News, Views, and Reviews
UPDATE: I think other reviews were being conservative. Tomb Raider is over 20 hours long. I collected everything, though, so skipping all the relics could have made a faster run. I’m not changing the review, though, my analysis is the same.
It must have been a daunting task. I don’t mean what Lara Croft faced in her newest adventure, I mean what Eidos and Crystal Dynamics faced to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise. As I said in my other blog, Lara Croft isn’t just a video game character, she’s an icon. After five games spanning seventeen years, the expectations for a new Tomb Raider game must have been enormous. Not only would it have to be better than its predecessors, the reboot would have to best the award-winning Uncharted franchise. Back in 2011, when Crystal Dynamics first previewed the TR Reboot at E3, the excitement began. But so did the comparisons to Uncharted. Again at E3, in 2012, more footage was shown, and the excitement grew – and so did the concerns. Would this be an open-world game? Or is it too linear? How will it compete with the Uncharted games? Is the world even ready for a younger, more “realistic” version of Lara Croft? Forget those concerns: the new Tomb Raider is a wonderfully crafted, character-driven story that’s still full of exploration AND excitement.
But first, let’s get the obvious comparisons out of the way. It’s hard not to compare this to the Uncharted games because they have so many similarities. I remember a time, though, when it was the other way around, and (the first) Uncharted was criticized for being a guy-version of Tomb Raider. “Dude Raider” I think people called it. But that game went on to become a very successful series on its own. I loved playing Far Cry 3 last year, and even as I was playing it and was aware of the TR Reboot, I had to wonder how similar they would be. Well, they ARE very similar. Maybe because it’s still fresh in my mind, but I’m also thinking of Crysis 3 as I play TR. For what it’s worth, I’m also thinking about the TV show “Lost” – or what Lost would have been like if it wasn’t on ABC. But let’s forget about the comparisons. If the quality of the new Tomb Raider reboot is any indication, the comparisons should stop soon and TR will once again be appreciated for its own merits.
Believe me, TR has a LOT of merits. Like comparing it to other games doesn’t quite do it justice, neither does labeling it as a certain type of game. The graphics, game play, controls, and narrative all meld together in such a way, it’s practically a new genre. Is it open-world or linear? It’s both. It’s exploration AND action. It’s surviving AND searching for clues and ancient artifacts. It’s platform-puzzle-solving AND a little bit of an RPG. Because all of these elements work so well together, it will be hard to go back to any other “just an action game” or “just an adventure game” without thinking of Tomb Raider.
Graphics: I have to admit, I was tempted to get the PC version. I pre-ordered Tomb Raider long before I had any intention of buying a super-PC, so naturally, I pre-ordered the Xbox version. As I walked in to GameStop on Tuesday morning, I was thinking that I’d switch, but I didn’t. Do I regret it? Maybe a little, especially after being spoiled by the amazing graphics of Crysis 3 on that super-PC. I bring this up because if you also get the Xbox version, do NOT regret it. This game DOES look amazing. The details in the environment are stunning. Those details don’t have quite the relevance to game play as they did in Crysis 3, but they do help immerse you in Lara’s new world. Lara’s crazy, perilous, maniac filled world. The weather effects will beat on her and make you welcome the sunshine with her. When she pauses to catch her breath, you can practically feel her fingers digging into the bark on that tree. Every wound and bandage shows Lara’s progression with great detail and consistency. Upgrading Lara’s weapons is reflected in game with new wrappings and cords on her bow or new padding on her rifle stock. These details connect you to Lara and her experience. My only gripe is that this immersion is broken after you’ve collected several weapons, and they do the “gamey” disappearing act when you aren’t using them. You’ll see her bow on her back, for example, but where is she hiding that shotgun? Also, the environments have meticulous detail, and Lara’s animations are fluid and fantastic, yet the faces and expressions of Lara and the other characters are a little stiff. Even some of the story-scene animations seem to have a lower quality than the animation of your regular actions. These are minor complaints. Overall, the graphics in Tomb Raider are some of the best we’ve seen in this generation of consoles.
Controls: For the most part, I enjoyed the controls in Tomb Raider. It’s easy to point out some of the flaws and think less of the game overall, but don’t make that mistake. I only bring up the issues to a) demonstrate that IN SPITE OF them, the game controls very well and b) because I hate it when reviews don’t bring up the issues. First, if you’ve played any third-person shooting game, such as Gears of War or Uncharted, you might be expecting a “cover” button – and you will not find that in Tomb Raider. You will hide behind cover when you are shooting at your enemies, and they will hide behind cover, but you do not “stick” to that cover with the press of a button. No, Lara just automatically crouches behind cover, but only if you’re being shot at. Making the “hide behind cover” mechanic a “context-sensitive-automatic” behavior seems like a strange decision. But, it usually does work. It just feels weird, and might take some getting used to. Second, there are QTE (Quick Timed Events) segments that can be pretty frustrating. This might just be me, but I thought the on-screen prompts (wiggle the left thumb stick and then press….the Y button… NOW!) are a little confusing. I failed many times because I’m still not sure WHEN I’m supposed to hit one of the face buttons. Beyond those two issues, Tomb Raider has excellent controls. The bow is really fun to use. Even after I acquired other weapons, I still use the bow. Jumping, climbing, all the platform-puzzle-solving elements are well controlled. In my opinion, it’s the innovative game play that really sets Tomb Raider above its peers.
Game play: Yes, you will compare Tomb Raider to Uncharted and other action/adventure/platform games. But you will soon compare them and say Tomb Raider is BETTER than them. Then you will stop making comparisons, and wish other games were as clever and special as Tomb Raider. In the beginning, the game feels pretty straight forward: you are pushed along a set path, and you might think that this will be a linear game. But then you make your first “camp” site, and the area opens up a little. Now you have options: complete the objective, or explore the area. Exploration is optional, but it rewards you with “salvage” parts to upgrade your weapons and “experience” to help you level up and unlock better survival or combat skills. As the story progresses, you find more camp sites, and bigger areas to explore. I like to call these areas “Lara’s playgrounds” and you can quick-travel from camp to camp after you find them. You might even find a hidden “tomb” to “raid” and get a huge boost of both XP and salvage. These are one-and-done puzzle rooms, and some of them are very clever. The platform-puzzle solving portions of TR usually involve clever use of fire, which elevates them above the tired “jump up here so you can climb up here so you can jump up here” puzzles often found in other games. Even the “playground” areas have their own puzzles to solve, again, rewarding you with more XP or salvage. The hidden objects you find also have meaning. Some are artifacts and relics that relate to the island’s history and culture, but some are recordings and journals left behind by its many inhabitants. These journals help expand the story and immerse you deeper into the game…and help you level up. This clever combination of linear-story telling, open “playground” areas, puzzle solving, “relic” or XP hunting, and salvage-weapon upgrading, results in a very satisfying, meaningful game play experience. This is mostly a solo adventure, even though Lara is shipwrecked with several friends on the island. With few chances to interact with your friends, finding little bits of info about them in your exploration helps expand those relationships. Similarly, taking the time to salvage enough parts to upgrade your weapons helps you feel connected to them. I was devastated the first time a bad guy took my bow away because I had worked so hard on it. That’s MY bow! (I got it back later.) Put simply, you CAN play Tomb Raider as a straight forward action/adventure game, and skip a lot of the exploration, but you’d be missing out. Not only would it take longer to level up and upgrade your weapons, it would also feel emptier and less meaningful.
Sound: I remember watching the fist preview video of TR back at the 2011 E3, and people sort of made fun of it afterwards because Lara moaned and groaned a lot. She falls down and yells. She gets up and cries. And whimpers. Then she sees some frightening things and yells and moans some more. I think they were trying to sell the immersive, visceral, dangerous qualities of their new game, but they oversold it. Thankfully, though Lara does spend a lot of time by herself and does get beat up frequently, the final version isn’t nearly as distracting as that early preview video. Recently, rumors surfaced that a new Tomb Raider movie is in the works. The fan’s reactions to the new voice actor (Camilla Luddington) have changed so much from that preview video to the game’s release, that many fans are now demanding that she should be cast in the movie. She IS Lara Croft. They’ve crafted a new theme for the reboot, and it’s amazing. Apparently, they created a special instrument, just for this game, that creates some of the more tribal, visceral noises. The visual and aural atmospheres blend together very well. Like the attention to detail in graphics favoring the environment and Lara Croft over everything else, the sound quality does vary. The thunder crashes, the wind and rain, fire, explosions, the impact of arrows, and other sound effects are well done. But, some of the minor characters’ voices are terrible; I’m not sure what accent(s) they were trying to use. Still, it’s mostly a story about Lara and this mysterious island, and their sound-counterparts are excellent.
Narrative: I’m sensing a great trend in 2013: great games that are not only nailing the graphics and game play, they’re including some truly remarkable stories as well. Like the disparate game play elements merging together into a satisfying game play experience, Lara Croft’s adventure combines universal themes into a brilliant story. This is a story that uses themes of “man vs nature” (Lara vs the Island) and “man vs man” (Lara vs the crazy inhabitants) to support the main theme: Lara vs Herself. From the documents found on the island by her friends, and the scenes with her mentor Roth, we learn that this isn’t Lara’s FIRST adventure, it’s just the first time everyone is doing what SHE says. When things go horribly wrong, Lara naturally feels overwhelmed with guilt and self doubt. Overcoming her fears and learning to trust her instincts is a significant part of Lara’s growth as a character. For the player, these themes are very clear, and they give the game a lot of meaning. Like the graphics and sound, though, the story is clearly emphasizing Lara Croft. The supporting cast isn’t well developed, and there are some odd moments. For example, there is this abrupt transition Lara seems to make from killing one man to survive – and being appropriately upset by it – to dispatching lots of them without much thought. Similarly, after several life threatening hours on the island and some terrible discoveries about its inhabitants, Lara’s reunion with her friends felt a little off. Potential spoiler risk here: her friends are held prisoner by these bad guys, so it was a little hard to believe that they had no idea what was going on. In spite of these few quirks, the story is really well done. In some ways, the story is assisted by the player’s imagination, especially if they take the time to uncover many hidden items and allow themselves to be immersed in the game.
Conclusion: Many reviews are praising this game, and I have to join them. A reboot has a lot going against it, not to mention trying to rise above the competition. Remarkably, Crystal Dynamics have not only met some staggering expectations, they’ve exceeded them. In my opinion, they’ve set a new bar at least for clever puzzle-solving, as well as item collecting and player/weapon progression. Tomb Raider combines a strong narrative with immersive graphics, sound, and game play. A few issues hold it back from even loftier praise, but I can easily recommend Tomb Raider as a meaningful and satisfying experience.