Back in my Playstation 1 days, I loved Tomb Raider and Lara Croft. I even used to frequent a TR news site called the Croft Times (anyone else remember it?). I’ve played almost all of the TR games over the years, and was curious about this new installment, given the hype about Lara’s redesign and the gorgeous environments.
Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I really enjoyed this game. Not because it’s challenging or groundbreaking, but because it’s fun. Here are my thoughts on some aspects of the game. (Note: I’m only reviewing the main single-player gameplay mode. Because really, who plays Tomb Raider for the multiplayer?)
The story moves quickly throughout the game, and the gameplay is similarly fast-paced. I never felt bogged down by difficult puzzles or boring stretches of play. The alternating rhythm of exploration and battle was well-balanced and made me reluctant to end play sessions, always wondering what would happen next. Lara’s “Killer Instincts” ability, which highlights interactive objects and quest items, ensures that you never get annoyed about having to walk up to every single item around in order to see if it’s “something.” Everything you collect and find is instantly autosaved and geographic checkpoints are very frequent.
To my delight, Tomb Raider has real character development and an interesting story. I’ll admit I often play action-adventure games without paying much (if any) attention to story, spacing out during cut scenes, just in it for the gameplay. However, I enjoyed the story in this game. Not complicated or political (ahem… recent Final Fantasy games), laced with supernatural intrigue, and featuring an island that malevolently controls the weather to crash planes and ships and keep people from escaping (COOL!) and a religious fanatic for an antagonist (right up my alley). Sad scenes were genuinely emotional and in general I really felt for Lara’s borderline-ridiculously-terrible predicament.
Obviously, Lara’s looks have evolved. Her proportions, while still idealized, are at least grounded in reality. She spends the whole game gritty, bloody, often limping or applying pressure to wounds, and is generally a far cry from her previously impervious and aloof incarnation. I like her personality a lot, as she struggles in a relatable way with ethical decisions in a nearly hopeless situation.
Gone are the Cirque-du-Soleil-worthy acrobatic side- and back-jumps (and accurate shooting whilst performing these feats) of the older Tomb Raider games. Lara jumps up or forward only, and lands hard, putting a knee and hand down (a nice touch). Sometimes when jumping to grab a ledge, Lara’s hand slips and you have to do a quick grab to keep her from falling. Lara’s physics-defying ability to change direction mid-jump persists as a leftover from previous games, but since it’s sometimes handy, it’s hard for me really hate on it.
While she still possesses the upper-body strength of an Olympian weightlifter, the endurance of a Tour de France rider, and appears to have significant additional training as a gymnast and rock-climber, Lara is generally more realistic and relatable this time around.
I have never seen smoother integration of cinematics than in this game. The seamless transition between player-controlled segments, full-motion videos, and cutscenes that include player interaction is awesome. For example, you are creeping Lara around an enemy camp when a guard spots you grabs Lara. As the game cuts to a cinematic scene of struggle, indicators appear onscreen to guide you through timed button-presses to fight back. If you time it right, Lara subdues the guy in an FMV and the game switches back to regular player-controlled mode as you dash back into your hiding spot. If you miss the buttons or timing… the cutscene continues and it’s not so nice.
Visual and audio
As has been widely reported, the visuals are fantastic. The ambient lighting, including from Lara’s torch, is realistic and moody and Lara’s shadow is perfect – no vague shadow-blob here. The textures are for the most part very good; I almost never noticed any pixel-y weirdness, though I would have liked to see more movement in the plants and trees. The explosions, and there are many, are seriously awesome. The many action-packed sequences involving exploding and/or avalanching buildings and Lara’s frantic acrobatics to escape look especially good, as the camera is right there with you providing angles that are great visually and also allow you to see where you’re going. I don’t think I ever felt a fatal fall or misstep was due to bad camera, and that scores big points with me.
The voice acting is excellent and the graphics are good enough that you can pick up on subtle expressions and gestures by characters that betray their feelings and intentions even when they’re lying through their teeth. I particularly enjoyed listening to the conversations of baddies while creeping around to set up stealth kills; casual, random conversations giving way to frantic shouts when they realize they’re under attack. (My favorite: a guard asking his friend to help him find Sprinkles, his pet rat). The music is sparse and effective.
The battle system in this game reminds me a bit of the Batman Arkham series. Enemy encounters occur in discrete battles, the beginning and end of which are indicated by Lara drawing or holstering her weapon. Especially at the start of battle, stealth plays a significant role in the game. I enjoyed the stealth aspect, which is saying a lot because normally I’m more of a guns-blazing type.
There is no health bar, and instead Lara can take a few hits, as the screen gets redder around the edges, before dying. If she takes hits and manages to get cover for a short time, she’ll shed the damage and be back at baseline. This means there is a lot of use of cover in the game, the mechanics of which are intuitive and easy to use. Lara has a variety of long- and close-range attacks, as do the baddies, and there are lots of sticks of dynamite flying around to ensure that you can’t take cover in the same spot for long. My only complaint here is that almost all of the battles are pretty easy, especially in the first two thirds of the game.
Customization and skill development
Disappointingly, this is definitely the weak aspect of the game. Lara has four weapons (the bow was my favorite throughout the game) and a pickaxe as her “gear,” and three categories of skills: survivor, hunter, and brawler. Skills upgrades are purchased using skill points gained from XP, and include things like keener “Killer Instincts,” improved weapon use and different hand-to-hand combat moves. The weapons are upgraded using “salvage,” the game’s currency, and found weapon parts. The problem with this system is that given the abundance of salvage available and the relatively quick XP gains, it’s pretty easy to get all of the skills and upgrades available at a given time. This means that there is no developmental path for Lara; the player does not need to choose between specializing in long-range versus close-range combat, or between a defensive or offensive skill emphasis. Overall, it amounts to a system of character development that theoretically involves customization, but in practice is just a steady increase in power in all areas.
Tomb Raider is a quick, engaging, and fun game. So fun that I have forgiven the fact that it’s very easy. There is little-to-no replay value in this type of game, but that’s alright. Pick it up for a week or so of intuitive, exciting gameplay with a cool story, and bask in the return of a new and improved Lara Croft.