(PC Review) Tomb Raider

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action / Platformer
Players: 1-N/A
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
Intel Core 2 Duo / 2 GHz AMD Athlon X2, 2 GB RAM for Vista/7 (1 GB for XP), NVidia GeForce 8800 / AMD Radeon HD 2900

It’s been a long, hard road for Lara Croft. After becoming an immediate darling of the games industry upon her debut in 1996, she found herself quickly falling out of favor after a string of lackluster releases. To inject new life into the series, development duties were handed over to Crystal Dynamics for 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend. The series has been on the rebound ever since, under the tutelage of the California-based developer, but its legacy has made things difficult given the mangled, soap-opera-style plotlines that came after the initial trilogy (there’s even a fake death in there.) Tomb Raider is an attempt to wipe the slate, dump the old baggage and start anew by sending Lara back in time to her very first adventure in one of the finest reboots to date.

The sarcastic bourgeois Lara Croft of old has been replaced by a young, green explorer who is out to make her mark. Joined by a group of fellow explorers, Lara sets out on the Endurance to find the mythical kingdom of Yamatai. She believes the fabled lands are located off the coast of Japan inside the dangerous Dragon’s Triangle, a tempestuous hotspot known for its sudden violent shifts in weather. After making her case and convincing the crew that the triangle offers their best chance at making the discovery, a raging squall quickly descends upon the vessel. Within a matter of minutes, the frantic crew finds themselves scattered amongst pieces of the Endurance on an uncharted island. The survivors quickly learn that the island might be uncharted, but it isn’t uninhabited. A deranged, murderous cult known as the Solarii calls this land their home. They are a sect of hardened killers who worship the Yamatai queen Himiko and sacrifice to her as a sun goddess, preying on the shipwrecked for their supplies and their lives. Lara must not only protect her friends from the stake but also unravel the mystery of the surrounding storms that prevent anyone from leaving, ensuring that they be the first to make their way back home from its deadly shores.

Lara’s quest will take her from one end of the island to the other and force her to wade through flooded caves, scale steep mountainsides, and fight her way out of sprawling shantytowns. During her adventures, she will collect an upgradeable arsenal consisting of a bow and arrow, a pistol, a pickaxe, an assault rifle, and a shotgun. Crates of debris liberally strewn throughout the land can be collected and used to enhance her gear, increasing accuracy, reducing recoil, and even adding explosive damage. Her weapons will not only save her hide from the cultists, but they will also open up new paths for her to take. She will increase her skills throughout her time in the wilds by gaining experience from taking down enemies, scavenging fruits and animal meat, and collecting the numerous artifacts, relics, and documents that detail the long history of the island. But attaining the gear and tracking down the collectibles will require death-defying leaps, zip-lining across chasms, and scaling precipitous cavern walls.

The comparison between Tomb Raider and Uncharted is inevitable. There is a major difference, however, in that each goes about their goals in different ways. While both are third-person shooters with heavy platforming elements, Uncharted is as focused on action as Tomb Raider is on platforming. Nathan Drake might have done his fair share of hanging from crumbling ledges and outrunning collapsing buildings engulfed in flames, but he didn’t require the player’s attention near as much Lara does. In Tomb Raider, the combat is a means to liven things up, add some variety to the platforming portions and fill the gaps in between, while they are the heart of Uncharted. Combat is undoubtedly more refined in Uncharted, with its responsive control scheme allowing for greater accuracy and quicker, more reliable access to cover. Tomb Raider takes a different approach, as Lara approaches cover in a less reliable context-sensitive manner by feeling her way around and automatically ducking behind objects whenever near them. By taking direct control away from the player, there will be moments when she goes to cover but does not duck in time, while other times, it is difficult to tell if she is actually safe. She also makes things tougher on herself by refusing to blindfire, removing from her repertoire a technique I imagine is a favorite of novices. The guns are never pinpoint accurate, either, even when fully upgraded, which might be more realistic for pieced-together weaponry but can still nevertheless still make combat feel slightly unrefined. By contrast, Uncharted’s gunplay is extremely tight. Tomb Raider’s combat system isn’t bad by any means, and it is in fact completely adequate, but it does not serve to elevate the experience as a whole. Where Crystal Dynamics steps into their own is with the platforming.

One of the problems with quick-time events is that they tend to feel shoehorned into a game’s design. They are frequently applied inconsistently, which makes their inclusion feel too arbitrary, or worse, they are used in conjunction with difficulty spikes to turn a challenging scenario into an incredibly irritating one. Crystal Dynamics took another route, one that sees them used in their most natural form by being implemented consistently and intelligently across all areas. Instead of having a world designed after the accursed God of War-style lever system, where random levers require constant button-tapping while wave after wave of enemies attack, Tomb Raider has a set system that is immediately recognizable throughout the world. For example, if a door is jammed shut, players can have Lara use her pickaxe to pry it open by tapping a button; if a door is barred shut by an outer board reinforced with rope, then players can rip the door down by firing a special roped arrow and tapping a button to yank the door out of its frame. Quick-time events are also used to add an extra layer to platforming, but they are not used gratuitously; a loose grip will require attention by pressing a button in time, and objects sliding downhill will need to be dodged by pressing left or right at the appropriate time. Melee also utilizes timed button presses in order for Lara to perform often-violent finisher moves, as well as follow-up attacks after she scrambles out of the way. Cinematic camera angles heighten the intensity of the action, making those near misses all the more thrilling. The generous input windows and various tells telegraphing when an event is about to take place forces the player to pay attention but doesn’t bog them down as they make their way through the world.

The game’s focus on exploration and platforming is routinely reinforced by a lack of enemies to fight in many of the areas. Instead, the various collectibles challenge players to send Lara searching for every scalable board, ledge, or rock face. Graphical cues, such as white paint or a rougher-looking texture, often hint that there is something nearby. A special vision is also available, which highlights interactive environmental objects. I was frequently surprised by just how much the level designers were able to squeeze into each area. If there wasn’t a surface for Lara to run up or grab, there was a portion of loose rock for her to work the pickaxe in, a post to anchor a roped arrow on, or a felled tree hinting at a tucked-away spot. Areas are also filled with gear that can be used to upgrade weapons, including some dangling from nets that require fire to free, food to pick and animals to kill and scavenge for experience, area-specific items to break, and camps to acquire new skills, fast travel, and upgrade weapons. For players wanting to raid more tombs, there are optional caves to explore for experience boosts. The puzzles therein are fairly simple, but as a whole, they offer excellent distractions that harken back to the originals, and running across one was always a treat. There are also secondary reasons to partake in all of the additional challenges: collect enough salvageable debris from crates or fallen enemies, and enough parts will be acquired to completely overhaul a weapon to allow for even more upgrades. The ability to fast travel to previous campsites also allows for access to previously barred areas, with new unlocks and discoveries offering entry into spots hiding even more loot. Despite not being an open-world title, there is a surprising amount of freedom in each area, offering a wide variety of tactical options for combat and exploration options for platforming, and fast travel give the island a cohesive feel that goes far beyond anything in the previous titles.

If there is any place where Tomb Raider falls short, it’s the story. The overarching plot is something of a good Sunday-afternoon, B-movie yarn, with supernatural elements mixed with plenty of shootouts and over-the-top thrills. It’s during the characters’ interactions when the game stumbles, especially in the predictable dialog as well as in the game’s characterization of Lara herself. The group of survivors goes through a well-worn plot cycle that sees their unity fractured under stress but ultimately redeemed because the problems weren’t really problems to begin with. The collectibles do a great job in detailing the island’s history, with notes left from ancient ambassadors from China and Korea, Japanese soldiers during World War II, and even US Marines from the 1800s, but the diary entries for the crew aren’t nearly as effective as explaining why some become so prickly. I found myself thinking, “Right, right—come on!” during the several bickering interactions, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the apologies and high-fives. The crew is largely left on their own for the first half of the game, so it is only when going in the latter half that the problems arise. Lara, however, will be a mystery throughout most of the game. I came to find that there were two versions of her: cutscene Lara and gameplay Lara. Cutscene Lara is timid, understandably scared, and nervous about whether she has what it takes to save her friends. Gameplay Lara is far more skilled, confident, and is oftentimes a marvelous killer. Granted, there needs to be some disparity,  or else players would be controlling a bumbling mess as they hug a rock and await help; however, the difference between her hemming and hawing one second and bashing a man’s face in the next—or gutting him with an AK in one particularly gory finisher—is striking. Cutscene Lara becomes more confident as the game progresses, but she only reaches the level of steeled-nerved, tough-as-hell gameplay Lara right before the credits roll. For as much a to-do was made about Lara’s growth from a vulnerable pup to a steadfast wolf, the actual experience is far different.

For those who 100% the single-player game and still crave more action, there is a multiplayer component—a bland multiplayer component. Players select a Solarii or a Survivor, their loadout, and then level their character up and improve their weapons by using salvaged items. Traps can also be set within the maps, with the best being the leg lift that is seen during the story that requires players to shoot enemies upside down until they can blast the lock mechanism. There are only four modes, though, with Rescue and Cry for Help being the standouts next to the more traditional Free for All and Team Deathmatch. All but Free for All are round based, and all round-based modes are centered around one side battling for an object the other side is trying to prevent them from accessing. The only real difference between them is that the Solarii must defeat enemies with a melee execution in Rescue. The inclusion of traps and gear to upgrade weapons helps to make Tomb Raider’s multiplayer stand out, but not for very long. The most that can be said about multiplayer is that it’s there.

As far as PC ports go, Tomb Raider is fantastic. There were some problems with the physics, including some exaggerated kills (i.e., bodies flying all over the place), but for the most part, the game was stable, sounded great, and looked gorgeous. At times, the game can look almost too good, with its minimal HUD often obfuscating when the game was in automatic mode and when it needed player direction. The game can be a bit too liberal in when it wants to take over, which is frustrating at times, but it was only a real problem when the game clicked between an in-game cutscene to actual gameplay without any cues to inform me that I needed to grab for a ledge before falling to my doom. I reviewed the game using a wired Xbox 360 controller, and I would suggest all gamers do the same, as the game not only works great with it but was designed with it in mind, going by the fact that it utilizes the controller’s icons for quick-time events.

Crystal Dynamics has done wonders in rebooting Tomb Raider for a new generation. There are times when the game snatches away control too freely and with too little warning, and when the story hits a few bumps, but the single-player campaign is otherwise a great experience. The multiplayer component doesn’t drag down the package, but it’s also not noteworthy whatsoever, so it’s there for those who want to give it a shot. The real star is the campaign, and its mixture of quick-time-event-laced platforming, varied and largely open environments, and the hearty upgrade system makes for a fantastic, potent combination.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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