Tomb Raider Review
It’s funny how things come full circle. When Uncharted released back in 2007, it carved itself a new fanbase thanks to the fact it took parts of the Tomb Raider formula and did it better.
Now, Tomb Raider has been rebooted, cribbing its platforming and gunplay straight from Naughty Dog’s action-adventure series – and adding its own depth and individuality on top. From a gameplay perspective, it’s better than the series which stole its thunder thanks to stealing back its innovations and putting its own spin on them. Uncharted out-tombed Tomb, now Tomb is (in some ways) out-Uncharting Uncharted. Circle of life.
From the moment Lara finds herself on a dark, foreboding island in the middle of the sea, the game blends set-pieces, shoot-outs, exploration and puzzling with near-perfect pacing and variety.
One moment, you’re clearing a room full of goons using the bow and arrow for headshots, the next you’re scaling a cliff-face with a pick-axe, zip-lining across yawning chasms and piecing together puzzles, all while searching for treasures, relics and other XP-boosting collectibles.
She’s A QTE
One early sequence sees Lara stealthing up a mountain path, grabbing enemies from behind and slipping arrows into their skulls without being seen.
Then the action leads straight into a QTE-driven wrestle with a knife-wielding killer.
Whether steering Lara through a raging river or swerving debris along a manic cliff-face slide, or even paragliding through a jungle of evergreens, Lara certainly gets into a few scrapes.
In fact, it always feels like the game has another surprise around the corner. For every few moments you spend shooting or puzzling, you’re treated to several adrenaline-pumping segues which push Lara from one area to the next.
These set-pieces make the game feel more dynamic, lending proceedings a relentless pacing, delightful in the variety they inject.
Game progression feels linear, with Lara being funneled through fairly set paths, especially during set-pieces or shoot-outs.
But then, every so often the game lets go of your hand and leaves you free to roam the area.
Here, though progression is linear (there’s always a ‘way to go’ to find the next clipscene), several of the environments are built to be fairly open, packed with multiple platforms, hidden paths, optional tombs, collectible relics, treasures and GPS caches to find.
Platforming is a joy, with jumps, ledges, bits of plane and cliff-faces all explorable. But it doesn’t just retread what we’ve seen before; Lara’s pick-axe allows her to scale sheer cliffs, while balance is important – mis-time a jump and you’ll have to hit X to regain grip. It’s a little change, but it feels slightly more nuanced as a result.
Each area has at least one ‘base camp’, allowing Lara to fast-travel back to previously-explored parts of the map, Red Dead Redemption style.
Base camps are also where Lara upgrades her weapons and skills. These hidden collectibles (as well as kills) give Lara XP to spend on new abilities.
These can be anything from new ways to use weapons, to hunting talents and such.
Similarly, collectible ‘salvage’ can be found on enemies and scattered in boxes across environments, which can also be spent on weapon upgrades.
The system lends the game an extra level of depth, a slightly RPG-esque feel which gives Tomb Raider a depth beyond other action-adventure titles.
This nuance extends to Lara’s survival ability.
With a press of the left bumper, the picture darkens and swooshes a radius of discovery around our heroine, revealing which ledges can be climbed, highlighting enemies and creating a beacon in the distance to mark the next objective. The ability is a boon both to environment traversal and puzzle-solving.
The island setting itself is gorgeous; a dark, dangerous world filled with menace; sheer cliffs, enemy bases and shanty-town settlements.
From the vast mountain peaks covered with snow to the lush jungles teeming with live deer Lara can hunt for XP, the world is varied and interesting.
Quality Over Quantity
It’s also fairly small, with few ways to move between each area.
This is not an open sandbox, but a collection of linear levels laid end to end, often (but not always) linked up. This is a game Crystal Dynamics want to you wring every drop from; find every last collectible in every level, learn the placement of each ledge, platform and puzzle and comb all the environments for unlocks and achievements.
It’s a different approach to many games, but one which works well here, highlighting the strengths of the quality over quantity argument and creating a freedom not seen in other linear action-adventurers like Uncharted or Enslaved.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the title, though, is its gunplay.
Lara’s arsenal is simple: stock pistol, rifle, shotgun, arrows.
But complexity comes in the secondary abilities of each weapon, and the upgrades which can be added to them.
The shotgun can be used to blast away debris which blocks some paths, the rifle can fire grenades with the right bumper and the bow can be upgraded to shoot flaming arrows (perfect for firey headshots, or for certain puzzles) as well as rope.
Upgrades come in the form of quicker reloading, better damage, bigger clips and gun-related ‘finishers’ (e.g. hit Y to finish a hurt enemy with a close-range pistol to the temple).
This is a weapon set which has clearly been carefully chosen, each one adding something different to shoot-outs as well as contributing to the puzzle and exploration side of things.
Roping You In
The rope-firing ability of the bow is the most versatile.
Many environments are peppered with bits of rope tied to or hanging from ledges, posts and cliff-faces.
Firing rope arrows into these, Lara can create zip-lines, climbable rope-wires and pull objects towards her.
This is mixed right into puzzles: often you’ll need to shoot a rope arrow into something to change its position or location and set a chain reaction in motion.
It lends a physics-based element to puzzling, allowing Crystal to do something different with a lot of the solutions, forcing you to think about how to use fire, rope and good ol’-fashioned shotgun blasts in equal measure to progress
These puzzles also use the island’s weather. Often, you’ll be forced to contend with howling gusts of wind ripping through an environment.
This wind interacts with objects, adding another twist to what might be otherwise simple head-scratchers.
While no puzzles are particularly taxing, the environments’ traits, combined with the various tools at Lara’s disposal, keep things fairly varied throughout the game.
Naturally, as one of the most iconic characters in gaming, there’s just one thing some fans will want to know: how Crystal Dynamics has reworked Lara Croft.
Angel Of Indecision
The answer is: with mixed results.
Lara 2013 is probably the most believable interpretation of the character yet, but Crystal has still got a few things to learn about creating compelling people.
At least to begin with, Lara is more grounded, more real. She feels a bit like Bond did in Casino Royale; human, fallible, forced into situations which test her to her limits – not just a killer for the sake of it.
Lara has just the right blend of fortitude and femininity, mixed with a vulnerability that makes her feel like she’s living on the edge, making kills because she has to, not that she necessarily wants to.
About halfway through the game, Lara finds herself crashing into another deep dungeon, before dusting herself off and exclaiming ‘I hate Tombs’.
Much like Bond’s ‘Do I look like I give a damn’? shaken/stirred moment, it’s clearly an attempt to distance the character from her past, marking her out as different.
But because the game is fairly poor at portraying character development, it just comes off as painfully transparent, with all the subtlety of a flaming arrow to the face.
In fact, the one real let-down of the title is in its cutscenes and character building.
You simply don’t care about Lara and her crew that much, even though the underlying story is pretty decent (though it does end up veering off in a direction at odds with its gritty opening).
The voice acting here is also so-so, the script uninspiring and the character animation nowhere near Naughty Dog standards.
Though the groundwork has been laid for a better script next time out –and we definitely do want to see this Lara again – it all lacks a little dynamism.
When fellow crew member Sam is kidnapped, we found it hard to muster any motivation to save her. Of course, we had to, but we didn’t feel the thrill of suspense pushing us on.
Her character is bland and under-developed, as is much of the rest of the supporting cast: middle-aged scientist, token beefy dude, nerdy guy with ‘Esc’ Key t-shirt… stop us if you’ve heard it before.
Lara’s believability as a character also wanes the more abilities you unlock.
By the game’s end, Lara’s hot-swapping rifle and shotty, putting the gun barrel to an enemy’s face and blasting his brains out for an ‘expert rifle kill!’.
Of course, those gameplay elements, mostly through upgrades, are brilliant fun, but they do somewhat take away from the picture the game paints of Lara as vulnerable, making her seem more and more like a ruthless, cold-hearted killer the more upgrades you can unlock.
Uncharted knows this and never hands Drake so much power that he enjoys his kills, but Tomb Raider gets the balance slightly wrong, even if it helps make the game more complex than that other series.
But despite these story gripes, this new Tomb Raider is still a leap in the right direction from a gameplay perspective.
Each gameplay mechanic is simply top-notch and easily the rival of any other action adventure title, taking well-worn ideas and adding a layer of depth and individuality which makes them feel like a step forward, cribbing from current genre kings, baking in more complexity and wrapping it all up in a presentation which still feels like classic Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider 2013 gives the series a fantastic new start, which is exactly what the reboot should feel like for this all-new Lara Croft – just the beginning.
Version Tested: Xbox 360