Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Tomb Raider for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Considering its status as one of the most iconic gaming franchises of all time, I really don’t have that much experience with the Tomb Raider series. I faintly recall Tomb Raider: Legends being a pleasant enough experience, with even foggier memories of the original, but it’s never exactly been a franchise which particularly excited or interested me. Well, this reboot from long-time series stalwarts Crystal Dynamics has completely changed that.

Tomb Raider is an origin story for Lara Croft, offering a notably younger and more human portrayal of this character than we’ve ever seen before. Lara is a young, ambitious archaeologist, on a ship searching for the fabled lost kingdom of Yamatai, with a crew of ethnically diverse expendables to keep her company. A freak storm splits the ship in two and leaves Lara and the rest of the crew trapped on an island. Lara is almost immediately captured by bizarre cultists, and upon making her escape goes in search of her crew mates and a way off the island. With powerful storms barring escape, Lara must discover the secrets of Yamatai and its fabled Queen Himiko whilst eluding the forces of the mysterious madman Mathias and the small army he has at his command.

Yamatai has a beautiful Oriental vibe to it which sets it apart from the wealth of other island locations seen in gaming. Unlike Far Cry 3’s tropical setting, there’s a huge amount of variety in the sort of locations we see, with the weather manipulating mumbo jumbo allowing us to explore lush jungle one second before switching to a snowy mountain. It’s not just that natural beauty which makes Yamatai so great however; there’s some gorgeous gaming architecture here. I have a real soft spot for Japanese temples, and this game is filled with their ruins, both beautiful and unsettling. Tomb Raider isn’t truly open world, instead made up of a number of interconnected environments, but there’s a pleasant amount of exploration involved. Yamatai has to be one of the most gorgeous gaming environments that I’ve enjoyed in recent memory.

The actual story isn’t particularly interesting, with the villain failing to truly intimidate with dodgy voice acting throughout. The Yamatai setting, and the mythical Queen Himiko, were potentially fascinating plot points, but they never really came to anything particularly interesting. I found it difficult to particularly care about Lara’s crew either, although there were a couple of good character moments, but I was only interested in these characters in the context of how they affected Lara. This brings us to one of the best parts of this game; Lara Croft herself.

There’s no doubt that this is the most interesting iteration of Lara Croft that we’ve seen so far, as we witness the events which forge her into the unflappable badass that we know she’ll become. A huge fuss was made when a game designer said that the player’s motivation is to ‘protect’ Lara as we grow to care about her, and it’s hard to deny that we’re led towards these kind of feelings towards her. Lara is vulnerable; when we first see her she struggles to even kill a stag for sustenance, and freaks out when she first has to kill a human, but she is also eminently capable, never losing it to such an extent that she can’t pull herself back from the brink.

Tomb Raider is a great example of something that I’ve been noticing a lot in gaming lately, also in Far Cry 3 and in BioShock Infinite; a massive dissonance between the maturity of the story and the oft ridiculous violence of the gameplay. As game stories mature towards something which can actually meditate on violence in a meaningful fashion, surely the gameplay should reflect this? Spec Ops: The Line is a great example of a game which did this really well, but it’s a rare exception. During the cutscenes Lara is a vulnerable, human and likeable figure, but the second the player takes control she morphs into nigh-indestructible action hero. In cutscenes she never seems comfortable killing, but as Lara we will see her massacre hundreds of enemies, with the player rewarded for using particularly brutal finishing moves. In games like Gears of War this isn’t an issue, as the tone of the story matches the gameplay, but it feels entirely at odds with Lara’s journey as presented in the cutscenes. We’re at an interesting point in the development of gaming narratives, with often the most praised games being those which are more interactive stories than gaming experiences (such as Telltale’s Walking Dead and Heavy Rain). This dissonance does take away from the experience somewhat; however, like Far Cry 3, this narrative fails only because Crystal Dynamics tried something interesting and didn’t quite succeed and I’ll still take an inventive and well intentioned failure over generic, superficial and cynical any day.

The gameplay of Tomb Raider has more in common with Nathan Drake’s adventures in Uncharted than with previous games in the series, with a real focus upon spectacle rather than the puzzling in the previous games. Lara will spend much of the game clambering over the environments, with the platforming remaining fun and satisfying throughout. Alas, the shooting isn’t nearly as fun as the platforming, feeling oddly loose and lacking the heft and weight of other third person shooters. Shooting has always been the worst aspect of Lara Croft’s adventures, and I really hope that Crystal Dynamics understand this and cut down on it in the sequel. Don’t get me wrong, the combat isn’t terrible or anything, but it never really lives up to the platforming or exploring sections. Lara gains access to a fun range of gadgets throughout the game to help her traverse the environments, giving this game something of a Metroidvania feel to it as the player backtracks to previous location to pick up collectibles. There’s a levelling system whereby Lara can boost her abilities; some of these are quite fun, but most are fairly uninspired. There’s also a crafting system where Lara can upgrade her weapons; it’s very rudimentary, but it really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than it is. There is something of an over reliance on Quick Time Events here, but I don’t necessarily hate them as much as others do. In my view, scenes which are now QTEs would once have just been cutscenes. QTEs are only a problem when the developer is implementing them rather than creating proper gameplay mechanics to bypass game obstacles, but when they’re simple making moments interactive which we would normally watch, they’re not really a problem in my opinion. It does sometimes feel like a bit much, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Tomb Raider is a decent length, particularly if you take the time to explore. There are a handful of optional tombs, and it is here that the puzzles are to be found. It’s almost as if Crystal Dynamics wanted to hide any content which required the use of a brain, but that doesn’t stop these tombs being a lot of fun. This game is filled with collectibles; some are worthwhile, such as documents filling in interesting details about Lara’s crew and the island itself, but others are entirely pointless, such as GPS caches and relics. Honestly, these feel like padding, but sometimes they require an extra leap of ingenuity to find that can be a lot of fun. Still, I gave up collecting them all around half way through and I imagine most people will do the same. There is a multiplayer mode, but I could not care less about this, uninterested as I was in Tomb Raider’s shooting mechanics in the first place.

Tomb Raider is one of those games which made me feel stunned at how much a single console can grow in a generation. I was playing on an Xbox 360, and when you look at a launch title such as Kameo: Elements of Power and then at Tomb Raider it’s hard to believe that they’re on the exact same hardware. Tomb Raider is an incredible looking game. The weather effects are unparalleled, with the oppressive wind battering Lara on the mountains feeling almost physical. It’s hard to define exactly what makes Tomb Raider so fun to play, but I suspect that it may lie in Lara’s fluid and beautiful animations; almost every moment is inherently more satisfying because of this. Lara moves like a human, which may not sound like much, but it’s actually pretty rare. The faces are expressive and vibrant too, lacking any of the stiffness we’ve gotten used to in gaming. The voice acting is not quite as triumphant as the visuals, with Camilla Luddington’s turn as Lara standing as the clear highlight. Generally the British or American characters are voiced well, but anyone with any other kind of accent sounds entirely ridiculous. Mathias, the villain, has a baffling accent which holds back this character from being nearly as intimidating as the creators clearly wanted him to be. Despite this though, Tomb Raider is an incredibly beautifully presented game.

Crystal Dynamics have managed to do something really special with Tomb Raider; they’ve managed to make Lara Croft relevant again. So many of those classic late 1990s gaming icons gave faded into obscurity and irrelevance, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon for example, with Lara Croft looking to become one of them. Tomb Raider is an excellent reboot for the franchise, and for the first time I cannot wait to see where Lara Croft goes next. Tomb-Raider-2013

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