Home > Gaming > A Review of “Tomb Raider (2013 Reboot)”

A Review of “Tomb Raider (2013 Reboot)”

Most of us have never been shot with guns before. I think, especially given how modern shooters nowadays still give player characters the ability to soak up plenty of hits, then completely regenerate so long as we go for a few seconds without actually being shot, we do not fully comprehend just how painful it is to be shot with a gun, and so dying because a helicopter gunship has just gunned you down seems more like an inconvenience than a terrifying way to die. Accidentally slamming your toe into the wall really hard, though? Yes, all of us know how badly that can really hurt. And that is why, I think, the new Tomb Raider works so well as an origin story, a narrative detailing how an inexperienced civilian woman painfully grows into an iconic heroine. Because while most of us can’t imagine how painful it is to actually be shot at by guns, we can imagine how painful it is to constantly fall down cliffs, crash into rocks, be thrown into walls, and otherwise be the plaything to nature’s ragdoll physics presentation. Because that’s how Lara spends her time throughout the hours of a Tomb Raider playthrough.

It should be noted that I have never played a Tomb Raider game before, or really paid much attention to it. I knew, of course, that the main character was Lara Croft, a British archeologist-adventurer with two handguns who probably spends most games treasure hunting while racing against nefarious organizations out for the same things she is. In fact, a friend had to correct me when I told him that there was a Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie; there were two. The only real reason why I paid any real attention to the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider was because some of my friends were rather upset at the comments some developers made in the early trailers of Tomb Raider, particularly the scene where Lara is captured and her captor suggestively makes unwanted advances on her before Lara proceeds to kick his arse with her hands tied behind her back (literally). Almost amusingly, the ire of my friends towards Tomb Raider proved to be the major reason why I ultimately even knew about the game and decided to play it in the first place, but it does present an opportunity for me to review Tomb Raider without the nostalgic bias of previous games other gamers may have.

A Visual Storytelling Masterpiece

The plot of Tomb Raider is pretty straightforward: While searching the storm-infested Dragon’s Triangle south of Japan for the fabled country of Yamatai, Lara and her friends are shipwrecked on an island full of shipwrecks and plane wrecks from almost every human era, as well as hostile, deranged men out to either capture or kill them. To complicate things, attempts to escape the island are thwarted by storms that materialize out of nowhere without explanation, universally wrecking any plane, helicopter, or ship that tries to come through. From a storytelling perspective, it’s pretty predictable, although I suppose many origin stories tend to be this way (and, despite this, I still managed to come out wrong in terms of who might survive the island), but there are many other places where the visual narrative really shines. After being shipwrecked and knocked out, for example, Lara awakens to find herself tied up upside-down beside several long-decomposed bodies in a cave. This being largely civilian Lara, she freaks out, tries to free herself, and impales her side against a metallic bolt in the attempt before having to painfully remove it by hand. Minutes later, having to crawl, wade, fall, slide, tumble, and otherwise be abused by the elements to make her mistake, she finally scrambles out of a crumbling cave, watching a man be crushed by boulders in the process.

I mention this because at the end of that day, as Lara manages to escape the cave and sets up a campfire as rain begins to fall, you see her covered in mud, blood, and grime, trembling so hard from the cold and the experience that it’s painful to watch. I think this was the beginning of a realization that Tomb Raider had the potential to be a masterpiece of visual storytelling, providing a much more human angle on a common adventure story. I think a game to compare it to would be Far Cry 3, another excellent game that tells of an unassuming civilian trapped on a dangerous island, trying to escape it with his friends while confronted by mad, dangerous men. But I think while Far Cry 3‘s universal insistence at a first-person perspective puts you in a position to experience the panicked, terrifying moments of the game (such as early on, when a fellow NPC is shot in the throat and you are desperately but futilely trying to apply pressure to stop the bleeding), Tomb Raider‘s third-person, movie-like perspective allows you to witness it as a character study. Some formats just work better when you’re trying to show quiet, contemplative, melancholic movements of a character doing nothing in response to all the horrible things that have happened, and in that, Crystal Dynamics have done very well in getting the story to – for the lack of a better term – batter Lara into a survivor. It’s horrifying in a way, but still somehow deeply satisfying.

Minor annoyances still existed, primarily in the realm of voice acting. Fans were not entirely receptive to Camilla Luddington’s voice-acting when the first trailers were released, and I’m of half a mind to agree: While she fits into her role quite well when Lara is calm or trying to explain something, when terrified or panicked or in pain, she sounds like a thespian overacting her role with exaggerated groans and grunts. As someone who can actually speak some Japanese, I was also somewhat annoyed that Samantha, the Japanese NPC in the game, keeps mispronouncing the name of the Japanese goddess Himiko (although I suppose it is justified in that Samantha is actually Japanese-American, and is never actually shown to be able to speak Japanese in the game). But that’s me nitpicking, and these issues weren’t bad enough to diminish my enjoyment. (Also, on the subject of Lara and Sam: Is horrible than I’m already looking for Lara x Sam yuri? Because I totally am.)

What to Do With an Excellent System?

Gameplay is rather smooth, its mechanics a good mix between a third-person shooter and a puzzle game. Lara moves how I want her to move without any weird finicky controls, and while I was at first amused at the fact that Lara can control the direction of her fall mid-descent, it was something I got over very quickly. In a way, game animations were very situational: Lara stands straight most of the time, balances on a beam whenever you stand on one, and only crouches when having to pass through an area with a low roof or when there are enemy combatants around for her to hide and take cover. It was very intuitive and nice, although I still found myself pressing the C key every now and then, expecting a crouching Lara to stand or a standing Lara to crouch. I guess, in a way, this is me nostalgic for a time when all characters could crouch at will, instead of having the game automatically do so for you only when there are enemies nearby or when you’re beside waist-height cover. Gun mechanics are also pretty on par in terms of what you’d expect from a first person shooter, with a decent amount of customizations that never feel too far out of reach. Stealth was an option, but far too underutilized; most of the time, Lara will have fallen or crashed her way onto a scene, so enemies will be alerted to her presence from the get go. This is pretty much a game that encourages you to kill everyone first before advancing.

But that’s from the perspective of mechanics. In terms of design, Tomb Raider feels a little confused as to what it really wants to be, in that it doesn’t feel challenging as either a third-person shooter or a puzzle game. Save for the endgame sequences, combat is a rather straightforward affair with a lack of enemy numbers, variety, or challenge. It has none of the spontaneous dynamics of Far Cry 3 or the challenging pressure of traditional third-person shooters like Mass Effect 3; rather, it seems like the next minor hurdle one needs to cross before moving onto the next portion of the map. In almost no instance was I killed in combat, save the endgame when I finally decided to use the assault rifle (I had been using the bow and the handgun almost exclusively up to that point, save certain areas where shotgun and rifle use were mechanically necessary) for my inelegant, Rambo-like assault. Similarly, for a puzzle game, the tombs themselves feel a little underwhelming in that most of them consisted of a single gimmick that easily led somewhere else. Most of the puzzles, in fact, felt astoundingly easy, and I could only recall one particular puzzle near the endgame where I truly spent a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out how to get past it, only to discover minutes later that I had been overthinking it.

Most of Tomb Raider‘s enjoyment comes from the comfortably large stages that feel like an experience out of Castlevania or Metroid, in which they are designed for several prearranged ways of getting from Point A to Point B as a puzzle game, but still large and wide enough to give a semblance of exploration. People stepping into an area for the first time, especially an outdoor stage, can feel a little overwhelmed at how large everything looks, and how long it’d take to explore everything. But that sense of exploring the environment is perhaps where Tomb Raider‘s puzzle mechanics really shine, interlaced with a few combat sequences here and there, even if there are a few arbitrary collectables that can frustratingly take forever to actually find in an attempt to go for 100% completion.

Press F to Not Die

Discussion of Tomb Raider as a game filled with quick-time events – hereby referred to as QTEs – probably must be done under the much broader context of the increasingly prevalent amount of QTEs the game industry is shoving into their games. And, for the record, yes, Tomb Raider has a lot of QTEs. In a way, they are meant to bridge a certain gap that games – even with all our high-definition graphics – still are not capable of doing: Intelligent autonomous cinematography and full freedom of movement. Rather, to showcase a very precise set of character struggles in a movie-like fashion but still trying to give the player some sense of control and empowerment, we have quick-time events. But QTEs are also a little schizophrenic in what they actually want to be: Do they want to be a cutscene or gameplay? In games like Modern Warfare, QTEs are much more bearable because they’re invested in the sentiment of “look how cool this is”. The importance is watching things develop on screen as visual candy, and any buttons you have to press is simply meant to encourage some level of interaction with the game, but there is a healthy amount of time to react to them instead of “blink-and-you-miss-it” button prompts, which seems to be a staple of games like Resident Evil, which frustrates gamers some more because the button-mashing interferes with our enjoyment of an otherwise well-crafted cutscene; we’re trying to watch the movie, but you keep putting us on the edge and telling us to watch for that “press this button” prompt that might show up any second~

Sadly, Tomb Raider leans towards the Resident Evil side of things, with many blink-and-you-miss it button prompts that have been the cause of many, many Lara deaths, which is too bad because many of its cutscenes are quite gorgeous and exciting to behold. Alas, our attention span can only handle too much, and so these QTEs feel neither like gameplay or a cutscene, and don’t compare to similar moments where split-second control and timing is necessary when given full faculty of our controls. Amusingly, the game also declines to remind you about which button to mash in certain situations; it took many times of Lara dying in a QTE before I finally discovered – online – that an exclamation mark means to press F, while a fist icon means to press E, something that game itself neglected to tell me.

Conclusion

In many ways, Tomb Raider is a game that had a lot of potential, but did not successfully harness much of it. Crystal Dynamics developed one hell of an engine, but gameplay-wise didn’t crank enough juice out of it. The result was an unchallenging game that is not entirely sure what it wants to be. But I would still recommend the game to the average player. It’s a smooth game that – for all its flaws – manages to entertain from the perspective of a very human storytelling experience, to say nothing of its gorgeous presentation and heart-pounding moments when the game decides to give you full control in the middle of a crisis, which are generally the moments you realize Crystal Dynamics actually has a great system on their hands. In comparison to Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider is not quite as unpleasant; both games deal with the human cost of such trials, and have successfully pounded much of the luster out of similar adventure games, highlighting instead how much of a toil the characters go through. Neither Lara Croft or Jason Brody are enjoying what they’re doing, killing off enemies with pithy one-liners. But Tomb Raider never goes past the point of oppressiveness in the way Far Cry 3, and there are still many remnants of a romantic in the game, which – combined with great visual storytelling and good gameplay – make the 2013 reboot a game worth enjoying.

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