A Survivor Is (Re)Born
The new Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix is a symbol of progress in the video game industry. In one way, it shows how far gaming has evolved since Lara Croft's first adventure on the Playstation in 1996, with a deeply personal drama and cinematic gameplay. It often teeters on the edge of cinema, while in other ways, the game borrows some design elements that have defined gaming since long before we first stepped into Lara's shorts and tank top. It all combines to create a remarkable third person shooter that stands as the pinnacle of its genre.
The story represents one of the most notable improvements found in this reimagined Tomb Raider. Lara is on a quest to find a lost civilization in the south pacific called Yamatai. After her ship crashes, Lara embarks on an adventure to reunite with her friends and crew, while unravelling the mysteries of this island and its inhospitable inhabitants. The story is nothing you haven't heard before (read: LOST, Far Cry 3 et al) but the bravado of the presentation and the pacing of the plot combine for a highly compelling tale. The dynamic camera makes relatively mundane activities like climbing a radio tower feel like the near death experiences they actually would be in real life.
Lara has always been an iconic character, but mainly due to her cup size and sassy attitude. In this game, we see her transform from scared, self-conscious girl to the assured, strong heroine we know she can be. Some fans may be disappointed that she lacks any sense of humor - though it would have been odd to see her cracking jokes when her situation seems so dire. Camilla Luddington's portrayal of the character expertly captures her vulnerablity and growth. She is a relateable protagonist with a satisfying arc. It's just a shame that the support characters are far too reliant on stereotypes and rarely make much impact on the plot.
Step Aside Nate
Despite liberal use of quick-time events and scripted action scenes, the gameplay in Tomb Raider is some of the best I've yet to experience in a third person shooter. Combining Uncharted style gunplay and platforming with the non-linearity of Metroid's upgrade systems, Crystal Dynamics have struck a fantastic balance. Players never wander aimlessly through the island, but will rarely feel like they're being funnelled from one place to the next. It allows players to explore the mysterious setting at their own pace, uncovering the game's hundreds of secrets and collectibles. It's a dynamic that compliments the game's identity as a survival adventure.
The actual combat provides players with a modicum of freedom as stealth is often an option, with the highly satisfying bow and arrow allowing for flexibility. However, combat usually devolves into straight-up firefights against waves of foes. The combat scenarios will have you fighting through a sinking ship, a crumbling cave and a couple dozen burning buildings. The cover mechanic is simple and elegant, allowing Lara to take cover without the player needing to push any buttons. I expect to see this mechanic implemented in more third person shooters in the future, though it's certainly not perfect here. The game doesn't always know which direction you're trying to shoot, which often forced me to circle strafe - eschewing cover altogether. There's much room for improvement in future installments, but the foundation is solid.
Aesthetically, Tomb Raider is a spectacle. The vistas are gorgeous to the point that I often sat on the pause screen for minutes on end, simply admiring the view. The character models, animations and textures are all top-notch. The color pallette could do with a bit more variety, but thematically, the lack of color makes total sense. The sound design is similarly thematically satisfying; old guns sound waterlogged and rusty, the jungle sounds alive and spooky and the unique orchestral score captures the essence of the island setting perfectly.
The campaign isn't perfect. Many of the set piece moments are exciting, but the game seems to be so reliant on these scenes that after a while, you'll find yourself questioning why every building you enter seems to crumble or burn in your wake. On an island so full of history and questions, the potential for some truly unique moments seemed to be squandered. Though that mystery is often uncovered to great effect in artifacts, log books and hidden temples that help tell the story of Yamatai. Those temples, in particular, hold the game's few puzzles and some of its best platforming moments as well.
Oh Right... This Part
I get tired of writing this in reviews, but the multiplayer in Tomb Raider is superfluous to the overall enjoyment of the product. The campaign is lengthy and satisfying - clocking in at around fifteen hours to complete. While the multiplayer adds depth, and is generally well designed, it won't compete with Call of Duty or even genre contemporaries like Uncharted 3.
Not surprisingly, multiplayer is most comparable to Nathan Drake's latest online offering in that players are nimble and maps are designed with verticality in mind. The combat isn't the strongest aspect of this new Tomb Raider, and that's never more apparent than in the multiplayer. All the trappings are there; four game modes, five well designed maps, perks and even game changing events like sand storms and earth quakes. Though, one game mode in particular stands out as a high point. Cry For Help places one team in the role of survivors trying to fix radios strewn across the map and another in the role of scavengers trying to kill them. The whole multiplayer suite is certainly enjoyable, but it's not what will keep you coming back to Lara Croft's latest adventure.
And you will want to keep coming back. Whether it's to see what happens next in the twisty plot, or to explore temples and ruins for any number of the game's secrets, or levelling up Lara to her fullest abilities, Tomb Raider offers plenty of incentive to return to its world. Being a jaded Uncharted fan, I honestly didn't expect to enjoy this game as much as I did. By adding a bit of freedom to the third person shooter formula while still retaining the excellent pacing of a blockbuster adventure, Crystal Dynamics created a game that lives up to its name. Lara Croft still has a lot of adventure left in her and I can't wait to see where she ends up next.
This game was reviewed on Playstation 3 retail disc.
- Great gameplay balance
- Beautiful presentation
- Believable, relate-able Lara
- Superfluous multiplayer
- Cover system is a tad unrefined