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Tomb Raider Review

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On 03/15/2013 at 12:00 PM by Daniel Iverson

Tomb Raided!

For everyone.

Games evolve quickly. Despite a trilogy of quality releases ending only five years ago, Tomb Raider was already starting to get left behind by the genre it helped to create in 1996. Now the industry’s best-known heroine is back and reinventing action-adventure once again.

Tomb Raider follows a young Lara Croft’s expedition to locate Yamatai, a version of the historical ancient Japanese country of the same name. Upon entering the Dragon’s Triangle (aka the Pacific Bermuda Triangle), the expedition shipwrecks off the coast of an unknown island. The crew is separated and intercepted by hostile inhabitants shortly discovered to be known as the Solarii. With limited training, Lara is forced to survive against the Solarii and the equally dangerous landscape while pursuing rescue. Per Tomb Raider standard, you can expect the story to branch into the supernatural before all is said and done.

The game begins with little exposition, but artifacts, journals, and video clips add context to the story with additional background information. Lara’s supporting cast is unfortunately generic and exists mostly to provide her with the motivation to continue (and, I suspect, to avoid a silent adventure—unless she was to befriend a volleyball à la Tom Hanks). While pre-launch trailers pushed the “survivor is born” theme dangerously close to cheesy, the game itself handles it with considerably more grace.

Plot sequences are heavily scripted, but the areas connecting them are large and open with multiple paths and hidden items. Fast travel and the option to set a waypoint assist with navigation. Some areas are inaccessible until you acquire or upgrade your equipment, which provides an incentive to revisit them.

Art direction is outstanding. Lara’s movements are accurate, natural, and well animated. Environments are well designed with great detail and lighting effects. Even without the collectibles, I wanted to explore every corner of the map simply to see everything.

Puzzles are few and simple by Tomb Raider standard, mostly limited to optional side areas known as tombs. Whenever you approach a tomb, the game alerts you with a chime and a pop-up message ironically declaring a SECRET TOMB is close by and then updating your map with its location. The tombs are fun, but I found the implementation to be half-hearted. I would've preferred for the tombs to be integrated into the primary adventure and also to discover them by myself.

Lara uses four ranged weapons and a climbing axe for melee. Aiming is smooth for all guns, but the hunting bow handles with the best precision. While stealth is never mandatory, it's often the most effective and fun way to dispatch the enemy. The environment may be used to Lara's advantage as well. Shooting a rope arrow into the foundation of the enemy's platform and causing it to collapse is always satisfying.

By approaching cover, Lara automatically crouches into a defensive position. The system is so effective; I began to question why other games still bother to assign a dedicated crouch button. For melee combat, a simple but effective dodge mechanic, activated by pressing a button shortly before the enemy's attack connects, allows Lara to avoid damage while opening up the enemy to a counterattack. Additional defensive tactics include scrambling to evade gunfire and tossing dirt to stun.

A robust upgrade system allows Lara to improve her survival and battle skills as well as her equipment. Players are likely to accumulate enough experience points and salvage (generic equipment upgrade currency) to maximize everything with a single playthrough, thereby precluding any replay value from trying new builds.

Tomb Raider's greatest success is its ability to share Lara's experience with the player. The abuse she endures is documented through gut-wrenching scenes, but for me the little things evoked the strongest responses. The camera zooms to illustrate her discomfort squeezing into tight spaces or struggling to breathe above water. The screen pulses and vibrates if she's injured. Lara's experience was my experience, so even things I've done a million times before and become desensitized to, like trying to balance while crossing a chasm, were meaningful again.

While the story really pushes the survival theme, the gameplay doesn’t. One early sequence requires Lara to hunt a deer because she’s hungry. But thereafter, hunting is optional and yields salvage (generic equipment upgrade currency) instead of food. Considering how central survival is to the story, I was disappointed the gameplay didn’t reflect it more.

Such disconnects between the story and the gameplay are Tomb Raider's only significant faults. To a degree, it struggles to reconcile its heavy narrative with the fact it's a game. For example, Lara breaks down crying after she kills her first Solarii. It's a powerful scene about the emotional weight of claiming another life, even in self-defense. But then the game directs you to kill hundreds more and even rewards you with additional experience points for doing it with style.

What’s the solution? The story could be less dramatic; but the game would lose a lot of its identity. The gameplay could be adjusted to reduce combat; but the combat is outstanding, so I'd hardly recommend less.

Personally I would've preferred for Lara to have more options. I started the game by trying, wherever seemed reasonable, to disable my enemies instead of kill them. I thought perhaps I could simply injure them and knock them unconscious; a tactic I believed would be more consistent with Lara's character. Alas, the game always requires death before granting you permission to advance.

Although its story and gameplay are sometimes at odds, Tomb Raider is an exceptional game. It does virtually everything right while still leaving room to grow. Crystal Dynamics should be commended for its bold reinvention of such a well established series, and I can’t wait to see where they take Lara next.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Jon Lewis Staff Writer

03/15/2013 at 12:24 PM

I totally agree with your review. There are a lot of things implemented that I feel should have, and could have been part of the larger narrative. However, I felt that the game was insanely fun. The game provided just enough linearity and just enough openness (if thats a word) to make it interesting. Not only that, but the mechanics are pretty awesome. In a lot of ways, I had more fun shooting down bad guys here than Uncharted. If anything, it's just as good, and stands on its own in a few areas. My biggest gripe with the game was the half-assed multiplayer. It felt very meh compared to the rest of the experience. Overall, I can totally see Tomb Raider 2 being an amazing game. As long as they improve on some of those small issues, and expands upon the exploration and puzzle solving. This was definitely one of my favorite games this year so far.

Daniel Iverson Staff Alumnus

03/15/2013 at 01:56 PM

I'm really interested to see how Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix will approach a sequel. I think a fully open world would be a natural evolution to the gameplay, but the story may be challenging to build upon.

Jon Lewis Staff Writer

03/15/2013 at 04:05 PM

They way I see it, they pull an Arkham City. Same gameplay, just expanded upon in a psuedo-open world. I totally wouldnt mind that.


03/15/2013 at 01:11 PM

I really enjoyed reading this.  I haven't played it yet, but you gave me a good picture of what it's like.  I hope to play this soon/ when I can afford it.

Daniel Iverson Staff Alumnus

03/15/2013 at 01:46 PM

Glad you enjoyed the review. It's definitely a must-play whenever you get the chance. For what it's worth, the relatively low replay value and the fact no one seems to be too crazy about the multiplayer should drive the price down fairly quickly. I wouldn't be surprised if it's on sale for $40 within a few weeks.


03/15/2013 at 01:27 PM

I want this new Tombraider something fierce! Probably because Lara really is "human" this time around. I like the show of vulnerability because let's be honest with ourselves, none of us would handle being shipwrecked on an island with poise,grace,and complete badassery. Seeing Lara grow from a frightened young archeologist into an independent resourceful heroine seems worth the trip to me. I also like how they kept the cover system fluid and simplistic.


03/15/2013 at 01:27 PM

Nice job on this. You summarized the game really well. Lara has indeed returned to greatness with this adventure. You're right about the killing thing. In certain parts Lara becomes a one woman death machine. Slaughtering her enemies with wild abandon! It will be very interesting to see where she goes in the next game. Can't wait to see it.


03/15/2013 at 08:08 PM

On the one hand, I think this game works really well when looked at as just an action/adventure game. I had a lot of fun and while I was playing I couldn't help but enjoy it. It has a nice balance between combat (the series best to date) and exploration with great presentation and I think they did a good job with this new version of Lara. The new ability system is also cool if not pushed far enough at times.

But I feel it got too far from what makes the series special and unique: challenging platforming and puzzles. I see you don't really mention the platforming. Probably because traversing the environment has become so ridiculously easy. And the puzzle-centric tombs seem like an afterthought and are so short it is kind of absurd.

I get that it is a reboot, so changes are in order, but I feel they kind of threw the baby out with the bathwater here. And it seems like they could have easily kept in some of the challenging platforming and puzzles in the main adventure instead of some of the setpieces while still adding all the good things this reboot brings to the table. I think it stinks particularly since there really isn't a series delivering that kind of stuff anymore (Prince of Persia seems to be on hiatus and Mirror's Edge is the only other recent game to do it).

Anyway, don't get me wrong. I really enjoyed the game, but I can't help but feel they got too far away from the uniqueness of the series. A sequel that combines old and new though could be really really special. I hope they bring some of that great platforming and puzzling the series is known for back to the forefront in the sequel.


03/15/2013 at 11:33 PM

I like the game, but in what way is it reinventing action-adventure again?  If the game was called Uncharted 4, would people think that it was significantly different from Uncharted 1-3?  People would probably complain that there are less puzzles than in the first 3 Uncharted games.  It's a good game but it's not reinventing anything.


04/09/2013 at 12:18 AM

this game is awesome...but everytime i play it..i end up just staring at her big round awesome bum..or pressing the scramble button and watching her bum strectch out the pants shes wearing....

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