Saturday, June 22, 2013

Tomb Raider (PS3, 360, PC) Review

A game that is too recent to be listed as a Better Late Than Never review, Tomb Raider released back in March, and now SuperPhillip Central is finally giving Ms. Lara Croft's origin story some of our devotion. How does Tomb Raider hold up? Let's find out with our review.

A Story of Survival... And Mass Murder

Back in the days of the original PlayStation, Tomb Raider was a franchise that was a force to be reckoned with. However, as more sequels came out in later generations, each feeling more iterative than the last, the quality of the games declined greatly. Now, the series is faced with a massive reboot created by Crystal Dynamics-- certainly no easy undertaking. Simply titled Tomb Raider, the game shows a more fragile Lara Croft's origin story. Is the price of survival worth the price of admission?

As stated, Tomb Raider tells the tale of Lara Croft's not-so-humble beginnings. When a voyage to an island in the Dragon's Triangle goes awry, Croft and crew's ship crashes. Lara wakes up, calling for her friends, only to be blindsided by a local. Dazed, tied up, and hanging in some kind of cavern, Lara frees herself and must do everything to survive on her own. It won't be easy, as the island is maintained by a crazed cult, any ship or plane that tries to leave the island gets shot down by Mother Nature, and supplies are scarce. Tomb Raider definitely shows a different side to the mythos of Lara Croft. She starts out as an incredibly vulnerable and scared girl and by the end of the game she becomes a hardened survivor. However, I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief at times. Lara is constantly put in ridiculous situation after ridiculous situation, each more insane than the last that it felt like the storytellers were trying to shove it in my face that Lara was a strong-willed survivor. Seriously, I got it already. It's sort of tough to swallow to have it repeatedly drilled into me.

It takes a big man to use a woman for a shield.
Another issue I have with Tomb Raider stems from how violent the game is. It just feels forced and unnecessary. I don't play Tomb Raider games to see Lara Croft impaled through the throat, bashed in the face until she's a bloody mess, or have her spine snap when she smacks into an underwater rock, nor do I want to see that. What the developers call a visceral gameplay experience, I call gratuitous violence for the sake of violence. There's realism and then there's what Tomb Raider is. It gets worse when you realize that  as soon as Lara Croft comes across her first gun (before which she has to carefully sneak around the island), she almost immediately transforms from a helpless young woman into the female version of the Terminator, complete with genocidal kill counts and merciless executions. The violence displayed by Tomb Raider almost becomes comical at some points, obviously not the intention of the developers. It makes emotionally nuanced story sequences of the game seem wasted when the next moment Lara begins slaying foes as easily as a mass murderer.

Bad dog! Down, boy!
That said, Tomb Raider is an incredibly fun experience. The game has you moving from section of island to section of island, exploring the wide open areas (of which you can fast travel from camp to camp), venturing into optional tombs for treasure, performing feats of climbing prowess that would give Nathan Drake a run for his money, hunting animals as if Lara was on an African safari, and taking out violent islanders that want nothing more than to see outsiders like Lara taken out as brutally as possible.

Well, aren't these cheery surroundings. 
Thankfully, Lara has tools at her disposal to bring the brutality right back to them. There are four weapons that Lara Croft comes across in Tomb Raider, and each serves its own purpose. Lara starts out with the bow and arrow, perfect for silently taking out foes and animals. Holding down the fire button draws the bow back more for increased damage, and also easier penetration into armor. Then there's a pistol, an automatic rifle and a shotgun, all of which can be upgraded through earning salvage points. These come from coming across and opening boxes strewn about the island, and looting the corpses of your slain victims. Upgrades purchased through spending salvage points can be used to strengthen the recoil of your weapon, allow more ammo in a magazine, or cause give better accuracy.

In addition to salvage points, Lara Croft can also earn experience points through multiple means, such as scavenging fallen animals she hunts, defeating enemies (headshots and more savage kills net more points), and coming across hidden collectibles. When enough experience points have been earned, Lara gains skill points. These can be used to get survivor abilities for Lara to use. Such examples of this include being able to spot otherwise hard-to-find sources of loot, recovering shot arrows from downed creatures and enemies, and increased climbing speed.

Speaking of hunting, one of Tomb Raider's first objectives after Lara escapes from the cavern of crazed cult members is to hunt a deer for a source of food. You might think that this skill is useful and is used more prominently later in the game, but no, it's simply a one-off deal that only nets you experience points each time you kill an animal. I would have liked to see taking down animals as something necessary, since after all this is a game showing how Lara survives her ordeal. Wouldn't scavenging for food be an important part of that? And I don't mean something as boring and as tedious as collecting and eating food like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater had. Just something to make the experience seem more realistic would have been interesting to see.

There's no thrill to these hunts in Tomb Raider.
A great part of Tomb Raider is how much exploring is available to you and Lara. Of course, the linear set pieces that drive the action sequences of the game are nice and wow-worthy, but it's nice to just be able to explore the island at your own pace, uncovering secret tombs and collectibles like GPS caches, documents that fill in the holes of the story, and relics left behind by those who were doomed to never leave the island. The island feels natural, and there's a remarkable sense of wonder in every facet, mountain face, and area. New tools allow for Lara to reach previously inaccessible areas to further discover the entirety of Lara's marooned location.

Nathan Drake, eat your heart out.
Meanwhile, something that Tomb Raider fans are generally unfamiliar with, multiplayer, comes with this all new reboot. It contains four mostly fun modes where beginning players need to grind experience to unlock better skills, weapons, upgrades, and characters. It isn't the most innovative or routinely engaging multiplayer out there, but it does its job well and increases the replay value of Tomb Raider immensely. Some might argue that the multiplayer could have been scrapped in order for the developers to bolster the single player experience better, but I, for one, welcome being able to hop online for some gratuitous shooting that actually belongs in this portion of Tomb Raider.

Multiplayer offers four unique modes to enjoy.
Tomb Raider's budget is quite high, and it's easy to see that a lot of the money went into creating the vast island expanses, gorgeous visual output, and brilliant voice acting. It's nice seeing how Lara gets increasingly more messy as she explores dirty caverns and have her clothes stay wet after she exits a body of water. Effects like fire look damn impressive, and the vegetation and structure of the island are built to look as natural as possible. The island doesn't usually feel like its made by a designer for Lara to easily get to point A to point B. It feels more genuine than that, much like a game like Metroid Prime used the environment to make platforming and journeying seem more organic.

Fire bad! But it looks really good at least!
Tomb Raider is the type of triple-A experience that succeeds in creating an engaging gameplay experience, but fails at conveying a realistic vulnerable survivor in Lara Croft. When one moment you're seeing Ms. Croft cry her eyes out for killing her first islander, and then the next you're performing headshots like a professional hitman, it gets quite jarring. That notwithstanding, a plot and campaign that will keep you wanting to play, fun (though oftentimes unbelievable) set pieces that amaze, and a multiplayer component that increases the longevity of the game make for a remarkable reboot for the Tomb Raider franchise. I can't wait to see in which direction Lara Croft's adventures take her next, because I will happily follow.

[SPC Says: 8.75/10]

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