Tomb Raider Review: Rust, Dust, and a lot of Fuss
Written By: Justin Koop
In Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of the fledgling Tomb Raider series, you take control of Lara Croft, a 21-year-old archaeologist who becomes stranded on the mystical island of Yamatai. Right from the outset the game establishes itself as completely separate from its predecessors. Crystal Dynamics pulled the franchise’s decaying body from a vat filled with 1990’s action movies and Barbie boob-physics, and plunged it deep into the grey-brown filtered “next-gen” bucket; this Tomb Raider is rust, dust, and a lot of fuss.
Read our full Tomb Raider review after the break.
The game opens with Lara’s struggle for life amidst the stormy waters, watching her ship sink off the cost of Yamatai. After she struggles to the coast, we watch her scream to get her friends attention only to get blindsided with a rock to Lara’s head. Fade to black. Scene reopens; Lara upside down, hanging in a room full of tribalistic markings and dead bodies, and as she struggles to get free she lands on a rusty piece of rebar which stabs her right through. This opening sequence hinted at something new and great. Where is she? What is going on? All my senses and curiosity were abuzz. A combination of great character animation, voice acting and creativity bore an opening sequence that completely hooked me in.
However, this initial excitement doesn’t last long. I was completely taken out of the story as soon as Lara’s first daring escape was finished. I expected gritty realism and personal struggle but instead what I received felt extremely contrived. Rather than tending to the rusty, rebar wound which would likely have killed Lara, she spends time watching a sentimental camcorder video of her and her best friend. Lara then has a small crisis over killing the deer which she needs for food, which seemed utterly insincere and sentimental for a woman in such a dire situation. Directly after this, Lara gets her foot trapped in a bear trap, and has a wounded stand against wolves flying from the underbrush, but just like the rebar wound, after lying down for one night her broken foot is completely healed, without any attention.
I felt like this game did not understand the concept of pacing. The intensity of this game is basically at 110% at all times. Everywhere you go, things are falling apart, smashing together, being ripped to shreds or blown up. While this contributes to an intense atmosphere, it is overwhelming. The meaning of the intense sections comes from the lead up, from the less intense to the very intense. When you’re playing a game where everything is falling apart, or blowing up, the intense combat sequences are like a breather from the action.
The supporting characters are equally disappointing, following every archetype to a T. There’s the strong-willed black woman, the sensitive best friend, the nerdy hacker, the stuck up scientist who doesn’t know how to fight well, the hardened marine and the mystic islander. Not only are they completely archetypical, but they are so secondary to Lara’s one-man mission that they feel contrived, and only there to increase the drama.
Tomb Raider feels like playing a slightly interactive movie. Right from the beginning, the game is permeated by cut scenes, transitions, and Quick-time events which take the play right out of the action. The game is chalked full of “Mash Button” moments which at the beginning makes you feel immersed, like you’re a part of the cinematics, but because of the sheer number of them it eventually loses all meaning. The game will cut to cinematics at points where it seems strange to. For example, when Lara slides between any crevices that is pretty tight, instead of letting the character guide her through, it cuts to a cinematic of her going through. If you need to duck under something, there is no duck button so you need to walk up to it and watch as the cinematic takes over for you.
Soon you’re introduced to the base camp mechanic, which is a place for Lara to rest, upgrade her weapons and upgrade her survival skills. This isn’t a unique idea, but also isn’t beat to death; reminding me of Far Cry 3’s upgrade vending machines, but becomes quite ridiculous. The pace at which you seem to run into these campfires seems rather silly. If you’re going to have a set place for me to upgrade, why not make sure I do something awesome where I’ll definitely have stuff to upgrade and skills to spend. There are usually base camps before hard fights or challenging sections, making the player feel unaccomplished when upgrading.
Tomb Raider also has a very disappointing ammo system. In a gritty next-gen remake, I expected a lack of ammo, desperate conservation and scrounging every last bullet. In Tomb Raider, the island of Yamatai seems to be a veritable ammo cache. Enemy units carry good chunks of ammo on them, ammo boxes and random quivers of arrows are strewn literally everywhere. There were so many times that I had full ammo in a room full of ammo boxes that I gave up on being conservative and strategic in my combat and just sprayed and twanged everything I had.
Now let’s talk about the combat. After all my harsh criticism, the combat in Tomb Raider isn’t too bad. The cover system is snappy and responsive; the aiming system is fun and the enemies ragdoll very well, giving you satisfying feedback. Without giving too many spoilers, you run into some very interesting enemies, most of which present a unique challenge in combat. However, many of the enemies are quite prototypical. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before) You come to a more open section, and you hear one of the enemies yell “Get the big guy!” And before you know it, a machete wielding giant man with a steel riot shield clunks out of the doorway towards you. How do you need to defeat him? Let him swing at you, dodge back and shoot him a lot. Rinse and repeat.
Now, I need to mention this to save any gamer’s reading this the same frustration that I had. This game babysits your learning curve so much. Basically, for most of the opening of the game there is that little black bar that explains to you exactly what you need to do in what situation. However, what they don’t explain is that those symbols you see (The Hand and the !) will always be linked with those particular buttons. I am a firm believer in not spelling things out for the gamer, but rather giving them safe circumstances to figure it out themselves. This is important because later on in the infamous “Quick-time events” that occur randomly throughout the game, this is extremely important.
For example, an enemy is going to strangle Lara and you need to hit the right button to save your life. Well all it shows is the (!) button, which has never been explained to be linked with F. And if you hit any other button, you won’t succeed in the Quick-time event. If you take a quick look online, many players are going to forums just to ask how to get past certain Quick-time events, then being explained that the game is too terrible to teach you that the particular symbol is linked with only one button. This, combined with the already terrible nature of the quick-time event, really kills both the atmosphere and your experience as a player.
AUDIO – For the most part, Tomb Raider’s sound design is great. From the creaking of wood or metal as you perilously perch on the edge of a cliff, to the impact noises of bullets and arrows, this game clearly put effort into its audio performance. My one gripe is that Lara’s ragged and frightened breathing, while at first really emphasizes the fear of her situations, happens throughout the game and cuts right through the mix of other sounds to scrape at my ears. Even after Lara is a gun-toting badass who is chopping down bad guys left and center, the same frightened breathing sounds cut right through. Other than this, the game uses sound very well, doing distance, atmosphere and sounds effects with industry efficiency.
VISUALS – I am not sure why all the other reviews I’ve read speak about the beautiful visuals of Tomb Raider. Running this thing on a top-of-the-line PC left me unimpressed. When compared with Far Cry 3, Dishonored or even Skyrim, this game is boring visually. Far Cry 3 captured the amazing beauty of forests and glens, Skyrim captured the raw nature of mountain life, Dishonored created its own stylistic, gritty yet colorful city, and what did Tomb Raider do? I would call Tomb Raider: A work in brown and grey. It seems like the artists behind Tomb Raider were so concerned with getting those variations in brown and rusty red that they forgot to make the scenic, open areas actually beautiful. Instead, even areas that are supposed to be lush forests look like hazy grey campgrounds.
+ Initially grabbing and immersive
+ Great combat system, Cover system
+ Interesting lore and enemies
– Unoriginal, unrealistic, contrived story
– Overwhelming Action
– Terrible tutorials
– Typical NPC’s
– Quick-time Events
Overall, I found Tomb Raider to be a letdown. When compared to the crap that was the last few Tomb Raider titles before this, Tomb Raider (2013) is simply the best of the bunch – but not by much. I hope this is a lesson to future developers: You can’t reboot a dying series by slapping contrived drama, brown and grey filtering, and mysterious islands onto a game. If you want to buy a game like this but better, try the Uncharted Trilogy or Far Cry 3 instead.