While I had to put away the violent console games when the family returned from their summer trip, I’m still able to play some of them on the PC (away from the kids). I recently completed Tomb Raider, and thought I’d give it a proper review.
The Character: Lara Croft
In Tomb Raider, you join Lara Croft on an archeological expedition. The journey is interrupted, however, when her ship crashes on an island where she and her crew are attacked by the islanders. You’re objective is to help Lara rescue her friends and get off of the island. This is the story of Lara Croft’s origins, and can even be seen as a “coming of age” story for Lara. As such, it gives you a Lara Croft that isn’t quite as confident and adventurous as we are used to seeing.
During an interview, the executive producer of the game said that players won’t generally project themselves into Lara’s character, but will instead visualize themselves with her and want to protect her. I have to agree; I found myself worrying for Lara in a way that I did not worry for Nathan Drake or other similar characters. Every time she keyed the radio, I thought “don’t say where you are, or someone will be able to find you.” When she built her first campfire, all I could think was “keep that fire small or you’re going to be seen.”
On the point about the campfire I felt particularly conflicted, as my mind went back to my Boy Scout days. I remember a scout master once saying “the bigger the fire, the better you feel.” This feeling applied to the game as well; I enjoyed seeing the campfire, even as I felt concerned for Lara’s well-being.
A few years ago, I remember a friend characterized the film “The Passion of the Christ” as a 3-hour butt whuppin’. I think the same description fits the first three hours of Tomb Raider. Her ship crashes, she gets beat up, stabbed by a sharp stick through her kidneys, caught in a bear trap, and so on. I suppose this established her toughness from the beginning, but at some places, it seemed over the top.
That said, as the story evolves and the mysteries of the island are revealed, it becomes less of a survival game and more of an action adventure. The game uses some elegant story-building mechanics, such as audible reflections from Lara as you visit campsites, and artifacts of past visitors to the island. The interaction with these artifacts reminded me of the audio recordings from the Batman games. It’s a good device.
While the game tended to flow nicely from one plot point to the next, I found mechanical devices to be somewhat jarring. For example, occasionally you would come across a camp site, and could “fast travel” from that site to a previous site if you wanted to go back and gain some XP (more on that below). This really took me out of the game, and probably shouldn’t have been provided until the end of the game when you wanted to go through and complete everything.
The game also uses an experience system similar that of the Batman Arkham games where you can take on extra combat on the side to level up and learn more skills. Unfortunately, while it made sense for Batman to occasionally swoop down and beat up some thugs that were harrassing an innocent victim, it doesn’t make as much sense in this environment. I literally found myself killing rats, chickens, and rabbits with my bow to get additional XP. I found myself killing a lot more than I could possibly eat, and killed enough deer to make Ted Nugent blush.
In addition to having a lot of animals to hunt, there were a lot of hidden gems and collectables. For this reason, I would say that Tomb Raider really caters to people with completionist sensibilities.
Generally, the controls of the game made sense, and I didn’t run into too many problems. Occasionally Lara would turn around and hang from a ledge when I intended for her to jump off, but I can’t complain too much about that; for every time it annoyed me, there were about 5 times that it prevented me from walking off of a cliff.
I only had one real beef with the controls. I like quick time events, and I tolerate button mashing events, but the two should never come together. I can’t count the number of times Lara died because I had to quickly transition between button mashing and a quick time event. I’m not ashamed to beg game developers: please stop using button mashy quick-time events, and if you simply must use them, stop butting them up against regular QTEs.
Interface and Graphics
It’s easy to compare this game to Uncharted (I’ve done it twice already in this review), but I think Tomb Raider is much more gritty. The beauty of Uncharted was in the gorgeous set pieces and scenes, and that was something that Tomb Raider lacked. As I reflect on the game, I think better graphical and gameplay comparison might be made to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
One of the things that immediately jumped out at me was the aiming mechanic. For most games, the act of aiming your weapon shifts your perspective from third-person to first person so you can look down the barrel of the weapon. For Tomb Raider, however, they maintained the third person perspective, but used a Hitchcock zoom to enlarge the enemies/targets. If I hadn’t recognized the technique, I probably would have found this disorienting, and I suspect that was part of their intention when they used it.
If you aren’t familiar with Hitchcock Zoom (sometimes called Dolly Zoom), here is a short video on the topic:
On the whole, I loved the game. At certain points, I remember thinking that a survival simulation using the same engine and mechanics would be a lot of fun. Perhaps this engine could be used for something like the Hunger Games? I don’t know, but I would love to find out.