February 26, 2013
If you analyse every entertainment industry out there, one thing is very clear, and that’s that each industry has its very own leading lady. The music industry’s is arguably Madonna (bear with me here, as this is all going to be rather subjective), the film industry’s is the one and only Dame Judy Dench and books have JK Rowling, obviously. She’s sold more books than Jesus. And video games? That’s an obvious one. It’s quite clearly Link from Zelda… what’s that? That’s a dude!? Really!? Oh, okay then, I knew that.
In that case, it's Lara Croft then, of course. Unlike other industries however, in the video game industry, age ain’t nothing but a number and going from the twilight of your career to the start in a heartbeat is entirely possible. That’s what Crystal Dynamics has done with Ms Croft in the latest Tomb Raider, taking our dynamic heroine from established explorer and adventurer to fledgling survivor in a reboot of sorts.
Marooned on a mysterious island in the Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan after her ship, the Endurance crashes, Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara’s transformation into the strong, assured survivor we know today. Equipped with nothing but her wits, Lara must uncover the secrets of the island to save her fellow stranded survivors. This is Lara like you’ve never seen her before though. Innocent, inexperienced, but still one hell of a tough cookie and one that grows and develops as the bleak and tragic story unfolds.
As far as Tomb Raider stories go, this is up there with the best, overpowering us with a depressingly catastrophic series of events, coupled with a strong performance from the cast and a compelling island chock full of weird goings on. Crystal Dynamics should be commended for crafting this chilling and eerie world, packing it full of background information for those that seek it out – do seek it out, it’s worth it – while at the same time carving out a brutal and very personal story.
In previous Tomb Raider titles in recent years, the controls and fluency of movement of Lara have been one of the major hang-ups. Gone are the days of annoying cameras and twitchy movements, and in comes a level of control and fluidity that is deserving of the games industry’s leading female icon. The inclusion of a bow and arrow, as well as some interesting RPG mechanics revolving around upgrading Lara herself and searching for salvage to upgrade Lara’s tools of the trade, have opened the franchise up to new and welcomed frontiers.
In fact, the gadgets that Crystal Dynamics has given Lara, from the rope arrows to the climbing axe - which introduces zip wires galore and the nifty rope ascender - have meant that Lara’s agility and athleticism in navigating the environment is up there with the best of them, a la Assassin’s Creed and co.
This is where my gushing over Crystal Dynamics’ latest outing hits some rocky waters, just like the Endurance ship. Too often the on-screen action in this new Tomb Raider descends into third-person shooter territory, and not even an exceptional one at that. Quite what slow-mo breaches and armoured bosses are doing in a Tomb Raider game, we’ll never know. I genuinely think I killed more enemies in one run through of the reboot than I have in all the other titles combined. It even has conveniently placed red explosive barrels dotted around the environment. Le sigh. Think Tomb Raider 2, but 100 times more populated with goons.
Unfortunately, everything that made the Tomb Raider franchise so compelling has been scaled back drastically in favour of the more action-orientated gun-wielding gameplay that supposedly made Lara who she is today, and the game suffers as a result. I just can’t understand how our adventurer can be so melancholy about killing some wildlife but will happily put 100 men in body bags without a second's thought. The mind boggles.
In terms of controls, yes, it probably is the tightest and most responsive Lara has ever been, but the exploration, the puzzles, the incredible interior environments, the platforming, the actual tomb raiding and archaeological exploration, it all takes a backseat to the third-person shooter gunplay for the most part, which is truly a shame.
That said, it’s not all bad and there are a few truly epic sights and environments to drink in. Littered throughout the 12-15 hour story are high-octane chases, epic moments that could almost rival Uncharted in terms of cinematics and when Crystal Dynamics does bust out the puzzles, they are simply breathtaking.
There’s physics-based puzzles, weight puzzles, timing puzzles, balance puzzles, puzzles that revolve around the elements – fire, wind and water, mainly – making for some of the most intelligent puzzle pieces that exist in the franchise. They’ll definitely make you think, that’s for sure. These truly epic moments are outnumbered probably 3:1 by the generic third-person shooter gunfights. Lara as a stealthy hunter works. Lara as a shotgun-wielding, assault-rifle-donning psychopath who can take down a well-trained army, does not.
Backing up the notion of Square Enix’s misdirection of the once classic franchise is the game’s multiplayer. Yes, multiplayer in a Tomb Raider game. A third-person shooter-oriented one at that. Bizarre. It’s clear that Eidos Montreal (the studio Tomb Raider's MP segment was outsourced to) has done their research though as there’s a plethora of loadout customisations and unlockables in there, but the minute to minute gameplay isn’t that great. In fact, it’s fairly standard stuff. After more than a few hours with the four game modes, that are various takes on the normal stock game modes, I can safely say that it’s disposable. It can be fun, for a moment but isn’t particularly great. Then again, at the same time, it isn’t terrible. You can essentially take it or leave it.
Sure, there are a few Tomb Raider orientated mechanics in there – the traps, the platforming, the zip wires, the bow and arrow – but everything else just screams mediocrity. One thing is for certain: it shows a complete misunderstanding of what makes Tomb Raider so popular: its tomb raiding (the clue’s in the title), not all out warfare, which does seem odd. That’s not the problem though, it’s just that it’s not special enough to win us or anyone over. It’s a shame they couldn’t have put these resources into making more of what makes a Tomb Raider game in the game’s single-player.
In terms of the achievements, it continues this trend of mixed messaging. Tomb Raider, a single-player game by trade, places such a massive emphasis on its multiplayer in the achievements, requiring players to get to level 60. Ouch. Even with the single-player, Crystal Dynamics hasn't really bust a gut to spawn a creative list – there’s probably three I would class as passable.
Collectible this, upgrade that, it’s pretty disastrous stuff in all honesty. Oh, and whoever’s idea it was to make a missable achievement a secret one… wow, that person really doesn’t understand the achievement system at all. Be warned, speak to the Endurance crew whenever possible so that there’s no icon above their head when you embark on the mission – a la the first Assassin’s Creed's Lucy-based achievement. You’ll thank me later. One of the worse lists I have seen in years. Plain and simple. It’s a good job we don’t factor the achievements rating into the final score!
The bits that Crystal Dynamics has got right are the bits they’ve always got right since they took over the Tomb Raider franchise: the puzzles, the tombs and the platforming, but there just isn’t enough of them to call this a truly great game. The best parts of Tomb Raider games gone by are the moments where you walk into a gargantuan room before figuring out how you can get across to the other side. There’s not really much of that same awe-inspiring tomb-navigation in this Tomb Raider. And you can see how much of an emphasis on tombs there is when there’s only nine and they're labelled as optional. Perhaps we should call this 'Optional Tomb Raider'.
In a lot of respects, Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of Tomb Raider is the greatest Tomb Raider title ever released, but for everything that the studio gets right, there's something that it gets equally as wrong.
The sound design in Crystal Dynamic’s reboot is quite impressive. The score is truly atmospheric and eerie, matching the gameplay at every beat.
A truly great depiction of what I would imagine hell looks like. The attention to detail is astounding, as is the cinematography, and like the audio design, everything about it just makes you feel uneasy, which is the perfect reaction. The death sequences as well? They're delightfully brutal and graphic.
Crystal Dynamics has crafted the most responsive and fluid Tomb Raider in terms of controls, and it’s very rare you’ll have a hiccup because of them.
A case of two steps forward, three steps back here. Some great, truly defining moments are let down by a reliance on the weakest part of the formula: the gunplay.
Bland, terrible balance, horrible spread, some unforgivable errors and barely any creativity. What is this? 2006 all over again?
There is a platform here for Crystal Dynamics to take Lara’s shenanigans to a new level, but a reliance on fairly bog standard shooter mechanics just doesn’t do the franchise any justice and as a result, means Tomb Raider falls short of being a truly great game. Still ounces of fun, but you can’t help but think, “what could have been?”