Tomb Raider Review
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.