Crystal Dynamics has done an elegant job of connecting us to Lara Croft in a [epic] origin story told through beautiful environments, moving character performances, and top-notch game mechanics.
I’ve read a number of other reviews online about Tomb Raider and I feel that it’s necessary to get something out of the way before a good review can be made. This game was clearly not made to fit the same mold as its predecessors. If staying in underground tombs, backflips off of ledges, and poor combat mechanics are vital requirements for you, you can stop reading now – you will not like this game. On the other hand, if you’d like a game with solid mechanics that effectively tells a compelling back story for the Lara Croft we’ve all grown to love, read on.
As I said, the purpose of this game is to delve into Lara’s back story. Rather than reboot the series, this game seems to simply be a prequel that shows us how Lara came to be the tomb-raiding bad-ass she is in other games. We start with Lara as part of an archaeological expedition sailing into the Dragon’s Triangle (read “Bermuda Triangle”). In a freak storm, your ship crashes and the whole crew is stranded. As the plot progresses, we find that you are definitely not the first crew stranded and many of the island’s occupants have formed a cult around the supernatural events on the island that conspire to keep people from leaving.
The story is engaging and keeps you moving from place to place without feeling like you’re on a track. Lara’s character is well-developed and the player is drawn into her development. I found myself transitioning from desperately trying to survive to vengeful fury right along with the character. I recall a point where I caught myself shooting cultists through the head with a bow and arrow while they are just trying to pull their friends out of burning buildings and I thought “Oh man, when did I get so angry at these guys?!”
Unfortunately, as much as I got pulled into Lara’s story, other characters were very two-dimensional. The developers did put forth effort to add some back-story to the characters, but they all felt pretty stereotypical and their primary purpose was definitely to be plot devices for Lara’s story.
This game keeps you locked onto an island and at first I thought that would be limiting because I’m used to much bigger games like the Uncharted series. I was pleasantly surprised though at the size of it. It’s big enough that the fast-travel mechanic is absolutely necessary, but it is not ungainly. The different areas also offer a wide variety of terrain ranging from forest to military bunkers to ancient Japanese temples.
The visuals are beautiful, on par with any other adventure game and the sounds are robust enough to be immersive. Many of the environments were open enough to let you tackle problems in whatever way you saw fit, funneling enemies through choke points or slowly moving around the area for stealth kills. There were a few boards, however, that were very linear. In particular, I felt like the Shanty town forced the gameplay into a linear set of shooting galleries in a region that could have been very open.
This was, by far, my least favorite part of previous tomb raider games. The franchise developed its movement system in the early Playstation games and improved very little over the years. I had visions of Lara jumping up and down against a wall because I wasn’t standing at exactly the right place. I’m delighted to say that there was no problem here. All movement felt fluid and natural and I enjoyed jumping and climbing around the environment without yelling at my PS3.
Another nice touch is that, though the mechanics are easy to master, Lara doesn’t have the kind of grace and ease that we see in games like Assassin’s Creed. Near-misses and hard landings add credibility to the character, even if somewhere in the back of my head I know it’s all show.
My greatest hope in combat mechanics was that it would be as good as the Uncharted games. Tomb Raider really surprised me here by taking combat a few steps further. You naturally move in and out of cover without hitting a button and hoping the game understands which cover and which direction. Anyone who’s played a cover-based game has had those times where the mechanic fails you and you die because the game decides you want to hide in front of the wall, not behind it. Not in Tomb Raider.
Sadly, for everything done right in the controls, there’s something done wrong in the AI. The AI is fairly mindless, charging in for melee or hiding behind cover and popping up at predictable intervals. This also means that the difficulty scaling is simplistic. The game just raises enemy hit points, lowers yours, or throws a greater number of enemies at you. It’s not terrible, but it stops the combat mechanics from being as great as they should be.
Like most games in this genre, Tomb Raider tries to pad out the came with collection quests, weapon upgrades, and multiplayer – all of which are firmly mediocre. Collection objectives like every other game you’ve seen them in and a feel more like a chore than anything else. The only saving grace is that the journals you collect fill out the story of the characters and the island. The GPS caches, relics, and challenge collectibles, on the other hand, add absolutely nothing what-so-ever and the challenges are like collecting needles from a haystack in the dark.
Multiplayer is a similar disappointment. I found it enjoyable for a short period of time, but the maps are the same generic feel that has been used since the Playstation 2 games, the modes are nothing to write home about, and it’s an adventure game, not an FPS, so the controls aren’t precise enough to hone any real skills. A fun diversion, but I won’t be putting in the expected 40+ hours to get the end-game achievements on it.
Though the combat isn’t quite as amazing as it could be, you’ll love every minute of gameplay through the main storyline. I’ve even played it through twice because I enjoyed it so much. Some of the flaws may keep it from going down in the books as a legendary game, but I’m definitely glad I played it.
Final Verdict: 4/5
This review was based on a Playstation 3 copy of Tomb Raider