Also On: PS3, PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Crystal Dynamic’s reboot of Tomb Raider isn’t your traditional Tomb Raider experience, but it’s definitely the best game in the series I’ve played since the first two. And while I found a few things about the last main title, Underworld, that were worth enjoying, it’s been a long time since Lara Croft has had her name associated with anything good.
The reboot re-introduces us to Lara Croft as she sets sail with a group of friends and fellow adventurers to uncover the hidden Japanese city of Yamatai. This is Lara’s first big adventure as she tries to follow in the footsteps of her dead father, and despite being talented at archaeology she’s never been field tested to the extent of a full-blown adventure.
Things go sour quickly with Lara and a small crew of others shipwrecking on the shores of what they’ll quickly learn was the intended destination. Lara is quickly kidnapped by the islands other residents, and is forced through a brutal escape sequence at the start, similar to the demo featured when Tomb Raider was initially unveiled. This kicks of a significant change in character for Lara, who goes from a curious, intelligent young woman to someone just trying to make it to the next sunrise. Tomb Raider does beat you over the head with its survivor themes, but I think the transition of Lara Croft from budding heroine to hardened adventurer is handled well throughout.
I was happy to see the developers try to focus on Lara’s morality early on. When Lara gets her first kill it comes off as a traumatic experience for her, so much so that when she’s forced into combat a short while later, she verbally pleads for her enemies to stop because she doesn’t want to kill them. Eventually this acknowledgement of violence tones down to something non-existent. I’m still glad to see it explored to some degree though, especially when Lara clearly isn’t meant to be a psychopath.
From a gameplay perspective Tomb Raider doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and often borrows liberally from other sources. Lara has an ability called “Survival Instinct” which is nearly identical to the Detective Vision featured in Batman: Arkham Asylum. It allows you to see interactive objects in the environment, but does limit it to only working properly while standing still. If you start to run or move, the vision mode will switch off, keeping players from relying on it constantly.
Clearly the Uncharted series is also influential, and much of Lara’s environment traversal will feel pretty familiar to anyone that’s played those titles. Lara’s jump height is fairly low, so certain things that seem like they should be in reach often aren’t. But climbing scalable surfaces is pretty quick, and can be further enhanced with a single skill later on. I never had much trouble with controlling my jumps either, being able to transition from one angle to the next was essentially flawless, with full camera control that doesn’t go bananas in confined spaces. Lara’s fall damage is also low, so if you screw something up you’re not punished severely for the mistake.
Another element cribbed from a handful of games is the way map progression works. Tomb Raider is essentially an open world adventure, in the sense that you can freely travel back to any other explored point on the map. This can be done through a series of quick travel spots marked as camps, or by just going along a certain path. Some locales will be blocked off from a direct route after they are explored, but you can backtrack through most of the map if you want.
When advancing through the story, you’ll gain access to tools that open up new possibilities, along with clearing certain obstacles or doors that were previously inaccessible. It’s basically the Metroid style of exploration, but Tomb Raider really fails to capitalize on it fully. The only real reason to backtrack is to pick up the wide variety of collectibles you may have missed on your initial visit. And even then there’s little reason to do so, as gathering all of those items adds nothing to game once finished. There’s some light background reading by gathering the documents, which can shed some light on various characters. But most of the side characters are undeveloped, including the villain, making most of the information gathered pretty hollow.
And while bounding around the different areas that make up the entire map can be fun, there’s just not enough optional, meaningful material to make it worth your time. There’s a series of hidden caves that represent the only real tomb raiding that Lara gets to do, but they’re comprised of single room puzzles that aren’t the least bit challenging. I get the feeling that Tomb Raider is designed to be enjoyed by just about everyone, and doesn’t want to cater to any particular audience. But there’s bound to be some disconnect for people that enjoyed the older titles, and I’m not sure if the copycat mechanics employed in other design aspects are doing much to make Tomb Raider stand out amongst other AAA titles on the market.
Despite some of my negativity, there are definitely things that Tomb Raider does right. The overall pace of the campaign is great, enough so that you’ll probably finish it in a couple sittings because you’ll have a hard time putting the controller down. There’s a great balance struck between exploration and combat, both of which are pretty enjoyable. Combat usually consists of gun fights, but enemy A.I. is smart enough to flush you out of cover and keep you on your toes. Tomb Raider is also the only game in recent memory that’s managed to nail automatic cover, allowing me to transition in and out at points that actually make sense.
Character progression is also staged in a way that you feel like you’re constantly moving forward with the story. Experience is granted for every enemy defeated, collectible found, story event covered and so on. You’ll gain a point with every level that can be put into one of three skill trees, with my only complaint being that you can’t personalize Lara to a degree that each playthrough could be different. But that skill system combined with a multiple weapon upgrade mechanic gives you enough of a carrot on a stick feeling to keep pushing forward.
Once you’re done with the campaign you might feel compelled to check out the multiplayer mode, but I’d urge you not to. There’s little of merit to be found, with a couple good ideas married with boring variations of competitive multiplayer modes from other titles. I won’t hold this against Crystal Dynamics, as the multiplayer mode was developed separately, but if you’re going to outsource your multiplayer and then unveil it as something that feels like a last-minute idea, maybe it was better left on the drawing room floor.
You get four modes by different names, all of which boil down to familiar shooter modes with slight variations. Free for All and Team Deathmatch are two, while the objective based modes are called Rescue and Cry for Help. The maps used are pulled from similar single player locations, and there’s some emphasis on using traps to kill unwary players. From a technical perspective the mode is fine; I didn’t have issues connecting with other players, and didn’t experience any severe lag or other problems. But from a gameplay perspective it was just boring, and the level of polish here isn’t anywhere near the campaign.
It hits all the expected checkmarks when looking at a multiplayer shooter, including the ability to level up, manage loadouts, equip perks and weapon mods, etc. But the map design is tiny and awkward, spawn points are limited, and there’s just not enough to the customization to make you want to see things through to level 60. I like being able to play as character skins, another borrowed Uncharted element, but I’d prefer to see more unlocks across levels instead of single items. And the perk system is downright awful, with no unique or interesting things to modify your attributes with. Also, changing up the control scheme from single player to multiplayer makes for a really weird transition.
All in all, this Tomb Raider reboot isn’t perfect. But it is a step in the right direction for the series, and again marks the most fun I’ve had with a Tomb Raider title in a while. It’s got enough of that AAA polish to make it a contender, but I feel that the series is going to need some fresh ideas if it really wants to compete with the big hitters.
I thought about whether this game would stand out in the crowd without the Tomb Raider or Lara Croft name attached, and I felt like it’d be something that people would enjoy for the moment, and then forget about a few months down the line. Again, there’s some solid foundations being laid here, and I think this style of gameplay fits the license well. But there really needs to be a bit more innovation, challenge, and charm introduced if you want to sell me on the sequel.