Article

Tomb Raider Review

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Genre: Action Adventure
Release Date: March 5th 2013
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Rating: M for Mature
Retail: 49.99$
Platform Reviewed On: PC

While I was hoping to spend a bit more time playing through the original series and working on my retrospectives, the early spring release window has dumped this and several other AAA(A) titles in my lap and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t take the time to review at least one of them.

Welcome to every puzzle.

Welcome to every puzzle.

It’s a strange time when you can reboot a series and not change the title at all. I’m thankful they didn’t follow the path of so many other reboots and call it The Tomb Raider, but something still bothers me about having to call one of my favorite games Tomb Raider ’96. As the second reboot in Tomb Raider history, Tomb Raider (2013) carries a big legacy with it. The Tomb Raider franchise has been a bumpy ride to say the least. Since this is an origin story though, they can safely throw that completely out the window. It’s safe to say that Tomb Raider (2013)  attempts to distance itself from its legacy in several regards. Unfortunately it’s to the detriment of the entire experience.

Lara’s transformation from a young student of archaeology to the female bad ass of legend is at the heart of the story (or so you would think). The story also features an ensemble cast that frequently distracts from Lara’s personal journey. The game is stuck in an awkward middle area between these two poles. From the very opening of the game (which is essentially the trailer that was shown at E3) the story shifts back and forth between Lara’s struggle to survive after being shipwrecked and her reminiscing about the rest of the ship’s crew. While the opening is terribly paced, the game starts to hit a nice balance when in between solo adventuring sections, Lara watches short videos of the crew on a handheld camera. It’s some very natural characterization and the game would’ve been better had it been present through out the story. What we get instead of a strong set of supporting characters are a set of faces that are forgettable at best and utterly cliched at worst. There’s the nervous and egocentric TV star professor who practically has “I will betray you” written on his shirt, Lara’s best friend Sam who’s supposed blood relation to the legendary empress of the island is some of the worst foreshadowing I’ve seen in years, a forgettable nerd, a big Samoan who’s moniker for Lara (“Little Bird”) comes off as actually endearing, a sassy black woman, and Roth. As the middle-aged rock in Lara’s life, Roth fills the only other stereotype for an older man in a video game: dying heroically. So the cast fills the action adventure quota pretty well and it would be fine if this game kept the same over-the-top tone as its predecessors, but the game hammers its dark themes over and over again. If you’re going to try to do something dark and gritty (in a non-buzzword sense) you can’t just throw every cliche in the book at the audience.

I'm normally a huge fan of violence in gaming but Jesus Crystal Dynamics, tone it down.

I’m normally a huge fan of violence in gaming but Jesus Crystal Dynamics, tone it down.

The theme of survival and growth doesn’t come through very well either. We get a taste of it when Lara has to scavenge for food and deal with the shock of such a grim situation, but there’s no context for this so the entire sequence falls flat. Yes we have some sense that Lara is from a world of privilege and is very distressed at seeing her first dead body but none of this is ever really conveyed to the player properly. This is one of those rare cases where a game could actually use more direct exposition. Had the game started with some sort of tutorial on board the ship, we could have had a chance to see Lara in a safer space before being plunged into such a harrowing experience. What we are treated to instead is a briefly distraught girl who quickly transforms into a psychotic killer. Tomb Raider (2013) features a higher human body-count than any of the previous Tomb Raider games. Lara kills scores of the islands deranged inhabitants and in startlingly gruesome ways (I was particularly satisfied by enemies grabbing their eyes after being shot in the head). While this level of violence is rather commonplace in modern gaming, when your protagonist starts off as a vulnerable young woman and ends up as someone who can stab a person through the neck with an arrow after throwing sand in his eyes, you’ve skipped a few steps. Sure you can justify this by saying she’s fighting for her life against a psychotic cult, but this level of transformation in under 24 hours doesn’t fit the more realistic narrative that Crystal Dynamics tried to convey.

The island itself ends up being the most interesting character in the game in many respects. Aside from being excellently modeled and detailed, the ambient story of Yamatai is delivered excellently. Through the various artifacts and personal logs you get a strong sense of the island’s layered history and the mythology that surrounds it. This exploration is aided by the semi-sandbox nature of the game and the platforming mechanics that have been carried over from the previous reboot trilogy. The animations from Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld have been smoothed out and have a much more natural feel to them though the cinematics still have a quite a bit of plastic awkwardness. One thing I certainly miss is the ability to speed up climbing and shimmying by rhythmically tapping E. It was necessarily the most realistic approach to platforming but it gave a great sense of speed and agility. Quite often in Tomb Raider (2013) you’ll find yourself slowly making your way up ladders and ledges and it really feels like a hands-off experience at times. This is compounded further by the lack of inspired or challenging puzzles (most of which are solved by burning and attaching ropes to the environment .  The platforming is quite varied though and as your inventory expands the game starts to become quite similar to Arkham Asylum. While not nearly as open, dynamic, or varied, you’re free to explore the world and find secrets at your leisure while enjoying some great scenery.

Even at its murkiest, Tomb Raider's scenery is hard not to enjoy.

Even at its murkiest, Tomb Raider’s scenery is hard not to enjoy.

Sadly, exploration doesn’t seem to be the focus Lara’s most recent outing. Combat serves as the bulk of the gameplay and had it been handled better, it could have been a truly memorable game. While the stealth sections of the early game fit with the recurring hunting/survival theme, they are quickly replaced with long cover-shooting sections. As hard as the developers have been trying to make Tomb Raider into an action franchise over the years, it’s simply never been the game’s strength. While iron sights and popping from chest-high wall to chest-high wall may be the modern action formula, it doesn’t work in a game that focuses on exploration. The game’s action sequences do have some bright spots though. Melee combat is surprisingly fluid and satisfying. If you simply choose not to use the assault rifle, you can have a lot of fun brawling with a handful of heavily armed enemies while jumping in and out of stealth. Had the game placed more of a focus on melee and stealth, it would have been a true landmark in a series that has yet to properly integrate combat.

Tomb Raider (2013) is ultimately one of the better games of 2013 so far. Though it suffers from a lack of focus, there’s plenty worth playing here. After dealing with the inconsistent tone and the odd emphasis on heavy action, most players will find something enjoyable in this game. Like Dishonored, there’s a great foundation in this game but poor execution taints the experience. The game’s issues can be summed up fairly well in its final moments. After defeating a supernatural antagonist worthy of previous Tomb Raider lore, we are treated to a white screen where “A Survivor Is Born” appears in the game’s signature font.

 22 thoughts on “Tomb Raider Review
  1. The Nihilistic Idealist on said:

    So I take it that it’s a good rental?

  2. I will be the one to be the obligatory grumpy “series fan” here.

    You might want to add to the reveiw that the game’s interactions (including parts of the platforming) mostly run on quick time events and the first hour is almost entirely comprised of QTEs (including a bow turret-section).

    I’ve heard that the game opens up later, but never actually seen gameplay that lets you do things truly on your own without cutscenes or cinematic QTE interludes to usher you along. Freedom and your agency exists in this respect only in the sense that you can quicktravel to other parts of the island and pick up collectibles you might have missed or that were previously inaccessible.

    This is another element I felt was truly against the whole “survival” aspect the game desperately tries to cram down your throat. You aren’t fighting for survival if you have time to pick up every shiny (including rare bird eggs) and light every fireplace or beacon that the game throws at you as a “challenge” (the challenge being you having the patience to do them).

    I also would like to add that the raiding of tombs (the core ingredient of a TOMB RAIDER game) is hardly worthy of the name. They entirely consist of -one- (small) room with a “puzzle” that can be quickly solved by using your “detective vision” (survivor vision) that highlights interactive objects.

    Raiding tombs is also entirely optional, which shows just how much of a departure this game is from its original core concept (solving a three-dimensional puzzle box by platforming and combat) where the main draw of the series was relegated to optional side-quests that give you an achievement.

    It’s not a bad review by any means but there’s a few too many important points left out that should have been looked at closer by the reviewer.

    For me, Tomb Raider 2013 is unrecognizable as a Tomb Raider game.

  3. Martius on said:

    Reboot and prequel at the same time or whatever.

  4. What I really want to know is why these ancient tombs have treasure chests filled with gun parts.

  5. Martius on said:

    Magic!

  6. From what I’ve seen and heard it’s basically Uncharted with the illusion of a semi-open metroidvania-ish world. And very nice hair effects. I will gladly check it out once the price has dropped about 50%. I have no interest in the multiplayer so I’d rather only pay for half the game.

    • This game is nowhere near Uncharted. The Uncharted games are much more beautiful to look at, they have more exciting shootouts, and they have actual tomb raiding, along with the campy sense of adventure. This game has none of that. It is another gray/brown game with boring platforming, quick time events, and boring cover-based shooting. They throw in a retarded bow for good measure. So you exchange fire in cover with guys who have assault rifles and you are using your bow. If the name “Lara Croft” were not on the game, nobody would be giving it the time of day.

    • bebopmiller on said:

      Heard pirate bay is having a 100% off sale.

  7. In a more serious comment, I do think Tomb Raider desperately needed some AAA treatment and the idea of taking the series in a new direction wasn’t bad considering the decline in interest with the last few games.

    But how they handled it isn’t all that great. Gameplay contradicts story context many times, survival doesn’t play a key role despite emphasizing it everywhere, the gore feels way too excessive for its own good, we already have many games on the market where you shoot and kill men with firearms, and there’s lots of QTEs and cutscenes that disrupt player control. Normally I would be fine with QTEs if they compliment the rest of the game, but killing a wolf through 4+ of them is overdoing it.

    Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I expected more from a reboot of a franchise revolving around exploration. I only hope this is a stepping stone to greater future installments that involves more adventure.

    And a less sobby Lara.

    • It’s so irritating when Lara keeps saying how to solve “puzzles”. Isn’t the detective mode (it’s a cheat basically) enough? I had almost no problems with puzzles in the old games. Yes it was harder to figure out, but that’s the part of the fun! The funny part is that almost every level is pretty much a corridor, and yet the developers still thought it’s a good idea to make Lara keep telling the player what to do.

      • The irony of that is in one of the developer diaries for the game, where they said they didn’t want to make the in-game dialogue sound “gamey”, as in Lara talking to herself about the objective at hand like many modern games have the protagonist do time and time again.

        I guess sometime during development they realized doing that would take the player hand-holding out of the game so they had Lara talk to herself like she’s a slow thinker. Either they lied to players who wanted a real challenge to rake in more sales or they purposely put in the dialogue when they rechecked their goals for the casual player experience.

  8. Am I the only person who thinks this game’s visuals look like shit? It’s high fidelity, gray and brown, boring-ass shit. Same old, same old. Seen it a billion times. It’s also got regenerating health, cover-based shooting, and lots of shitty quick time events that absolutely nobody likes. Yes this game is getting good review scores everywhere.

    And people wonder why gaming is at an all time low.

    • Michael Talley on said:

      There’s actually quite a bit of color in the outdoor sections. Everything else you said is completely true.

    • The Nihilistic Idealist on said:

      I don’t understand what’s so inherently bad about cover-based shooting mechanics. Disliking regenerating health is understandable, I’m not a big fan of it either. It’s not always a negative trait, it can work depending on the intelligence of the enemy A.I. It proven to work in Halo, and even to an extent the Gears of War franchise; where the enemies occasionally attempts to flank the player.

      • Nothing is inherently bad about coverbased shooting, there is something inherently bad with TR’s “auto-cover”. The mechanic in TR isn’t the usual “press button, stick to wall” its all automated, you get close to something considered as cover and Lara automatically crouches down behind it. Sometimes it works sometimes you see something that should be cover (a rock) and she doesn’t

        Convenience feature? Maybe.

        I see it as another way to take away agency from me and automating the most basic things for no reason. Same with running, walking and crouching, holstering my weapons or using a torch.

        The game decides for me when I can or can not do those things depending on what “event” is happening. I can’t take a running jump if the game decides that “I can’t do that right now” (its what Lara says when you try) or light a torch when the game deems it improper, or pull your gun (its how you -always- know that an area is “safe” or an oncoming QTE, the game won’t let you unholster).

        TR is the most passive “game” I have ever seen.

        The Uncharted references/comparisons are completely misplaced, Uncharted is like a modern masterpiece of design in comparison.

  9. Quick Time Events should be an automatic failing grade at this point.

  10. DirigibleQuixote on said:

    I would just like to point out that QTEs have an established history in the Tomb Raider games. The devs (giving them the benefit of the doubt) kept them in there because they were a part of the series.

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