I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I have something of a soft spot for the Tomb Raider series. It was all the way back in 1996 when I first encountered it, my hand-me-down computer barely able to run it due to the intense 3D graphics that weren’t exactly common at the time. Combine that with the platforming and lets be honest here, even though Lara was low poly she was in fact female, you had a game that served to capture my attention for far longer than any other game managed to do. However after the next couple iterations in the series I found myself attracted to other interests, and the rest of the Tomb Raider series was left unplayed. The reboot piqued my interest however as whilst Lara was an interesting character in her own right her origin story was never quite fleshed out, at least not my satisfaction.
Tomb Raider begins dramatically with you aboard the ship Endurance which is headed towards a small island off the coast of Japan in search of the old Japanese kingdom Yamatai. Before long though your ship is ravaged by a severe storm, cutting the ship in half and stranding everyone on the nearby island. This would be bad enough but the island is inhabited by a group of mercenary/cultists who capture you and your friend. Thus your transformational journey begins and it’s not long before the naive archaeology graduate turns into the Lara Croft we’re all so familiar with.
Coming off the graphics high that is Crysis 3 had me a little disappointed with the graphics in Tomb Raider, at least initially. I had turned everything up to its maximum which made it look pretty decent by comparison although it seems my graphics card is starting to show its age as it struggled to render most scenes, especially the more open world ones. However comparing it directly to Crysis 3 isn’t exactly fair as Tomb Raider isn’t designed to be a graphical marvel and in its own right it’s actually quite spectacular. Judging by the number of screenshots I snapped during my initial play through I’d have to rate it above most games that have come out recently and put down the initial disappointment to my disproportionate expectations.
Compared to the Tomb Raiders of yore the modern day reboot is a cornucopia of different game mechanics. The core is still your bog standard 3D platformer with many sections involving you running, jumping and climbing over everything to get to the next objective. Combined with that however is your Gears of War style cover based 3rd person shooter as well as a crafting system and large environments that hide all sorts of treasure should you be willing to look for it. For those of you who’ve played any of the Uncharted series you’ll be familiar with the majority of the game play right off the bat as they both play similarly, albeit with their own twists on certain ideas.
Whilst there’s a certain level of satisfaction to be had when you get a platforming section just right the first time around I have to say that it usually isn’t my favourite part of games like this. This probably comes from the early days of 3D platforming where you needed razor-like precision in order to make most jumps which was arguably where the challenge came from in most of those early games. Thankfully however Tomb Raider is a little more forgiving in that department as whilst none of the jumps are particularly hard should they be at some weird angle that’d only be achievable after 20 attempts your leaps of faith will actually be corrected ever so slightly should you make it in the correct direction. If you bollocks it up completely there will be no saving you but this little feature certainly made my platforming experience a lot better than it has been in the past.
The cover based shooting is also, for the most part, fluid and satisfying, providing you with ample challenge no matter what your weapon of choice might be. Like most shooter based games I tend to prefer one shot kill weapons (as I tend to panic when in spray and pray mode) and thus favoured the bow for the majority of the game. This was a viable strategy for about 60% of the game until they started wearing face masks which meant one shot kills were no longer possible, even with a fully upgraded bow. If I’m honest that kind of pissed me off as I took pride in being able to hit headshots while under heavy fire and the removal of that mechanic seemed like a really cheap way to ratchet up the difficulty. Of course it didn’t really do that since I just switched to the rifle, but it did make me wonder why I’d bothered upgrading the bow all the way when its intended purpose no longer existed.
Crafting works by gathering salvage from crates and enemies which you can then use at camp to upgrade your weapons. Not all of the upgrades are available to you instantly however and in order to unlock them you have to find additional weapon pieces that are scattered randomly throughout the environment. If you’re a min-maxer like me you’ll often find yourself with a huge excess of salvage as there’s no real point to upgrading every weapon but you’ll still have enough to keep all bar 1 of them at maximum without too much trouble. The same can be said for the skill point upgrades as past a certain point the additional skills will likely not fit into your style of play but you’ll be force to spend them in order to unlock the next tier of skills.
The experience/level system is a mixed bag where some upgrades are almost essential, others improve parts of the game that were tedious and the rest are simply not useful in the slightest. The cartography upgrade for instance, which identifies relics, books and caches through walls, takes out a lot of the pain of finding things which are almost not worth seeking out otherwise. The animal tracking upgrade however is rather pointless as you spend a fair chunk of the game no where near any animals. Indeed it seems that whilst you can sort of play the game in your own way your talent selection won’t be significantly different from anyone else’s, due to the next tier being locked until you spend the required number of skill points. It’s not exactly a terrible thing but it does make me feel like I’m wasting points on things I’ll never really use which just doesn’t sit well with the min-maxer in me.
I’m not one for exploration in most games, it feels like a cheap way to make the game go for longer, however Tomb Raider made it a lot easier with use of the survival instincts mechanic which highlighted areas of interest. They also made the optional tombs short and succinct, with the rewards for doing them being well worth your time. It was a really refreshing experience and unlike many other exploration type games I didn’t finish this one feeling like I had ignored the vast majority of the game because I didn’t want to play the cat and mouse game with the designers. I hope other games take note of this as it really was one of the stand out features of Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider is not without its bugs and glitches, one of which is demonstrated above. As you can see on the left hand side there are walls there preventing you from getting in, however turning slightly makes them disappear, along with several other items in the room. This is in addition to other bugs like events not triggering which then leaves you stranded or results in you dying, ledges that look climbable but aren’t and the targeting reticle lying about having an enemy in your sights. These are all things that can be worked around and none of them stopped me from finishing the game but they did mar an otherwise highly polished experience.
Of course this whole reboot was done to tell Lara’s origin story of how she transformed herself into the grizzled Tomb Raider we know and love. In some respects Tomb Raider showcases this brilliantly with Lara struggling to come to terms with a brutal world that she survives in. At other times however it devolves into a PG rated torture porn where Lara is beaten, injured and brutalized in every conceivable way. It starts off being shocking but quickly wears thin as the writers attempt to hammer home the idea that she’s a naive girl that’s being rapidly transformed. It’s a passable story overall, even if the mysticism was a little overwrought, but hopefully future instalments will forgo the torture in favour of something a little more meaty.
Reboots are always a tricky thing to get right as you’re taking a well established universe and essentially redefining it in an attempt to reinvigorate (and hopefully extend) the fan base. For something as long running as Tomb Raider this is no small risk but thankfully I feel that Crystal Dynamics has done a great job, producing a game that wouldn’t be out of place even if the franchise didn’t have such a long history. It’s by no means a perfect game, plagued with a so-so story and bugs by the handful, but it certainly does the IP justice whilst giving them a firm platform from which they can build on.
Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $69.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 9.6 hours played, 74% completion and 32% of the achievements unlocked.