When it comes to the social and political issues that surround the dawn of a new era for the game that helped make gaming somewhat more acceptable than it previously was, we’re not expertly placed to comment. Therefore, we won’t. We are expertly placed to talk about the game as a game though, so let’s do that.
Tomb Raider is not the Tomb Raider game that you’ve played a billion times before, and for our money, that’s a good thing. Whether it took place in non-descript caves, a lost underwater city, or the jungles of Borneo, to say that the franchise was beginning to look tired would be an understatement. No, the Tomb Raider of 2013 is a brutal, thrill-a-minute ride that takes back a lot of the things that were borrowed from it by the excellent Uncharted series.
When we say brutal, we mean brutal, too. If you make a mistake as you leap between zip lines as you navigate your way back from scavenging on a pirate ship, Lara unceremoniously cracks her head on some underwater rockery, and bleeds out. If you mistime a jump as Lara slides down a steep slope, she gets impaled through the neck on a pole that just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - briefly and hopelessly crying out and struggling to free herself before the screen fades to black. Indeed within the first ten minutes you’ll have seen Lara almost drown, get knocked unconscious by a right cross to the face from a burly fella, get hung upside down by the feet alongside a few corpses, and then non-fatally run herself through as she falls directly onto a sharp piece of metal that’s sticking up from the ground. This is also one of the first games where your character becomes visibly injured as the game plays out. At the outset, Lara’s skin is trademarkably flawless, but later on you’ll find that you start to see scars appearing on her arms and shoulders, and scuffs and tears appearing on her clothes. It may only be graphical flair, but seeing this and knowing that a silly mistake could lead you to a horrendous death animation, adds a layer of believability to a character that’s been analysed from every possible angle a million times before now, salaciously or otherwise.
This ain’t your granny’s idea of a Tomb Raider game, and that’s for darned sure.
Placed in the time when Lara Croft was dreaming of becoming a world-famous explorer, the game sees Ms. Croft and a crew of survivors trying to escape the island of Yamatai after their ship is destroyed. Initially, the game plays right into the survival horror fan’s wheelhouse, with severely limited ammunition and the fear of the unknown causing chills up the spine as you take your first steps into the game. Creeping through a maze of caverns, solving some simple puzzles, and taking care not to let your torch go out is the order of the day, and every time you make a significant noise, you’ll find yourself holding your breath – just in case an in-game enemy can hear you. It really is an awesome way to kick off proceedings.
As play progresses, the game constantly reminds you that your goal is to survive out on this apparently sparsely-inhabited island in the middle of nowhere. As it does this with more and more frequency though, the game opens out and becomes a more traditional third-person shooter, and as this occurs, Lara slowly becomes a more traditional badass. Initially apparently afraid to swear – “Get off me, you rascal!” – her language becomes more coarse. Initially remorseful about having to take a life, her kill rate heads up into the high hundreds as she becomes desensitized to it all and begins to dispatch of anybody that gets in her way. Initially desperately scared to waste as much as a single arrow, she suddenly has access to more ammunition than the US Armed Forces, via ammo caches that are EVERYWHERE, or from searching dead enemy after dead enemy. That the game doesn’t buckle under the weight of such a sea-change in approaches is to the developer’s credit, even if we were kind of taken by the way that things were going in the early exchanges.
That the game switches between the slow-paced stealth moves and ammunition conservation as if it were a hybrid of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil 2, to the all-out shoot or be shot approach of Uncharted is not going to be to everyone’s liking. The twists and turns of the storyline go some way to making the transition more convincing, even if some of the cutscenes are wildly overplayed and last somewhat longer than you’d like them to. Also assisting with the change are the amount of straight-out cool things that you can do. An upgraded bow can fire flaming arrows that can be used tactically against opponents, and that also can be used to complete certain challenges, for example. A further upgrade gives you the ability to fire rope arrows, much to the same effect. Thinking “Hmm, that guard is on a high ledge, wouldn’t it be awesome if I could hit him with a rope arrow and pull him over the precipice?” and then being able to do exactly that never gets old. Also, Tomb Raider’s generous engine is one of the first that ensures that if you are quite clearly leaping to attach yourself to a zipline, the game takes note and makes sure that you do indeed attach yourself to the zipline. The same goes for jumping across gaps. The amount of games that don’t do this and let you jump to your doom time and time again is beyond belief, so Tomb Raider gets another plus point here.
At times though, it seems that the hand-holding goes too far. Unless you’re seeking out the hidden tombs (which contain puzzles that need to be solved for you to be adjudged to have “raided” the place properly), there’s very little in the main game that gets in the way of your progression. One of the most taxing puzzles comes within the first twenty minutes of play, and the rest of the story mode won’t really test your grey cells. If you need to get up to a high ledge, you can bet your bottom dollar that somebody has conveniently splashed white paint all over a distinct wall or plank of wood nearby that allows you to double-jump up there. Either that, or the wall will be covered in pock-marks, meaning that you can use your axe to climb up it. If you need to use a rope arrow, something somewhere will already be marked by being wrapped in a length of white rope. Maybe you need to light something on fire? Walk up to it and see if the “set light” icon appears. It’s all so straightforward. The AI doesn’t help as far as the challenge goes either, it must be said. Generally, their tendency seems to be to wisely take cover when being shot at, but then try to take you down in a hand-to-hand confrontation when they’ve switched cover enough times to be close enough to do so. This means that when you’ve unlocked the shotgun, you’re somewhat overpowered as they come bumbling towards you and you off them with one pull of the trigger.
This is the major downside of Tomb Raider, for us. In the main body of the eight-hour main game mode, the only parts that require any major thought are the sections where you’re pinned down by heavy gunfire. And even then, the main choice that you have to make revolves around choosing a weapon and picking which target you’re going to hit first. However, it must be said that this is the tiniest of flies in the ointment. Taking Tomb Raider as a whole package, a slightly less than tough challenge isn't enough to warrant even a single dropped point - because the journey is that good that it counter-balances things nicely. Plus, you can always play through on the top difficulty setting, which toughens up those enemies (in both mind and body) well enough to put the most hardened shooter to the test.
The action set pieces and the story as a whole really are thrill-a-minute stuff, and when you combine that with graphical chops that really show off the power that the console still has, and sound design that serves to highlight exactly how much of a boost the right score and effects can provide to a game, you’ve got a very winning package that can stand to take a hit or two in some areas. Lara’s panting, muttering, and squealing won’t be for everybody, but we defy anybody – man or woman – to do twenty pull-ups and not be out of breath, or to be shot with a flaming arrow and not to shout out in pain. The sound design is absolutely top notch – we can’t praise it highly enough.
Some will baulk at the relative shortness of the campaign mode, but that’s filled out – and be aware that it absolutely will be filler to most players – by stacks of collection targets and challenges that will keep the avid fan engrossed for a good old while. It is a little annoying thinking that you’ve discovered a hidden artefact, only to be told that you’ve unlocked a mushroom-collecting challenge, it must be said, but the digital hide-and-seek of finding GPS caches, document pages, and everything in between will add a chunk of game time for some.
Tomb Raider is an adrenaline-filled title that is aesthetically superb. It isn’t a difficult game, it isn’t an overly long game, and it is by no means a perfect game, but the fact that you’ll be sorely tempted to sit and play through the entire thing in one or two sittings is testament to how polished and exhilarating the package is. The whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts, make no mistake about it. Excellent.