For the longest time, I was unsure how I felt about Tomb Raider. Here was a game so clearly trying to mirror the execution of an Uncharted game – a franchise already dear to my heart – yet failing to succeed in the task. Then, as I delved deeper and deeper, it became strikingly apparent that Crystal Dynamics wasn’t attempting to walk in Naughty Dog’s shadows so much as cast a brand new one. But is that even possible?
Let’s back up a little bit first, shall we? When Lara Croft and her band of merry men (see: band of clichéd companions) set out for the legendary Island of Yamatai to discover it’s historical, potentially money-making secrets, things naturally go all sorts of wrong. Like crashed ship, crazy islanders and your best friend getting kidnapped kind of wrong. On a basic level, it’s a serviceable plot, but Tomb Raider’s narrative wants to be more than B-action-movie fodder. This is the evolution of Lara Croft from a scared, naive 20-year old, to hardened adventurer. Hell, even the game’s self-explanatory tagline reads ‘A survivor is born.’
The problem is, as Tomb Raider progresses, the innocence and frailty of Lara is lost. No longer is it about a young woman coming to terms with a foreign environment, the danger it possess and the reality of what it takes to survive. Instead, she devolves into pretty much every other character in action-based video games. I understand that certain concessions must be made, but it doesn’t make the transition of ‘holy crap, I just killed a man’ to ‘come on you bastards, I’m gonna get you!’ any less jarring.
Ultimately, it’s the inherent struggle of trying to portray a cohesive adult narrative within the shell of an action title. Writer Rhianna Pratchett, certainly makes a valiant effort, but I just never truly connected with Lara or any of her companions.
Maybe the problem arises from the lack of any proper introduction; the game’s opening minutes focusing on the Endurance crashing and your prompt kidnapping. There’s no character development, no foundation, just smack-bang into it. As you battle on, you’ll discover a video camera that Lara occasionally flicks through, triggering a flashback cutscene, but even that seems ridiculous. I’m sorry, but if murderous island people are trying to kill me, the last thing I’m going to do is take a reminiscent trip down memory lane. After all, there are baddies to thwart and there is certainly many a way in which to dispatch them.
At its core, Tomb Raider’s combat is designed to be fragile and delicate and for the most part, it succeeds. Lara’s movements are often strained; desperately clambering to cover rather than gracefully weaving like a pro. Even melee animations showcase the adventurer’s struggle to lunge at her opponent as she thrusts her axe towards their head. Crystal Dynamics quickly invoke the mentality of ‘it’s you or them’ and it’s a powerful sentiment. Once you stumble upon your trusty bow and arrow, you feel ready: prepared to journey through this lethal world. It will be them.
There are numerous alternative firearms like shotguns and assault rifles as well, but they almost tar Tomb Raider’s naturalistic experience. Nothing is as enjoyable as silently stalking a group of soldiers, only to gradually drive an arrow through their head, one at a time.
As you make your way through the eventual hordes, you will start gaining XP, useful for building up skills points that can be used to boost Lara’s stats. How you develop her is up to you, presenting options to become a more proficient hunter and salvager or more experienced on the attack with a wealth of new moves to master. Collecting salvage (aka: crates) also aids in the battle, allowing you to upgrade your weapons so that they have less kickback, alternative firing modes and more.
It’s not all about the combat though – a large part of the experience revolving around classic Tomb Raider platformining and puzzles. Often the two are intrinsically linked, requiring the use of a few or all of your skills in quick succession. For example, maybe you’ll need to shoot a rope arrow into a nearby wall, fly down your new zipline, then jump off just at the right moment to land your climbing axe into a rock to prevent you falling to your undesirable death. While the navigation never really becomes much of a challenge, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun, moving about.
Occasionally standard navigation transforms into the world of QTEs and set-pieces and that is when some of the seams begin to show. The problem is that it isn’t always explicitly clear what you must do in some of these scenarios, leading to utter confusion, culminating in restarting particular sequences over and over again for fifteen minutes until you fluke the correct execution (parachute flying, I’m looking at you).
Niggles aside though, there’s a lot of depth on offer here with a vast amount of collectibles to work through once you’re done with the main campaign. There are even secret, optional tombs to be discovered, although again, they never manage to strain the brain too hard.
When I inevitably had to sit on my un-used yoga mat and reflect back on my time with Tomb Raider, I realised something. It might not have the visual fidelity or cinematic flair that a game like Uncharted does, or a story that lures me in with characters that I emote with. But what it does have is highly entertaining gameplay and a rock-solid foundation to build upon in the inevitable sequels to come.
Bring on them tombs.
- Reviewed On
- Xbox 360