Tomb Raider Review: Tomb R(eboot)aider: Deeper into the heart of darkness

1 - tomb-raider-banner

THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW. Not big ones, kinda tiny ones, BUT STILL SPOILERS. SO STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED. Allrighty then, now that that’s taken care of, let us continue on to the review…

“You’re cursed, in a cursed land, surrounded by cursed people who want to kill you with curses. And raping. And those are the happy bits.” That’s how the game was described to me by a friend. Yes, the new Tomb Raider isn’t the happy, light hearted game of yesteryear, but that’s precisely one of the things that make it good. When you’re in danger in the game, and that happens with alarming regularity, you’re actually in danger. And that makes it fun.

Side note: I do feel I should point out that there isn’t actually any rape in the game. Which came as a huge relief to me.

First, let’s talk a small bit about my history with the older Tomb Raider games: it has been years since I’ve played any game in the franchise, and that’s simply because I couldn’t be bothered to. Back in the ‘90’s I played the first couple on PS1, which were good. She happily smack-talked her way through adventure, as you explored tombs and fought mutant creatures and saved the world.

I briefly played a bit of the later game of the Core Design era, where you looked at her butt and boobs as they bounced through boring platforming. I never came close to finishing any of those games, and when Crystal Dynamics took over the franchise in 2006 it was too late for me, I’d already lost interest in playing them. I’ve heard that they were good, but that’s for people who have actually played them to say.

So this game is for people like me. People who had abandoned the franchise as dumb and infantile, even if it had (possibly) grown beyond that. To restart the story and make the franchise worth paying attention to again. It’s an attempt at a fresh start to make Lara human, not a caricature of a teenage boy’s wet dream pinup. An explanation of why she is strong, how she got the skills she has. A turning away from the triple-G boobs  and Barbie backside reputation it gained over the years to something a little more real.

2 - Lara boobs

Those things are just ridiculous.

So were they successful? In a word: yes.

Tomb Raider opens on the open seas, where Lara and her band of reality TV show archeologists (yep) are on their way to find a lost Japanese civilization that one of her friends is supposedly related to. Very quickly that boat is caught up in a freak storm and dashed to splinters on the shores of a creepy, dark, deadly island full of creepy, dark, deadly people. And right out of the starting gate Lara is placed in a horrifying, truly disturbing situation that she’s simply not ready to deal with. Captured, tied up and hung upside down in a cave full of shrines adorned with dead bodies, Lara must escape no matter the cost.

And there is a cost. Early on in the game Lara is made to suffer. She is impaled, beaten, chased, and emotionally tortured. Any misstep on the gamer’s part, and Lara’s fate quickly goes from grim, to dead. And dead in the worst, most graphic way possible. Missed that timed button hit? Lara ends up shot through the head. Or strangled to death. Didn’t wiggle that left stick fast enough? Lara is crushed by a boulder. Or her throat is ripped out by a wolf. Or she’s thrown off a 400’ cliff.  Guessed that you had to go left instead or right sliding down that hill? Lara ends up with a three foot long branch jammed through her throat.

It’s brutal, and disturbing, but it drives home a point. Lara isn’t safe, and you as the player aren’t safe either. Those large men with guns, who have been trapped on an island for years so rape is always more than a little forward of the back of their minds, they are truly dangerous. Running and gunning to try and beat them will only get you killed. Awfully. Using stealth, using cover, and retreating are more often than not the best way to survive.

And the character Lara knows right from the beginning that she’s not prepared for what she has to do. She’s unsure of herself, scared, confused; very different from the Lara Croft from earlier in the series. This is Lara at the beginning, and it’s great as the player to watch her slowly grow into the character that we already know. Her first kill is truly upsetting to her, but she doesn’t have the time to dwell on it because other people, many other people, are still trying to kill her and all her friends. And by halfway through the game, she’s starting to gain the confidence needed to safe herself and whatever friends are still left alive.

Lara’s first weapon is the bow, and throughout the game it remains your go-to weapon. It’s stealth, it has the best zoom so headshots are easier, and once you gain the right skill you can retrieve your ammo from the people who you’ve pincushioned with it. It almost feels like you’re letting yourself down whenever you’re forced to resort to using the machine gun or the shotgun. More than once I let myself die (horribly) just to see if I could get through a section I was sure I could do using only the bow. Sometimes I could, other times I couldn’t.

3 - Lara bow

There’s something supremely satisfying about successfully getting a headshot with a flaming arrow.

The game is fairly linear, there’s a straight path from you to the end of the story, but the game avoids that issue by letting you jump to any ‘fast-travel’ camps from earlier in the game. The first time I did this I figured like any other game those sections that I had cleared would have remained cleared… that was a mistake, as I ran headlong into a group of a half dozen armed soldiers and quickly was killed. So not only can you explore the game more completely, you still have to worry about getting shot at, which has the effect of completely removing the linear feel of the game.

4 - TR linear

You have every choice you could ever want. You could go straight, or you could decide to go straight instead. Or a third option would be to go straight.

The game isn’t as difficult as it seems though, the brutal death scenes just make it feel that much worse every time you die. I should mention that I played through it on the hard setting, and it certainly is difficult; running into too many armed men is almost certain death. But by playing it deliberately and stealthily, it’s actually much more approachable. By comparison, certain parts of the Uncharted series were magnitudes more difficult.

In the end, the game succeeds at what it promised to do, make the Tomb Raider relevant and interesting again. A lot of comparison has been made between it and the Uncharted series, and it’s easy to see why. They are remarkably similar, and both are outstanding. But there are some real differences that make Tomb Raider stand out as different. Lara is not portrayed as a witty psychopath as she guns down dozens of armed men. She does it because she has to, where in Uncharted you get the very distinct impression that Nathan Drake just really wants to kill all those people. The ability to jump around and replay areas of the map means you don’t have to spend nearly as much of the storyline time searching for treasures if you don’t want to, but it also gives you a very good reason to do so because of the experience gained which you can use to grow your character stats. The pervading sense of the supernatural doesn’t feel quite as tacked on as it does in the Uncharted games, but it more woven into the essence of the universe. The secondary characters in Uncharted are certainly more interesting overall, but you also get to interact with them much more frequently so they better be. The gunplay in Uncharted is also more fun and video game-y, but less realistic and dangerous. And Uncharted has a lot fewer of those quick time button mash minigames in it, which is frankly a good thing. As to which is the better game? Honestly, it’s a toss-up. Both are great, you should play each of them many times.

5 - TR back into the fire

Worth playing again. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the forest… or something.

My final thought on the new Tomb Raider game is that I enjoyed it from start to finish, and I really am looking forward to the sequel. Which I guess would be any of the older games in the series, if you look at it from Lara’s perspective.

Rating: 8.5 (51/60)

Gameplay:            9

Very little to complain about, though the actual raiding of tombs felt tacked on. Also had a bit too many quicktime minigames for my taste.

Difficulty:            7

It’s difficult, though not as difficult as people would lead you to believe. Except for the wolves, and then F’ing-A run for your life.

Tech:                        10

I didn’t run into any glitches in my run through. And it’s gorgeous.

Story:                        9

A dark origin story makes Lara Croft an interesting character.

Characters:            7

Lara is good finally, but her supporting characters have limited depth.

Fun:                        9

Even though it’s fairly linear, you rarely get bored.

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