Posted by Zac Elawar on Mar 1, 2013

Tomb Raider Review

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Tomb Raider
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PS3, PC
Release Date: March 5th, 2013
Price: $59.99 (Available Here)

Overview

Tomb Raider (2013) is the long overdue reboot for a franchise that so many gamers hold near and dear to their hearts. Lara Croft was the first female icon in gaming; a gender redefining lead who broke the mold and defied all stereotypes. But, Lara lost her way over the years. It’s hard to keep a franchise from becoming stale a decade after its introduction, and that’s what happened to Tomb Raider. But Crystal Dynamics, under their new publisher in Square Enix, ventured to make Lara matter again. Did they succeed?…

Story

Lara Croft, 21 and fresh out of her course in Archaeology at the University College of London, is on board the Endurance; a ship en route to the Dragon’s Triangle south of Japan. Sam Nishimura – Lara’s friend since boarding school – told her tales of the legendary Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, which fascinated Lara, influencing her to undertake this voyage in search of the lost land. Sam could not look past the opportunity to accompany Lara to document their adventure and become more acquainted with her roots. The rest of the crew consists of wise Captain Conrad Roth, engineer and radio technician Alex Weiss, cook and first mate Jonah Maiava, chief of security Joslin Reyes, Dr. James Whitman and helmsman Angus “Grim” Grimaldi.

Unfortunately for them, the ship could not endure (see what I did there!?) a freak storm that ends up shipwrecking them on the coast of an island. Upon waking up, Lara finds herself separated from the group ashore and is promptly knocked unconscious. She awakens, dangling, tied upside down from her feet. For anyone who has seen the gameplay footage previously released, you will recognise this scene. Burning through her trappings, Lara frantically crawls out of the crumbling cave to reach an overlook. She sees the remnants of numerous ships, broken and dismantled, strewn across the rocky shores.

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Why have so many ships fallen to the same fate, in the same fashion? This is a question that enters the mind of the player, but Lara is more concerned with finding her crew mates and friends. As the first “act” unfolds, we see Lara achieve many things; she lights her first campfire, hunts and kills her first deer and even eventually kills her first human, although out of complete self-defence. It’s evident that there are hostile forces on this island, both human and of nature. But, much more is going on than meets the eye. Talk of the Sun Queen, Himiko, and her power over the sun and anything its rays touch is repeatedly heard. It’s part of the myth that Sam intrigued Lara with in the first place, who believes every myth to be born from a sliver of truth.

Along her journey to return home, Lara must survive in the harshest of conditions, save the people she cares about, deal with loss and mature as a person in the face of danger and adversity. She wanted the expedition of a lifetime, but what she discovers will change her life in more ways than she ever expected…not just in regards to recognition or fame, but mentally and emotionally. Lara’s story is a harrowing and, at times, tragic one. The pace rarely slows, and there are a few twists and epiphanies that drive the plot forward, although they are slightly predictable and Lara seems completely oblivious to their signs.

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The mystical aspect of the Tomb Raider series has always been present, and with the involvement of the legend of the Sun Queen, it is in full effect here too. We learn more about the characters and their personalities through their interactions, especially as the situations get more volatile. Also, the documents and relics hidden across the island give greater insight into certain backstories, characters’ frames of mind and the history of the island. Ultimately, there is a reason for everything that happens and every decision that Lara makes. Without getting specific though, if it were me and this was my first expedition, I would quit and join a new career path.

Gameplay

Escaping that first den Lara finds herself in entails the completion of your first puzzle. Holding ‘X’ at a fire source lights a carried torch with which you can burn certain materials (smartly marked by draped fabric) using the same mechanic. A close encounter with a perceived hermit trying to grab your leg introduces the first instance of contextual prompts as you must move the left thumb stick from side to side to break his grip. The most persistent ones involve having to press ‘X’ to keep from falling from a ledge after a long leap and timing a ‘Y’ button press to melee in an action sequence.

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As you progress, more and more mechanics are introduced to you that, when used in combination, allow you to traverse the island with great efficiency and enable you to reach new areas. Survival Instinct can also be utilised with ‘LB’ that bathes the screen in black and white, highlighting items/points of interest in a golden glow if you’re lost. Soon enough, Lara acquires the climbing axe which permits her to scale craggy surfaces that are easily identifiable. It’s just one example of the gear-gating in place, as you come across these walls prior, but could not progress up them until you have that axe.

Speaking of jumping, one thing that I noticed way back during my first ever hands-on time with the title at EB Expo 2012 was that Lara can be controlled mid-air to change direction and momentum. It may be unrealistic, but it keeps the navigational controls from feeling rigid, which would probably lead to many a falling death if you are not precise. And that’s just not the intention of the game…to provide challenges in general traversal when you should be focused on discovery. There are instead specific areas dedicated to providing that challenge for you.

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There’s so much at play here that it would take 2000 words just to review. From the weapon parts that you obtain to the salvage parts you collect in order to upgrade your gear and all the relics and documents you’ll find, the game always has something for you to look for to keep you interested and empowered. When it comes to the weaponry, Lara will sequentially gain access to a bow, pistol, rifle and shotgun, which all evolve and feature secondary firing modes or ammo types. A lot has been made about Lara’s innocence and inexperience in the field, but I felt she actually gets used to warfare far too quickly…I would’ve loved to see a scripted scene where her pistol jams or she fumbles with her arrows on their first usage to reiterate how foreign it is to her.

When there is a nearby threat, Lara automatically crouches to stay at waist height and when you aim your weapon with ‘LT’ from behind said cover, she naturally peeks out depending on where she is standing, i.e; aiming past a corner has her peek around it instead of standing in a square base, disregarding the wall’s position. It’s dynamic and extremely helpful as enemies always work to flush you out so you will not have much time to stay in one spot and press a button to stick/unstick from cover. Enemies are truly relentless, throwing molotovs and constantly advancing position. They also make use of zip-lines, available to you as well, although neither can shoot whilst using them.

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The combat is visceral and, while the enemies may not be too varied, as more explosive weaponry is attained, the fun factor increases and yet a challenge is always rendered. The one sore point for me was the small number of tombs to explore and complete. There are only 7 optional tombs, and they each only take 5-10 minutes to get through. The puzzles are so simple that they almost feel like tutorials. Also, I experienced some serious lag in a very concentrated instance in the 3rd act of the game (just categorising it like that for reference’s sake). Thankfully it was not game-breaking and continuous, but it’s definitely disappointing to have happen.

Fire has a large presence in the gameplay and is used for many different reasons. Besides its most basic use as a light source, fire is also used to burn away nets which hold salvage, immolate wooden/fabric obstacles, as part of a puzzle solution and to burn banners/light statues as part of fulfilment of challenges, with unique ones being featured in each hub. These hubs can be fast traveled between from certain camps and returned to post-ending to allow you to collect those final few relics you may have missed. Your area completion is clearly shown and broken up into the individual collectables/challenges for each in your Map interface.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get too much time with multiplayer. Before release, you can imagine there isn’t many people online right now, especially in my time zone here in Australia. There are four modes: Rescue, Team Deathmatch, Cry For Help and Free For All. You alternate between a Survivor and Scavenger character/load-out that can be changed in-between and/or before matches. The dynamic cover is omitted, the weapon types are different and manual crouching is implemented. There is also sprinting and a charging melee finisher which weren’t featured in the single-player. Salvage is still found placed around the multiplayer maps, and is also earned through kills.

In multiplayer, salvage is the currency used for buying ammo upgrades and special abilities. Each mode requires 4 players at a minimum. There are rope traps that can be set-up in specified spots across all modes. Rescue is the one mode I did not get to play; it is a round based game type where survivors must recover medical supplies while the scavengers are to finish their enemies with melee executions. Cry For Help requires one team to activate three transmitters before round’s end or the opposing team collects 20 batteries by killing you or your team mates. It’s basically a version of King of the Hill, and if an enemy interrupts the transmitter control timer, and stays within its radius, the meter will progressively go down back to zero.

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Free For All is what it sounds like: deathmatch, except with more traps such as lightning rods which attract lightning once someone enters its zonal reach and a tripwire that, when tripped, sends wooden battering rams out from the walls to crush the offender. It is a first to 15 game and if someone gets on a roll, they become the “Executioner”, who has the chance to finish a round early with only a few more kills. Team Deathmatch is first to 25 and lasts for three rounds. The rounds last 10 minutes, which is consistent across all modes. The modes are fun, but when people are glitching on the field and lag sets in, it puts a damper on the experience. Overall, single-player is spotlighted as the main attraction, which is what we expected.

Visuals

Brian Horton and the entire art department have done an amazing job with establishing and developing the overall look and atmosphere of the game. The island itself is extremely ominous, presenting a great sense of unease with debris littering the inland and costal areas and creating caution as you traverse it, leaving you wondering just how dangerous it truly is. The island, while mostly deserted, feels alive. It’s gritty and dark and you quickly come to develop an idea of just how sinister its past is with all the miscellany, such as the hanging dreamcatchers in the woods, cairns and tribal markings being the more subtle visual cues.

The characters are equally well designed. Each and every character in the game wears earthy, neutral tones with a small flourish of colour to break it all up (Jonah’s red shirt being the most overt). Another area of the game where a bit of colour serves its purpose is in player guidance. Grip-able ledges are coated with weathered, white paint while jumping off points are similarly painted, but with red. These guiding highlights in the environment are well appreciated, especially in such a large, open space with multiple paths.

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Another thing I greatly appreciated, other than the graphical quality of the game itself, was the ever-changing complexion of Lara as she falls in the mud and her clothes get dirty, shoots a man at point blank range and gets blood spattered on her face and is drenched after emerging from the other side of a deep riverbank (get your mind out of the gutter… she’s “not that kind of Croft”!). The attention to detail is just stunning and flat-out impressive. Overall, there is a consistency in theme and tone that is excellently crafted here.

Audio

If it wasn’t already made clear that this is an inauspicious, perilous and threatening journey, having Dead Space composer Jason Graves orchestrate the soundscape of Tomb Raider must. The music is fantastic; especially the new main theme that Graves pretty much nailed on his first demo (check out Final Hours #3 for more insight). The original arrangement was scored on piano, but it translates so well to many other forms of instrumentation. After playing the game, it will immediately become ingrained in your mind and you will forever associate it with the Tomb Raider franchise moving forward.

That signature theme is threaded throughout the entire experience, played slower with strings for the emotional scenes and faster and harder with high horns during the action-packed and triumphant moments. Again, it al lends to the consistency of the experience, which carries on in the rest of the score and ambience. The eerie screeches of high-tension strings against steel rods and the tribal patterns played on metal drums are all a result of “the instrument” (see Final Hours #3 above). They present a timbre that represents the island and its inhabitants so perfectly. It has a basic, savage sound, but its implementation is ingenious.

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Finally, I must touch upon the voice acting and give major props to Camilla Luddington; our new Lara Croft. She did a great job here; the screams of pain and agony, the fear and worry in her voice and the delivery and emotion of her lines are all pitch-perfect. It sounds real and believable…it comes across that she committed to this role and played it as realistically as she could. The supporting cast also does a very good job, although she is, rightfully, the star. And for those who were concerned that Lara would become annoying with constant verbal commentary, do not worry. It is toned down a lot after the opening sequences.

Overall

Tomb Raider hits some hiccups: the over-exaggerated action (how many times can Lara flip over while rolling without getting remotely injured?!), Lara getting too comfortable and proficient, too quickly, with using guns for my taste and there’s the lag – both in single-player and multiplayer. In the grand scheme of things, only the lag has a direct effect on your gaming experience. I don’t know how common an issue it is – the same can be said for the minor bug or two I encountered – but it is a slight disappointment (Xbox 360 owners should probably install it to their HDD if they have the space).

But, Tomb Raider does so much right. It is a lot more action-heavy than previous titles, which is not necessarily a bad thing, however, fans of the series may be hesitant or put-off by that fact. Honestly though, they have no reason to be as this is a legitimate, albeit early candidate for ‘Game of the Year’. Lara Croft’s origin story is an exhilarating one filled with ups and downs, both emotionally and physically for our heroine. And it will be for you too…although not physically I’d hope. Lara Croft has indeed been reborn, a survivor, and a stand-out for 2013.

9-0-capsules-out-of-10

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