Review: Tomb Raider
A survivor is born in the return of one of gaming's greatest heroines.
- Worth The Time?Absolutely, each and every second of Lara's new journey is enthralling.
- Things LovedA fantastic origins tale that connects you to Lara and her hardships, a massive island for you to explore with a ton of secrets to uncover, balanced and exhilarating combat, varied enemy types that keep you changing tactics, fantastic weapons and equipment, platforming is a joy, lengthy campaign that has a lot to go back for, many secrets to discover off the main path, dark and gritty tone, deliciously violent scenes that personify the dangers of the island, incredible visual and sound design, Lara Croft is finally back.
- Things HatedGood but ultimately average multiplayer, besides Lara the rest of the characters are dull and predictable, outside of Lara's personal story the narrative is nothing special.
- RecommendationThere really is no reason you should not pick up this Tomb Raider reboot. Fans of action adventure titles will feel right at home here, but the tale of Lara's origins alone should be enough to encourage a full price purchase. You simply can't go wrong.
- Name: Tomb Raider
- Genre: Action Adventure
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Competitive Online
- Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
- Developer: Crystal Dynamics
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Price: R329.95 (PC), R599.95 (PS3 and Xbox 360).
- Reviewed On: PS3
Lara Croft and her dual pistols (not a sexual reference) have been a gaming icon since her debut close to two decades ago. More of her modern outings have been frowned upon and failed to reach the heights and splendour of their predecessors, and then she disappeared completely. It’s been a very, very long time since we’ve had a new Tomb Raider title, but ever since its debut nearly three years ago fans have been waiting for the rebooted Tomb Raider to come out. Was it worth it? In a nutshell, more so than you could possibly imagine. Taking hints from various other adventure titles, Tomb Raider is a glorious game in its own right and delivers an astonishing tale of self-growth through survival. Lara is the main focus here, and players will become increasingly attached to her as she is punished and pushed to her limits in an attempt to save her friends and escape the mysterious island they’ve been abandoned on.
What’s a Tomb Raider title without a little fantasy thrown into the mix? Tomb Raider serves as a prequel to all of Lara’s previous adventures, bridging the gap between her going from a young, innocent scholar to bad-ass, dual-wielding tomb raider. If you’ve followed this game at all over the past two years you will know the premise. Lara and her crew have been shipwrecked on an island, in search of the tomb of a long-last queen from an ancient dynasty. Of course, getting shipwrecked wasn’t exactly part of the plan, and neither was encountering some truly creepy locals who are trying just as hard as Lara to get off the island, albeit in a different manner. The narrative is dark and gritty for the most part, with a little bit of fantasy worming its way in to seal the cracks and restore a little bit of logic, but it’s easy to overlook once you realize that this game is not actually about all of that. You could almost say that the main narrative is somewhat of a sub-plot compared to the really interesting part of Tomb Raider; the development of Lara Croft as a character.
The first hour or so sets the tone for the rest of Tomb Raider. Lara is isolated from the rest of the survivors who made it onto the island, finding herself dangling in a cavern with seemingly no escape. At this point Lara is no fighter, however she is smart. Quickly finding an escape comes hand in hand with a severe stab to the side, an injury that Lara deals with throughout the game’s narrative. This in itself is rather significant, because it’s physical and emotional wounds like this that drive Lara’s transformation from innocent scholar to hardened survivor. Lara is broken down time and time again, with severe injuries and the loss of friends forcing her to deal with the realization that she needs to change if she ever hopes to leave the island. One particular encounter (which caused quite an uproar without context, if you remember) is one of the greatest moments in her gaming history, even if it forces you to watch a helpless Lara deal with a life-changing action. The emotion personified in this scene is somewhat diminished when you start mowing down hordes of enemies, but hearing Lara turn her fear into rage as she taunts enemies who become increasingly afraid of her is a wondrous event to behold, and something that is sure to bring a smile to your face. It’s easy to say that this character progression carries the entire narrative, and it’s clear Crystal Dynamics focused on this aspect when writing Lara’s origin tale, purely because everything around it is rather lacklustre.
While Lara is beautifully realized and portrayed, with her journey being a gritty and dark adventure, the rest of the cast featured are woefully one-dimensional and somewhat boring to interact with. Bar one or two characters, most notably Lara’s mentor, the rest of the characters Lara encounters, friend or foe, are terribly written and a chore to listen to. It almost seems as of their only real and meaningful purpose is to die and let Lara continue to grow a thick skin to all the death around her. That’s not to say everybody dies, but you’ll certainly feel as though you want them to at one point or another. Additionally, the narrative lacks a strong and compelling antagonist, with the leader of the murderous cult hardly featuring and lifting up to the heights of a real rival to Lara’s determination. The story itself falls prey to a supernatural styled conclusion, much like the narratives in the Uncharted franchise, and while it works with Nathan Drake and previous Tomb Raider titles, it feels somewhat out of place here. Most of the time you’re guiding Lara through a very physically taxing transformation which feels completely believable and realistic, and the next thing you know you’re watching the weather shoot down planes and shipwreck vessels after being manipulated by an angry god. Tomb Raider has always delved into these supernatural themes, but it just feels out of place here and doesn’t really lend itself towards Lara’s progression as a character.
Thankfully though, that is the only real problem with the entire Tomb Raider campaign. The island Lara finds herself trapped on is dripping with ancient history, serving as the home to a kingdom known as Yamatai centuries ago. This means you can expect to find remains of an ancient Asian dynasty around the island, with steep and gorgeous temples littering the landscape and begging you to run up and scale them. The attention to detail here is astounding and you feel as though these buildings were once inhabited by the royal families of the long lost dynasty. You’ll probably find yourself slowing down a bit and just taking it all in, letting the soft flame from your torch illuminate the splendour around you. Once you get past all the golden chests and three story high tapestries though, you’ll find yourself exploring the darker side of the Yamatai era, with large torture chambers still littered with the bodies of prisoners, and some still suspended from the ceiling giving the whole island a whole new sinister side. Tomb Raider is not afraid to be graphic, and the gruesome scenes around the island are only the tip of the iceberg.
Before telling you how Lara learns to kill nearly everything in sight, let’s look at the many ways you can die in Tomb Raider, because it’s something that is sure to shock you. Impalement by branches is a common affair when sliding perilously down ravines or even parachuting to safely. Enemies will mercilessly grab you by the neck and stab you through the throat. Violent waves on the oceans shores will bash you against nearby rocks, forcing you to watch Lara’s skull pop open like a piñata. Death scenes are gruesome and violent, but also extremely effective. In a way, you almost don’t want to die. The fear of seeing Lara mangled in all sorts of brutal and inventive ways is disturbing to say the least, but it fits in with the harsh nature of her surroundings. I mean, she’s on an island with crazy cultists, starving wildlife and erratic weather patterns. This isn’t exactly the ideal place for a relaxing getaway.
It’s a good thing then that Lara has quite a few weapons at her disposal to help deal with all these threats she is forced to face. Early one in the game Lara stumbles upon a makeshift bow, which serves as probably your go-to weapon the entire game. Besides being completely silent, the bow is extremely powerful during the early combat sections, killing nearly anything with one arrow. Eventually you’ll find yourself needing to use more modern weapons such as handguns and assault rifles to deal with some heavily armoured foes, but even wielding these familiar weapons is a treat thanks to the smooth and responsive controls. Walking near cover immediately allows Lara to crouch down and peer over when aiming, making moving around a fire fight a breeze in most circumstances. And thank goodness for that, because enemies will do everything they can to try and get you to move. While some will straight up charge at you wielding massive swords, other will hang a safe distance back, lobbying dynamite and shooting napalm arrows to flush you from cover. Lara is no soldier and despite having regenerating health, you’ll have to be very careful during combat. Stealth is almost always an option, and a good one at that in most circumstances. Death is just one or two bad decisions away, and even moving into the open with two enemies firing at you can prove fatal.
But like any other person would have to do, Lara learns to adapt to her surrounding and the events taking place around her. As you progress through the game you’ll earn experience for taking down foes, hunting wildlife and stumbling upon treasures. Camp fires serve as a safe haven, allowing you to use experience earned on new skills, allowing Lara to engaging in melee combat, become more proficient with the various weapons and even increase her chances of finding more salvage. Flammable crates and containers usually hold salvage within them, which acts as a precious resource that is used to upgrade weapons specifically. It’s actually rather clever how this is implemented, as some leather straps to the handle of Lara’s shotgun not only helps improve stability but also stays in context with the idea that Lara doesn’t exactly know how to craft perfect weapon modifications from scratch. Search a little more off the beaten path and you’ll find specific parts for your various weapons, allowing Lara to completely transform them once enough have been found. This also unlocks more modification options for the particular weapon, so it is wise to always keep a look out for them.
However it’s often outside of combat that Tomb Raider is at its best. Exploring the island around you is an absolute joy thanks to the various different ways you can get around. You’re not only climbing up building, but building rope bridges, scaling rock faces with a pick-axe and squeezing your way through tight caverns when the gunfire finally dies down. These slower and more breath-taking moments are exhilarating, most due to the fantastic camera work that takes place. The camera shifts and moves constantly, creating some rather dramatic angles that just add to the sense of peril while Lara is scaling enormous and fragile structures. What makes exploration even more enthralling is just how easy it is to move around, thanks again to some simple yet efficient controls. Getting around almost has a rhythmic feel to it, and you’re constantly kept on your toes looking out for prompts when Lara’s grip gives way or when rocks suddenly start falling above her. These moments may be scripted, but they usually come out of nowhere, so don’t expect platforming to be a simple and drool inducing affair. After acquiring a few different pieces of equipment, platforming becomes even more of a joy as various different hazards requiring different items are seamlessly blended together, not only providing a decent challenge but an equally rewarding feeling when you best them.
It’s also common that most of Tomb Raider’s finest moments are found off the beaten path. It may come as a surprise to learn that Tomb Raider isn’t as linear as you’d expect. While camp fires serve as a hub to upgrade your abilities and weapons, they also act as fast travel points, allowing you to quickly travel from one end of the island to another if already discovered. This comes in handy when you choose to backtrack for a few hours, looking few interesting collectibles that add to the game’s overall narrative. In fact, some of these treasures actually flesh out the rather dull cast around you, giving you some context as to their actions as well as providing an interesting history of the island. Additionally there are some small challenges hidden everywhere that reward you with much needed experience, but the star of the show is definitely the various tombs Lara can explore. Yes tombs, who would’ve guessed. These open concealed paths serves as excellent distractions from the main storyline, condensing some interesting platforming and challenging puzzles into small areas, creating effective yet short reasons to deviate from the main path. The puzzles get more challenging as you go along but never fall into frustration, and most of the time the simple answer is usually the right one. Raiding these tombs more often than not rewards you with precious weapon parts, as well as a healthy dose of experience, making the decision to take a break from the story even easier. You’ll actually find it hard not to back track once you’ve acquired equipment needed to open earlier tombs, as the challenges within are just too darn fun to ignore.
Graphically Tomb Raider is a marvel to behold. Coupled with the fantastic art direction that brings the deadly island to life, there’s an immaculate attention to detail when it comes to the finer things in Tomb Raider. Getting trapped in caverns or exploring the wilderness at night is a treat thanks to some fantastic lighting, with a flaming torch able to give you a sense of relief and warmth even in the most dangerous situations. When the action really heats up, the game does a good job of keeping up, with only a handful of dips in the framerate cropping up here and there. For the most part, it’s a silky smooth ride, even with whole buildings crumbling and exploding beneath you. Sound design is also at its best here, with weapons sounding truly formidable and the many, many explosions becoming almost deafening at a point. The voice-acting for Lara Croft should also be commended, even if the rest of the cast struggles to reach the bar set, although this is partly due to the poor writing of the characters themselves. All in all though, Tomb raider is an audio and visual treat, assuring you that those extra months spent on polish did not go to waste.
Sadly though, not everything about Tomb Raiders is worth such praise. Specifically, the online multiplayer component that was surprisingly to the title. It’s not that the gameplay is bad or fundamentally broken, it’s just nothing noteworthy. Matches play out similar to the Uncharted series’ multiplayer, except without the same level of polish or addictive nature. Maps are well crafted, with a nice mix of vertical structures and open areas for large fire fights, it’s just that the action feels bland compared to other multiplayer offerings you could be sinking time to instead. While it is worth giving it a shot, if only to land a satisfying headshot with the bow, but you’ll find it hard to stick around after an hour or two, even with a persistent levelling up system that is par for the course in most online titles today.
However it’s easy to overlook this component when you have such a strong single-player experience starring you right in the face. Your first playthrough of Tomb Raider could last anywhere between 12 and 15 hours, but you’ll do the title a sore dis-justice if you don’t revisit and explore the island more to unlock all of the secrets it holds. It’s rather odd for a genre such as this to have such replayability, but for the most part it doesn’t feel like you’re heading back just to snag some trophies or achievements from collectibles. It’s just one part of an overall excellent package that has certainly been worth the wait, with Crystal Dynamics providing us with a compelling take on the origins of Lara Croft and her Tomb Raiding career. It sets up a potentially stellar series in the future that can build on its small issues and add even more to the formula, making Lara one of gaming’s heavyweights once again. There’s a point where Lara gets the chance to look at herself in the mirror, a striking contrast to her portrait at the beginning of her adventure flashing momentarily. “So much has changed.” she says, and that really personifies what Tomb Raider is all about. Its change, but it’s the best change you could have possibly hoped for.