Tomb Raider Review: Not That Kind of Croft


Tomb Raider

The Lara Croft of old was a snarky, athletic, rich girl, toting two pistols and clothing that any legitimate archeologist would chortle at if they saw. But the rebooted Tomb Raider’s Lara isn’t that kind of Croft; she’s a frightened, inexperienced, young adventurer thrown into a situation where she must fight if she has any chance of surviving. Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise is a high-stakes adventure that develops a character from innocence to murder – in a very abrupt and disjointed way – and creates a platform for further Lara Croft adventures.

Lara and a historical documentary crew are on the hunt for the lost island of Yamatai. After a freak storm shipwrecks the crew on this mysterious island, the game throws Lara into a series of very unfortunate events that change her forever. Crafting a believable character is a difficult thing, and the first hours do a good job establishing Lara as a naïve, in-over-her-head kind of girl without much more than a merit badge in survival training from her childhood Girl Scout troop. She apologizes for killing a deer and shows remorse over killing a man for the first time; but it’s hard to take those moments seriously when, minutes later you’re slaughtering handfuls of other crazed island cultists.

By attempting to humanize Lara, the game suffers from narrative dissonance where it seems like whatever happens to her through cutscenes never really translates through the game. It’s an identity crisis where the game wants to let Lara grow as a character, but since this is a third-person shooter, you need to let players shoot guys. It’s this constant tug-of-war with what the writers want to achieve with her character, and what she actually does throughout the game. She’ll lament over the death of a friend, but murder hundreds of guys. One really impactful scene where Lara is curled up in a ball by the fire, shivering, feels diminished when (about an hour later) she’s climbing up a radio tower in the middle of a snowstorm wearing nothing but a tank top and cargo pants and is perfectly fine.

But the thing is, the story isn’t bad. It does take a weird left turn when Lara starts to uncover the secrets of the island, but the Tomb Raider games have always had a bit of quirk to their narratives, so it’s not too crazy; it has an enjoyable action movie vibe akin to Indiana Jones. Lara’s arc is compelling and she is definitely a different person by the end of the game. However, when the story is coupled with the actual playing of the game, it breaks apart.

Tomb Raider 2

You start off the adventure with nothing and by the end have an arsenal of weapons at your disposal. The standard third-person shooter weapon types are here, from shotgun to assault rifle with a grenade launcher attachment. It’s incredibly satisfying to use all of the weapons, but none come close to using the bow. With the game’s upgrade system you can make your weapons more accurate, more powerful, and have addition ammo types. To upgrade weapons, you’ll need to hunt for salvage found by looting the bodies of enemies or animals, or in crates hidden in the environments. Killing enemies, hunting animals, and completing objectives will award you with XP, which you can use to gain additional skills and perks that give you addition combat moves and upgrades to your Batman Detective Vision equivalent that highlights collectibles and enemies throughout the environment.

Some combat scenarios take place in larger, more open spaces allowing you to experiment with different weapons and move through the environment to get the jump on enemies. You can attempt to be stealthy by using the bow, or go guns blazing with the other weapons. You can use some of your exploration tools in combat as well, like the rope arrows which can pull enemies towards you and knock them off balance.

For the majority of the game, Crystal Dynamics is attempting it’s best impression of the Uncharted games, which isn’t a slight against it, because they do a great job creating something similar. You’ll climb around environments through a set path, narrowly avoid something hurtling straight at you, and jump off things that will probably crumble beneath you as well. A few scenes have you running towards the camera (thankfully never employing the Crash Bandicoot style platforming-without-knowing-what-is-in-front-of-you gameplay), and others will have you quick-time event your way through an action set piece that is never as adrenaline pumping as one in Uncharted, but still always pretty exciting.

The game opens up in certain areas that allow you to explore the island a little bit. There are a bunch of different collectibles to find (some of which develop the characters and island lore beyond what is in the game proper, which is nice) and various optional tombs to raid. Most of these tombs are hidden away, or unable to be accessed without a certain piece of equipment, giving you a reason to come back later. Surprisingly, in a game called Tomb Raider, you actually do very little raiding of tombs. Most of these optional tombs can be completed in under five to ten minutes, and consist of one Rube Goldberg-esque puzzle to solve each. These tombs are satisfying, but short, and I only wish there were more of them through the main path, rather than used as side content.

I played the PC version of the game, so think of this as an optimal experience, but the game looks absolutely fantastic. The environments are rich with color and dense with stuff to look at. Over the course of the game Lara will get abused in so many ways that she’s covered in many cuts and burns, and her clothes are ripped to shreds.

Of course, there’s a multiplayer offering but it’s just an amalgamation of all the different things we’ve seen before. It’s got the Call of Duty style unlock system, the gameplay feels like Uncharted’s multplayer, all the modes you would think to be included in a multiplayer game are there. But the multiplayer is not all that enjoyable compared to the games like it.

Crystal Dynamics set out to reboot Lara Croft as a more compelling character in a more modern game. They succeed handily in crafting something fun and enjoyable, but the story loses its footing due to the disconnect between narrative and gameplay. As a whole, it’s a great game worth playing, even if some of its parts don’t mesh as well as others.

4 Star Rating

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] In lieu of doing my typical editorial, this week fellow editor Clint Prentice and I have a letter-based discussion about ludonarrative dissonance in Tomb Raider. In functions as a complementary piece to his review, which you can find here.  [...]

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Error! Not Found has many articles of opinion. Every editor has different tastes and beliefs, and one point of view does not necessarily reflect the group as a whole.

(c) Evan Tognotti, Editor-In-Chief. 2011

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