Wednesday, March 13, 2013

There Are No Heroes Here: Tomb Raider Review

It’s not often that a videogame delivers on nearly every single promise it makes, but Tomb Raider goes a long way towards doing so. Tomb Raider is fantastic. There’s really no other way to describe it. Crystal Dynamics has crafted one of the greatest games of this generation, and in doing so, has resurrected the once-forgotten Tomb Raider franchise to incredible new heights.

The outset of Tomb Raider recasts Lara Croft as a fresh-faced graduate, eager to take part in her first major archeological undertaking. Whereas she was once a sex symbol, complete with massive polygonal breasts and barely-there short shorts, this Lara Croft is a fairly normal-looking young British woman. Albeit, she is still gifted with an incredibly symmetrical face, and hair that is apparently more difficult to harm than Superman.

Lara Croft, normal girl.

The expedition is led by a delusional veteran explorer, desperate to make it big on reality TV. As luck would have it, the massive ship they are traveling on is thrown into a massive storm, and the crew is washed ashore the forgotten island of Yamatai, which is filled with crazies. Lara’s crew is well-realized, although a little bit silly when you take into account how perfectly diverse it is. There’s Whitman, the whitebred, kooky, fame-obsessed explorer; Sam, the vaguely Asian friend; Reyes, the sassy black crew member; Jonah, the chilled-out Samoan handyman; and Alex, the geeky IT guy. I guess this crew would fit in rather well on a reality TV series.

Lara is tasked with exploring the island alone for the majority of the game, rescuing her fellow survivors, who seem to continually be getting captured and moved about the mysterious island. The island itself is one of the most well-realized characters in the entire game. Every square foot was obviously crafted with an incredible attention to detail, and the game is a real beauty. The mysterious storms of Yamatai allow the weather patterns to shift at a moments notice, and players will experience everything from sunshine-drenched vistas to howling arctic winds, which threaten to blow Lara off the perilous ledges she often finds herself needing to cross.

The visual language of Tomb Raider is well-executed, and easily learned as it is gradually introduced to the player. Climbable ledges are represented by a smear of white paint, ladders are yellow, rockfaces are grey and craggy, and so forth. The team at Crystal Dynamics took a lot of time to make sure the environment is always easy to navigate, while still maintaining the illusion of being a real place. I never found myself getting lost, and finding the next waypoint is as easy as hitting a button to activate Lara’s “survival instincts”, which function like a temporary “detective vision”, for those familiar with the Arkham series.

Tomb Raider obviously takes a great deal of its design philosophy from Arkham, as well as other major game franchises. Lara’s climbing skill feels incredibly similar to Assassin’s Creed, and the gunplay and set-piece navigation bears more than a passing resemblance to Sony’s excellent Uncharted series. This melting pot of influences makes the game easy to pick-up-and-play, with no previous knowledge of the series necessary. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

Lara Croft, animal lover.

Gameplay feels tight throughout the campaign, and all the various systems work together incredibly fluidly. One of the major reasons for this is the fact that Tomb Raider sports one of the best camera systems in the genre. Dynamic swings and shifts add to the tension, but never place the player at a disadvantage. Oftentimes, the camera pulls in incredibly tight, which in turn highlights the tension inherent in exploring the evil island. There's always a chance of an enemy just around the corner, or the possibility of that bridge you're crossing giving way under your feet.

Tomb Raider is not an especially difficult game, and players will likely find themselves dying from ill-timed jumps more often than an enemy’s actions. The real thrill comes from the incredible set piece design, and the constant sense of forward momentum in the story. There are numerous collectibles scattered about Yamatai for Lara to collect, although sometimes the story has such a sense of urgency you may occasionally find yourself skipping over them. Fortunately, the game allows Lara to fast travel between campsites, as well as the option to continue your adventures past the credits.

It’s a bit odd to have one of this generation’s gems release in the same year as the next round of hardware, but Tomb Raider is an instant classic. Crystal Dynamics has once again positioned Tomb Raider as a major franchise going forward, and it will be exciting to see how they follow this up. It’s a bit crazy to say this so early in the calendar year, but Tomb Raider will surely be a contender for Game of the Year.

Note: There is a full suite of multiplayer modes in Tomb Raider. They were not factored into this review.


Christopher Linendoll is a survivor. Follow him on Twitter.

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