The Tomb Raider series has been floundering on the brink of death for nigh on the whole generation; sure, there was Underworld, but its lukewarm reception was far below what should be expected of a series the standard of Tomb Raider. One must remember that not only could Lara Croft cut outs and ads be seen everywhere during the ‘90s, but that the games themselves were of the highest standard and their influence can still be felt even today. Yet, Tomb Raider’s presence has dwindled since the PlayStation era with changes in direction generally yielding poor results.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Tomb Raider might make the same mistakes made by recent games in the series where they would either stick too stringently to the core design of the original PlayStation titles, or try too many things that either did not gel with the setting and series or were simply poorly implemented. One of the worst marketing campaigns in recent history did not help matters with a series of interviews that managed to be both misogynistic and misandrist, including a moment of sheer lunacy where Ron Rosenberg mentioned the R-word.
But it turns out that the mixed messages from the marketing (that the game would both be true to the roots of the series and move in new directions) were correct, and that finding the balance of new and old was exactly what the series had been missing in recent years: no games influenced by Tomb Raider have copied the series exactly—at least not during this generation—and so for the sake of relevancy, Crystal Dynamics would have to do the same. It should be noted that borrowing from imitators, even generations later, is surely fair game.
And yet, from the very beginning of Tomb Raider it appeared as if Crystal Dynamics may have once again missed the mark entirely. The opening moments are a slow, drip-fed tutorial that is more about introducing characters, visual style, and atmosphere, than gameplay mechanics. But that’s what the beginnings of most games are about, right? True enough, but most games don’t drag out their tutorial for what seems like two hours when there are few mechanics to introduce; at least one hour of those two was spent walking forwards—no platforming; no combat; nothing.
It was a surreal start because, although I was doing little to nothing at all, I was enthralled. Partly this was because of the simply incredible visual realisation of the island and its inhabitants: stars twinkle tranquilly in the sky; often in complete contrast to heavy rain and the terrifying wind that pulls at Lara’s hair, the grass, and the leaves, making it seems as if the whole island is just one more gust of wind from being blown across the ocean. And moths and butterflies flutter freely about when the weather is not quite so violent and dangerous; it’s magical.
In fact (if we skip ahead a little in time), my breath was all but taken away when Lara emerged from a night of horrors to a new day: seeing the sun in the sky, and the way it flickered on Lara’s skin, and cast long shadows from tall trees—the leaves ablaze with the light of the sun—was equal parts relief and joy. Butterflies fluttered friendlily around her with gay abandon (probably because of how sweaty she was), and the true beauty of the island was revealed simply due to the fact that it could be seen in the clear light of day! It was a poignant juxtaposition.
Even the nasty collection of cuts and bruises did not seem quite so painful in the warm, soothing sun; though no doubt the cold, numbing rain would have been far better for them. Well, except for all that mud—but I digress.
Back to the beginning: I was enthralled not only due to the incredibly beautiful island that I was allowed to explore, but also due to a strange sense of expectation—I was doing almost nothing but walking forwards; maybe facing the odd QTE or watching the camera shift dynamically towards Lara’s breasts or buttocks as she shimmied her way through a crack, but everything was so smooth.
With such an easy, well produced, though ultimately pointless jaunt through the jungle, there was clearly potential for something special. And then, as if on cue, I ran into the Others—oops, I mean the Solarii—and found myself falling headfirst into an actual game; and all it took was the introduction of a gun! And the infamous rape scene, which should surely be lauded for its intention—the very fact that it is a woman who may be subjected to sexual molestation while prisoner of an adversarial group is only relevant because we like to believe a man would not be.
This level of detail, which goes beyond what most games are willing to show, is arguably important to the medium; even if it is presented so ham-fistedly that it becomes little more than a parody of itself: Lara screams and groans with every injury she accumulates (if she had any backbone at the beginning of the game, it would certainly have been broken), which helps give them impact—the first few times. After the thirty first, you can’t help but laugh.
It deserves to be praised simply for trying, but it ends up achieving the opposite of what it sets out to: not only does it make Lara harder to empathise with, it also makes the injuries seem all the more unbelievable and unrealistic—if she is so hurt, why can she still run, jump, and do as she pleases? There is no genuine consequence for the injuries, except during a couple of moments where she has to stagger to a camp and be magically healed by toasted marshmallows and a cosy, soggy sleeping bag. Actually, there is one exception to this:
After a particularly nasty fall, she once again has to make it to a camp for a few smores, but this time she has to navigate several platforming sequences with the use of only one arm, and even partake in combat where, due to her injuries, even just a few bullets are enough to kill her! While still comical to a degree, the fact that the impact of her injuries could be felt in the gameplay meant that they were far more believable, and her tangible weakness made for some of the most tense moments in the game; wading through sewage while enemies tortured someone above held real danger due to her state of disrepair—if they noticed her, she would be little more than cannon fodder.
It’s an illusion of course—even weakened she’s still a more than capable combatant—but it’s a successful one. Quite unintentionally, there’s yet another detail about Lara that you would not expect to find in the protagonist of a videogame: her mass slaughtering of enemies turns her into something of a psychopath. She goes from apologising to the humans and other animals that she kills to mocking dead Solarii and finally to furiously declaring to terrified, fleeing Solarii that she will be coming to kill every last one of them! Yikes, but post-traumatic stress disorder can do that to a person.
Naturally her transformation from empathetic young lady to psychopathic murderess is not the only facet to her development as a character; she also likes to plead for those around her to trust her. The trouble is that the only one who doesn’t at first, only does so eventually through a twist of fate as much as through Lara earning her trust. While there was clearly more effort put into developing Lara as a character than there was with the supporting cast, the fact that the development is so poorly handled means that—generic as they are—the supporting cast members often have more presence than Lara Croft herself.
The subplot involving a certain lovechild has more potential to develop the characters it concerns than anything to do with Lara, but unfortunately the characters in question remain mostly unchanged due to the events that follow and how their relationship unfolds; at least with Lara there would have been more solid development. If only the basis for her development elsewhere was as good as this subplot which makes superior use of the hidden documents by telling a story that could not be told elsewhere due to the characters and circumstances involved.
And—not entirely unrelated to the above—for those who were outraged by the automatically misogynistic content that is anything related to rape, let’s spare a thought for any men out there who are denied their children due to the cowardice of a woman—whoa there! That sounded pretty offensive, right? My apologies, but let’s just remember that they’re only words; assuming you agree, of course.
With that bombshell out of the way, let’s get back to more personal ways to kill one another; guns: and when the game really began. Not only was gunplay introduced at this pivotal, rape-related moment, but so too was stealth. If you manage to sneak up behind an enemy, you need only tap F, then mash E, to safely take him out without those around him noticing; despite his loud choking and the rather noisy, obvious struggle. The same applies to headshotting enemies with the bow or a silenced firearm. It’s a simple system, but a very enjoyable one.
There’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in waiting patiently for a group of enemies to finish their chat (which goes, over the course of the game, from being confident of killing Lara, to quite terrified of her. You know what; I think she might just be the villain. She does stalk the enemy mercilessly, and sometimes unnecessarily—as long as you are a bit of an arse like I am, at least: helpless cannibals in cages? I’ll take the 20 experience points for a headshot, thanks) and then dissipate so that you can carefully pick them off one by one—a whole squadron of Solarii killed without a single one of them noticing… Take that Mathias and the Russian brotherhood!
But if you do fail? For what the enemies lack in mental prowess (they never really seem bothered by disappearing comrades, and once you’re in a fire fight with them, are capable only of simple pop and drop tactics; though now and then they will run suicidally towards you like Japs to the slaughter, or throw the odd stick of dynamite which you can easily dodge; then you can return a second later to your cover of choice no worse for wear), they make up for in relentlessness.
But this relentlessness can sometimes take away from the stealth: if you’ve accidentally given away your position when trying to do things on the quiet, but subsequently managed to hide once more, it’s all but impossible to take things on stealthily again. Instead of eventually returning to their normal beat, the Solarii will stand around asking each other where Lara ran off too, while, as if by divine luck, throwing dynamite directly at the exit of where she is hiding—even if it is not the same entrance that she entered the hidey hole through. And no matter how stealthily; no matter where she exits said hidey hole from; and with no relation to the position of the Solarii, as soon as her head is poked out, it will be all but shot off with an instantaneous barrage of glowing tracer bullets—you’d think that with such unbelievably good eyes, the Solarii would be better shots elsewhere!
Nevertheless, the gun battles are often intense, and there’s no greater joy than a twitch headshot with the bow (an absolute beast of a weapon which not only looks imposing, but has the power to match); the string pulled back and then released at just the right moment as the poor Solarii reloads his rifle, or perhaps he even manages to get off a few shots just before his imminent death—then, before his head hits the ground, you’re hiding once more behind cover, and plotting which enemy to kill next while lead-laden fireflies fly as burning shrapnel overhead.
There isn’t only the bow; there are traditional fire arms too, but (at least once upgraded) none of them have nearly as much personality as the bow—sure, the rifle is excellent at getting easier headshots than the bow (there are no strings to pull back before firing), and the shotgun has a suitably short range, but beyond that you may as well be using the pistol in place of either of them due to the even deadliness of each weapon, and the fact that no weapon has a longer zoom than the others. Oh, and unfortunately there’s only one pistol, too. That means no dual wielding!
Despite the impressive ranged arsenal at her trigger finger trips, Lara isn’t afraid to get up close and personal (at least not after she has levelled up a little); she’s more than willing to go mano-a-mano with the Solarii, putting to use everything from pickaxes to arrowheads; all of which are put through their paces with gruesomely animated acrobatics which are triggered from little more than button mashing F.
There are counter attacks as well: a tap of shift and Lara will dodge any attack, but it’s so easy to time a dodge—and successfully complete the resultant QTE—that there’s little satisfaction in killing a Solarii up close and personal beyond sadism. Unless you’ve somehow been flanked, are almost dead, and just manage to dodge a surprise attack; your heart bursting out of your chest as you pull off the resultant QTE. But because of the AI and design of most of the battles, such occurrences are disappointingly rare.
In fact, the way many battles and encounters with the Solarii are choreographed is a major problem. It usually goes something like this: Lara notices enemies ahead and automatically starts crouching; enemies share some amusing, idle chatter that wouldn’t be out of place on a YouTube voice acting compilation; enemies disperse and Lara can either stealth kill them one by one, or take them on all at once. If all at once, then the battles will generally start out against just a few; reinforcements will arrive, some with dynamite or other explosives, and perhaps a few more with shields that try to get closer to Lara; and then the battle will be over. Almost every single time. If with stealth, then the preceding may not occur. If it does through error, then it is much the same as if Lara had deliberately gone in aggressively to begin with.
But, due to the heavy visual and aural punch of the bullets and the shouting Solarii—and the power of the bow—these encounters are still engaging, even though they ultimately never reach a particularly intense crescendo due to the repetition and predictable design.
Tomb Raider settles into a formula not only with the combat, but elsewhere as well: the whole structure of the game becomes predictable, generally following something similar to this—Lara enters a new area and glances around in awe; she then crawls through a few tight spaces or zips along a rope virtually hanging from the sky; she does some platforming; she kills a few people; due to her psychopathic sadism she has a QTE climax; then, finally, she enters a new area and glances around in awe; she then crawls through a few tight spaces or zips along a rope virtually hanging from the sky; she does some platforming; she kills a few people; due to her psychopathic sadism she has a QTE climax; then, finally, she enters a new…well, you get the idea.
Repetition is a hard thing to criticise a game for (games are, at their very core, based on repetition), but it’s once repetition becomes obvious; once the formula is plain for the player to see without providing any benefit, that it becomes a problem.
It’s more than a little amusing that, at around the same time that Tomb Raider runs out of ideas, it also repeats a scene from the beginning of the game. What is a clever bit of repetition for narrative impact, can’t help but also come across as a perfect illustration of the stagnated, repetitive cycle into which the game has fallen—while Lara can wriggle her way out of the same predicament twice, Crystal Dynamics apparently cannot.
It doesn’t help that the platforming is so underutilised—it’s a damn shame too; the jumping mechanics and Lara’s movement are both excellent: it’s always easy to judge a jump, and the controls are tight and responsive.
While Lara does do a whole lot of climbing and jumping, there are no jumping puzzles in the traditional sense; there’s rarely any timing required or skill involved, and the pathway up is usually obvious—especially with detective vision illuminating climbable cliffs and swings. The puzzles where you do have to time your jumps in relation to a platform that you have set in place for a limited period of time, or something to that effect, go to show just how much potential the excellent movement and jumping mechanics have; if only they’d been put to better use elsewhere.
Even so, the platforming is generally still enjoyable. Once again it’s due to the excellent presentation: dust and splinters are sent flying from wooden platforms over fatal crevasses as Lara lands on them heavily. As snow and wind buffets Lara on an icy cliff—the sound of the wind loud in your speakers, and Lara grunting with the effort of not being picked up by the wind and carried to the heavens above or blown to the earth below—it’s hard not to grimace just as a little; even though the only way to fail in such a situation would be to do so deliberately. Indeed, Lara’s over the top grunting and groaning is put to perfect use here as part of the soundscape.
During moments like these, it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics have an excellent eye for a spectacle; the trouble is that a lot of the time they seem unsure what to do with it. The QTEs that are the climax of many of the narrative peaks arguably only take away from the impressive direction of the cutscenes, and the larger fire fights are hardly much different in scope or feel to the smaller ones; beyond the fact that they simply take much longer to end.
At one stage late in the game Lara was finally confronted directly with an Oni—a giant, mysterious samurai (or the black smoke monster, if you prefer). I licked my lips in anticipation: finally I would be throwing down with something more impressive than the Solarii; something more deserving of going toe to toe with Lara! Then a stray piece of wood hit it mysteriously in the face, and it was blown away. Hell, wouldn’t now have been—at the very least—a good place to stick a QTE if they wanted to tease the player a little longer? By this time QTEs in cutscenes had been strangely all but forgotten. I won’t lie; I was incredibly disenchanted by this moment of nonsensical deus ex machina—for one thing, the objective of the wind was to prevent Lara from progressing; not to destroy her obstacles for her! Yes, the wind had an objective. Indeed, the weather features prominently in one of the more intriguing elements of the story.
Luckily the final sequence made up for it by getting everything right. The pacing was excellent—woman versus wind, snow and ice, and then a struggle against increasingly tough enemies, all topped off by an encounter different enough from previous battles to mean something, but still following the previously set principles so that learned skills could be put to use for the sake of satisfaction, and then a final QTE climax with a moment of glorious fan service. I couldn’t help but wonder why the rest of the game didn’t have more moments like this where everything was directed so damn well, and not just the flow.
And yet I’m reminded of Metroid Prime…
Not just because of the Metroid-like (which in this day and age is often referred to as Arkham-like) overworld full of secret documents and relics ala scanned information which help to tell the backstory (but do a terrible job of it with poor writing, and even worse voice acting that can be both ridiculously over the top, and grossly underplayed. One particularly egregious example involved a document which blatantly spelled out what was subtly hinted at during the story, and—through completely over the top foreshadowing—gave away what was about to happen; thus completely destroying any impact it might have had. Not that it would have had much because it was only fully developed in the document! A mess comparable to this paragraph), but also because this is to the Tomb Raider series what Metroid Prime was to the Metroid series—a bold new direction that also manages to stick admirably to the principles of the series as a whole. And while it might not do it to perfection as Metroid Prime did, it still manages to breathe new life into the series successfully.
If a lot of this doesn’t sound like Tomb Raider, then think again: it still has that same vibe of the exotic; of isolation, yet invulnerability; of exploring the unknown; and—once Lara becomes a psychopath—that good old feeling of being a total badarse with big tits.
And that’s not to mention the tombs—yes, true to the name and tradition of the series, there are several tombs to be explored and plundered. These tombs consist of one extended puzzle, and often contain the best platforming and puzzles in the game; puzzles elsewhere suffer from the same problem as the platforming: challenge, or lack thereof. Unfortunately tombs are relatively rare; if only there were more!
Even some of the worst mechanics of the series are brought up to standard here, such as the levelling system which provides you with not only new, visually appealing combat moves, but also far more helpful skills such as boosts to exp and salvage (the currency with which you upgrade weapons), and the ability to reveal where all the secrets are on the map by spamming Tomb Raider’s version of Arkham’s detective vision; though it’s not usually necessary to use it, as most secrets are easy to find. Nevertheless, it’s all a big improvement on unlocking the ability to open a door.
With or without the treasure map and upgraded detective vision, it’s still satisfying to find the last document, or complete the last challenge on the map. Challenge? Many areas have challenges, such as blasphemously burning down crucifixes which are littered around the place; some of which can be very hard to find indeed, especially in the larger areas. It’s a bit of extra fun.
The upgrade system, while ultimately making all the firearms feel far too similar, is even more impressive than the experience system: each upgrade actually affects the appearance of your weapon! It’s a little detail, sure, but such an enjoyable one; it makes it extra special to upgrade your weapon, almost as if you’re getting a new one—and now and then you actually do. Thus, even if you’re not having much trouble in combat (and you often won’t be), the upgrade changes things up, so is exciting nonetheless; which can only be a good thing.
And just to emphasise exactly how Tomb Raider succeeds, I must point out that few of the preceding criticisms could be seen as nitpicking: nitpicking would be pointing out, again, that the QTEs which were a big part of the game early on, fade later on until the very end for an uneven feel; nitpicking would be pointing out the invasive prompts that popup now and then such as secret tomb nearby (not so secret now, is it?); nitpicking would be pointing out that the automatic crouching around chatting enemies and the stickiness of the cover goes against the interactivity of the QTEs and the extra button presses required for long, dangerous jumps; nitpicking would be pointing out that back tracking to a certain point can be a challenge, even though moving forwards through a level is so smooth, and then abseiling back over it from one side of the map to the other is smoother still; nitpicking would be pointing out that some previously visited areas don’t look quite right at different times of day to when they were originally visited; nitpicking would be pointing out that despite the joy of stealth, you’re not required to do much other than you are during normal combat due to the jarring automation—but why nitpick?
As previously stated, for a very good reason:
Despite the major and the minor problems mentioned thus far, the fact of the matter is that I loved Tomb Raider from beginning to end. There is pleasure to be had in the cleverness of the island having a driving sentience so that the snowy areas of the otherwise tropical setting can be so smartly explained; there is joy in simply repelling up a rope and watching a humungous world move beneath you in the blink of an eye; there is satisfaction in seeing Lara open a chest at the end of a tomb (Zelda style, complete with expectant lighting); and there is fun in searching every nook and cranny for a document, even if its content is no better than annoying and pointless.
And intangible treats like these can be the hardest ones to achieve. The fact that Crystal Dynamics have nailed them so well here, and shown that they’re clearly capable of getting the gameplay design down pat, too, means that I could not be more excited for a sequel in which both elements might come together to form something that has the potential to be truly special. And next gen? The game is stunning enough as it is: if all comes together, it could well be a generation defining moment on the level of the original Tomb Raiders. Fingers crossed.
But wait, there’s more! As is wont of all of all modern games with a budget over a certain level, there is also the compulsory competitive multiplayer mode. It attempts to differentiate itself from the competition with a unique take on multiplayer staples, but unfortunately no matter how hard I tried, I was never actually able to get into a game of that nature. It would appear that—on PC at least—everyone plays team deathmatch and nothing else; and not many seem to be playing even that as familiar names pop up with disturbing regularity.
Which is not much of a surprise. The multiplayer feels strangely out of place; what relevance does multiplayer have to the Tomb Raider series? What relevance does it have to the Tomb Raider canon? Would the money spent on the multiplayer not have been put to better use in fleshing out the tombs, or addressing some of the flaws of the singleplayer?
That’s simply speculation, so we won’t not dwell on it, but the multiplayer could almost be seen as Tomb Raider’s obligatory sore thumb; just as most modern Tomb Raiders have had one particularly poor flaw sticking out, so too must Tomb Raider—but at least they’ve isolated it from the singleplayer this time around!
Well, it could be seen that way, but the fact of the matter is that the multiplayer is actually a fair bit of fun. It borrows heavily from Call of Duty by spamming performance based perks at you left right and centre, but with one rather significant difference: there are perks for doing poorly! Hell, you even gain experience points from being particularly humiliated by your opponents. It’s an interesting system designed to help ease the inexperienced into the machinations of the multiplayer, but at times it seemed to have the opposite effect as my levels were increasing at a disproportionate rate to my skills, meaning that I could easily have been saddled with opponents beyond my skill level due to it being unrelated to my ranking.
Nevertheless, the perks for doing well have a far stronger effect on your stats and abilities; the trouble with this is that it becomes very easy to dominate a match once you rack up a few kills in a row. This is not only a problem for your opponents, but for you as well; once again it leads to actually learning the nuances of the game becoming more of a challenge than it should be due to you dominating because of your enhanced stats, and not because of your learned skills. Still, it does do a very good job of making you feel pretty powerful as you rack up kills, especially if you’re using the bow which is just as satisfying in multiplayer as it is in singleplayer.
Visually, the maps all have a distinctive personality; each one is a pastiche of settings from the singleplayer, and in terms of design and layout they have their own minor quirks, but that doesn’t stop most games from unfolding in the same manner as one another: it’s all about gaining a territorial advantage over the opposing team; setting up camp in an advanced position, and then making sure the opponents can advance no further.
Even though it is so stationary, the games nevertheless have an interesting flow to them, with finding and killing opponents being an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Where the opponents are camping may change, and sneaking around the map towards their camping spot once you’ve spotted it is a thrill (though some spots are all but impregnable), as is defending the spot in question while scanning the map as a whole for anyone silly enough to be running around out in the open, and the climbing and trap use adds yet another dimension to the combat and tactics. It’s a surprisingly strategic experience, even in team deathmatch, so the more cerebral game modes seemingly hold a lot of potential; if only people played them!
There isn’t just experience; there’s a currency system too. As in singleplayer, it’s salvage. Apart from killing enemies, there are salvage crates dotted throughout the level which will increase your salvage, and are also often good spots to find people to kill. Everything needs to be upgraded twice; once for the survivors, and once more for the Solarii, as each game is a best of three battle royale with each side playing once as the survivors, and then once as the Solarii so that neither side can benefit from the asymmetry of the maps, or the loadout quirks of the Solarii and the survivors.
Taking all of that into account—and relevancy issues aside—it’s actually a multiplayer system with a reasonable amount of potential; the gunplay may feel a little plastic at times, but the strategy involved, and the simple fun of cat and mouse, could have come together in some of the more unique modes to create something genuinely of worth. As it is—and perhaps due to my Australian connection—all you can hope for are a few cats; a few mice; and a few crashes.