Tomb Raider Review

The Tomb Raider series has had a strong and long-lasting impact on the gaming industry. The original game, from 1996, was widely hailed as a landmark title, which defined 3D platforming and introduced a memorable new heroine; Lara Croft. After a period of successes and failures, the first two games were remade from the ground up in honour of their impact on the gaming industry. The two remakes were well received and performed well commercially, revitalising the popularity of the franchise and bringing the original tales and adventures of Lara into the next generation. After the defunct of the original development company CORE, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics immediately began work, in 2008, on an extremely ambitious project, that would redefine the entire franchise and the original story of Lara Croft. Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot of the series, aims to rewrite the origins of one of gaming’s most recognisable heroines and to reignite the fire created by its respected predecessors. Yet despite critical praise and strong commercial numbers, does this entry in the series truly live up to the massive ambitions it set for itself and does this new take on Lara Crofts life ever become more inspiring than how she was presented in past entries?

The tale takes place in the present 2010s. Lara is a young, but determined woman, who dreams of adventure and uncovering ancient artefacts from lost civilizations around the world. For her first venture into the unknown, Lara and her friends head, aboard the ship, the Endurance, to locate the isolated island of Yamatai, in the Bermuda Triangle. Upon arriving, however, the Endurance is caught in a violent storm, which wrecks the ship and scatters the entire crew. Forcibly separated from them, Lara must traverse the islands harsh landscapes to try to rescue them. As she explores more of the island, it turns out that it’s the homeland of a malevolent cult of survivors who had been stranded on the island for years. Led by “Father” Mathias, the cult aims to resurrect the queen of the islands ancient inhabitants in order to turn back the storm that surrounds the island and to finally claim their freedom.

Tomb Raider takes players throughout all the corners of Yamatai. As a treacherous and hazardous land, surrounded by storms, the island’s landscape is filled with tall cliffs and trees, caves, plane and shipwrecks, dense forests, and ancient abandoned houses. For the most part, the island is beautifully presented, with lush, detailed environments, and an impressive sense of scale that manages to make players feel isolated in the first areas of the game, as Lara must travel through the land without her friends to help her. There are also plenty of moments designed to put players on edge. Strange music echoes through the woods in which Lara is hiding in, bodies hang from walls as if from a ritual, and large areas may be completely deserted, making Lara seem to alone than ever. All of these visual cues come together to create a mostly convincing and immersive world to explore. Yet despite the game’s attempts to portray Lara as a fearful and innocent explorer, who has no martial experience, the game always struggles with portraying Lara as a believable human character with real emotions.

Characterisation has always played a significant role in the development of the series. In the original trilogy, Lara was portrayed more as a sexualised object, with great combat skills, and large triangular breasts. Later titles, such as Anniversary and Legend, have portrayed her in a much stronger light. Her Personality is explored much more, she is given more dialogue through cutscenes and in-game conversations, all of which made her a far more investing and likeable character then she was originally made out to be. with the reboot, the developers have opted to explore the origins of a brand new Lara. This isn’t exactly a story of the Lara that we’ve all played as in previous games, but one that prefers to explore the personality of an entirely new persona. In the first sections of the game, this is done considerably well as Lara struggles to cope with the surrounding danger and her own conditions. After she is forced to kill for the first time she breaks down in anguish from the carnage. It makes sense for her to be traumatised by these events and in the action sequences that follow, you can generally understand her defensive and panicked approach to fighting the enemies. However, as the game progresses. she quickly approaches from an inexperienced individual to a one-woman army. Throughout the game, Lara is thrown into sections where the only way to move forward is to kill every enemy running at her. These moments require Lara to take an extremely aggressive approach to the gameplay, which involves attacking enemies with large guns and even performing gruesome execution moves on weakened enemies, like impaling someone’s skull with the climbing axe, or shooting an enemies face off at point-blank range, with the shotgun. This direction in combat heavily disrupts the way in which Lara is meant to be portrayed and the huge reliance on over-the-top action makes all of the survivor aspects in the gameplay and storyline almost a distant memory. Adding onto this is the ludicrous amount of damage Lara is able to take. Throughout the game Lara is constantly thrown around like a ragdoll; crashing through wooden walls, falling from trees, and surviving encounters that would usually scatter her remains to the wind.

Despite some of the severe failings of the script, the core gameplay manages to provide plenty of entertainment and merits, despite drawbacks. Played from a third-person perspective, the gameplay is divided between combat and exploration. While the amount of action throughout the game is overdone, this won’t be a Tomb Raider game without combat. To defend or attack enemies, players are given several weapons and items to use. The bow is the first and most complex weapon in the game. With it, players can perform silent kills, connect ropes between masts to create zip lines, and even ignite arrows with a lighter and set object ablaze. Other weapons include a shotgun, machine gun, and handgun. These weapons aren’t exactly original tools of war, each of them, overall, feel satisfying to use, with solid visual feedback, and sound design. Despite this, they all begin to feel over-reliant, due to the nature of fight sequences throughout the game. Ammo is provided everywhere, meaning players rarely have to worry about running out of bullets. This is a disappointing aspect since it greatly hinders the games survival mechanics and gives players a greater advantage when openly fighting enemies.

Every weapon can be upgraded by collecting parts from salvage crates and chests that are scattered throughout the game. Aspects like recoil and damage could be improved and magazines can be extended. Each weapon also has several unique upgrades; like a silencer to kill enemies more quickly without being spotted, and enhanced barrels for the shotgun, which adds extra firepower. Despite the over reliance of action-type weapons, these are easily some of the most exciting collectables to gather and each one manages to bring a strong sense of empowerment, which is always refreshing.

The levelling system works as the central system for improving the player’s qualities. The system is divided into three slots: Survivor, Brawler, and Hunter, each of which contains a series of upgrades for separate aspects of the gameplay. The Brawler class, for example, specialises in combat mechanics, that gives players new and improved tactics to fight off enemies through quick-time events, and gun-play. Further improvements include more time for aiming and unlocking a mapping technique, which allows all tombs and secret collectables to be found on the map. Upgrades such as these help to make combat and the overall gameplay more flexible and accessible, as players are given access to entirely new features in combat, and don’t have to search so much for certain collectables. The Biggest flaw with the levelling system, however, is that there are almost no perks to the survivor class to get invested in. Most of these perks contribute to finding animal carcasses and collecting loot and experience points from them once they are dead. It’s very easy to completely ignore these perks as there aren’t many animals throughout the game, and are eclipsed by the tasks of finding collectables and fighting other survivors. It’s also made worse by the fact that players could gain large amounts of Experience points and upgrades without ever upgrading the survivor class, leaving a considerably large room for improvement in what is an overall a well-crafted levelling system.

What is easily combat’s greatest flaw, however, is the serious lack of enemy variety and the underwhelming foes presented throughout the game. Aside from the small packs of Wolves Lara encounters in the forest regions, most of the enemies she’ll face are generic human survivors, who are armed with knives, machine guns, and pretty much all of the same weaponry as Lara has. This is a huge disappointment, as every encounter with them takes all the interest and immersion out of this mysterious land and the appearance of dirty shanty towns and world war 2 bases heavily disrupt the nature and creativity of the game’s visuals. It also doesn’t help that the island’s inhabitants are also an underwhelming presence. Once you stumble across them, they turn out to be simple Samurai Warriors. The Samurai were an interesting group, along with all Japanese history, but with a reboot of a series like Tomb Raider, set on an island that supposedly holds so many secrets, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that a more original clan wasn’t created. Also, because of their nature, their AI only makes them even more disappointing, as fighting them isn’t very compelling. Most of them simply run at point-blank range into Lara’s shotgun and only a few of them are armed with bows and catapults. These sequences do nothing but further add to the ridiculous, over-the-top, style of the gameplay and the direction taken to develop Lara’s character.

While the enemy designs fall flat, the AI for the majority of the survivors provides a serviceable challenge in battle. Enemies will use cover frequently and could attack you from close range if you don’t keep an eye of them. Their accuracy with a gun also makes it quite easy to get shot to death, especially when being surrounded on all sides and where the cover is limited. These advantages help to keep fights relatively interesting and intense despite their bland style and lack of originality.

Puzzles and platforming are sprinkled throughout the game. For a large portion of the game, players will scale high cliffs and shipwrecks, to get to unreachable ledges and areas. Where Lara mostly uses her two hands, she is now given a climbing axe, which helps her to climb up walls of soft rock. While climbing is a relatively easy task, players are often required to avoid objects that fall from above, and must quickly perform a quick-time event to stop Lara from slipping and falling. Climbing is also used in tombs to combine into complex puzzles. These puzzles occur both in secret areas and throughout the main paths of the campaign and involve a hefty amount of climbing, moving objects, and reaching levels that are otherwise too high to get to while on foot. None of the puzzles throughout the game gives a massive challenge and are unfortunately few in number but they do their job of encouraging players to think about how to approach them without failing. This level of complexity does do enough to leave players satisfied, in spite of the relatively underwhelming reward of a simple XP boost and salvage, when the tombs treasure chest is opened at the end.

While the Script works hard at developing the character of Lara it doesn’t seem to make time for many of the game’s side characters, most of whom are bland and forgettable. It’s difficult to feel remorse for them as they struggle to stay alive themselves, and they barely live up to the more believable personalities of other rival adventure games like Uncharted. What hurts them the most however and what makes them so forgettable is that pretty much all of them is a stereotype. Some of the side characters include Jonah: an overweight, kind-hearted man, who is obsessed with craftsmanship, and Roth who acts as the usual farther figure to Lara. You do begin to care about him more than the others due to his personality and headstrong attitude towards all situations, but his eventual death doesn’t leave a strong enough impact to make him an entirely memorable character.  Other stereotypes include the Scottish sailor and black woman who are constantly angry, a nerdy, American scientist, who wears a generic shirt, and Sam, Lara’s best friend, who devolves to an excited but weak damsel in distress. The central antagonist, Mathias, is also not a very inspired character. Like many of the other characters in the game, there is little reason to get invested in his motivations and beliefs, and every moment he appears in never fills players with an urge to take him down.

Despite the lacklustre characters, the voice acting is reasonably strong and convincing. Camilla Luddington does an admirable job of providing the voice of Lara and she manages to convey a lot of emotion through her voice despite Lara’s actions. While she many old-school players of the franchise, including myself, may prefer the performance of Kayley Watts, from the previous entries, Luddington succeeds in her job and is an impactful replacement. The only problem with the voice acting, however, is that dialogue is occasionally stiff. While most lines work well in conveying the emotions and motivations of each character, verbal interactions such as Roth telling Lara could achieve her task because she is a Croft, aren’t entirely impactful, resorting to obviously cliched speechcraft.

Tomb Raider is extremely ambitious in every way and it’s difficult not to admire the amount of passion that went into the game’s script. Yet from beginning to end the game is constantly let down by gameplay mechanics that disrupt the script’s attempts to portray Lara as a believable human character. Those who don’t care very much about the script will definitely find entertainment in the game’s combat system and exploration mechanics, and even those who do care will find it difficult not to admire the amount of effort that went into the game’s production. But despite this, the game is a disappointing remake of such an impactful series and protagonist and may have lost its only chance of making this kind of revival possible.

REVIEW CODE: A PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@brashgames.co.uk.

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