Wot I Think: Tomb Raider

By John Walker on March 6th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

Tomb Raider is out, and I’ve played the single player to the very end. How does Lara fare in this reboot of one of gaming’s most famous series? Here’s wot I think:

I don’t think there could be a more emblematic game of the divide gaming has taken in the last few years. In the blue corner are the traditionalists, the old-school, they who see gaming as something they control. In the red corner, the new-school, the neophites, they who see gaming as an experience to be guided through. Tomb Raider, a series traditionally set in the old, in this reboot of the franchise firmly enters the new. It’s got something it wants to show you, so could you please follow this way.

But let’s be clear – this isn’t Medal Of Honor. While Crystal Dynamics have created a game that frankly seems to resent letting you be in control every now and then, those moments do happen, there are extended sections where you can explore, challenge yourself, and most of all, play. And I think that’s the word that divides these two branches of gaming – play. It’s where Tomb Raider is at its absolute strongest, where it feels like something classic, yet technologically modern, free and explorable. It’s also what the game seems to be constantly fighting against letting you do.

So we’re meeting Lara for the first time, all over again. In the hands of the team who created the last superb trilogy, but with a fresh start, a new approach to the British heroine. Stranded on an island with a group of her explorer colleagues, quickly it becomes apparent that a small army of crazed shipwreckees are intent on killing anyone they see as an “outsider”. There’s something about some goddess, weird weather meaning anything that flies or floats nearby gets wrecked, and a clutter of other mumbojumbo that demands we run about climbing and shooting. Lara begins as a young, innocent girl, horrified at being forced to kill to save her own life, and then begins her inevitable journey into a grunting killing machine. (Although it’s a little more nuanced than that.)

It’s become quite well known that the first hour is notoriously filled with quick-time events (QTEs), button mashing, and a strict, linear path. CD themselves explained that we should not worry, that the previews of this portion were not representative of the full game, and it all opens out soon enough. Well, that’s only partially true. Yes, you absolutely can revisit previous areas of the island (using a fast travel option, should you wish), to scoop up any of the seventy trillion secret items scattered about, locate any “Optional Tombs” (puzzle-based vaults where you must manipulate the scenery to reach a treasure), and climb to the top of things to say that you did. But the game really doesn’t want you to. It wants you to keep going, to rescue the next person, to keep saving the day. The urgency with which you’re pressed to carry on means that to go off and explore is to shatter the thin veneer of a narrative it so desperately wants to have.

This narrative, which offers not a single twist, surprise, or even interesting notion, is shoved down your throat at every opportunity, the controls constantly wrestled from your hands as it crucially needs to take over to stop you from doing something it might not like. This is so deeply at the core of every element of the game that you can’t even shimmy along a ledge without the game doing the bits where you go past a pillar for you. Run toward a building and scoooop, control is stolen, the camera jerked upward, because you might not have looked up at the pretty thing they drew. It feels like a combination of arrogance and deep paranoia. “You might play the game wrong! Let me do it!”

For the first hour or so, I don’t remember being in complete control for more than about 30 seconds at a time. This certainly slows down later on, but never so I didn’t feel endlessly exasperated. Sometimes it’s so it can cram the next story element in – a room in which you think, “Okay, I’ll shoot him with an arrow, and then take them out with the rifle” suddenly becomes a cutscene in which Lara stands uselessly still while someone gets killed or captured. Other times, most of the time, it’s for no discernible reason whatsoever.

This scripting also means that Lara is repeatedly put in situations where she must run/slide/fall away from everything exploding and collapsing. (Never has one person fallen so far, so often. The brutality with which Croft is ceaselessly met is astonishing.) And during these sections your job is to move left or right to avoid obstacles, and sometimes jump. It’s enormously impressive, the scenery blowing up and tearing away, the fantastic physics very well shown off. But are you playing? Barely.

This all really cannot be emphasised enough, and I think perhaps is best captured by the following: The game decides when you run, walk, sprint, crawl, get weapons out, put them away, light torches, put them out… There literally isn’t a crawl button in the game, because it’s going to do that for you. And most peculiar of all, there’s no indication from the game when it’s in control or you are. On some occasions I’ve found myself embarrassed to realise I’ve not been controlling things for a while, like a kid in a service station, thinking they’re steering the arcade car while “INSERT COIN” flashes on the screen. On many others I was killed because I wasn’t aware it had stopped playing for me, and didn’t know it was my turn to press forward again. Games do that widescreen borders thing for a reason, Crystal.

And this is such a massive shame, because when you are playing, damn, it’s great. Despite the addition of upgradeable weapons, and some RPG-ish XP-based stats for Lara, it’s actually remarkably similar to the previous Tomb Raiders from the developer. There are puzzle-climbing sections, and there are shooty-bang sections. No one ever wanted the latter in any of the previous eight hundred Tomb Raider games, but they were darned well included anyway. This time, while I’m pretty sure no one on Earth would have cared if they were ditched entirely, instead they’ve had the rather bright idea to make them actually decent. Yes, it becomes yet another cover shooter, but the bow and arrow is great fun to use, and the rest of the weapons are ludicrously powerful. I think there’s too much of it, where more tombs and exploring would always have been preferable, but at least this time out it’s not an absolute chore.

But what’s really great is still the exploring. Crystal Dynamics have proved a number of times just how smart they are at creating challenges, setting up location-based puzzles and letting you explore to solve them. Here Tomb Raider shines. Yes, it’s still entirely artificial, with ledges and beams you can use ludicrously painted white (thanks helpful locals!), and the rope-able sections all mysteriously perfectly placed to allow progress. When something is wrecked, it just so happens to be wrecked in a way that creates a new path! But none of that really matters, because it’s about offering a playground. When the first game that offers truly free climbing and exploring appears it’ll be the greatest day in history, but in the meantime, no one does it as slickly as CD.

So I’m left utterly bemused why they seemed to want to bury it so deeply.

Something should be said for the portrayal of Lara. Yes, obviously things go from her being terrified to have killed a guy, to killing them in their dozens. But it’s not deserving of the scorn some have offered. Lara is portrayed as suffering throughout. It’s seriously gruesome what she’s subjected to, endlessly smashing through roofs and walls, gashed, punched, and bruised. And it feels like it too. She’s never happy (apart from when opening boxes containing relics, when she creepily breaks from whatever horrors she’s facing and excitedly describes a coin to you), always hurting, and never confident. And that makes an important difference. While she’s surrounded by dreadful stereotypes and pantomime villains, her state of mind is gently portrayed. And the interesting effect of this is, no matter how many you kill, she never seems to like it. It always feels regrettable, like it’s eating at her soul. Of everything this game does well, this is its highest achievement.

Things are pretty unrelentingly bleak, too. While the dipshit friends offer nothing but glib nonsense (albeit well acted in the main), the grim weather, sparse lands, and phenomenal amount of gore-strewn corpses certainly set a tone. In fact, there are so many dead bodies that I’m pretty sure this remote island must once have been the most populated place on Earth.

The upgrade system is fairly pointless. It may as well have been just added skills as you progress, since it’s pretty difficult not to have enough XP and salvage to grab everything on offer as you play. But still, you get to choose the order in which you add them, so if you’re especially keen on being able to beat a man to death with an axe, you can opt for that before you improve how long you can hold an arrow in a bow. Really, nothing makes a dramatic difference to the game itself, not least because what you actually do to progress is so heavily scripted that it couldn’t allow it to.

I’m left just bewildered that the most fun I’ve had with the game is going back to sections I’ve already played. This time I’m actually allowed to enjoy them properly, without characters screaming at me to go a certain way, do a certain thing, and the controls endlessly taken from me. Sure, to do so is to abandon what a character has just screamed at you that you need to do, but it’s worth it just to enjoy the game that’s buried beneath the noise. And crucially, once the game’s over you can go back to any area to do so, meaning you can allow the nose-dragging to pull you past without worrying you’re going to miss out.

It looks stunning for a game designed for current-gen tech, and it’s important to note that Nixxes have done another great job for Square, ensuring the game takes advantage of what a PC can do over a console. Although the much trumpeted “TressFX” designed to give Lara realistic hair is absolutely crippling on powerful NVidia cards. Created by AMD, it really seems to only be an option for their own cards. (And it looks epically silly, too.) Also, despite a pretty powerful rig, putting things above the “quite good” details saw things really struggle. Turn things up to the max and I wasn’t offered a slideshow, so much as received a single postcard. I think things could have been better optimised, and perhaps the next set of graphics drivers will see to that.

It creates such an odd space. Tomb Raider is a theme park ride, but one where you can get off and go back to look around the ghost towns you’ve left behind. It’s a game for the new crowd, but clearly with hankerings to be part of the old. When you first see that island map, and the quick travel points, it’s hard not to think you’ve got yourself a Far Cry 3-style thing here, something that will let you encounter the game in your own way, with a main story running through. But that certainly isn’t the case. The story, which you could predict in its entirety from the opening cutscene (let’s just say that of the collection of stereotypes you have with you, none deviates from their inevitable path), doesn’t offer any reward for this obsessive control-freakery.

With the game making every decision for you – and I feel the need to stress this again – even deciding when you run, walk or crawl, some will argue it all allows this rollercoaster ride to be as smooth as possible. It all allows you to be swept along by the experience, to be wowed by the epic scenery and breathtaking destruction. But me – I want to play.

When it let me, I had a really good time. When it didn’t, well, I sat back in my chair and wondered what I was doing here.

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254 Comments »

  1. DougallDogg says:

    Hmmm well might give this a miss for the time being. As a pallet cleanser I think I’ll go read John’s retrospective on Legend and then install that whole trilogy again.

  2. earink says:

    I created an account just to comment on this article. I don’t get it. Do you expect every game to be the same, completely open world, no cut scenes? and if you guys watch. she doesn’t just crouch, she gracefully bends around rocks. Maybe you’d like to see a button that makes her change depending on what crevice she is going through?

    I agree with the white paint on climbable objects being annoying.

    But you guys not buying a game because of what one review says? You’re all stupid. It’s an incredible game. It’s a joy to play. I potentially would like the tombs to be a bit bigger, but it’s still nice.

    Just don’t see why you’re dissing the game for there being cut scenes.

    And the main reason I’m posting is for all you people who think this guys opinion is the holy grail. Buy the game, support the company, and try it for yourself. Or I suppose you could play everygame by reading the reviews.

    • Hanban says:

      You know, some people don’t want to support companies that put in QTEs or wrest the control from the player. Because.. you know, people like different things.

      And while John’s words might not be the holy grail of anything, the people who are not fans of the above things in games might think it’s great to get to hear about them.

      Glad you like the game! (Honest!)

    • Triplanetary says:

      ^^^ Square employee ^^^

      • earink says:

        but most people would have known about the QTE before reading this review? So some people were gonna buy it knowing about QTE then read this review and decide against it?

        “I should also add that although yes when you go through a crouching gap, the game takes away the control, you’d struggle to notice/really feel like you’ve lost control”

    • drewski says:

      I suspect the ones proclaiming their intent not to buy are a very vocal minority.

  3. Sunjammer says:

    I’m pretty excited to play this. I’ve always really liked the stuff CD does. Replaying Underworld now on the PC (I finished it on the 360) makes me a little wistful though. There is a lot of GAME game to the previous trilogy. I guess it’s just how things are now.

  4. ottyk says:

    I’m so glad someone finally gave it a proper review, This article represents my exact thoughts on it and it drove me crazy that everyone seemed to be giving it amazing reviews. It’s a great film. It’s got some really good shooting segments. It’s not Tomb Raider. It wouldn’t even make a good Uncharted.

  5. Camal says:

    Picture No.2 is getting me excited on a very physical level. Is that ok?

    • sophof says:

      It feels a bit pervy to be attracted to a video game character, doesn’t it :P

  6. Dave3d says:

    Spot on review.
    Like I have been saying in the Steam forums, its not a terrible game, but it is not a good Tomb Raider game.
    Basically, if you actually liked Max Payne 3, you will probably like Tomb Raider 2013.
    Personally, I am from the old school camp, and this game is very lacking for me.

    • KenTWOu says:

      There is a huge difference between Max Payne 3 and Tomb Raider 2013. TR gives you much more agency and freedom.

  7. malkav11 says:

    It really can be emphasized enough. In fact, it can be vastly overemphasized. I mean, that sort of game structure clearly bothers Mr. Walker far more than it’s ever bothered me, but I’ve played other games accused of similar crimes by RPS (I think they were also Walker reviews but to be honest I tend not to track bylines very often) and found that I actually had significantly greater freedom than asserted by the WIT in question. Like Medal of Honor – a pretty dull game all in all, but I was perfectly free to run ahead of my AI companions most of the time and engage in a great deal of action on my own, barring only the occasional mysteriously unopenable door. It wasn’t necessarily -wise-, as I would become the primary target for every enemy there and could only soak so many bullets, but it was possible and if I died it wasn’t an arbitrary or unreasonable autokill but the natural consequence of skipping out on my support.

    I haven’t played this Tomb Raider yet. I’m probably not going to in the near future because I am more excited about Heart of the Swarm and Bioshock Infinite. But I suspect that I’ll find it far less egregious than here described.

  8. drewski says:

    I’ve read too many other positive reviews to be put off by John’s irritation at having his hand held, I think. I can do without needing a specific “crouch” button, as long as the game doesn’t reduce me to follow butts.

    And I don’t think this is a butt-follower game.

    Looking forward to it.

  9. bigjig says:

    I’ll be skipping this one then. Sounds like one for those that prefer watching movies to engaging in actual gameplay.

  10. cytokindness says:

    John Walker the Unplayer strikes again?

  11. Kamos says:

    Hey, how is XP awarded? Is it earned by killing enemies? And if so, isn’t there a disconnect between what the game tells you Lara is feeling and what the game asks you to do in order to earn XP? Or is it possible to go through the entire game without killing anyone?

    • Matt_W says:

      XP is earned many ways: completing mission objectives, finding relics, hunting animals, pillaging tombs, etc.

      And no, it’s not possible to complete the game without killing people. It’s sort of a plot point; Lara reacts pretty emotionally the first time she’s forced to do it.

  12. sinister agent says:

    John just used both “epically” and “rig”. I… I don’t know what to believe in anymore.

  13. racccoon says:

    I’m so glad they did her hair it just passes as a fair shot at it.
    She still needs more sex appeal though, she just ain’t as sexy as she was in the old boot.
    Mashing buttons isn’t what I call fun either.
    I think in today’s game play worlds its about player play ability, with precise attacking action and movement throughout a space with no restrictions or cut scene interventions we need flowing game not one that keeps blocking our path, why place in silly scene events that spoilt it, make no sense!
    Overall I like the look of it. Slight disappointment in the game play for a reboot, 8/10 as it shows nothing of its original boot size.

  14. Optimaximal says:

    “It used to be a Tomb Raider, but then I took a stake to the neck…”

  15. Hardmood says:

    very disappointing…clearly went down the scripted gfx bombast bullshit avenue.
    i played system shock 2 recently and i was remembered of the times when u almost got no hint by games to solve anything.

    messed up pc gamer generation misleaden by stereotyped emotions in commercial gametrailers telling u ” i am weasel”…baah

  16. sophof says:

    Just wanted to applaud this review (especially since I usually don’t like how mr. Walker writes :P). Just the right balance of personal opinion and a good description of the gameplay. You can see from the comments that some people read it as a good and others as a bad, that’s a good thing in my book.

    To me it sounds like the sort of game you play 1, 1.5 years later having paid 15 euros or something. A rather empty experience, but enjoyable in an action movie sort of way.

  17. Wi1son says:

    I’m really glad someone else thinks the same as me about this game. I have been reading lots of raving reviews and started to think maybe I’m just out of touch with what makes a “good” game these days.

    This game is best described as tomb raider on rails. While it has better graphics than the original tomb raider that was out in the 90s, I would argue that it is a less interactive experiance. The game does almost everything for you.

    I hate exp points and unlockable crap. It feels mostly worthless and adds unnecessary clutter to the game.

    I hate quicktime events, they are the least interactive a game can possibly be without just playing a cinematic. I want more interactivity. I want to play, not watch a movie an occasionally press some buttons!

    I hate cover shooting galleries. Tomb raider does it well, but it’s uninteresting to me after the first few fights. It becomes very repetitive and boring. Combat in the early tomb raiders was there to add tension, when an occasional enemy or two would attack after you went into a new area. Cover shooting does not add tension or suspense. It feels like a mini-game within the actual game itself.

    Speaking of mini-games, the same goes for the bits where you are falling down a ramp and having to dodge things left and right. Can you possibly think of something more boring?

    Other parts of the game where you can supposedly “explore”, feel more like you are playing crash bandicoot, following the yellow brick road down a straight corridor.

    With all that said, I wouldn’t say I hate this game though. There are some good points, the graphics and atmosphere are great. Generally the drama of the story seems to keep me playing so far. The best bits of the entire game are the optional tombs in which you actually have to do old school style tomb raider platforming and puzzle solving. It seems to me that the either didn’t have the confidence that creating an entire game like that would be successful, or they couldn’t think of a way to tell a story without constantly holding your hand and taking away control. To me it feels similar to The Walking Dead. The gameplay is pretty lackluster but the story and suspense keep you playing. It’s an okay interactive story but I don’t know if I would call it a game.

  18. simulant says:

    We are in agreement on this game.

  19. Rossi says:

    I never actually played a Tomb Raider game in all my 20 years of gaming. So I’m not sure I’m missing anything.

    For me the review had a preconception of what the game would be like and stuck to it throughout.

    While it’s not inaccurate I think it looks back at the original tomb raiders and expects this to be the same.

    It’s a GOOD game and I don’t regret spending money on it and I think the control grabbing issues are exaggerated. You can actually skip them and continue with the game.

    • fish99 says:

      While skipping sections where there’s either limited or no control may relieve frustration, it also robs you of some of the value of your purchase. I’ve already heard Tomb Raider is quite a short game, so if you skip all those annoyances are you reducing your 10 hr game to a 6 hr game? So you see it’s not an acceptable solution, plus it means you miss a lot of story.

      Don’t get me wrong, games need a way of delivering the story, but those bits should be kept to a small percentage of the total play-time, like under 10%.

  20. Shooop says:

    I really don’t get this game.

    Is there really that big a market for games that exist solely for the purpose of taking an ordinary person and turning them into an avatar of genocide while taking time out now and again to remind us they aren’t a terminator with what can be accurately described as torture porn?

    • earink says:

      It seems to me it’s only torture porn, for sick minded individuals who actually get turned on enough by it to call it “porn” in the first place. Get yourself some help sir, and then go back and play the game without getting a boner everytime Lara gets shot at.

      • Shooop says:

        Are you really so downright ignorant and/or sheltered from media outlets that you have honestly never heard the term “torture porn” before and therefore believe it has anything at all to do with sexual arousal?

  21. Baal_Sagoth says:

    Very interesting WIT. This game’s reception has me utterly confused. I’ve played so many games by now and experienced so many facets of the route reviews and opinions take accordingly that I rarely find a case where I can’t make sense of my experience in relation to other people’s reaction. But this certainly is one of them.
    I just recently finished the game and absolutely loved it. I didn’t need a fourth CD Tomb Raider rehash (as glorious as those are) and was utterly excited about their take on a reboot. The game surely skews a little more towards directed action setpieces as opposed to pure gameplay. But that’s a small price to pay when the action is actually bloody great. I’m really in the dark as to what caused all the backlash towards the marketing and final game. You might think it’s great, good or even mediocre but the reason for the spite escapes me.
    I’m glad to read someone else actually appreciated Ms. Croft’s character arc though – that was handled exceptionally I thought.

    • beebs says:

      It’s funny. All I hear is whining about SimCity, and I kind of chuckle that people are missing out on this game. I really enjoyed playing through this game. Afterwards, I decided to search and see what others were saying and this review came up. I don’t really get the whole old school / new school thing. I’m an old school player and I was still able to enjoy this game. I mean yes at the beginning I was pressing shift to run, and was like WTF Y U NO RUN? The only cutscenes I found annoying were early on in the game, as I didn’t think they added anything. I only legit lol’d at the badness of the dialog like two times. The graphics and sound of this game were great and really added to the immersion of the game. I’m not a big graphics person, as I’ve never had a high end gaming rig, and I’ve played hundreds of hours of flash games. However, I stopped 4-5 times and took screenshots during my playthrough and there were moments I wished I could show friends. This is a really good game, and I think people should hear about it. I don’t get all the negativity out of what seems to be the minority. I hope it doesn’t turn people off of supporting this game.

      • earink says:

        Well said. Here’s hoping people will play it and decide for themselves.

  22. f69 says:

    It feels like this article exists to condemn linear games as a class. Some of us can enjoy a variety of different experiences without being classified into any ‘school’.

    Many great games are linear. Half-Life is linear. Oh yeah you have control during cutscenes, control without actual control that is, a trick no more (not a criticism). Batman Arkham Asylum is linear and equally happy to lead you along, etc.

    Tomb Raider is a great ride with a great main lead. It’s evocative, vivid, and very atmospheric. It’s got some of the best 3rd person combat of any game. It’s got some huge and beautiful looking explorable environments. Its story is better than he makes it sound, it is not revelatory but it keeps you intrigued and engaged even if you can guess where it is going.

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  24. gurtana says:

    I just simply don’t agree with this review. I’ve played what I guestimate is around 75-80% of the singleplayer story and I’m hooked. This is a gaming title with the same kind of technical polish and matinee adventure theatre as found in the Uncharted series – and it’s no worse for it!

    I think the criticisms are just nit-picking – there is absolutely nothing wrong with contextual movement (such as Lara automatically holding out her hand when she’s sliding through a narrow rock crevasse, or coughing when she’s neck deep in water with only a small pocket of air, or any of the other contextual automatic movements she has). I think it’s actually a brilliant design choice for this type of game and is very immersive. Yes, the game is leading you, funnelling you down it’s story direction, but the level designs are hugely clever and impressive, and overall effect of Lara’s navigation through is that Lara’s motions feel REAL.

    The gamer DOES have control, this review is greatly exaggerating and is, in fact, quite false in trying to maintain the gamer does not have control of Lara – often you are steering her as the camera does it’s “action framing” around you, but you can stop, or walk back and take it at your own pace. The only times you do not, is when Lara is sliding down a slippery slope, or hill, etc., but you can still steer her in the direction you want – if you do not you’ll crash into things and lose health.

    I used to have debates with my other videogame loving friends and amongst our group, we agreed that it’ll be a great day when games automatically sense the appropriate contextual animation required, without the need for excessive button presses – just make the animations smart. And this is what we have here because Lara’s animations are improved to such a degree where she is aware of what is happening in the level design as you play.

  25. SabreWolf says:

    Looks ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS.
    By that I mean the game, not the protagonist. Although she is just as beautiful.

    Love the graphics, although they aren’t hyper-realistic like Crysis, they definitely take a step further than Anniversary. And that’s saying something, cause I loved Anniversary

    ———————————————-
    http://www.indieinformer.blogspot.com

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