written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
It’s been a quite the year for games and especially for reboots, arguably one of the most high profile gaming reboots has been the anticipation leading up to when Lara Croft raids another tomb (see what I did there?!?). I remember when I first played Tomb Raider on the PlayStation, flipping around Croft manor and desperately trying that “nude” code (I know, but hey… teenage boys will be teenage boys). Sure I admit being trolled by the “Nude Raider” codes, but what came from it was the start of an ongoing love affair with the buxom game goddess.
This is a reboot, plain and simple… everything we knew about Lady Croft is now locked away in a little time capsule. This Lara is a young adventurer, a stark contrast to the confident treasure hunter we knew before. Without giving much of the story away, Lara is a member of an expedition searching for the lost city of Yamatai; the fabled home of Himeko the Sun Queen, some unexplainable occurrences happen and their ship is ship wrecked and Lara separated from the crew. The majority of the game is spent reuniting with the lost members of Lara’s crew and especially Lara’s young friend Sam, who is noted as allegedly being a descendant of Himeko. The crew consisted of the ship’s captain Roth, mechanic Reyes, electronics expert Alex, Samantha “Sam” Nishimura, Jonah the fisherman, helmsman Grim, and celebrity archeologist Dr. James Whitman. Overall, a varied crew that honestly I couldn’t care less about. It was interesting reading the scattered journal entries shedding a little bit of light on who these characters are, but from my experience with it, Tomb Raider is a very solitary game, yet it feels like the story forces me to “like” these characters. Honestly, the only ones I even cared slightly for were Roth and Sam, and even that wasn’t enough to care deeply for their well-being.
I particularly like how Lara isn’t presented as a “short-shorts-tank-top-sex-symbol” this time around, she looks like any other girl you’d see on the street. Correction, she looks like any other incredibly attractive girl you’d see on the street and you’d sheepishly glance at before turning away like a shy little nerd…
The story itself is very rooted in reality, until you get to later parts of the game, the majority of opposition Lara faces are the Solari (cultish people who live on the island) and some wolves here and there, I was a little upset that I couldn’t fight any T-Rexes or Velociraptors, but hey… we can expect more games in this series, so I’m not counting it out yet. A few scenes, widely shown in demos and trailers, represent some of Lara’s apprehension to killing… primarily how she reacted to having to kill a deer for food and also killing her first man in a fit of self defense. I like that the game addressed these struggles, but when we get back to the “gameplay” part, the game throws so many enemies at you that it almost feels like it was an instant switch making Lara go from “ohmy-God-ohmy-God!” to “break yoself mother Russia!” This could have been explored with a more careful progression, but it wasn’t really a game breaker.
If you’ve paid attention to the onslaught of trailers and marketing, you’ve seen how wonderfully lush and beautiful this game is. I thought Uncharted 3 was gorgeous, but this, I was blown away just admiring the scenery. From little touches like the horizon in the distance to animals crawling from the underbrush, this island feels alive. While the levels are fairly linear, it never feels confining. Well, let me rephrase that, it never feels negatively confining. A good combination of multi-tiered levels and a few secrets round out a satisfying world to play in. I do wish it was more “open world” in a sense. There is so much of the island to explore and while your movement is never truly restricted (quick travel between campsites is possible) at its core it was very linear. Don’t get me wrong though, I have played many linear games that I have enjoyed as well as linear games I have not enjoyed (I’m talking to you Final Fantasy XIII).
In many respects, it’s clear how the developers of this game were inspired by the Uncharted series. Fitting how this in a way closes out a circle since Uncharted was heavily influenced by earlier Tomb Raider games. Huge cinematic set pieces litter this island from daring escapes via zip lines to jumping at just the right moment to avoid debris from a crashed plane. It’s just as much an adrenaline rush as it is a visual rush. Throughout the game Lara goes through quite the transformation, physically at least her clothes gradually become dirtier and more tattered as she experiences all sorts of physical trauma. A few key moments in the narrative have her becoming slightly more bad ass as the story progresses, but as stated before feels slightly jarring when played against her moments of regret over being forced to kill.
Cut scenes and in game graphics look practically identical, this the best looking game of this generation, hands down, bar-none, abso-frakin-lutely. The character models are gorgeous and I particularly like how Lara isn’t presented as a “short-shorts-tank-top-sex-symbol” this time around, she looks like any other girl you’d see on the street. Correction, she looks like any other incredibly attractive girl you’d see on the street and you’d sheepishly glance at before turning away like a shy little nerd… yes I do that sometimes. Some of the textures look jagged/lower fidelity when up close (like her boots and some of her equipment) but throughout most of the game, the developers really utilized the power of this console generation to I believe maximum capability. I want to play this on PC eventually and see just how gorgeous it looks there. While I literally saw zero texture pop in, I do have to comment on Lara’s hair. It’s hard not to notice it but it seems to move almost too unrealistically. It never really pulled me out of the gameplay, but it was something I did pick up on during more dramatic story progressions. Enemy types seem to be recycled quite frequently, it almost feels like most every enemy I kill is some version of the man who was Lara’s first kill.
Movement is snappy and intuitive; it never feels like much of a chore to navigate levels. I was very pleased to see that they kept the way Lara would jump and extend her hands out and try to grab a far away ledge, feels very “Tomb Raider-ish” to me. Climbing is simple and traversing far away ledges can be accomplished via zip lines/ropes and logs. Gunplay is fun and satisfying, while initially Lara starts with only a crude bow, eventually her arsenal is expanded to include a handgun, assault rifle, and shotgun (all of which are upgradeable). I like that they limited the weapon types to four projectiles (with some touting secondary firing options). Like most every third person over the shoulder shooter, you hold down one shoulder button to aim with the other to fire, secondary firing options are eventually unlocked via story specific moments or weapon upgrades. Lara accrues XP by dispatching enemies, hunting animals, scavenging for food, or finding relics. While scavenging the island, you eventually start coming across “scrap” in crates or on enemies. As stated before, as you discover campsites you unlock fast travel. Camps also serve as a place for Lara to gather her wits a bit, it’s here that you can exchange skill points earned (via earning XP) for various skills that help with Lara’s survival and also upgrading your weapons with various pieces of “scrap” you find. I like that they simplified the scrap into one general category, rather than having to hunt down random parts this serves well to keep the gameplay from ever feeling like it’s dragging. A few “special” pieces of scrap are used specifically to gain a more powerful weapon type, but these are generally littered in crates or on enemies.
Survival instinct is a sort of augmented view of the world around you, basically this is Lara’s survival training visually represented on the screen. When you activate this mode, the world around you goes black and white with elements that require your attention shining gold. This helps with finding crates to scavenge or berries to forage. Eventually you can upgrade this skill to highlight animals you intend to hunt or even treasures/relics in the distance. I personally like that it isn’t a mode that you “activate” and eventually leave on the entire game (kind of like how Arkham Asylum ended up).
Lara is given a few options when dispatching her foes, you can be brazen and empty clip after clip into oncoming foes, or you can take a stealthier route. A few moments force you into epic shootouts, but generally you can sneak kill most enemies you come across. Here is where survival instinct can come in handy. When you activate this mode, enemies are highlighted gold, when you see one that’s highlighted red, that particular enemies death will alert the rest. My personal play style values stealth over gunplay, mostly because I like playing the hunter (huntress?) and picking off my prey one by one. When you first start the game, Lara doesn’t have a melee attack, puzzling since I figured she’d be able to use one when she receives the pick axe/climbing axe. You have to level her up to “hardened” in order to unlock melee attacks, perhaps this was a way to slowly build the character up to having the confidence to engage in close quarters combat, but it could have been executed better than a “once-you-unlocked-enough-skills” sort of way. Until then, your only defense against an onslaught of enemy Solari is to scramble/roll. There is a skill to “play dirty” where after you scramble, you can toss dirt in an attacker’s face and momentarily blind him, but personally I wished I could have used the axe as a weapon from the get go. I never felt overwhelmed by the gunplay, and while I wished for more of a challenge, I was never bored with it. I initially played the game on normal, after completing it I felt it was a bit too easy, currently I am in the middle of a play through on the “hard” difficulty level, so far this is what the normal should have been… I could get into a whole long drawn out argument how this generation has been making games that just feel easier as games advance, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.
It wouldn’t be Tomb Raider if there weren’t any raiding of said tombs. A few tombs and catacombs Lara comes across are story driven, the means to segway from one piece of narrative to the next. The optional tombs I came across were such a delight, at times Lara will notice white paint on a wall and can explore one of these optional tombs deeper. Here is where my discussion on how easy the game comes into play. The puzzles within the tombs were fantastic! I was challenged by many of them and thoroughly enjoyed it when that “ah-ha” moment hit and I figure out how to reach the treasure. Some of the story driven puzzles that advance the game’s narrative rarely had this same level of “ah-ha”-ness to it. My one complaint about the tombs is that there weren’t enough of them; in fact it felt like there wasn’t enough of the game to be honest! One reason I am replaying this title so soon after beating it is because I honestly want more.
Hands down, this is the best game I have played this generation. I can’t emphasize it any more how much I enjoyed this experience. From the overwhelmingly positive reception this game as received from critics and gamers alike, Square Enix would be fools to make this a one trick pony. It more than likely seems like the next iteration of this franchise will appear on the next generation of consoles, I just hope Square Enix gives the fans more of what they want and don’t pull a Final Fantasy versus XIII on us. This is a must buy, must play, must experience. You won’t want to miss the rebirth of such an iconic hero in the pantheon of video gaming history.