Review | Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics reinvent one of gamings most recognisable icons, but is it a lick of paint too far for Tomb Raider? Over 16 years ago, Lara Croft was the figurehead of an industry desperately trying to shake off the sugar-coated perception laid down in the early 90s. And the first Tomb Raider wasn’t just a […]
Crystal Dynamics reinvent one of gamings most recognisable icons, but is it a lick of paint too far for Tomb Raider?
Over 16 years ago, Lara Croft was the figurehead of an industry desperately trying to shake off the sugar-coated perception laid down in the early 90s. And the first Tomb Raider wasn’t just a milestone in the potential of 3D gaming, it was a tense, isolated adventure that revelled in the merciless grandeur of its puzzles. And it had a t-rex. A t-rex!
So, with Crystal Dynamics’ fourth entry in the age-old series, can Lara Croft really stand apart in a gaming world that’s less concerned with cup size and more preoccupied with a cinematic experience?
Origin of the species
Thankfully, games are much easier medium to orchestrate a reboot, and, for once, focussing the story of then main characters origin becomes the perfect setting. Gone are the buttock-clasping shorts and the gravity-defying bosom, Crystal Dynamics have re-imagined Lara through the prism of modern tastes. Imagine Christopher Nolan directing a Tomb Raider movie – there’s no tray-rattling butler following you here, this is gritty.
Shipwrecked on the island of Yamatai, Lara and her surviving crew find themselves fighting for their lives against the elements and the islands less-than-friendly inhabitants. Starting off injured, lost and confused, your left to find your way to safety. In this way, Crystal Dynamics has managed to tap into that insular sense of threat that made the first two games so immersive.
The new Lara has finally shrugged away the stiff controls of her PlayStation One roots and finally moves with the fluidity we’ve come to expect from franchises like Assassin’s Creed. To push this new, nimble Miss Croft to her limits, Crystal Dynamics have designed a veritable playground to explore. Your tools and abilities are also introduced at a rate that really opens up each area. Pockmarked walls become a place to climb with your axe; poles in the ground become a point to create a zip-line and white cloth markers can be burnt to reveal new items. By stripping Lara – and the player – to the very basics, something as trivial as a torch and a wall of water become as troublesome as a pack of wolves.
For the first time, a new XP system has been introduced that let’s you improve Lara’s skills and abilities in certain areas. You can improve your hunting senses or give Lara a powerful finishing move when locked in melee combat. By the end of the game you’ll have unlocked most of them, but in the first half you’ll be wise to choose your skill point spendage wisely.
This upgrade system extends to Lara’s weaponry as well. Everything from her hunting bow to shotguns and assault rifles can be upgraded to improve they’re ballistic power. These upgrades are rather commonplace in games of this type, but the shift from using old WW2 machine guns to modern rifles is a neat nuance that suits the history of the island around you.
Tomb Raider: Drake’s Deception
But there are some fundamental issues at the heart of this rebooted and reborn Tomb Raider. In the need to meet the demand for third-person, cover-based shooters that have become so popular this generation, Crystal Dynamics have, in places, borrowed too heavily from the staples of modern gaming. The concept of Tomb Raider thrives on the sense of isolation from civilisation. It’s just you, some old ruins and some gigantic spiders. Running into other human NPCs was rare, and whenever the franchise started throwing you into mindless gun battles it would severely affect the quality of the experience.
This new Tomb Raider does have human enemies; it has A LOT of human enemies. Doffing its cap to Uncharted, Lara will find herself clung to a low wall picking off waves of ragged enemies with her bow. These waves will keep coming until you kill the designated amount of you reach a certain trigger in the environment. You’ll pop your head out, take a shot, roll away from a grenade, then repeat. Sound familiar? Even when the enemies change slightly in the last act of the game the same mindless waves ensue. It’s a lazy mechanic that has no place in a Tomb Raider game. These shootouts don’t dominate the experience as much as they do in any of the Uncharted games, but they’re common enough to be a nuisance.
Where have all the tombs gone?
There’s also another glaringly obvious void in Tomb Raider: tombs. It might sound weird, but this new Lara Croft adventure is a little low on actual tombs to raid. You’ll do plenty of climbing up various vomit-inducing heights, but there are no grand environmental puzzles that were present in the last game, Underworld. In fact, minus any pre-order DLC content, there are a total of seven tombs in the whole game. Seven. Se-ven! And each one is a quick, gravity-based puzzle that takes next to no time to complete. That’s not to say you won’t enjoy playing through the main storyline – you really will love it – but such a key strand to the Tomb Raider formula shouldn’t be so glaringly diluted.
Once you’ve completed the story and returned to the game to find the various treasures, there’s the new multiplayer mode. And for it’s bugs and slightly sluggish controls, it isn’t half-bad. The environments – complete with gruesome booby traps and destructible elements – are great fun, and the submarine pen arena is easily one of the best dynamic multiplayer levels we’ve played in a long time. The upgrade system is pretty standard stuff, but a little grinding and you’ll soon be zip-ling and arrow-loosing your way to glory. The various modes do add a little spice, but the telling sign will be how closely Crystal Dynamics supports the mode in the coming year.
The IR Verdict
Unfortunately, the continued comparison to Naughty Dog’s PlayStation franchise is unavoidable. This is very much a game that exists in a world that’s ‘post-Uncharted’. The cinematic set-pieces of Nathan Drake and co brought the environmental puzzles of Tomb Raider and threw them face first into the pantheon of cover-based shooters, and the new Tomb Raider sometimes strays from casually emulating to downright copying. It’s a frustrating constant to the new Tomb Raider experience, but with the franchise now rebooted, the potential to excel from here is an exciting one.
It may flirt a little too vigorously with the cover-shooter genre at times, but Tomb Raider is still a bold, engaging and darkly orchestrated story of a heroine’s origin. While the single-player campaign may not have a whole lot of replayability outside of the main story, the multiplayer mode has the potential to bring a new dynamic to the Tomb Raider stable.