Tomb Raider Hands-On: RPG, Open World & Gameplay
Lara Croft’s jungle survival world is a pretty good metaphor for the gaming ecosystem as it stands in the latter half of 2012. There are animals in Lara’s forest, big animals: deer, large predators. But you won’t find much further down the food chain.
Ditto with new Tomb Raider’s unique gameplay characteristics. All those rare little critters that used to scurry about the gaming landscape doing weird and surprising things? They’ve all been eaten.
As we near the end of this console generation, only the strongest, biggest and most prevalent gameplay thrives, and we can’t help but feel that as gamers, we’re the worse for it.
Tomb Raider doesn’t do anything new…
Tomb Raider’s gameplay holds no surprises. It reads like a list of the tried and tested, the shoo-ins of the action-adventure genre, each designed to capture a specific type of audience, each to cover its own part of the gaming spectrum, the product as a whole thereby appealing to everybody.
The concept of XP, for example; check it out, RPG fans. Running, jumping, collecting; hello, platforming fans. Hiding, creeping, sneaking; yo, stealth! Covering, stopping, popping; wazzup, shooter peeps?
Other stuff, meanwhile, is ‘borrowed’ from games in which the individual mechanic is proven. Survival Instinct turns the world black and white, points out objectives to those who are, at the very least, one brain cell short of a pair.
Skill trees dole out piecemeal progress in all areas, some daft in the extreme. Nobody after all, no matter how cack-of-hand, could be bad at retrieving arrows from cadavers.
You just pull ‘em out with a noise scientists have described as ‘splooky’. Hunting is in, just as it is in Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis III and Far Cry 3.
Lara’s primary weapon is a bow. Why is it that there are no less than six major triple-A action titles headed our way which vaunt the bow as either their primary or secondary gimmick?
There’s a seedy side to this island Lara’s trapped on. It probably won’t end well for her.
…But that’s just fine
Yes, Tomb Raider’s mechanics are playing it safe, they are tried and tested, but they are also proven both to work and to appeal.
As gamers if we want to continue to play big-budget titles, for the time being we’re just going to have to take it on the chin and hope that atmospherically, graphically, and narratively, Tomb Raider is doing enough both to stand apart, and to keep us gripped.
Since we have now played it and since you have not, you can ask us that question if you like. Well, is it? Yes, it’s brilliant.
Our first few minutes with it are spent assimilating Lara’s surroundings. She’s been shipwrecked after a violent storm off the coast of Japan.
The island on which she finds herself washed up is a mysterious place that to those who have played any of the Uncharted games on PS3 will seem instantly familiar.
Tomb Raider’s island is a brutal environment
Rain and wind see Lara’s gait diminished to a wobbly, windswept trudge, and she crests the cliff to take in her first vista of this craggy, jungled rock.
We see that the sheltered natural bay is littered with the cadavers of wooden warships; galleons from times long past. It’s like Jurassic Park, only with pirates instead of dinosaurs, and no fat guy trying to make off with pirate embryos inside a parrot with a false bottom.
Lara is naturally athletic. Reports that, early on, her attempts even to eat would see her fumbling a Farley’s Rusk into her eye have been grossly exaggerated. She can run, jump, hang, vault and climb with all the athleticism of a superhuman.
It’s classic Lara right from the off. But what Crystal Dynamics has achieved here is to make each of these actions feel desperate and unpracticed, to make it feel as if Lara is, for the opening hour of the game at least, never more than a finger-slip from certain death.
As we walk her along the spine of a narrow fallen pine, death waiting far below, it rolls subtly, and though we got the impression here that might not actually be possible to fall off, such is the meticulous way that control is handled, doom felt all but certain.
The same applies to much of our playthrough. Failure – a fall, a miss, a slip – threatens always, that it does not manifest is by the bye. Tomb Raider is an outwardly hard game that’s not actually hard, at least, not during its opening section. But then, what game is? Dark Souls.
Tourism had increased by 200%.
Tomb Raider’s RPG elements drive progression
Lara becomes better through the magical means of XP, which can be traded for skill points and attributed to a wide selection of her base stats.
One of our first tasks is to use the bow we rescued from a corpse swinging from a tree, to kill a deer with it, take its meat, return to the makeshift camp we’ve made – starting a fire with our last match – then cook it and eat it.
The XP we get from killing the deer encourages us to kill other things and attain more. So much for conservation. But arrows are limited at this point and although later on there is scope to go XP-farming, right now Lara needs every one.
Tomb Raider is not an open world game
It isn’t, but it’s more a series of hubs skewered together one after the next like apples on a pointy stick. From each branches a large area to explore, within which various missions are completed.
Our route from the first hub – Lara’s makeshift camp – and the second is via a hatch, down a lengthy ladder into the unknown. The tunnel which follows is strewn with human remains and blood-written murals all the while Lara trying to keep her torch alight and her head above the chest-deep water which fills it.
We have a conversation with a guy who claims to be a potential friend, but whose comedy sinisterness clearly delineates him as a wrong’un.
Shortly afterwards, we find ourselves caught in a bear trap, and while we’re trying to figure out how to break ourselves loose, wolves appear all around us.
An amazing piece of teamwork in constructing and setting the trap, one no doubt made exceptionally difficult since wolves have no opposable thumbs and they all appear to be called Grrr.
The onslaught which follows sees Lara using something akin to bullet time to take down each wolf as it attacks, mainly by shooting each in the eye.
Our play time ends with Lara ambushed and held prisoner. After finagling ourselves free, we have to stealth our way out of baddy central and away to the forest.