Tomb Raider (2013)

Raid On Her Parade.

Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 3 / Price: £31.99 / Time Played: 15-or-so hours

“We hope you have enjoyed Tomb Raider. We have worked hard to make the best possible game we can.”

So we begin, appropriately enough, at the end of Tomb Raider and a credits sequence that at least comes with pictures, photos and a few laughs. More laughs and humour than Tomb Raider has in its entirety, that’s for sure, and the amount of staff that made this game possible is massive. And it shows, because Tomb Raider happens to be one of the best games I’ve played this year. Unfortunately, it’s one of my least favourite Tomb Raider games.

If that sounds contradictory, brace yourself. Because there’s a lot to love and praise Tomb Raider for – it’s action, it’s exploration and its incredible visuals and special effects that lift the Tomb Raider series to an unprecedented new level of immersion and awe. There’s no doubting that New Lara is twice as bad-ass as Old Lara, only New Lara has a soul and a personality and isn’t a massive paper plate on a broom handle with two over-inflated space-hoppers super-glued to the front.  New Lara is sympathetic, interesting and of surprising depth and life considering her youth in this title. She’s easily the correct kind of reinvention of a character in years – Old Lara wasn’t likeable. She stole artefacts, coldly shot people in the face, and did she do this for science? Nope, she keeps all these items of great power in her basement, presumably because she got off on having items of great power and value in her proximity. New Lara is simpler to understand – she likes shiny! If it’s not shiny, then she’s not really that interested. Which is cool. We can deal. Every time Lara opens up the chest in a new tomb, you half expect to hear the Zelda chest-opening music – or maybe that’s just me.

Of course, Lara isn’t alone on the cursed island of Yamatai – she’s joined by the crew of the S.S. Endurance, with a motley array of stereotypes that just scream from the outset; “We’re all going to die!”. And sure enough, all but three of them die in horrible ways. Of course, their deaths pale in comparison to the brutality of the deaths that I subjected Lara to over the course of playing and this was my first problem; I sensed there was a little too much enjoyment derived from making Lara die. It doesn’t help however most of these events are because of shockingly twitchy Quick-Time events, or supremely wonky collision detection, or poor signposting meaning that your next move is pure guesswork or those really poorly-implemented controls at times that render most scenes a memory sequence for you to learn, and whilst you learn it, Lara dies. In manners where you do have to ask; “Is this REALLY necessary?” If much has been made about the physical endurance and pain that Lara is subjected to, much too should be made about repeatedly seeing Lara impaled through the head on rocks, or skewered through a tree branch, or watch as her legs are crushed under a rock only for another moments later to come down upon her head.

I am not that squeamish; I’m used to violence in video games. But the level of brutality that is on show in this new instalment at times made even me cringe and turn my head away in disgust. I’ve a history of killing Lara in the past, repeatedly and willingly, but new Lara – and the fact she’s far more human in this guise – just makes those moments all the more excessive and vulgar. It’s the unflinching brutality of it that will likely be the biggest turn-off for many; the lack of care and attention to the details only to positively revel and wallow in the misery and torment that Lara is subjected to routinely throughout does raise some awkward questions for the boys and girls at Crystal Dynamics.

When the game – the first hour or so and the last hour or so – stops being brutal with unnecessarily twitchy quick-time events that require the kind of split-second timing that would only be possible by someone who is (a) a superhero or (b) has a Dagger of Time stashed away in their back pocket, the game basks in the thrilling, beautiful island of Yamatai and its many and numerous secrets, challenges and tombs to be found and pillaged without mercy. It is here that Tomb Raider shines the most brightly, as the Tomb Raider series has always done. New Lara lacks the grace and fluidity of Old Lara, but comes replete with new abilities and gadgets that make for a far more interesting game. Be it zipping up a makeshift rope crossing or yanking levers from a distance so that Lara can nimbly navigate her way across a puzzle-laden tomb, there is no insta-death in these down moments (save for the big falls you make out of spite!) to really trouble you. Everything flows and is fascinating, coming along with artefacts to be found and studied (including one with a knowingly wry “Made In China” gag!) as well as tomes, scrolls and letters giving you a fascinating and deep insight into the inner workings of those who have found themselves stranded on the island. This is the main bulk of the game and it sings as sweetly as you could ever want it to sing. It’s wounding in its beauty.

That’s not to say that Tomb Raider is always perfect. I had plenty of very careless visual bugs – one later on after one of the characters die and is cremated in a beautiful spot, I cleared the forested area only to discover phantom flashlights moving around the area with no-one holding them. When I got close they stopped, only to continue moving. I appreciate the haunting overtones of the plot – of a Storm Queen seeking her rebirth, to enact her rage against the world and merely limited to lashing out at those who get too close to her island – but then, everyone just says the Storm Queen is evil. All the notes suggest that her island was prosperous, her people taxed fairly and they lived in peace and all she asked for is every twenty years or so to be put into the body of a younger woman. Some may argue that’s a pretty sweet deal for a good life, and hell – if you have that kind of power, why not use it? Most women with wealth these days spend most of it trying to recapture their youth. There is still narratively a bit of a gap, and when the plot becomes obvious, the characters remain bemused and clueless as to what is going on to the point you yourself want to slap Lara for being so dense. Seriously, transference of power? A queen reborn each time? Her soul trapped in a decaying body? It doesn’t take a genius, Einstein, to put the pieces together. It can come across as rather insulting to the intelligence of the player that they string it out a bit too long. Other visual bugs I noted were levitating enemies and some who have perfected the long-lost art of walking on water – it’s a rather impressive feat, but something tells me it’s not because they’ve tapped into the power of the Lord and Savour…

The game also varies in difficulty wildly throughout, with some fights far too short and simple whereas others are simply overwhelming and rather surprising. The combat in Tomb Raider is easily the best the series has put out to date; but between the arrow and the rifle, the pistol saw no usage whilst the shotgun was wheeled out for the token door-breaking parts and them quickly sheathed again. Indeed, towards the end with a silencer and everything upgraded, the Rifle – now a glorified sniper assault death bringer of absolute doom and despair – saw fights over far too quickly. The balance is skewed and it is a real crying shame at that, because the tactical combat is much improved, if a little bit too Uncharted for most peoples tastes.

And then the end. It didn’t take much effort on my own accord to hit 100%, because Lara’s new “survival instinct” seems like it’s come via a certain Creed of Assassins and it highlights everything on the map in the end for you to find, explore and take. A sort of sonar pulse that makes Lara seem even less human now than she did when she was mercilessly shooting tigers in the deepened tombs of Bolivia (which ends up at the end being Lara’s next step – score one for creative prequel sequencing!). Trial and error saw me through the game in the end and yes, I did enjoy it. It’s not a perfect game; ambitious, yes. Creative, certainly. Perfect? No. There is plenty to like about this new Lara, and no doubt now we’ll see them reboot the reboot that was Tomb Raider: Legend in order to maintain some continuity. But you know what? Go for it. New Lara is interesting – most of us still would have preferred the amazing Keeley Hawes back as the voice of Lara, but that’s just something we’re used to. We love Keeley Hawes and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Her voice was Lara. New Lara sounds a bit too childish at times, a little too much like a lost little girl.

The actual ending was also a bit of a let-down; another stupidly twitchy quick time event with a little nod and wink to things to come, and then bam. It’s over. It didn’t feel particularly epic enough or vengeful enough to have any sense of impact. It’s a real shame because the plot had real potential and once again it just gets strung out to the point when you do reach the end, it’s so fragile it breaks in an unsatisfactory manner.

None of this is to say however that Tomb Raider isn’t a good game – it’s easily one of the best this year so far. But the problem is that it is flawed, shallow and ultimately superficial. The real challenge that awaits the Tomb Raider team is to take what they’ve done here and extrapolate it across more games. And this means, for me; less quick time events or at the very least, more forgiving quick time events. More tombs to explore (I loved the Tomb puzzles but there were simply not enough of them for my liking!). And a more solid narrative foundation that doesn’t twist, turn and then attempt to deliver a knock-out blow with a daisy-chain at the end.

Tomb Raider is a very good game. But it’s just troubled enough to miss that polish, that sparkle. For everything it does spectacularly, it does something else really badly. And when measured up against Tomb Raider: Anniversary, it’s definitely not as epic, not as deep and nowhere near as long.

New Lara has, at least, made a good start pulling Tomb Raider into the 21st Century and giving the world a more believable hero, a survivor, someone to depend on and trust. And those left with her at the end are at least the sorts of friends that you can also depend on in a pinch, the kind of people you want watching your back. Hopefully they too will return in the future. Likely along with another bunch of bozos and clowns with an expert of the field who positively screams, “I am going to so go evil by the end of this you don’t even know it!”.

“We hope you have enjoyed Tomb Raider. We have worked hard to make the best possible game we can.” That’s the first thing at the start of the credits sequence.

I have enjoyed it. But it’s not the best possible game you could have made.

Sorry. As much as it hurts, you’re kind of setting yourself up for this one…

SUMMARY;

YAY!;

  • New Lara is LIKEABLE! *gasp!*
  • The exploring and Tomb Raiding is thoroughly enjoyable.
  • The combat is so much better this time around!
  • Easily a great framework to build on!

NAY!;

  • Twitchy quick-time events make them a chore and a bore.
  • Some awkward camera and control issues in places.
  • Deeply unsatisfying ending.
  • I’ve been tough on Lara in the past, but nothing compared to what she suffers in this!

Ey?;

  • Phantom Torchlights. I see them in my sleep! *cries*
  • “Made In China” joke? Classy. Really classy.
  • Stock characters are getting boring. Do developers ever see real people?
  • At least we knew where we stood with Old Lara. New Lara is all about the “Ooh, shineeeeeeey!”.

 

OVERALL CONCLUSION – Oof! Ow! Ouch! Ah! Not the face! (7/10)

Tomb Raider has been long hyped and is certainly enjoyable. But it can be totally finished in a couple of days, isn’t especially deep or broad and feels more like a beginning than a game in its own right. There’s so much to like here so it’s horrifying that they’d allow choppy difficulty, stupid visual bugs and glitches and twitchy, unresponsive quick-time events into a game like this. They only bring the game down, when it could have been so much better. C’est la vie, Crystal Dynamics. You’ll learn for the next time now, won’t you?

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