Tomb Raider: The (Non) Definitive Review

I discuss major/massive/huge spoilers for Tomb Raider. And by discuss, I mean I will tell you what happens at the very end of the game.

Consider yourself forewarned and forearmed. Oh and I played it on PS3.

Tomb Raider is an iconic series in plenty of senses of the word. If by some miracle you’ve landed here and aren’t a gamer, there’s still a very healthy chance that you know who Lara Croft is. Then there’s the fact that Crofty’s original 3D adventure is considered required reading for gamers in the 90’s. Alas, my youth meant the majority of my experiences with Lara was a) Croft Manor, b) frozen butlers and c) getting really close to the end of Tomb Raider: Legend.

So that was a lot of words to say that while I was very excited for Tomb Raider 2K13, it wasn’t because of a close relationship with the series as a whole. It just looked like a great game and for the most part, it is. Whoever Lara was before doesn’t particularly matter, because now she’s a survivor as the game goes to great lengths to point out.

And survival is very much the plan from first second to last. The game wastes barely a frame in putting you in the shit; first with a massive shipwreck, then being hunted through what appears to be the least friendly cave you’d want to rouse from unconsciousness in. By the time the game’s title has flashed up, you’ve already had to catch your breath a fair few times and not just because of the impressive graphics.

It never lets up. A huge part of this is down to some pleasingly frantic gameplay, where jumping from a ledge carries the same danger as squeezing a trigger. Lara sometimes has to assure you she can make the jump, but that won’t stop the slight butt clench when you fear a miscalculation or having to hammer square when she loses her grip. Similarly, combat might be the sort of typical Gears/Uncharted third person gunplay that’s become the shooter chic this generation, but it’s very rare throughout to feel like you have any chance when resorting to violence, even with the adequate stealth option of your trusty pickaxe or bow and arrow.

Speaking of Uncharted, Nathan Drake’s adventures have certainly had an influence here. Still, Tomb Raider is no cheap imitation and, in many ways, manages to show up Naughty Dog’s adventure. Lara’s tale may follow a fairly straight path, but as you progress through the island, you’ll have to do a fair bit of exploring in semi-open levels. It gives the feeling of freedom with the sort of propulsion that linearity brings in perfect measures, levels slowly unfolding rather than overwhelming, which is particularly nifty because levels are teeming with collectibles. You have to salvage for weapons – although best to not question how a few bits of metal means Lara can go from an AK47 to monster rifle – GPS caches, relics, documents, challenges… It’s a miracle Lara can still walk let alone clamber up rocks with the amount of stuff she ends up pilfering.

But Tomb Raider as a story has one major flaw that holds back the story and yanks it back from greatness in the form of a trite and superficial happy ending. I’m not a raging cynic or addicted to misery in stories, but Lara’s journey up till the final 10 minutes is about survival. Everything points to life giving Ms. Croft a lesson that she would never forget and changing her to gallivanting archaeologist/Lucozade shill.

Throughout much of the story, she watches close friends die – often brutally – in front of her eyes. Her reaction to violence goes from horrified to steely eye’d to the extent that when one adversary taunts Lara at the end with her actions, it’s not the typical villainous posturing you usually yawn through, but a key theme being laid out for the audience. Who will survive and what will be left of them?

Shame that it’s hard to care too much outside of Ms. Croft. Lara may be fantastically drawn out with careful character progression but it’s a shame that doesn’t quite go for the cast around her. There are some links and hints at developing their personalities – an illicit relationship here, an unrequited crush there – but we never get enough time to really understand their motivations. One is so leg-slapping evil that his diary entry might as well of just been the phrase “moustache twirling”. Another is the gruff father figure who is clearly not going to be around for the endgame once all of his advice has been dispensed. It’s Lara’s show after all so it’s a minor complaint, but it’s a shame that she seems to be the only character who the island actually changes.

So when her best friend Sam is kidnapped for what might have been the 327th time throughout the game, Lara goes through the usual rigmarole she’s done throughout and saves Sam. The game spends a lot of time – the preceding fifteen hours worth in fact – setting up a dark ending where Lara can’t save her bestie. Everything points to the moment where Lara has to watch Sam die, because she’s a survivor, not a hero.

Here’s how it actually goes down.

Instead, Lara gets to Sam in the nick of time and you’ve already guessed the rest if you didn’t know it already (hint: it’s as happy as you could want by this point). Maybe Bioshock: Infinite and The Last Of Us spoiled me. But Lara saving the day felt like a betrayal of everything the game had accomplished to that point. For a brutal tale that had gleeful stuck to its “survival-at-all-costs” mantra throughout, this last minute pulled punch grated on me even more. Games have long since evolved from the binary good guy saves the day narratives and Tomb Raider slipping into this at the end made it even more exasperating

So taken as a whole, Tomb Raider is a worthy and worthwhile reboot that gets so close to true greatness but just buckles at the endgame. But broken down to the sum of its parts, Tomb Raider is often an intelligent survival-adventure game that even manages to out spectacle Uncharted in places. If Crystal Dynamics commits to the grisly horror of their (almost) brave new world, Lara the jaded survivor might become iconic all over again.

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