I’ve always followed the Tomb Raider games, playing them at friend’s or at school during my lunch hours in grades 7-8 (’97 – ’98), back in their PC origin days with grid-by-grid movements, an emphasis of timing to avoid Indiana Jones style rolling boulder traps, and a female explorer that somehow had the core muscles to do a handstand dismount while pulling herself out of a pool (probably before yoga was even invented), in Lara Croft.
I’ve been actively playing the TR series since The Angel of Darkness, 2003, when I had the PS2. Angel of Darkness was kind of a reboot unto of itself, moving the gameplay to a freer running mechanic, and darker city based story. This game also killed off the TR series in a lot of people’s eyes.
Enter Crystal Dynamics a couple years later, and TR is revitalized. Lara was back to her tomb raiding roots, and the new, energized, development team brought life into the series again, with TR: Legend, a second game, which was a throwback anniversary edition of the original game with the new engine, and a 3rd game in TR: Underworld. They tried new mechanics and built on the free running platform mechanics, introducing rope swings, and some quick time events. Crystal Dynamics also made an arcade-like TR game, TR and Guardian of the Light, which was a quality cooperative puzzle/action game. To sum it up, Crystal Dynamics has done will by the TR series in my eyes.
So in late 2010, when the game was announced as a reboot, all I needed was the one page cover concept art, and I was excited.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series with Nathan Drake took a lot of influence from the TR series of old, and gave us a look at what a really polished adventure/platforming game can be. It had the combat, the characters, the story, the action, and a cinematic style of presentation. And it had buckets of polish. It was perfected over the next two titles. And like Uncharted borrowed from TR, TR has now borrowed back. TR has taken everything that’s great about the Uncharted series and added the exploration element, and a lot more depth to the combat.
The game starts you off with a bow and arrow, which aside from its combat purposes, also acts as a rope bridge tool and long range fire starter. Unlike Uncharted, where you pick up weapons from enemies, in TR you find weapons and tools throughout the game, and they stay with you. You also find parts for your weapons and tools, allowing you to upgrade them, for combat and gameplay purposes alike. The game provides some large levels that require exploration, and like its predecessors, Lara can still run, jump, swing, and climb. You find a pick-axe that allows you scale walls, and the shotgun allows you access through troublesome walls. And if you so choose, you can go back to any part of the island you’ve previously been, to re-explore as you unlock new tools.
There are some elements that do require attention though. Uncharted introduced active set pieces and levels that literally get destroyed around you as you’re trying to escape, be that a moving train, an old mansion that is literally burning out from under your feet, or a flying cargo plane, that you’re desperately trying not to fall out of while its crashing. TR tries to emulate some of these set pieces that get destroyed around you, and they are great, but don’t quite hold up. That being said, TR had us trapped on an island, Uncharted had us spanning the globe, so story wise, they had a little more freedom. The foundation is there, and Crystal Dynamics can improve on it a lot if they plan to make more.
Secondly, for a game called Tomb Raider, the actual tomb raiding is an afterthought. Granted, you could consider the whole mystical island with its gods and supernatural aspects as a big tomb, but the island is really just made up of smaller shanty towns and villages, and a couple temples and shrines. The game does provide a few OPTIONAL mini tombs worth exploring, and worth mentioning, this is where you’ll also find the bulk of the puzzle aspects of the game, which is insufficient.
And finally, I’m not going to review the graphics, as the game looks great on the PC (especially with the hair physics), but I played on the aging Xbox360, which can’t hold up, so I can’t comment. I can comment on the animations, which are great, but not as good as they could be. For a game that was seemingly trying to build on what Uncharted had perfected over its past 3 games, they can’t compare. They tried and nearly got it right, but the Uncharted games used motion capture for A LOT, not just cut scenes, and you can’t compete using key frame animation. It’s a shame because Crystal Dynamics hired Camilla Luddington for the cut scene motion capture and voice-acting; why not use her for some of the gameplay animations. The game’s polish just can’t compete with Naughty Dog’s franchise, either due to time constraints, developer experience, or budget.
All that being said, Tomb Raider has its ace, its lead protagonist, its heroin. Lara Croft. You can’t go wrong. Lara’s story is retold through this reboot, her first adventure. She’s younger, and shes fit. She more realistic looking and handling. Starting as a naive explorer trying to follow the footsteps of her father, she joins an archaeology group on a boat. The boat crashes, she loses her friends along the way, and from then on she’s basically forced to react to everything the island can throw her way as she tries to find a way off. The island inhabitants are really in the same pickle, but Lara, her first kill out of the way, doesn’t really give them a lot of time to share their thoughts. She’s a ‘survivor’ and they are in her way. Losing her friends and companions left and right leaves her no real choice other than kill to survive. Starting innocent, she ends her journey scarred, burned, and with a different darkness to her eyes, knowing she’ll never return home the same person, if she ever does decide to go home.
The game is fantastic throughout, and understandably it was delayed to add additional polish, but maybe they should have scrapped the ill-thought multiplayer and delegated the time and resources to an additional coat.