Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

Tomb Raider is an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure series, based on the exploits of fictional British archaeologist Lara Croft. The latest entry in the series is a 'reboot': a retooling of Croft's origin story and character to sit better with modern audiences.

NameTomb Raider (2013)
Summary:While its heavy use of quicktime events and scripting can be irritating, Tomb Raider is polished, pretty, and most importantly, plenty of fun.
Games Info:Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal, Nixxes Software BV; Publisher: Square Enix
Platform:PC,PS3,Xbox 360
Test Platform:PC

Tomb Raider's action-adventure series, based on the exploits of fictional British archaeologist Lara Croft, began in 1996. Croft has since cemented her position as one of video gaming’s best known protagonists.

The franchise was never known for the character development or depth of storytelling that modern games of the genre aspire to. Croft’s most recognised character traits have always been her figure and her propensity for murder, with her archaeological talent easy to forget.

The latest entry in the series, titled simply Tomb Raider, is a ‘reboot’ of the series: a retooling of Croft’s origin story and character for modern audiences.

The rebooted Tomb Raider begins with a young Lara Croft on an expedition to locate a lost Japanese kingdom – once island home to the fabled ‘Sun Queen’ Himiko. Unlike the majority of modern games, which begin with a helicopter crash, Tomb Raider shakes things up with a good old-fashioned shipwreck, leaving Croft and her crew stranded on the island they were looking for. Thus begins a storyline that wavers between an Indiana Jones plot and that of Lost, though fortunately without the gargantuan plotholes of the latter.

The first thing you’ll notice, particularly if you're playing at the highest graphical settings on a powerful PC, is that the graphics are incredible. Recently I reviewed Crysis 3, which knocked my socks off. Tomb Raider took my feet, too.

Owners of AMD graphics cards can turn on the brand-new ‘TressFX’ feature, which does for hair what tessellation did for rounded surfaces allowing hair to evolve beyond ‘bundle of dry spaghetti’. It may seem trivial, but seeing individual strands of hair waving in the wind is jaw-dropping.

TROUBLESOME TRESSES: AMD's TressFX creates stunningly realistic hair, but has been causing trouble for many gamers with Nvidia graphics cards [AMD press image].

Though it’s AMD-developed technology, TressFX should work on Nvidia cards. In my case, it caused a 50% reduction in framerate that made the game nausea-inducing. Many Nvidia-owners have reported trouble running the game with TressFX enabled, some unable to even reach the menu screen. It's brilliant if it works, and disappointing but easily switched off it it doesn’t. Honestly, the graphics are so gorgeous overall, that TressFX is just the cherry on top.

While you’re marvelling at the graphics, the young, fresh-faced and innocent Croft is being kidnapped, set alight, impaled, and almost murdered – all in the first few minutes of the game. It’s all very visceral and ‘realistic’, apart from Croft’s ability to soak up huge amounts of damage and keep on going. I’m willing to suspend disbelief when gaming, but some of the falls she takes make it seem like her tank top is made of kevlar and possesses the ability to knit broken bones and dispense morphine. Perhaps she’s related to the protagonist of Far Cry, whose mighty hawaiian shirt possessed similar death-resistant properties.

INNOCENCE LOST: Croft is a relatable character, when she's not busy murdering everyone in sight.

The new Croft is certainly a relatable character, and comes across more human than her former incarnations. She expresses genuine conflict the first time she kills someone – though soon after she remarks that it was frighteningly easy to do so. ‘Frightening’ is right, because in no time at all, young Lara is murdering her way through the island’s entire population with her trusty longbow, climbing axe and a selection of upgradeable firearms.

Combat is smooth and enjoyable, if not particularly challenging on ‘Normal’ difficulty. I used the bow for almost the entire game: its silent firing allows for a certain amount of stealth. Pistols, shotguns and assault rifles make for quick work of enemies, especially considering most are only armed with bows themselves, but lead to big messy firefights. Sometimes that’s an inevitable outcome whatever approach you take, and you’re forced into cover-based combat. Tomb Raider’s approach to cover is commendable – Croft automatically takes cover when pushed up against a wall or suitable obstacle, and will fire around or over it in a realistic fashion.

One thing that did annoy me was the lack of a ‘crouch’ function – Croft automatically crouches when the game thinks you should be stealthy, and stands when it doesn’t. As I go for the stealthy option whenever one is available, the lack of manual control was highly irritating. This is symptomatic of the game’s one great flaw: Tomb Raider doesn’t so much hold your hand as handcuff itself to you and drag you along by the wrist.

There are some wonderful wide-open environments to explore, which give the island a real sense of scale. However, the game makes heavy use of scripted sequences and quicktime events (press F to not die). It's very cinematic and allows for some very well-designed climbing, running and falling sequences that provide more interactivity than a simple cutscene. However, those used to having control at all times are likely to find it frustrating.

OUT OF CONTROL: Tomb Raider makes heavy use of quicktime events, and scripted sequences such as semi-controlled falls and slides.

Conversely, when you’re free-running around those great open environments, movement feels very natural. You can smoothly run, jump, climb and zipline through the environment in a way that feels fantastic, and makes it all the more disappointing when your controls are constrained or taken away for yet-another-waterfall-sequence.

Puzzle solving is a big part of Tomb Raider, and is one of the best developed parts of the game. The puzzles are well varied, and genuinely challenging – something that would be hard to say for most of the action/adventure games I’ve played. Several times I had to stop and think about the solution to a problem, and was often impressed by the cleverness of the designers once I figured it out. The puzzles are self-contained and don’t require huge amounts of backtracking to find missing parts or activate remote switches. With most games having turned ‘puzzles’ into an alternate term for ‘series of fetch quests’, it’s a refreshing departure from the norm.

That’s not to say there’s no backtracking in Tomb Raider: the game world is dotted with ‘base camps’, which serve as a place to improve skills, upgrade weapons, and fast-travel to previously visited areas. You never have to revisit areas in this way as part of the campaign – the point is to go back and complete previous challenges or find collectables you might’ve missed the first time through.

CAMPERS WELCOME: Base camps and day camps allow you to spend earned skill points, upgrade gear and fast-travel around the island.

Sometimes backtracking is required if you want to collect all of those optional doohickeys, as you might not be able to access an item in Area A until you’ve found some new equipment in Area B or C. It adds a touch of replayability without having to play the whole game again. Having said that, the only reward in finding all those collectables is experience points you don’t need once you’ve finished the game, and unlocking concept art in the main menu.

Many side-challenges made me raise an eyebrow in retrospect – they involved standard ‘video game challenge’ objectives such as shooting bone carvings out of trees, or burning historical posters around World War II installations. Thinking about it later, though, this seems an incredibly odd thing for an archaeologist to be doing for no apparent reason. Burn precious pieces of history for a laugh? Sure, that sounds great. There’s a slight disconnect between gameplay and story in that regard, just as Croft makes an almost jarringly fast transition from ‘innocent victim’ to ‘murder all the people’.

Once you unlock the really brutal finishing moves (like the now internet-famous act of stabbing a stunned enemy to death with an arrow), it’s clear that innocence has been well and truly lost. That’s the heart of the story, though: a tale of lost innocence and the will to survive. Destroying artefacts for XP feels tacked-on, particularly when the other half of the challenges include collecting artefacts – the titular ‘tomb raiding’.

So, it’s not perfect. Tomb Raider holds your hand a little too much for the sake of story, but then sacrifices story for the sake of incongruous challenges. Somewhere in that mess of minor mistakes it strikes a balance, and secures a place among the best games I’ve ever played. Not only is 2013’s Tomb Raider well worth your time, but it bodes well for the games to come in the ‘rebooted’ franchise.

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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