Thursday, 12 February 2015

Tomb Raider

Post-Launch Review
Tomb Raider (2013, PC)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Released: March 2013
Played: story 100% complete in 14 hours


In this reboot of the classic series, Lara Croft is a young archaeologist on her first expedition, searching for the lost empire of Yamatai. The ship is struck by a powerful storm and trapped on a mysterious island, where Lara and her friends find themselves hunted by a dangerous cult of an ancient queen...

At Launch

Tomb Raider was very well received, earning average review scores of 87%. Reviewers were very impressed with the quality of the story, visuals, and character development, and satisfied with the series reboot. There were, however, many criticisms of tonal dissonance between some parts of the story, and with the portrayal of Lara as uncomfortable with killing but the XP system encouraging aggressive skillful attack.

Post Launch

Several large patches improved performance and fixed bugs, including some major progress-blocking problems.
A bunch of DLC packs were released, including new outfits, some single player skills, one optional single player tomb to explore, and several multiplayer maps, weapons, and characters.

Tomb Raider is a game I was really excited about two years ago, and sat in my Steam library for a year after that, and now I've finally gotten around to it... because I got bored of trying to force my way through what I had installed (I'm just not that thrilled about playing Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, for example).


I'm pretty sure I remember a lot of worry, based on the pre-launch ads, that Tomb Raider was dropping elements of the classic series, such as the supernatural elements that featured prominently in (I think) every previous game. I don't want to spoil anything here, because I quite enjoyed going in blind and uncovering the secrets of the island, so let's just say that while this game begins in a very different place than previous Tomb Raiders, fans will be satisfied with where it ends up.
When I say it starts in a different place, I'm not kidding. Here, Lara Croft is young and has had plenty of training in archaeology and the wilderness, but this is her first expedition and she's never really been tested in the field. I really appreciated all the little bits where it's mentioned that she's done all kinds of training (like climbing) with Roth, so it's by no means a stretch that she can handle herself in dangerous situations, especially with how the early game emphasizes how much trouble she's in - Lara has some physical training but she was not mentally prepared for this.

And Lara sure does take a hell of a beating. I was pleased with the segments where you have to find medical supplies or help for certain serious injuries, because no way does Lara go through all this with only small cuts and bruises. Tomb Raider does stretch it sometimes, though, going too far into action-movie mode for my taste, especially the sequence with the exploding mountain. At least they explained the exploding, but the over-the-top action at times pulled me out of the desperate survival mood of the rest of the game.
Actually, since I mentioned issues of tone, I might as well address the common criticism that Lara's attitude towards killing doesn't fit with the game systems. I might agree early on - Lara is forced to kill and it's clear she doesn't like it, even as the XP system wants you to score headshots and brutal melee finishers. But that kind of clears up partway through, as Lara is developing into a survivor who will do what it takes to come out alive and save her friends. I didn't see it as a major issue except in the action sequences I mentioned, where Lara mows down dozens of guys in backdrops full of fire and explosions.

The explosions did look nice, though. Actually, quite a lot was visually noteworthy. Lara's character model is especially impressive - tons of detail, and her outfit, injuries, and grime change over the course of the game as she picks up equipment and suffers more damage. The landscapes are great too: the island can be breathtaking when you get a long view. Some areas suffer up close, but usually the low-res stuff is disguised by distance.
I enjoyed exploring the island and searching for all the relics and journals. I think there's a good balance here: the levels are linear connections of rooms and corridors, but a lot of the rooms are really big and packed with hidden stuff. There was enough exploration to keep me interested, and it was in the right places to keep the momentum of the story flowing.

And speaking of the story, where Tomb Raider really excels is in crafting a new origin and character arc for Lara. She starts out as a young eager archaeology nerd trying to get the crew to trust her instincts. When the Endurance crashes into the island, she's in desperate survival mode. Over the course of the game Lara takes a major beating and is forced to do things she never thought she'd have to, but in the end it only makes her stronger and reinforces her interest in the myths of the past. Building a lot of history into the island really helped, since Lara is constantly able to show her curiosity in the quiet moments between the action.
Before I wrap up I want to mention the updates and DLC. I encountered no notable bugs during my 14-hour playthrough, so it looks like the patches did their job. I skipped most of the DLC because I wasn't interested in multiplayer, though I did pick up the single player skill upgrades and the tomb. When I bought everything I worried about skills being sold as DLC and breaking the game, but by the time I got around to playing I forgot I had them, and they ended up feeling like natural parts of the game that I didn't notice until I started the review and read up on the DLC. So I wouldn't call the skills must-haves by any means, but they fit into the game and give you some minor improvements that'll help out a bit. And the bonus tomb is kinda neat but highly optional - it's a one-room puzzle that'll take you about ten minutes and adds nothing significant to the game, just some extra XP.

Recommendation: play it.

Tomb Raider is a perfect example of how to do a reboot right: it gives us a new story with a strong character arc, filled with cool mysteries. The island is richly detailed with bits of culture and civilization across history, making it an intriguing place to explore. Even the crazy cult is interesting. In other words, it's a great setup to showcase Lara Croft as both a survivor and an archaeologist. We get to see her drive and determination, as well as her knowledge and curiosity. All that, plus it looks nice and is fun to play. Highly recommended, can't wait for the sequel.

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