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Tomb Raider

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To tell you the truth, I’ve been weary about this game’s release.  It’s not just because I disliked Tomb Raider: Underworld for the confounding, generic product that it was – I reserve my right to claim that it was.  It’s also not because of the controversy surrounding that one trailer that came far too close to displaying virtual rape for comfort – it’s not exactly in good taste, but had that angle been taken Crystal Dynamics could have gone for the “creative vision” or “freedom of expression” routes in their inevitable PR statement.  No, it’s the simple fact that remakes – or reboots, in the case of … what do I call this, Tomb Raider 2013Tomb Raider 3.0Tomb Raider: The Legend of Lara?  Anyway, reboots like Tomb Raider: Strike Three have been equally off-putting and terrifying to me.  

However, this new installment in the now seventeen-year-old series proves that old dogs can learn new tricks and look good doing it.  Tomb Raider: A New Hope adapts with great finesse to the established conventions of the present gaming generation, while always remembering where its roots lie.  It’s timely, it’s immersive, it’s even brutal, and, ultimately, this new journey of Lara Croft’s is a clear reminder of why the tomb-raiding British aristocrat is a hero to many in the industry.

Tomb Raider sets up its tale as an origin story, the plot centred on the naive and fresh-faced Lara in her post-college search for an ancient civilization somewhere in the Dragon’s Triangle.  Accompanied by a ragtag group of friends and begrudging colleagues, aboard the grand ship Endurance, Lara hopes to find her calling on this expedition.  Unfortunately, the forces of nature aren’t all that keen on embracing tourism, as evidenced by a freak storm that wreaks the Endurance on a mysterious island and separates Lara from her group.

What is initially stunning about this game is how brutal it is.  In Lara’s first moments after awakening, the sights that befall her are nothing short of horrifying, the kind of stuff Francis Ford Coppola would cut out of Apocalypse Now for being “too graphic”.  Ceremonial sacrifices, bodies hanging from cave ceilings, Lara pulling out a stick from her side, things to that effect.  This brutality makes up the course of the first hour or so, and remains an underlying element of this game’s story.

Lara’s progression as a character, though, is the true reason that the story works at all.  Had she been any less endearing with her humility or her frankness toward enemies, or if she had lacked the uncertainty and youthful idealism typical of budding protagonists, the various set-pieces, dramatic scenes and intriguing finale might have fallen flat.  Thankfully, in a masterful convergence of strong voice work from Camilla Luddington and strong writing that balances Lara’s emotional and intellectual needs, the end result is that from Lara’s initial struggle to escape captivity to her inevitable heroic rise to glory (more on that below), Ms. Croft always proves herself to be what the story needs.

Other characters don’t quite fare as well.  The problem isn’t with bad acting or writing; instead, it lies in the story’s priorities, which are two-fold: develop Lara into the bad-ass yet lovable heroine we know she can be, and build up a fairly supernatural tale that has traces of survival horror in its genes.  There’s simply no time or energy left over to give any of the characters any significant development, save – perhaps – for Roth (Lara’s mentor), Dr. Whitman (Lara’s double-dealing “friendly” rival) and Mathias (the odd one-note antagonist).

From a structural perspective, the story starts and ends in the most unique manners possible, with the mid-section of the game (that is, most of the 10 hours spent on the story) feeling like a nice traditional adventure story, complete with some well-paced set-pieces (like the burning house sequence – that there is excellent action in a nutshell), environmental puzzles, and plenty of balance between platforming and all-out firefights that would make Uncharted turn its head.

Ultimately, though, it’s those opening and closing moments that really stood out to me because of the common factor: Lara.   In the first ten minutes, it’s established that she’s young, untested and faces deadly odds, yet she possesses the raw talent to survive this harsh, psychotic environment.  This raw talent builds up and is refined for the conclusion, which, save for a boss battle that’s somewhat unimpressive, delivers on the promise of a Lara Croft who can fight her own battles – not as a cold, heartless soldier, but as a true-blue survivor.

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Her journey, of course, requires gameplay to back it up, and Crystal does not disappoint on this front.  Their decision to borrow elements of game design from recent success stories in the action-adventure genre – cough, Uncharted, cough – may seem fishy, but they manage to provide their own unique elements to make what was old into something fresh and new.

For instance, the game introduces a small but reliable and customizable range of weapons that fits Lara’s circumstances.  The first of these is the bow and arrow, an useful tool that adds to the survivalist feel of the gameplay.  From feeling the power build as you pull back the string (holding down a button, of course – motion controls aren’t quite there yet), to experiencing Lara’s first visceral kill, the bow provides a nice balance of efficiency and entertainment.  As the game progresses, though, the firefights progressively include more firearms – a pistol, a shotgun and an assault rifle come into play.  These weapons, unlike the bow, are more suited to combat than to interacting with environments or solving puzzles, and thus they are not quite as interesting to discuss.  That said, they’re well-designed, balanced, and control well, so complaints are minimal here.

The player will experience various aspects of the action-adventure genre as Tomb Raider progresses – climbing up cliff-sides, zipping down zip-lines, and even exploring a few actual tombs.  Funnily enough, for a game with the Tomb Raider logo, it’s got a surprising lack of actual tombs to raid.  I’ve counted seven thus far – not taking into account the downloadable ones – and while they certainly sport some of the more intricate and traditional puzzles one would associate with the series (the highlight being a wind-based puzzle in an underground shrine of sorts), they lack a sense of genuine challenge or complex design.  Perhaps if more had been developed and integrated into the experience, I wouldn’t mind as much, but as it stands it’s a missed opportunity.

In any case, action seems to be the focal point here, but it is not necessarily the only factor in its overall success.  Set-pieces and cinematic sequences dominate much of the experience, with Lara moving at a steady pace from coastal cliftsides to dense forests and beyond attempting to complete various tasks.  Typically, Lara will eventually end up in intense platforming sequences that require rapid-fire reaction on the player’s part, but Lara controls so fluidly and responsively that these sections feel fair and just.   It’s also a fair point that these moments are visual spectacles, with the aforementioned burning house scene in particular displaying the impressive lighting and destructive capabilities of the Crystal Engine.  Wood beams collapse, fires are as dazzling as they are raging and hot, and the sheer amount of chaos on-screen at one time –  both due to fleeing humans and deteriorating structures – is truly astounding in the best manner possible.

As is the case, interacting with the environment is key to progressing in the game, but Crystal Dynamics wasn’t merely content with simply designing environmental puzzles.  The various areas that Lara, and the player, visit feel both functional and realistic – villages look lived-in but sport baskets full of explosive fluids, for instance, or abandoned industrial areas look rundown yet have clear sections set aside for haphazardly scaling the walls.  It’s rare to find games that don’t lead the player by the nose but rather feel like they let the player figure s**t out themselves, and this is certainly one of those games – smartly crafted, with nice creative flourishes to boot.

Clocking in at a healthy ten to twelve hours, Tomb Raider certainly doesn’t skimp on the post-campaign content.  Little trinkets that can be examined, GPS markers, journal entries that unlock some telling and well-acted voice-overs, and that’s not even getting into the experience point system.  For all of Lara’s actions, there’s a reward of experience points attached – kill an enemy, find some treasure, get through a puzzle, and so on.  Combat’s particularly giving in this regard – you could just shoot any old Joe and be done with it, but there’s greater reward in sneaking up and silencing him for good or taking him out with an arrow to the head.  Experience, in time, allows Lara to advance in a level-based ranking system, with each increase in rank earning her an upgrade point to spend on improving one of her skills – these range from learning new close-combat maneuvers, to getting more money from fallen enemies, to even learning a few instant-kill moves that dispatch wounded enemies.

Speaking of money, that’s important for the other upgrade system – weapons upgrades.  The bow, pistol, shotgun and assault rifle are all compatible with upgrades – we’re talking additions like reduced recoil, increased ammunition for each clip, and special incendiary rounds.  Some upgrades require the player to scavenge for certain parts to earn the right to purchase them, while others simply require you to have the right amount of salvage, the game’s fairly plentiful (but balanced) currency.   Regardless, it’s a nice reward system for simply digging through piles and boxes littered throughout the environments, and I did feel like I had a reason to keep coming back and searching each area.

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Really, it’s just the intense number of quick-time events strewn throughout the game that irks me ever so slightly.  I expected the big set-piece moments and climactic battles to have sequences where I’d mindless mash, hold or carefully press buttons to survive, but the fact that ordinary combat encourages quick-time events seems a bit off-putting to me.  It’s not as though the enemies aren’t fairly ruthless and relentless enough on their own – now we have to contend with some upgradeable abilities where we must press a button according to an on-screen indicator as Lara is attempting to dodge a potentially life-ending blow, hoping that we got the timing right.

However, the nit-picks aside, there’s no doubt this production flaunts its quality with pride.  The opening cutscene stands as a Crysis-killer just by sheer fidelity alone, with environments filled to the brim with detail, rain effects that spread and splash just right, and facial animation that needs to be seen to be believed.   As for the rest of the game, while it’s not quite as jaw-dropping as that sequence, the level of immense detail in the scenery – which gets its fare share of tech demo-esque flybys – and in the character models is quite impressive in its own right.

And lest we forget to mention the sound design.  Voice work here is top-notch, with Lara getting inarguably the best deal but the other actors providing solid-to-impressive performances.  The soundtrack, meanwhile, has some tension and is well used at times, but it’s nothing terribly memorable – not like the title theme from Tomb Raider: Legend, anyway.  That said, I have to applaud Crystal for how immersive they made the atmospheric sounds – I felt like the various wolves in the game terrorized me with their growling and howls as much as they did Lara, and the crashing of the waves was an equally believable and soothing sound that sticks with me even now.

Anyway, did I miss anything? Hmmm… Tomb Raider has multiplayer? And you say Eidos Montreal, creators of the famed Deus Ex: Human Revolution, developed it? Yeah, I get the impression it’s about as tacked-on and lazy of an online suite as you could possibly imagine.  While my experience with it has been limited (scratch that – it’s non-existent), I think that the ambivalent feelings of gamers and critics like myself toward it speaks wonders about its overall quality.  That is to say, just skip it.

For in the end, Tomb Raider is firmly a single-player experience, a lone gamer’s journey alongside Lara as she matures and becomes what we know she is meant to be: a survivor, a leader and an icon.  If ever there was a time I thought to myself, “How the f**k are they going to top this?”, this is it.  Yes, my audience, Ms. Croft is back – and this is her story.

Score: 9/10

Recommendation: Buy It!

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