Tomb Raider Review: A Prime Example of Why I Love Video Games
While she might not be the most popular game character of all time, Lara Croft is no less one of the most important in gaming’s history. After all, she’s one of the first overtly female game characters, has sparked a fair amount of controversy thanks to her generous body proportions and cries of sexism, and has appeared in several games that have received moderately lukewarm critical reception.
So I’ll admit I was honestly surprised when Crystal Dynamics first unveiled the trailer for a Tomb Raider reboot. How would people react? How would it go over? And most importantly…would it be good?
See the video review below, and read on for a more in-depth review:
Much to my pleasant surprise, the game was not only good; it was great, and a masterful example of why I play video games.
Why is that, you ask? Put simply, that question calls for multiple answers. And the best place to start is by taking a look at the game’s story. After all, we’re seeing a whole side of Tomb Raider this time around that isn’t riddled with classic Lara’s cheesy quips and boss fights with dinosaurs.
No, this time around, Lara’s fresh out of college and looking to make a name by herself by hooking up with a film crew in search of a lost island called Yamatai. At her insistence, the crew decides to take an alternate (and albeit more dangerous) route to get to the supposed location of the old Japanese stronghold. But when they encounter a massive storm, they find themselves marooned on an island with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the mere wreckage of their ship.
At the game’s onset, Lara manages to get separated from the rest of the group, finding herself strung up in a cavern and surrounded by bones and decaying corpses. After setting herself free, she falls to the ground and ends up with the unfortunate injury of a spike through the side.
And with that, the game manages to set up its gritty and gruesome tone with a masterful flair. After all, this is an island gone mad, and Lara’s number one goal is to survive.
After a particularly unsettling and graphic scene involving the removal of said spike, she escapes the cave and finds herself on the shore, facing the bones of multiple shipwrecks that have piled up on the shores of Yamatai over the years.
From there, the game’s story continues to unfold in a fascinating and gripping way. Naturally, the survivors of the Endurance wind up getting more than they bargained for, juggling the elements, madmen, and seemingly supernatural events as they try to find a way to escape. And of course, being the protagonist and all, Lara finds herself right smack dab in the middle of the fray.
While the story progression is fascinating and fun to behold, it’s Lara’s character development that really takes center stage as the most impressive part of Tomb Raider’s overall narrative. In the beginning, she starts out as a timid and horrified young woman, eventually finding her own sense of courage and strength enough to allow her to carry out all she needs to in order to save both her own life and the lives of her friends. Throughout the game’s solo campaign, you’ll witness her emotional breakdown after killing someone, see her experience true pain and fear as her friends go missing or die before her eyes, and you’ll watch her begin to own a sense of courage she didn’t even know she had. It’s all woven together so nicely that it leaves us with one hell of an overall character arc and makes her one of the most well-rounded characters I’ve ever seen in a video game.
The story features flavors of Lost with a healthy dose of Indiana Jones, all while maintaining its own personality that is undeniably Tomb Raider. While it’s heavy on the grit, it feels right and gives Lara a fantastic jumping off point as a rebooted and modernized character.
Of course, this isn’t a movie, and the central part of a video game is how the game itself actually plays. So how does the reboot manage to bring fresh gameplay back to the series?
Like Tomb Raider games of old, you’ll spend a majority of the game climbing, jumping, and running through various environments. While you’ll experience the typical tropes of grabbing on ledges and climbing ladders, there are a number of systems involved in the game’s platforming that see you using your weapons to also open up and gain access to new areas of the environment. Shotguns clear out wooden barriers, grenades destroy metal walls, and rope arrows allow you to travel via zipline and pull down certain items throughout the world. It’s all woven together nicely in a tight and well-designed platforming system that makes traveling enjoyable.
A classic convention in classic Tomb Raider games is the use of environmental puzzles and challenges that saw players exploring, backtracking, and working to find the solution to whatever ancient contraption was placed in their way. While this reboot doesn’t have puzzles with quite the same exhausting depth, it still uses clever puzzles in an intuitive way that really draws you into the experience and make you feel every bit as desperate survivor as Lara herself.
Example? There’s a part towards the end (no spoilers) that sees you taking an elevator down to the bottom floor of a building. However, you need to remove four parts of the elevator in order to break through a barrier and gain access to the bottom floor. So, you’ll spend a few minutes going up and down stairs and stopping the platform in specific spots in order to remove the pieces and send it careening down to the bottom. Yes, it’s a puzzle; but the game does such a great job of masking it that it feels more like something you need to do to survive and get where you need to go. For that, it’s brilliant and fun to engage with throughout the game’s campaign.
While platforming and puzzle solving is fun and interesting, it still manages to take a backseat to the gameplay’s real star: combat.
There’s no wonky targeting and dual-wielding pistols here. Rather, Tomb Raider uses a smart auto-cover system that sees Lara crouching down when enemies are near and offers a handful of cover options (including some of which is destructible) to give you the chance to hunker down and pop up.
That is, if you want to. See, the brilliant part of Tomb Raider’s combat design is that it caters to all play types, experiences, and preferences. Sure, you could Call of Duty it in there and jump into the fight guns-a-blazing. Or, if you lean more toward the conservative, you could always stick to the shadows and take out enemies one by one with stealth takedowns or silent headshots with the bow and arrow. Many encounters even offer differing paths to give you additional traversal options, and a smart upgrades system allows you to give Lara new moves and build up your weapons to be more effective in combat.
Enemies are aggressive and varied, forcing you to use a bit of strategy when you walk into a battle. You’ll have to juggle explosives, melee attackers, archers, shielded enemies, and vicious gunmen all in one beautifully designed experience that is both satisfying and challenging in all the right ways.
Possibly one of my favorite parts of the game was its ability to react to the world and events taking place around Lara. When injured, she would clutch her side and at times refuse to perform certain actions due to being in pain. Water cleaned her off, she became bloody after getting hurt, and the camera used a number of effects to convey when Lara was dizzy, hurt, in pain, or fading in and out of consciousness.
While the comparison between Tomb Raider and Uncharted has been made multiple times, I can attest to the fact that, outside of cinematics and similar story beats, the comparison really is apples to oranges. Tomb Raider not only features a grittier narrative, but it also offers players the opportunity to explore the island and backtrack a bit in order to gain access to secret tombs in an effort to gain experience. While the campaign is fairly linear in its story progression, it’s much more open than the likes of an Uncharted game and allows players to take in and enjoy the twisted world of Yamatai on a whole new level.
Yes folks, there are quick time events in Tomb Raider. And while I’ve traditionally been one to talk them down, I have to admit that this game manages to use them in a way that is both intuitive and unique. And yes, there are timed button presses you’ll have to use at key moments, but they feel more interactive than others simply because of their implementation and playing on your reflexes. I never thought I’d say it, but this game actually used quick time events well enough to make me not hate them. Hell, I’d even admit to enjoying them.
Sadly, multiplayer fails to pan out as much as designers may have wanted it to. It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either, instead settling in that awkward middle ground of being yet another uninspired multiplayer mode shoehorned into the experience for seemingly no reason other than to provide players with an alternate play mode after they’ve beaten the main campaign. Which feels a bit unnecessary, being that the game already has a fairly high replay value for those who will want to hunt down all of its many collectibles and try to gain access to each of the secret tombs. While the multiplayer isn’t anything to write home about, it didn’t do much to sway my already high opinion of the game, being that it felt nothing more than ancillary as it is.
Really, one of the most impressive parts of Tomb Raider is the game’s stunning presentation. The art design is beautiful, yielding highly detailed and striking environments as Lara travels all around Yamatai. Each environment feels unique from others, and there were several times during both my playtime and video editing that I found myself marveling at how visually astounding the game is. On top of that, the big action sequences and set pieces helped to really send some adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream at key moments.
While the occasional facial animation was hit or miss, even the character models in Tomb Raider were a sight to behold. Each character was brought to life both through great design and acting, breathing another layer of life into an already immersive experience. Add to that some satisfying sound design that lent an air of satisfaction to using the game’s weapons and a great soundtrack that conveyed the world’s personality well, and Tomb Raider’s presentation is tied up in one neat little package.
So, why a 10? Like any game, Tomb Raider was not without its little facets that managed to bug me. But my grievances with the game were so slight that they ultimately had little to no impact on the experience as a whole. Essentially, Tomb Raider is a prime example of why I love video games: it has an amazing story with one of the most well-developed characters I’ve ever seen, features top-notch combat and platforming that felt like puzzles in and of themselves, and was an overall sight to behold from start to finish. I found myself having difficulty putting the game down during my time with it, and even in the moments that I wasn’t playing, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be thinking about it. It’s a solid and cohesive experience from the start, and has become one of my all time favorites alongside the likes of Mass Effect and Portal. It not only delivers on its many systems and conventions; it masters them in a way I never could have imagined it would. And for that, I’d argue that Tomb Raider is up there with some of the best games of this generation.
(Note: This game was purchased by the author and reviewed after twelve hours of gameplay. Tomb Raider is also available on PC and Xbox 360.)