Thursday, 18 July 2013

Tomb Raider

The Title Screen

Tomb Raider is an action-adventure reboot by Crystal Dynamics of the well known series with the same name. Released in 2013 for PC, PlayStation and Xbox, it features a singleplayer and multiplayer mode. This review is on the singleplayer campaign only.

Disclaimer: A mature game featuring fairly strong violence and occasional strong language. There is also one moment where a sexual attack is implied. 

The First Thing
Mixed feelings at first. I was initially quite impressed by the menu and all the hallmarks of a well implemented PC version. However I felt the main game started in a rather clumsy manner, opting to jump straight into intense action. Setting the scene with long cutscenes and quick time events was not the most stellar of choices in my opinion. This uneasy start prevented me from settling into Tomb Raider for some time.

Plot & Devices
Lara Croft (you) is a young archaeology student on her first expedition to find the lost island of Yamatai with her team. Victims of a mysterious storm, their boat is destroyed and the team is marooned on a nearby landmass. Immediately kidnapped by natives, Lara narrowly manages to escape and sets out to reunite with her team. But the land is a dangerous place and Lara will be faced with many difficult choices and hardship if she is to survive. On top of that something strange seems to be going on with the weather...

Lara Croft

Tomb Raider is predominantly a character story about the development of Lara from innocent, naive girl to hardened, ruthless survivor. She faces continual hardship and horror which directs her development. However, the backdrop is another story about the history of the island and the events that have taken place before her arrival. Over the decades people of all cultures have been stranded on the island, leaving their mark in various ways; books, artifacts and structures. So whilst the player is dealing with the immediate story of Lara and her survival, they can also find out about the history of the island.

Both stories are advanced through cutscenes, events, journals, artifact and dialogue. The journals and artifacts are often only discoverable with some 'off the path' exploration and therefore the player is left to decide how engrossed in the islands story they wish to be.

The Game
Like so many action-adventure titles, Tomb Raider's gameplay is split into 'combat' and 'platforming/exploration/puzzle solving'; with some minor crossover. The platforming is key to navigating the levels and the player can expect to be jumping, climbing, balancing and sliding around for most of the game. As the game progresses more complex platforming skills are acquired, such as the ability to climb rock faces or shoot ropes with a bow. Occasionally the player will be presented with trickier platforming challenges which requires constant movement and more precise timing.

Combat and Climbing

For combat, Lara has access to four weapons: a bow, a pistol, a shotgun and a rifle. The weapons are discovered at specific points over the course of the game and most have an unlockable alternate fire. Weapon ammunition is obtained from boxes scattered around the levels. Mostly enemies are humans armed with knives, guns and explosives, but the occasional wolf will pose a threat.

Although Lara has regenerating health she can be killed quite quickly if caught in the open. There is no formal 'cover system', but during combat Lara will crouch and automatically softly stick to objects; as if "in cover". Aiming in this mode results in leaning around objects, rather than the normal style. Human adversaries with guns will mostly stay in cover too, albeit less intelligently. Lara will return to her normal posture when all enemies are defeated. Flashing red marks indicate explosives designed to flush the player out and are quite common. The checkpoint system is forgiving and failures can be reattempted quickly.

There is also a basic mêlée system, but given the high incoming damage is not generally advisable. It is used for certain killing blows that activate upon certain conditions; indicated by a UI prompt. Unaware enemies can be silently dispatched from behind with a mêlée attack, promoting the stealth element of the gameplay. Tomb Raider features Quick-Time Events (QTEs) from time to time and pre-set combat sequences will often use them.

The Camp menu system

On top there is an RPG system. Many tasks such as killing enemies/animals and finding collectibles will reward in XP, which in turn award skill points to be used for perks. Skills come in three categories: survival, weapon skill or brawling. Each weapon has its own separate upgrade system and once a player has accumulated enough 'salvage' and weapon pieces from exploration/dead enemies, they may buy an upgrade for that weapon. The skills and gear upgrade menu can be found at campfires, which also save progress. It is also possible to fast travel between some camps; useful for completionists.

I initially started playing with my pad, as I normally do for third-person titles. However, I switched over to keyboard and mouse upon discovering how much aiming is required. Digital controls are not as suited to 3D movement of course but I had no problems at all. All keys are rebindable and the mouse implementation is excellent.

The graphical quality is exceptionally high and there is a varied art style too. Given the history of the island, locations can range from forests and snowy mountains, to world war two style complexes and ancient Chinese temples. Once or twice I encountered a few minor bugs, but nothing really noteworthy. If your mouse becomes jerky a quick restart will fix it. All dialogue is voiced and there is a fair bit of it at a high standard. Music is atmospheric, but a little generic.

Wrap Up & Negatives
The most glaring negative is how Lara's character development conflicts with her actions in gameplay. Lara is understandably traumatised and upset when she has to end a human life for the first time. But less than a minute later she is killing any human she meets. With ease. Even worse, skilful or close personal kills are encouraged due to the XP system. To top it off, the enemy are frequently characterised as brainwashed men, marooned on an inescapable island; frequently discussing wanting to leave and their general misery. Sure they will do Lara harm, but they are in no way evil enough to justify the "kill on sight" mentality that is encouraged.

The sensitive and vulnerable mass murderer, Lara Croft

There is no real way around that by the end of the game Lara has committed mass murder on a level that is utterly indefensible. Now this is not uncommon in a modern action video game and would normally not be a problem, except that here Tomb Raider focuses on her emotional development. At one point Lara describes her enemy as "crazed murderers" without a trace of irony. This was so conflicting it made me burst out laughing. In gameplay, Lara is basically the worlds most gifted assassin and cutscenes where she is supposedly traumatised by the horror start to feel increasingly meaningless as the game progresses.

Any other negatives are just little nitpicks. At times the game can be quite linear and uses tricks like disguising loading times by forcing the player to walk slowly. The enemy AI was disappointingly simplistic and easy to overcome (although I do not know if this is improved on harder difficulty settings). Lara is generally quite well characterised (if you ignore my primary criticism), but the rest of the cast are generic and forgettable.

This may be just personal taste, but I found Lara talking to herself very annoying. Especially the constant "you can do this" style of encouragement in the earlier moments. It became quite grating for me.

I thought this game was pretty great. The location is fantastic and the story is not too bananas. Although, I did feel the plot was stretched a little too thin and perhaps should have ended earlier than the ten hours it took me to complete. The constant misfortune, contrasted with extreme combat prowess certainly disinterested me in the main character and I realised about half-way through I realised I simply did not care what happened to anyone in the game. This did not make the gameplay less enjoyable, just lowered overall emotional investment.

Unlike the old games, there are not a lot of puzzles/tombs - but the few that featured were enjoyable. I feel the platforming was very fluid and much better than the geometrical-precise platforming required in the original titles. I think Tomb Raider can consider itself a successful reboot and a more 'tomb' focused sequel will be an outstanding game.

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