Despite being old enough to remember rolling my eyes at the original media sensation over Lara Croft1 I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually played a Tomb Raider game. Well, except for the excellent Guardian of Light spinoff back in 2011, but that game’s fixed isometric perspective and focus on co-op means that it doesn’t really count. They didn’t make Tomb Raider games for the N64, and when the first reboot rolled around in 2006 the gameplay looked distinctly dated since there were other, fresher games doing the same sort of thing – Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed and so on. In a peculiarly ironic twist, the Tomb Raider series itself always seemed to me to be just as much of an archaeological relic as the collection of ancient ruins that Lara explores in every game – and with five games in the original series and three more after the reboot, there were a lot of games. It’s no wonder the franchise looked a bit tired.
But now! Now there is yet another Tomb Raider game, and this time – presumably in an attempt to combat exactly the sort of stagnation I just described – they’re rebooting it properly. This means no more subtitles, no more previously existing history, and no more wisecracking Lara as she unloads a pair of pistols into a velociraptor’s backside. Crystal Dynamics (who have had custody of Tomb Raider since 2006) have taken both the gameplay and the character back to the drawing board, and while what has emerged is still just recognisable as a Tomb Raider game this second reboot infuses hefty number of modern innovations into the core concept in an attempt to make it relevant again. Did they succeed? Let’s find out together.
Tomb Raider rewinds things all the way back to what is presumably the start of Lara’s career as a globetrotting grave robber. Lara is a young archaeologist working as part of an expedition to find a mythical lost civilisation somewhere in the Pacific Ocean when suddenly their ship is hit by a sudden and inexplicable storm and dashed upon the rocks of a nearby island. Said island rather predictably turns out to be the home of the lost civilisation they were looking for, but it also turns out to be inhabited by a rather disagreeable cult of shipwrecked bums who don’t take too kindly to strangers and begin hunting Lara and her pals with a selection of makeshift/antique weaponry. Lara has to learn how to survive on the island, evade the unwelcome attentions of the cult and unravel the mystery of the lost civilisation before she can hope to escape.
This is a fairly decent setup for a game, even if the plot outline does read like somebody’s been watching a few too many episodes of Lost. You’ve got the player stuck in an isolated environment with no chance of outside help and a player character at the very start of her ass-kicking career with many future skills to be learned during the course of the gameplay; this means that the player’s progression through the game matches that of the player character perfectly – seguing from struggling to surviving to laying waste to everything around them – and results in a stronger connection to what’s going on inside the game that keeps the player interested. This is something I think has been lacking from those other franchises I mentioned (only the first Prince of Persia game really managed to pull off the same thing, and while I might have liked Ezio as a character I could care less about his struggles against a series of identikit Templar goons) and which did much to keep me more invested in it than I would have been otherwise. I’m not saying Tomb Raider’s plot is good – it’s actually one of the more hackneyed, trope-reliant pieces of writing I’ve seen recently – but it does make for a fairly solid foundation to build a game on, as well as ensuring that the Lara Croft character is rather easier to empathise with than she has been in the past.
As for how they’ve built that game… well, it could have gone a lot worse. With the game’s marketing harping on about survival I was rather hoping that the gameplay would focus on survival – i.e. foraging for food, scavenging equipment and generally trying not to die – but that was probably a bit much to ask of a mainstream AAA title. You can harvest fruit and shoot animals for XP and “salvage” (the game’s currency), but that’s just about as far as the focus on pure survival goes; instead, Tomb Raider opts for a strangely hybrid approach of welding together pseudo-open world gameplay – in which you can return to any area you previously visited to track down stuff you might have missed – with scripted, linear shooting galleries where Lara mows down hordes of unshaven goons. These linear segments are reasonably entertaining for what they are, but still struck me as a somewhat hamhanded attempt to transplant the dated gameplay of previous Tomb Raider games into the modern era. It makes Lara rather less empathetic when she murders probably two or three hundred people during the course of the game, and personally I would have preferred encounters with human enemies to have been used rather more sparingly than they have been here.
What could they have replaced it with? Well, puzzles, for a start. Tomb Raider takes a Metroidvania approach to exploration and area progression, with new items Lara acquires opening up new areas as well as expanding what she can do in the older ones. However, while this is a great recipe for exploration it never really makes for much of a puzzle, since the places where Lara can use her new toys are always clearly marked and there isn’t really any scope to use them outside of the very narrow and well-defined boundaries of linking one area to another. As far as actual puzzles in Tomb Raider go – i.e., the areas of the game where you actually have to stop and use your noggin for a minute or two – there’s maybe, oooh, twelve of them. In the entire thing. Seven of these are found in the titular tombs, which are incredibly underwhelming; every one of them consists of a single room containing one puzzle, often involving burning something with fire or weighing something down so that Lara can get to a treasure chest. One of them – I’m not even kidding here – had me weighing down one end of a seesaw so that Lara could use it as a ramp. This was a puzzle that was insultingly simple when I did it in Half Life 2 back in 2004 – and that at least had the excuse that it was one of the first games to implement realistic physics in a big way. Not all the puzzles in the game are that bad, but for a game about exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization and whose forebears drew more than a little inspiration from the Indiana Jones films it could have done with a few more examples, and better ones too.
So Tomb Raider is light on puzzles and heavy on action, and unfortunately for a modern game “heavy on action” means it features an explosive proliferation of that scourge of modern gaming: the quicktime event. Tomb Raider loves its quicktime events. The damn things are everywhere. By putting so many of them in the game Crystal Dynamics have done the impossible and come up with a couple of quicktime events that I actually liked – if you only just manage to grab onto a ledge with your fingertips you have to quickly press E to secure your grip, which is much better than having you plummet to your death for being a few pixels short – and you can at least get used to the player-initiated ones like counter kills, but any time Tomb Raider springs an unexpected one on you the chances are you will die at least once, simply because you don’t have enough time to both recognise that a quicktime event is happening and then react to it with the correct button inputs. It doesn’t help that Tomb Raider is bloody awful at communicating to the player when a quicktime event has started, or what they’re supposed to do. Sometimes there’d be a non-interactive cutscene, and then Lara would start running towards the camera, and then she’d plummet to her death because the game had actually handed control back to me at that point and I hadn’t realised the cutscene was over. Or I’d be in a cutscene which would obviously transition to a quicktime event but would only tell me which button it wanted me to press via one of two almost identical red symbols on a black background. One of them means E. One of them means F. Until you can tell the difference, you’re going to die an awful lot to an interactive cutscene.
Eurgh. The good news is, that’s most of the bad stuff Tomb Raider does out of the way. It might be a depressingly conventional game considering the premise, but not everything conventional games do is automatically bad and Tomb Raider actually manages to execute several of its key mechanics very well. Extremely well, actually; I’d even go so far as to say it’s probably the best implementation of third-person cover-shooter gameplay I’ve ever seen. It manages this – oddly – by regressing slightly and removing the usual “take cover” button that sticks the protagonist to a conveniently waist-high concrete barrier like glue. Instead, Lara will simply shimmy up to any walls or crates when she’s near enough with no player prompting required, and because she doesn’t “stick” to them – being able to move about freely in any direction whenever she wants, even if she is technically in cover – this is far, far less annoying than the usual genre examples, not to mention making gunfights far less static. Lara’s movement in general is very good, which is probably not a surprise considering Crystal Dynamics have had three previous Tomb Raider games to practice getting it right; it’s probably a little too reliant on all climbable surfaces being highlighted in white paint, but I’ll put up with that little bit of artificiality if it cuts down on the amount of time I spend thinking “Now where the fuck do I go now?” The gunplay and combat is also solid; this is probably the main reason why the game being so action-focused isn’t too much of a problem, since there’s a nice selection of enemies with different weapons and behaviours to stop things from getting too repetitive. I never really felt like I was fighting the game to do what I wanted to do and often didn’t really think about the details of the movement or control systems, which is usually a good sign that you’ve done something right when designing them. This ensures that most of the time, when you are playing Tomb Raider, you are concentrating on having fun climbing cliffs or shooting puzzles, and not on making a series of pixel-perfect jumps in order to progress to the next area.
The last point I’m going to mention is something of a mixed bag, because there are some things about it I really like, but I also though it ultimately didn’t really work when placed in context with the rest of the game. During the game you collect both salvage and XP for nearly everything you do – hunting animals, killing bad guys, looting bodies, solving puzzles, progressing the plot – and these can be spent levelling up/improving your skills and weapons. Levelling up skills is fairly straightforward, although the structure of the skill trees and the bizarre decision to only have one of the trees unlock a third of a the way into the game hurts it, in my opinion. Improving weapons is a different beast, however, and probably the one single element of the game that really connects with the game’s setup of trying to survive with makeshift equipment. You start by picking up basic weapons – a Colt .45, a trench shotgun and so on – and then you spend your salvage to weld more bits and pieces onto them. This improves the performance of the weapon in combat, but it also changes how the weapon model looks when Lara is using it. You mod your Colt to have an extended magazine and after that it’ll always have an oversized box sticking out the bottom of the grip; with the bigger weapons this can lead to a hilariously jerry-rigged appearance since Lara is literally taping and tying all this extra stuff onto the gun, and it really does emphasise that this abstract salvage mechanic is representing Lara scrounging improvements from her environment to survive.
Now, if they’d managed to keep that makeshift theme going all the way through the upgrade process I’d say it’s probably the thing Tomb Raider manages to do best; I love games that visually respond to the stuff you do and the progress you’ve made and the guns can be a constant reminder of that. Unfortunately the upgrade mechanic is actually a mishmash of three or four sub-mechanics, none of which play together in any kind of logical or sane way. You’ve got your salvage, which is fine, and you pay salvage to make improvements to your gun, which is fine. But then you also have “bow parts”, “handgun parts” and so on, which seem to be picked up randomly (I’ve found bow parts in tiny salvage crates in out of the way parts of the map). When you have a set number of bow parts, you can upgrade your bow into an entirely new model of bow, which leads to a preposterous scenario where Lara transforms a bundle of branches with a string into a carved recurve bow, or a Type 100 Japanese submachine gun into an AK-47 assault rifle, or a Beretta into a Magnum. I let this go as being a little bit too gamey but otherwise inoffensive, but since upgrading from one model to another unlocks more base improvements for the weapon it struck me as a bit weird that it would gate weapon progression using this seemingly-random parts mechanic. Finally there’s a couple of points during the game where a character will present Lara with a new version of her weapon in a plot cutscene, which then replaces whatever she was using up until that point. What is the point in having the parts mechanics around when you’re simply going to override it in a scripted event? I just didn’t understand why they’d come up with this perfectly good idea for improving weapons and then decided to make it coexist with two different and competing mechanics. It’s both confusing and unnecessary.
I went into Tomb Raider with no preconceptions and no prejudices. Yes, I thought the series as a whole looked a bit knackered, but that was simply all the more reason to give this second reboot a chance. What Crystal Dynamics have produced here is a solid game; looking back on it this review seems to be mostly relentless bitching, but I think that’s because the things Tomb Raider does well it does rather unobtrusively. If your movement and gunplay systems are working well they tend not to get noticed so much, making way for the stuff that doesn’t work so well to repeatedly poke the player in the eye until they can’t take it any more and write a scathing post about it on their blog. This is a bit unfair because the game is rather fun in an unadventurous kind of way, but it is true that while the bad bits of Tomb Raider are comparatively small/abstract parts of the game I found them almost distractingly so. Perhaps if you’re less of a pedant you might be able to call Tomb Raider good. Me, I’m going to call it promising. This is a concept that isn’t quite there yet and is self-contradictory in places; perhaps if Crystal Dynamics were to take a second swing at it they’d end up producing something a little more coherent, but I’m not sure they can do this again. Part of the reason why Tomb Raider works in spite of its flaws is because it’s the origin story; it keeps you hooked in part because you’re watching the evolution of Lara from scared young woman to hardened adventurer, and in the context of this particular iteration of the series you’re doing many things for the first time. If I had to go through the learning process again in a sequel not only would it be stretching narrative credibility – it’s not like Lara can trip over a Metroid and have all her armour fall off, after all – but I think I’d find it rather tedious a second time around. Still, I’m on board for when the inevitable sequel rolls around in two years’ time. Perhaps they’ll surprise me.
- It went roughly along the lines of “It’s A GIRL! In a game!” and led to her being mentioned in the same breath as the Spice Girls, Girl Power and all that other tedious mid-nineties guff when Britain temporarily convinced itself it was young and vibrant and etc. etc. ↩