Rating: M for Mature
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics & Eidos Montreal
Console: Available now for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows
Description: A young and inexperienced Lara Croft is ship-wrecked on a mysterious island in an open world adventure game, departing from the mood of prior games in the series. Witness the birth of an adventurer.
There is just something about the reboot of the Tomb Raider series that just feels absolutely right. Something about the whole retelling of Lara Croft’s beginnings, how she became the adventurer in the first place, that feels as if this should have been the game we should have been playing from the start. Not to take away anything from the 1996 original Tomb Raider game, but the presentation, story and characterization in the 2013 Tomb Raider (developed by Crystal Dynamics & Eidos Montreal, published by Square Enix) game is something that even surpasses what the original brought to gamers. As a long-time fan of the series, that is actually hard to admit – to admit that the reboot of the series is better than the games that came before… it’s a bittersweet statement to make. But I am more than glad to go on record and make it. There is so much that should be recognized for making Tomb Raider the game that it is, it should be looked at as a blueprint for companies to follow is they are looking to reboot their series of games. Not that I condone complete reboots all the time, but if they are done as good as Tomb Raider was done, I may not mind it as much.
Where could I possibly begin describing what it is about Tomb Raider that worked so well? How about the gameplay?
Gameplay: Controlling Lara as she traverses through the game is as simple as could be and the controls are simply a dream to understand. While there may be some getting used to moving her around at first, as well as dealing with the on-screen commands to take certain actions, the player can overcome all of this by the time the prologue ends. If you have trouble with the controls beyond this point, the game isn’t broken, you are. Having Lara jump, climb, dodge and fight her way around and through many of the games scenarios handles wonderfully on the controller. (Disclaimer: I played the game on the PS3.) Combat in the game is easy to understand after a few battles and it is clear that the game wanted to present Lara as being uneasy with killing and still vulnerable to violence. I do have some issues with the combat in the game, but I will get to that later in the article. Aside from that, the game should be intuitive to action/adventure and shooter fans and is something that newer fans will easily pick up.
Also, the game is just the perfect length for an action/adventure game. It is not too long or too short that you either, A, get bored with the game and characters before any kind of climax is within sight or, B, that you do not get a sense of connection with the main character of the story being told through them. There is enough time in the game for the player to bond with Lara, empathize with her feelings and situations that they truly get a sense of nurturing and protecting Lara from danger – but at the same time, it isn’t so much that Lara begins to feel like a burden to the player who simply wants to see the end of the game. The game is paced so wonderfully in this sense that it feels more like controlling a motion picture, with extras, than playing through a video game.
Sound: The game does a great job of creating ambiance throughout Lara’s adventure by establishing the right sounds in the environment she is in. Drops of water fill caves and caverns and echo throughout the area. Gunfire is loud and sometimes distracting forcing the player to turn their attentions elsewhere as they become surrounded. Footsteps through jungle and temple surroundings sound exactly as you would expect them to with foliage crunching and shoes clattering on concrete and stone. Rain, wind, even walking in snow… all sounds of climate and environmental surroundings are what you expect them to be and are neither to distracting nor oblivious. As it pertains to the voice acting in the game, it could not have been handled any better. The voice actress for Lara in particular, Camilla Luddington, did such a magnificent job capturing the youth, vulnerability and innocence of the character that one would expect her to actually be a real life character. Luddington’s performance clearly has set a new bar for acting in a game and is unrivaled by anything that has come out lately. Others cast in other roles throughout the game also performed their roles to the utmost satisfaction of this reviewer. They respected the roles they were playing and treated their jobs as dutifully as a major production from Hollywood.
Another aspect of the sound that I found interesting, and really helped set the mood for Tomb Raider more than any other aspect beyond the story was the score for the game. The orchestration, under the hands of composer Jason Graves (Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Dead Space), perfectly complimented every aspect of the game. From a beautiful and masterful recreation of the original Tomb Raider’s theme to powerful tunes that accentuated the more exciting and frantic moments of the game, such as the battles with the cult followers and some of the escape sequences in the beginning, every note, every pitch was perfectly set in the game. While seemingly odd, the score reminds me of something akin to an emotional horror film (i.e. The Omen and Poltergeist) than something I would normally hear in an action/adventure game. It is this sense of horror that compounds the vulnerability that the player feels coming from Lara that makes the scenario that much more believable and emotional.
Visuals: There is not much to say about the visuals other than how absolutely amazing they are in the game. Oh my stars and garters, Tomb Raider is a beauty to behold. From the lights and shadows dancing in caves, the look of the jungle you explore, the snow-capped mountains, the tides lamming the beach, rain hitting the camera… the whole game looks exceptionally real. This is easily the best looking game of the year, perhaps the past six months, to hit store shelves. The amount of realism in the visuals of the game is simply mind-boggling. You can even see every shiver and twitch Lara makes as she fights off the cold, the ramifications of having killed for the first time or even the uneasiness she feels killing animals. You later watch that same emotion come through as she converse with her allies and battles through enemies and delivers a killing blow – Lara’s animated perfectly and the quality of the graphics of the game give her a sense of realism that I have never seen before. Developers take note: I believe this is the next level you must all advance to in terms of making a game look real.
Story: Tomb Raider outdoes any Tomb Raider game before it in terms of story. You take a young archeology student named Lara Croft leading her first expedition, have a disastrous series of events that lead to her and her team being stranded on an island, then watch as she grows from an uncertain and vulnerable young woman who must rise up and become something she is clearly not ready to become to save the lives of her and her friends. The story has all the trappings that lead to the making of a great hero. To overcome the tragedy and circumstances laid before her are reminiscent of classic heroic tales and some modern super hero origins. She may not climb walls or shoot lasers out of her eyes, but overcoming adversity and danger make for great origins – and Tomb Raider plays these out wonderfully.
I keep using variations of the word “vulnerable” to describe Lara in the game, and that is the most appropriate description one could give of the character in the game. She isn’t this badass woman with guns comfortable with killing and death as has been seen in previous games. This is Lara, in her infancy, so to speak, becoming that adventurer. She’s been around weapons before, but has never really had to use them. She knows the dangers of her profession, but has not experienced any of it firsthand. These are new experiences to her, and in that regards she is like a child leaving the house for a first time. She knew what to expect, she just didn’t expect to encounter them. Now she must grow up faster than she intended in order to survive. The story makes a great point in reminding the player this is the situation she finds herself in. The visuals remind the player of Lara’s youth and emotional reactions to the situation around her. Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara drives home that point by the cracking of her voice, the youth in her words, the whimpers and grunts at having experienced this kind of pain for the first time. Everything that can emphasize her vulnerability is utilized in the game. But that does not make Lara weak.
Throughout the course of the game, Lara grows stronger, grows wiser, and learns to take care of herself in the direst of situations. What could have been a major flaw in the character’s make up has been turned around to truly see the evolution of a character from a young, scared and unsure young lady into the confident and capable heroine we all knew her to be. This is true character development in action and we are witnessing it all for ourselves as it unveil itself through the course of the game. I had my doubts about taking back Lara to her roots. I thought that playing as an unconfident character would be a bit of a turn off. I also mistakenly thought that the weakening of the character could possibly be the undoing of what made the character special.
I was so wrong – especially on two fronts. One, while she may be vulnerable and unsure, at no point whatsoever in the game is Lara ever presented as weak. I apologize greatly for even having thought that she would be weak in the game. While she may be unsure, Lara is resourceful and intelligent and uses everything at her disposal to survive. She may be new to the whole survival game, but she is never presented as incapable of surviving. Two, showing us the origin of her character didn’t make her less special, it made her more special than before. Showing the player how she exactly got to be where she was in later games, with a few changes here and there, gave me a greater respect for the character than I had before. The story does a great job of building Lara up, showing that she had all those survival instincts inside her all the while that it truly can be looked at as one of the greatest origin tales in the modern/digital era.
So then tell me how there are flaws in the game that keep it from being absolute gaming perfection? What oversight was committed that let two major flaws affect the game as such? Especially when one could have been completely avoided with one simple word – NO.
Taking a look at the minor of the two flaws that I found with the game, it has to do with the combat in the game. For as much as they would like to present Lara as uneasy with killing and her vulnerability, she sure does a lot of killing. Instead of gearing the gameplay to avoid confrontations as much as possible, it almost seems like the game is encouraging you to engage in killing, especially with horrific and intense finishing moves, to get through the game. You could avoid most combat if you like, but then you are giving up a lot in terms of Exp you could earn from killing. Engage in combat, get more Exp. Finish off a foe with a cinematic finishing move, you get even more Exp. Pass up a group to continue exploring safely, lose out on the chance to gain Exp. What!? This just seems completely contradictory to what the game had set out with presenting Lara in the game. I get that she is supposed to be a badass later in her life, but if she is presented as being uneasy with taking lives in this game, why is there such an emphasis on it? It just seems unbalanced in the respects of gameplay versus story.
However, the major flaw in Tomb Raider that really hinders the game overall is the inclusion of a forgettable and almost useless multiplayer component. If anything in the game would be considered “weak”, it would be the multiplayer aspect and not the young Lara Croft. This game is a shining example that not every game needs to have a multiplayer function to be a great game. In Tomb Raider, it really hurts the overall game when you enter multiplayer and see a game presented that takes all the fun you had in the single player campaign and shits on it. You take the great gameplay you just experienced and turn it into a tacked on and generic component with little or no planning put into it. At least that is how it seems to me. The single player campaign was so well done, was so damn near perfect – why would you even need to add in a multiplayer component. Someone in the development team should have emphatically said “NO!” when the aspect of adding a multiplayer element was explored. It doesn’t need it and it ruins what should have been a stellar and A+ game.
For the most part, I am really in love with Tomb Raider. It is a very close representation of gaming perfection as can be. At least when it comes to the single player campaign. But once you add in the multiplayer component, the old adage that sometimes less is more really applies. Had it not been for the multiplayer part of the game, and the duality between Lara’s innocence and uneasiness with killing versus being rewarded for graphic kills, really brings down the game’s overall score. More so the multiplayer than the gameplay, but it still registers as a negative. When taking in all the factors of the game, Tomb Raider ends up with an A- as its final grade. There is definitely room for improvement, but nothing drastic – a little nips and tucks here and there would greatly improve the game. My only question left now is this: how the hell is Square Enix ever going to be able to top this? Maybe, they will surprise me once again.