Much like the older James Bond characters, Tomb Raider’s lead protagonist Lara Croft had always had gimmicks, elegance, big boobs and short shorts (for the record, Bond never had the last two) that drowned out all seriousness. That’s not to say that the past didn’t have its fun with that type of character, but Croft’s persona of treasure hunter didn’t get too far in terms of depth. Players simply ran around shooting, hunting and puzzle solving. Again, there’s no real depth.
Fast-forward to a few E3s ago. Crystal Dynamics decides to wipe off the dust of their old character and starts to create something very 2006 James Bond. Much like MGM and Sony Pictures decision on Bond, to really connect with a character you had to bring them in raw, break them down and let that scarred butterfly emerge, so you know what makes them tick. Crystal Dynamics did just that.
In the new Tomb Raider, the story begins as Lara Croft, a young researcher, is on an expedition to find an ancient asian city on a remote island in the sea. She convinces the lead of the expedition team to take a different route than they previously charted. This change leads to their only ship crashing against rocks and stranding them on the very island they were looking for. Battered, shipwrecked and exhausted, Lara soon finds herself separated from her crew after being attacked. Once she awakens, she must find a way back to her team and, more importantly, find a way to reach down deep and survive the island and its inhabitants.
Make no mistake, readers, this isn’t your D-cup heroine from the 90s. This is the hero you have been waiting for in the series. This is reinvention and a successful reboot of a gaming series that was nearly forgotten.
I think that getting the story right for this title was the number key for its success. Crystal Dynamics hit a home run with it, as you get to witness the breakdown and build up of an innocent character. What’s remarkable is that Crystal Dynamics pulls of the perfect story arc, and it could honestly rival (if not exceed) what most movie studios could produce in a two-hour sitting. You will see and feel the slow development of Croft as she starts weak and ends up a strong, brutal, and a never-the-same-again character. It’s a methodical progression that doesn’t leave anything out, and more importantly nothing unnecessarily in. I won’t give any elements of the story away, but just prepare yourself for the ‘OH, S**T!’ moments, as you’ll have plenty.
Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the gameplay, as things have been changed from the previous titles.
In terms of how this third-person action works, it’s best compared to Resident Evil 4. The camera is locked over-the-shoulder, though you can move and adjust it with the right thumbstick as need be. The locked camera and the ‘over-the-shoulder’ view point work surprisingly well for this game, as opposed to the old school behind the back, free-floating camera from the previous TR titles. This viewpoint helps open up the large environment that Crystal Dynamics creates and really makes you feel like Croft is isolated. In technical terms, when you’re in the midst of a firefight, or trying to figure out a puzzle, you can see everything clearly without much, if any, obstruction.
As for the controls, everything is pretty intuitive. Your weapons are controlled by the directional pad, so you can switch between them quite easily. The d-pad also allows for different types of ammunition to be accessed and used with particular weapons. For example, if you want to change from regular arrowheads to fiery arrowheads, you only need to tap quickly up on the d-pad twice. Again, it’s all very intuitive and also isn’t a burden in the heat of battle. You literally don’t have to think about accessing your weapons; you just do it.
Another nice aspect of controls is accessing the Survival viewpoint, which is accessed by pressing L2. The survival view gives gamers visual hints on what comes next and provides direction to the next spot in the adventure. It helps out quite a bit, especially in such a big environment that Crystal Dynamics created. It also keeps down the frustration factor, which (if you played previous Tomb Raider games) could bring down the pacing of the gameplay. If you’re basing a game on survival then you need to keep the story and character moving forward, even if you’re going to put difficult puzzles in front of the gamers. Again, L2 helps to keep it moving and alleviate the downtime in the game. By no means is it cheating, rather its just guiding. Regardless, it’s an excellent addition to the gameplay.
Buttons and controls are nice, and you will need to know them well for quick time events that are scattered through out TR. I know that there are more than a few gamers out there that just dread the inclusion of QTE in games, but it works out well for the action in TR. There are probably areas where there are more QTE than the game needs, but they’re well placed in enough areas to make it reasonable for the overall story and gameplay. Just be very aware that you need to keep your buttons in mind when the cutscenes begin. Thumbs at the ready!
Shifting gears just a bit, let’s talk weapons and upgrades.
The weapon system that Crystal Dynamics put together is simple, but very effective. As you progress in the game, you’ll stumble upon weapons. They’re bare bone weapons that have nothing special about them. As you explore the island, Lara will stumble upon parts, pieces and additions. For example, you start off with the bow (you’ll love it) and as your game progresses, you’ll find upgrades to the bow in various areas. You’ll add a stronger string, better base and attributes and abilities to make it a powerful weapon. In addition to this, you also collect XP through parts that allow you to upgrade certain attributes for the bow, like making your shots more powerful. Various weapons have various attributes, almost none are the same. They keep the gameplay explorative, as you’ll want Croft to find parts to make the weapons even more interesting. Let me also assure you that there are plenty of weapons to be had in this game.
The weapons are good, but what about the enemies you use them on? While I can’t say Tomb Raider’s enemy AI is on the level of Crysis, I can without reservation say that the AI is above average. If enemies are alerted to your presence then they become very aggressive. So aggressive that you’ll find that hiding spots really won’t save your butt on certain occasions. The enemies, especially in large groups, will distract and keep you pinned down, while sending a wave of enemies to weed you out. While that is certainly intelligent planning on their part, there are moments where you’ll have a few pinned down and they’ll go into predictable patterns. It happens at least once or twice in firefights, where you’ll have an enemy hiding behind a wall and they’ll just pop up to say ‘hello’ to one of Lara’s arrows or bullets. Again, the AI is definitely above average, but it has some patterns to it.
Changing things up a bit, the puzzles in the game are pretty solid. They’re more than just moving blocks back and forth on a map so that Lara can jump onto a second story level. Rather, they’re well thought out puzzles that are embedded quite usefully in the story and gameplay. I wish I could give you some examples of some puzzles, but I would rather not give anything away. Just know that Crystal Dynamics isn’t wasting your time and, like I mentioned above, they want to keep things moving. That doesn’t mean that you can’t stop and smell the roses on some side puzzles once in a while (yep, there are quite a bit of extras to be found and had in this game), but the main quest won’t waste time with puzzles. If I had to compare Tomb Raider’s puzzle/action combination to another game then I would say it would be closest to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. In other words, when you’re doing a puzzle, it won’t feel like you’re doing a puzzle. When a game can accomplish that then it’s in good shape.
Gameplay aside, let’s discuss presentation.
The presentation in Tomb Raider is outrageously detailed. You get full facial expressions, cuts, nicks and plenty of blood splatters to make you feel like you’ve been through hell and back with Croft. The models and details created by Crystal Dynamics really does show that they wanted you close to Lara Croft during her survival experience on the island. They intended on visually representing a woman broken and fighting for her life and it they have achieved that level of emotion. Heck, the opening scene will find you shivering a bit in your boots, as Lara is trying to get warm in front of a fire while avoiding the first stages of shock and hypothermia. You will see the details in her eyes, skin and even clothing that reinforce how much she has had to survive. What’s even better is that as the game progresses, all of these things get worn down. You will see more tears in her clothing (nothing sexual), more scrapes on her skin and more badass building in her eyes. You will visually connect with this character.
As I touched upon earlier in the review, the environments are huge. Wait until you reach the first mountain that Lara has to climb and maneuver through, you’ll see plenty of depth in the landscape (and the rain that goes with it). On top of depth, you’ll also find some very nice shading and lighting elements that absolutely will just suck you in. Crystal Dynamics did a helluva job to make sure everything was visually correct. I would love to see this reboot make it to the PlayStatoin 4 or the next Xbox, just to see what the heck they could do with those tools. It would be scary.
Now, depth isn’t the only thing that makes the environments enjoyable. They’re also teeming with life in the form of animals running around, bugs flying in the light of a clear evening and plenty of dust/plant dander kicking up in the air. If you need elements to make reinforce where Lara Croft is stuck then Crystal Dynamics provided those things. Again, much like the depth and the details provided int he environment and the characters, you’ll find plenty to fall in love with visually.
As for the voice acting, it’s definitely above and beyond what was needed. Like I mentioned before in the review, this game could rival movies popping out of Hollywood at the moment. The acting is an element that supports that claim, as it’s solid in every way. Thanks in part to a good script/story, Camilla Luddington does a fantastic job as our protagonist. Her acting grows with the Lara’s character and truly helps the game to show how much Croft has grown by the end. Throw some muscle on her and please cast her for the next movie.
So, at the end of the day, is TR worth your money? Lord yes, but only because of the single-player side of things. Much like the Crysis series, the single-player mode is the big drive and the best part of the entire package. The multiplayer test that Crystal Dynamics went through for this reboot is forgettable at worst. They need to look at what works out there in other multiplayer games (Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 might be a good place to start — maybe even Uncharted) and then adjust as need be. As it stands, there’s just too much unbalance to the gameplay, which can make for an unfair experience for some gamers. The loadouts and leveling is fine, but if the gameplay isn’t there then the rest falls a part (see the latest Medal of Honor game for details). It’s all gotta be on even ground and, more importantly, be fun to have it work.
Regardless of MP, the single-player mode has strong replay value that has enough exploration in it to extend the game time. It’s one of those games that won’t feel like a chore when you’re playing it. Right now, I’m considering starting it over again just because the experience was damn good. Anyway, it’s a solid, fun experience that truly reboots the franchise onto another greater level of fun that it has never seen before.