Poor Lara Croft, her name is one of the first things people think when you say gaming, alongside names like Samus, Mario and Link. Yet ever since her introduction in 1996, she has had a very rough ride, with some great titles, decent titles and some pretty bad ones, along with a decent movie and a terrible sequel to it. Though I have never played a Tomb Raider title, I have kept up with the history and the repeated attempts at rebooting her over the years. The irony is that in a sense Tomb Raider was rebooted successfully with the Uncharted series of games, which many people considered to be Tomb Raider’s spiritual successor. However, you cannot keep a good girl down, and now comes 2013, and Lara Croft is back to reclaim her title, this time in a prequel reboot that has us go back to her origins and see just how she become the rough and tough adventurer we know her. Unfortunately, Lara manages to barely hang on in this outing.
The plot goes that Lara and her crew are on a ship searching for a lost Japanese civilization. However, the ship is quickly ripped apart, and she and the crew are trapped on a mysterious island filled with dangerous men, and a dark secret. Using her wits, Lara must learn to survive, and even kill, in order to rescue her friends, and get off the island.
The game shares a lot in common with the Uncharted games. Big spectacle, lots of shooting and traversing the rugged and rough terrain, and a lot of puzzle solving. It even borrows from Far Cry 3 in terms of hunting animals, character and weapons upgrades, and the ever so wonderful bow and arrow. All this comes together though, in a very uneven package.
On the positive side of things, the game looks absolutely beautiful with a mostly excellent audiovisual presentation. The environments are gorgeous, the animations are realistic, and the audio does a great job of giving you environmental awareness, plus hearing your enemies talk actually adds humanity, good or bad, to them, rather than just generic killers. I actually had a lot of fun listening to those guys. The platforming works well for the most part, and can be pretty thrilling in the more action based set-pieces. You can also explore optional tombs, which are actually pretty creative in their puzzle design, and grant you additional experience and bonuses that you feel like you truly earned upon completion. The character upgrades and actions you can do actually flow well with the game’s story, showing a woman slowly becoming a jungle warrior with increasingly deadly skills and tactics.
The game suffers from some major problems though; first and foremost is that it is trying too hard. I understand the developers want to compete with the likes of Uncharted, but this is just ridiculous. The sheer amount of stunts, explosions and destruction is frankly too much. It gets exhausting and honestly boring when you have back-to-back-to-back set-pieces without some decent breathing room (read: pacing). It also does not help that the camera is not your friend in many cases, particularly a parachute flight sequence that left me frustrated.
Where Tomb Raider really goes off the rails though, has to be the combat sequences, and it is here where it borrows the wrong things from Uncharted.
See, one of Uncharted’s infamous flaws has always been its enemies who just seem to suck up bullets, and Uncharted 3 made a major mistake by upping the sheer amount of enemies you had to gun down in environments that were ill-suited for the numbers. Tomb Raider makes both those mistakes. Not only do you have to face hordes of armed men, both ranged and melee, but often times you encounter them in ridiculously close quarters. Couple that with the camera again failing you, and having to juggle rotating it while molotovs, dynamite, bullets and swords descend around you, will not only leave you frustrated, but again, exhausted and utterly bored. I kept asking myself if the developers had run out of ideas at certain points and decided to just throw another combat sequence at me. When the combat is manageable though, it is fun and satisfying, and I had particular fun with stealth killing using the bow and arrow, but such fun is few and far between.
What is also exhausting is watching how far Lara herself is pushed, and again, too hard. I understand she is an action hero and getting the crap beaten out of her is supposed to make us care for her and cheer her on when she survives, but there is no excuse for the level of violence she endures here. It just gets silly, to the point where, again, and this is becoming a common phrase here, it gets boring and exhausting. I was rolling my eyes at one point saying “Enough already.”
Thankfully, the game’s pacing improves substantially in the second half, where things quiet down and the game spends less time trying to be Uncharted and more time being Tomb Raider, though the last hour or so amps it up again, but does feel less overwhelming, and the ending fight is rather killer if only for a certain nod.
The second major problem permeating Tomb Raider is the writing. It is forced, ham fisted, and fails to make an emotionally engaging character story aside from some brief moments. Character motivations and introductions are presented after the fact in most cases, and often serve to force an emotionally connection with Lara that never feels genuine. Lara herself is shafted as well, and the writing feels more like it is relying on your knowledge and connection with her in her previous games rather than a standalone character. The whole thing just felt backwards, and made it really hard to get involved with her arc, or find it believable.
Another problem I have to mention, though not as major, but just as irritating, are the Quick Time Events or QTEs. There is a time and place for QTEs and they can work very well to add tension and immersion; the end of Modern Warfare 2 is a great example. Here however, their application just messes up the plot progression and sense of engagement. You can be immersed in a sequence, and then miss a QTE and boom, that immersion is gone, and so is the frustration level through the roof as you continuously miss sequence after sequence. It would have been better off if they just made these sequences pure cinematics.
Finally, do not even bother with the multiplayer. It is not terrible, but it feels tacked on. You battle players in various modes, gain experience, and upgrade stats and weapons. Again, nothing terrible and it can be fun, but it is a pale alternative to much more engaging multiplayer modes out there in other games.
However, though it sounds like the negatives outweigh the positives, the positives actually come out on top. There is enough genuine fun in Tomb Raider to at least recommend it as a rental or purchase on a discount sale. While it is not something I am likely to repeat anytime soon, I do not regret playing it. However, let this be a lesson to developers, you do not have to try so hard to get me to like your game. It can have the opposite effect.