort to pigeonhole, either, allowing you to upgrade and fight any way you like, with just a few exceptions. Bear in mind that environmental obstacles make use of every weapon and tool, but since Tomb Raider doesn’t utilize an inventory system, you’ll never be forced to pick and choose gear. Although this clearly isn’t a shooter, the combat feels pretty damn good, and pulling off headshots is no less satisfying here.
Tomb Raider may take place on a single island, but it boasts a fairly varied setting, from the dense forests to old Japanese ruins, World War IImilitary labs to a beachside dotted with shipwrecks. The way the backstory is written actually justifies the multi-era environments, and it’s really quite clever. Not that quantity trumps quality, because in Tomb Raider, the world is your interactive playground. The player is afforded much freedom to explore, to a point where you may end up perpetually derailed from the primary objective. Why walk in a straight line when that old tree looks so temptingly climbable?
The island is also thick with optional content, from tombs to collectibles. The latter is an odd mix of superfluous and relevant, depending on the sort of collectibles you’re looking at. Most of them seem pretty random, like lighting X number of fires at sacred statues or discovering X flags from previous occupants. Relics and journals, on the other hand, are infinitely more interesting, though that does depend on how much you care for backstory. The relics scattered about the island provide historical trivia and a little bit of additional insight regarding the island itself and all the victims it had previously taken. Journals, left behind by characters both past and present, offer a deeper understanding of both the overarching narrative and the less important subplots surrounding Lara’s crew. None of this is necessary, of course, but I did find myself going out of my way for the relics and journals – not that I expect everyone to enjoy East Asian history as much as I do.
Tomb Raider just wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without puzzles, right? And that’s what the tombs are all about, while also providing some respite from the fighting. These optional explorable areas are oriented around puzzle solving, and as you progress further in the game, the brain teasers grow progressively more difficult, without ever feeling outright impossible. At the end of every tomb awaits a treasure chest, and for your troubles, Lara will gain additional Salvage (for upgrades), weapon parts, and XP.
If Tomb Raider falters anywhere, it’s in the multiplayer, mainly because the online component feels so forced. Here, players can choose character skins plucked from the single-player campaign, mess around with weapon loadouts, and test their abilities against other Tomb Raider players. As of now, you have four modes to choose from, including the standard Team Deathmatch and Free for All, plus two objective-based modes more unique to the game. Sure, the novelty is there, but long-term appeal is unlikely.
Granted, the combat translates fairly well between single-player and multiplayer, so there’s nothing overtly wrong there. The problem is that most of the weapons people gravitate toward – bows, grenades, and mines – practically guarantee insta-kills. This means you’ll be spending a lot of time dead, waiting for the respawn timer to run out, unless you manage to shoot first every time; probably a slight oversight on Eidos’ part. For those who wind up sticking with it, Tomb Raider’s multiplayer does feature its own level and rewards system, where higher ranks lead to more perks.I’m willing to predict that, as a result, most players will gravitate toward Ranked matches, leaving Casual matchmaking feeling rather sparse.
Much of Tomb Raider might remind us of other modern games out there, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold its own. Despite what it borrows, Tomb Raider succeeds in reforming Lara Croft’s identity for the current generation. Crystal Dynamics promised a grittier Lara, and they certainly delivered – perhaps even too well. Failures are rewarded with some of the most gruesome death scenes I’ve ever seen in any game, to the point where I literally had to pause and step away. There are only so many times I can watch Lara skewering herself through the jaw on a protruding pipe. The gratuitous violence doesn’t detract from the quality of the game, and I don’t exactly think it’s negative or positive; I’m just plain uncomfortable with it.
The story itself carries some pretty heavy elements too, both explicit and implied. As a whole, Lara’s early years are much darker than many of us might’ve anticipated, but she’s a stronger woman for it, and all the more intriguing as a character. Elements of old Tomb Raider remain, like the tombs and the narrative’s supernatural twist, and long-time gamers will find more than one nod to the classics during the campaign. Regardless of how familiar you are with the series, this is one reboot you’re not going to want to miss, and I’m already champing at the bit for a sequel.
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