I have long been a proponent of story and the player’s agency in videogames. I love the ability to take a character and explore and, generally speaking, do what you will. I am of the opinion that it is one thing to subtly guide you in a direction and another entirely to push you head-long in said direction. I still think I’m right, but the rebirth of Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider is enough to show me that done correctly, even a strong push can make for a pretty great title.
I distinctly remember playing the first Tomb Raider game on my PC in 1997. I loved it and the game was, at least in part, responsible for renewing my desire to play videogames.
This Lara Croft is not that Lara Croft. Well, she is, but the game around her has changed so much that you might not notice. The new Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider offers up Lara’s origin story… or, if you prefer, the current retconned version of said story. Let us not overly concern ourselves with the differences though, the story itself is nominally interesting, and while you may come for the tale you’re going to stick around for the game.
A quick discussion of the story though is certainly warranted before we press past it. Tomb Raider is an adventure title, one which pits young Lara against a cult. Lara runs into these fine fellows when the boat she is on as a part of a research project shipwrecks. In fact, the game really starts with Lara hanging upside down and awfully close to meeting her maker. Soon after she frees herself, she makes her first kill and it’s not something she’s happy about.
And right there is where we see some of the problems in the story. Lara suffers a horrible wound upon freeing herself, but it only bothers her sometimes during the game. Lara is upset about having to kill, but only when you’re not forced to take down enemy after enemy after enemy. Lara may end up with emotional scars, but she executes headshots with ease and the game rewards you for making them.
The dichotomy doesn’t work. Lara is injured when the game needs her to be for dramatic purposes. Lara suffers anguish over killing when the game needs her to for dramatic purposes. When the game just wants to let you play neither the injury nor the anguish are remotely apparent. The story is shoehorned into the gameplay, rather than working in concert with it, and the most obvious example of this is when Lara’s injuries magically seem to disappear during cutscenes only to reappear at other moments.
That gameplay though is just brilliant and it makes up for these issues. Tomb Raider certainly pushes you from point A to point B, but it also encourages backtracking so you can pick up things you missed the first go through. The locations, despite all being on an island are varied, and you won’t have access to all the different parts of each area the first time through – you need to level up first.
As stated, Lara starts off as a novice, and not terribly skilled in the way of killing or tomb raiding or even wielding an axe. As you open boxes, kill animals, and headshot cultists you earn XP and salvage points which can then be traded in for personal and weapon upgrades. These in turn make killing, axe wielding, and tomb raiding somewhat easier.
Puzzles are kept to a minimum in the new title. Or, if not a minimum, perhaps a very basic level. There may have been moments in the original game that stumped you for a little while, but you’re not going to find any of those here – especially because if you fail at something a couple of times Lara offers up a hint or two.
So, if the brilliance isn’t in the puzzles or the story where does it lie?
In the experience. Tomb Raider is a detailed, intricate, beautiful world and the act of going through it and seeing it is simply fantastic. There are tons of small sidequests and hidden objects to find, and there are even optional “tombs” to explore (although it should be noted that these tend not to be massive, sprawling areas and the sidequests are things like lighting a fire in front of statues).
She may be an inexperienced killer at the start of the game, but Lara is fantastic with her bow and arrow, and not the least be squeamish about executing a headshot (heck, do it enough and you earn rewards). Hand-to-hand is necessary on occasion and upgrades allow Lara to pick up tricks (like using a handful of dirt to temporarily blind/stun an opponent) to make it an easier experience.
Despite a lackluster story, the voice acting is solid and adds a level of believability to an otherwise ludicrous series of events. No, I’m not actually complaining about the events that take place (this is a videogame), but I don’t think it unfair to refer to them as ludicrous.
Gameplay is hurt by the presence of quicktime events. Moments that appear to be cutscenes aren’t always necessarily, and if you let your mind wander as Lara traverses a bridge, you’re liable to find yourself tossed off of it when you don’t hit the triangle button at just the right second. In fact, it is a little difficult at times to tell when the game wants you to control Lara and when it’s happy doing the controlling itself. While that speaks well of the game’s graphics, it can be disconcerting and better delineation would have been an improvement.
Frequent autosaves help these occasional issues – if you do get tossed off the bridge, odds are that it will take you all of 10 seconds to get back to it when the game starts up again. That isn’t the same as removing the problem, but it certainly does minimize it.
In the end, looking back on my experience going through the game, I find myself relatively amazed at just how fondly I think of my time with it. It is fun. It is a whole lot of fun. This Lara isn’t the one that I had to kill dinosaurs with back in the day, but she’s a reasonable facsimile thereof and gameplay is as engrossing as it ever has been (even if its more action and less puzzle).
Tomb Raider (2013) is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.