Today I’m here to talk about a game that has been a long time in coming… a part-reboot and part-origin story for Lara Craft, one of the most – if not the most – iconic female protagonists in video game history. Tomb Raider wasn’t created to support a large story when it first released all those years ago. This has led to a few Tomb Raider games over the past few years that have been… shall we say less than perfect. Okay let’s be blunt, they worked from a gameplay perspective but were utterly awful in story.
So Crystal Dynamic took the initiative. They’ve created a new Tomb Raider game giving Lara a real history, one that may well have the building blocks to start a real franchise – one that can hold up with the new era of action games we find ourselves seeing more and more often. Has this decision paid off, or are we looking at another classic title receiving a well-deserved, but ultimately underserved reboot?
A New Breed
Game heroes usually end up being larger than life, characters seemingly devoid of pain or weakness who live simply to be badass. Even the more well-written protagonists – characters like Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series – fit this mold. It is probably a carry-over from Action Movies, but either way it’s something that has been the case for as long as I can remember.
Lara Croft slips free from these constraints. She feels, she hurts, she even cries… yes, a video game protagonist that is capable of crying. And yet, none of this takes away from her strength. She still has that ‘action-hero’ feel to an extent… but she’s also approachable. She’s believable. It’s a surprisingly effective mix… and it’s one I hope to see more often.
It’s not necessarily perfectly done… with some measure of disjointedness between the killing and the crying as she goes rather suddenly from nearly vomiting over the fact that she’s killed to coldly killing everyone in sight. That is a pretty short moment, and it doesn’t really take much away from the game or the character.
While many aspects of this game are reminiscent both of recent action shooters and of recent stealth action games… Tomb Raider takes steps to expand upon what is common and accepted. Probably the biggest, and most successful, deviation is the dynamic cover. Rather than having a distinct button specifically assigned to going in and out of cover, Lara will try to take cover whenever she is near something that provides cover and will leave it only to shoot or when you have her move. What makes this work so well in Tomb Raider is the fact that most forms of cover are not immutable. Cover can get destroyed in prolonged fights, and only the responsive controls and automatic nature of cover make it work.
The second most noteworthy improvement over the standard is a simple quality of life change. When Lara’s bow is drawn for a shot and you release the ‘aim’ button, you simply put away the arrow rather than shooting. Seems logical, seems simple… but it makes a world of difference – most notably when you’re trying to be stealthy. Aside from these two changes, most of the gameplay mechanics are pretty standard – yet very polished. The controls feel, in a word: Right.
The ever-present ‘silence vs slaughter’ dilemma was handled quite elegantly in this game. There were certainly moments where you absolutely had to perform one way or another, but the majority of the game gave you the option… and handled the option incredibly well, giving you both silent and strong versions of a majority of the weapons, with the bow reigning supreme for assassinations and the rifle or shotgun taking the top place for just straight up killing.
The only really awkward parts are the quick time events, which serve little purpose save to highlight the limitations of the control scheme. Unfortunate, since without the QTEs, the limitations would have never felt restrictive, yet with something to spotlight those minor flaws… it becomes kind of overblown and begins to almost take on some importance – until you get past a certain point. There comes a point, relatively early, where the QTEs kind of die off, and you can almost forget about them(I say almost, because they still pop up from time to time). As a side-point… there are a few of the QTEs that are actually really well done. One particularly interesting one has you repeatedly pressing l and r to climb a cliff. It’s incredibly easy, but it makes something that would normally be either a forgettable cinematic or a bland single-input sequence a lot more impactful and engaging.
Probably the most annoying action sequences in the game; however, were the river sequences. Having to dodge things in a rushing river and get the same death animation every time you failed(regardless of what part you failed at or what caused you to fail) was just really bland. These sequences added little to the game except annoyance and served as nothing more than glorified cut-scenes.
Sights to See
Tomb Raider is a beautiful game. And no, I’m not just talking about Lara. The scenery is fantastic, with some of the most impressive vistas I’ve seen in a long time. The most noteworthy was the mountain temple area, which was not only gorgeous, but (without giving any spoilers) the end of the temple section looked incredible. That isn’t to say that every environment was… pleasant to look at. No, some areas were incredibly disgusting, and others were just a little run down. The fact that even those areas were really well-designed from a visual perspective is indicative of the fidelity of the game. But it wasn’t just the environments that were done so well, the visual effects were really impressive. Especially the fire. The way the fire from the torch interacted with the cavern roof in some sequences blew me away.
Tomb Raider features a young Lara Croft, looking to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, ending up shipwrecked on an island within the ‘Dragon’s Triangle’ off the coast of Japan. Rife with ruins, tombs, insane cultists and relics from a wide variety of cultures – this island has a more intricate history than several game-worlds I could name. The really impressive part is how well they incorporate the history into the events of the game, something that is often so poorly done. You never really feel disconnected from the events of the past, even the ones that are largely irrelevant.
The game’s story, while very interesting, is far from perfect though. Certain elements feel underdeveloped and underserved, which leads to some unanswered questions that really should have been answered. Certain elements of the ending are remarkably well done, but the very end leaves a bad taste. The game’s tagline is presented in bold letters after the end sequence, which gives the impression of being advertised to at the end of the game – not a pleasant feeling.
The Voice of an Icon
Lara Croft’s voice actress did an absolutely fantastic job. That isn’t to take anything away from the other voice actors and actresses, but Lara was perfectly done. One of the best performances I’ve seen – mostly because you get that distinct sensation of her personality in the distinct facets of the voice and the sense of excitement persisting through the tragedy. When you find an artifact or stumble upon a tomb… Lara’s voice perks right up. The contrast fits the character she’s supposed to be… and it was such an impressive dichotomy, such an impressive character created.
A Survivor is Born
Tomb Raider offers two different progression systems, both of which are incredibly well-suited to the game and the character. The story is largely the birth of Lara Croft, and the first of those two progression system accompanies that component. The skill/ability progression offers bonuses and functions that help make the world more accessible, the combat more functional, and Lara more responsive. Bonuses like recovering ammunition, like resisting damage, the ability to perform melee combat, and eventually the ability to intuit where secrets are. It helps to showcase an actual sense of development of Lara from the naïve student to the hardened adventurer she is to become. You really get a sense of development – a real feeling of progression. When you return to an earlier region in the free travel mode, you can really feel how much more adaptable she’s become.
Tools of the Trade
The other half of the progression system pulls from the rest of the story: her ability to survive with nothing. She gathers salvage over the course of the game which can be used to modify her weapons in various ways that allow you to be the survivor you want to be. Additionally, you get mandatory upgrades over time that allow you to do some really awesome stuff with the environment. One of my favourite tools is the upgrade to your bow letting you string lines into climbable cliffs. But that is just one of a wide variety of adventuring mechanics you get over the course of the game that dramatically open up the environments, revealing new tombs, new secrets, new collectibles.
The combination of weapon upgrades, tool development, and ability development does a phenomenal job of actually portraying the concept of progression to a game that is designed to show that development.
Something that isn’t really noticed often enough is the impact of visual and audio effects. Tomb Raider really made good use of the sound effects. There was something immensely satisfying about the feel of an arrow hitting in this game. I don’t know if you can tell, but I strongly enjoyed the archery in this game. Probably the most well done implementation of a bow in a video game I’ve ever seen. The variety, utility, and sensation of using the bow was just absolutely perfect.
The collectibles are so well thought out. Most games offer a bunch of completely random and pointless elements to collect…. Tomb Raider gives you tombs to raid, relics to find, and various journals and diaries. That isn’t to say there are no ‘throwaway’ collectibles, but a majority of them offer depth and story to the island in a very satisfying way.
There was a brief sexual violence scene in Tomb Raider, but the controversy surrounding it way outplayed the reality. The scene certainly wasn’t friendly for children, but it wasn’t the horrible rape scene that some media outlets and sensationalist writers were painting it as. I’ve seen far worse in other games, and the scene actually did a good job of helping to provide further motivation for the metamorphosis Lara undertook over the course of the game.
Finally, one of the few aspects I felt to be a detriment to the game was the diminishing impact the wildlife played over the course of the game. They were an ever-present component in the first few regions, but once you got past that you almost never needed to worry about them again. This did have the unfortunate side effect of making certain aspects of the game feel less important and impactful later on. The effect wasn’t enough to be a clear detriment to the game, but it was present.
Crystal Dynamics has given a much-deserved rebirth to one of the most deserving characters in the video game universe… and they’ve done a phenomenal job of it. Tomb Raider brings a far superior Lara Croft with an actual history, a real personality, and supporting characters that can actually help to push a franchise forward. The gameplay is well-crafted and executed, refining the tried and true and expanding on it in some meaningful ways. Not a perfect game, there were absolutely some mistakes made… but one of the better games of this past generation and one of the best franchise reboots I’ve ever seen.