Thursday, January 2

Game Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

Genre: Adventure/Third Person Shooter
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Release date: 05/03/13
Developer: Crystal Dynamics

The Tomb Raider series is a long running franchise, dating back to 1996 on the Playstation, PC and Sega Saturn. After 17 years the franchise has been rebooted with the title 'Tomb Raider'. The game stars the young Lara Croft, whose ship crashes onto a not so deserted island, and her struggle to escape.

The developers choice to portray a younger Lara is an interesting one, as you are playing a hero who isn't a seasoned veteran with years of combat under their belt. The game reflects Lara's inexperience and shock frequently, such as her first kill or reacting to injury and death. Despite Lara's initial timidness she quickly becomes a cold mass murderer shouting "You bastards!" while mowing down enemies. Lara's transformation is extremely jarring in its rapidness, somewhat eclipsing the whole concept of Lara being a more naive and inexperienced character.

The story takes a fairly serious tone, there is minimal humour and the game suffers for it. Despite the attempt at a more realistic and gritty world the game features stereotypical characters such as Dr Whitman, a megalomaniac scientist who inevitably dies due to his own illusions of grandeur. The rest of Tomb Raider's cast don't fare any better, usually being absurd or just boring. The story sets up several mysteries, some of which are explained and some of which are not. The game is also peppered with ridiculous scenes which rob the game of a sense of immersion or empathy with the characters. As a result the story and characters in Tomb Raider only manage to serve as a backdrop, one that is, and should be ignored. Thankfully the gameplay allows Tomb Raider to shine.

The game features many large explorable areas which you are encouraged to scale and traverse. There are multiple collectables littered around rewarding you for exploring all nooks and crannies. Collectables grant you experience, back story, treasure and upgrades for weapons. This was easily the highlight of the game and more reminiscent of the early Tomb Raider games, where you have the freedom to explore and try to exploit the environment. Speaking of tombs there are a few to discover, though these only manage to provide a short diversion. Most tombs can be completed in under 10 minutes and contain puzzles which are insultingly simple. The aforementioned experience is necessary for Lara to improve her skills. The skill system is rather shallow though, with skills locked by tiers and only offering marginal improvements such as looting more ammo off enemy corpses. Unfortunately the more action orientated sections of the game do not live up to the more free roaming aspects.

Exploring the island is easily the highlight of the game.

Tomb Raider is filled with ridiculous set pieces. These 'epic' sequences start early in the game, and never taper off. You'll be scraping through a crumbling passage, jumping across crashed planes and running through burning monasteries. In most of these set pieces the player has minimal control, usually limited to holding forward and occasionally jumping. They are totally at odds with the games more serious atmosphere and get dull extremely fast. There is only so many 'epic' sequences you can experience before you are hit diminishing returns. 

The combat fairs only marginally better. The game is at its best when you are fighting a few enemies and can use the environment to circle around them, or even try and use stealth to pick them off silently. Unfortunately you are regularly forced into cover shooter segments where you kill dozens of enemies in one encounter. These sections are utterly tedious as you hide behind cover, making pot shots and unable to move around. The game gives you very few options to deal with enemies in these segments. You have no grenades or explosive weapons for the majority of the game, though inexplicably the enemies do! Its utterly perplexing that Lara is frequently shoved into these situations, since the gun play is easily the games weakest point. Did the developers feel the need to meet a 'shoot the baddies' quota for today's mass gaming audience?

Visually the game looks great and is probably one of my favourite looking games this year. The game features a diverse set of locations all with a distinct feel; snowy mountain tops, forests and temples are all here. The graphics are fantastic and even Lara's hair has some impressive technology behind it (if you are on PC and your graphics card supports it). The soundtrack does a reasonable job and compliments the game. However it never really stands out.

Tomb Raider is a game which doesn't know what it wants to be. The story and characters are played straight and clearly the game is going for a gritty feel, yet the characters are frequently embarrassing and Lara isn't a believable character. The exploratory sections are great, but the game is frequently padded out with forced shooting sections. Despite the gun play being a significant detriment to the experience, I enjoyed Tomb Raider and looked forward to exploring the island. This isn't the Tomb Raider of yonder, but its a promising start.