Genre: Action Adventure
Release Date: March 5th 2013
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Rating: M for Mature
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.
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.
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.
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.