By Alec Meer on April 5th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
The only other Tomb Raider game I’ve ever played was the first one, which I found alternately brilliant and annoying. Oh, and I reviewed The Angel of Darkness for a magazine, but that doesn’t count. This year’s reboot, Tomb Raider, was my first experience of Crystal Dynamics’ work with Lara Croft, so I was a relative blank slate in terms of expectations. Perhaps that’s why I had a better time with it than John did – there wasn’t anything I knew to miss or call for, any pre-existing associations to be endorsed or threatened. That didn’t stop me from howling in misery at all the quicktime events and the often bobbins plot, of course, but there’s an awful lot in there I really dug.
- First up, Lara. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call her especially memorable, but she was certainly freed from the chains of faint absurdity which have dogged her for so long. She convincingly grew from scared and vulnerable to scarred and veteran across the course of the game, even if she had to suffer enough near-fatal falls to fill a hundred Die Hard movies in the process. There was a great, sensibly subtle physicality to her when climbing up rock faces or making dangerous jumps too. Sure, she was essentially capable of superheroics, but it wasn’t realised in pantomime or tawdry fashion. Aside from occasionally recoiling at an oddly inanimate face which looked like a wax model of Jennifer Lawrence, I enjoyed her company, I never felt like a dirty old man and I never questioned her leading-woman status. She certainly put paid to the lie that action game stars need to be brawny man-hulks or cynically sexualised Valkyries.
- The environments. Not the silly colour-coded wall-climbing, exploding building bits, but the large, exploration-friendly ‘levels’ which contained plot objectives, the excellent but too few, too brief Tomb side-missions and assorted collectibles. Judicious use of light, shadow and ambient occlusion meant they looked amazing on PC, dense and Earthly settings not laid low by silly sci-fi or perpetual twilight. While interactions were restricted to some degree, there was real joy in simply clambering around them, getting to high or out-of-reach places just for the hell of it. And for the pick-ups, but I’ll get to those shortly. I didn’t feel too ushered around these areas, despite the sometimes shrill protestations of the plot – I went in determined to damn well play the game at the pace I wanted, and happily it let me once I got through each new area’s introductory talky bit. I didn’t proceed to storyline missions until I thought I’d combed every inch of every environment, and it’s definitely in that hands-off free-roaming that the game most shines. I even revisited a few areas after the end of the game, using gear Lara hadn’t had the first time she was there to access new areas, in a pleasant touch of optional Metroidvania.
- The Tombs were wonderful, but you knew that. There weren’t anywhere near enough of them and they all wrapped up far too quickly, but they contained the best aspects of the game in capsule form – gigantic architecture, navigation-based puzzles with big visual pay-offs. They seemed at the heart of what the game was trying to be, and it’s sad how often it forgot this in favour of quick-time events, but at least the MouseTrap philosophy behind them did extend into the broader game, and those larger environments. I’m usually pretty DLC-resistant, but I’d definitely have gone back in for more of those tombs – it’s crazy that there won’t be any.
- Hell, I even enjoyed the shooting. Sure, regenerating health is a perennial let-down, but at least it wasn’t a recharging magic-shield. The limited choice of weapons, and the very clear roles they took (especially by contrast to the homogeneous death-tubes of that other big action game of recent weeks, BioShock Infinite), served the game well, and while the idea of Lara being distressed by her first kill only to then mow down hundreds without blinking was classic videogame absurdity (see Niko Bellic in GTA 4) I thought the combat itself was well-balanced, most enemies a sweet spot between bullet sponges and mere mortals. Upgrading the weapons, with the effects being visual as well as statistical, was pleasant roleplaying-lite, and seemed far more tactile and rewarding than the similar, vending machine-based system in Binfinite.
- I especially loved the bow, and how it gradually turned into a sort of massive string-based Transformer. It was my primary weapon most of the time, even when it was incredibly unwise for it to be so, simply because it felt good. Best of all, the bow served the purposes of exploration, with all its zipline-creation, wall-pulling and fire-starting – it felt cannily enmeshed with the game and its environments, rather than simply the faddish sniper rifle analogue it’s been in other recent games.
- Something which surprised me, given it’s a game element I so often sneer at (see the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games), was how hard the collectormania element grabbed me. At one point, I even decided I was going to 100% the game. I made it a good way towards that until trying to find the last few GPS caches became too gruesome. Most of the while though, it felt rewarding. The combination of environmental/navigational puzzles necessary to reach all the relics, caches, documents and whatnot, and the fact they had in-game rewards rather than simply progress towards achievements, made all my clambering and falling off things and rope-shooting and swearing seem eminently worthwhile. When this stuff isn’t merely ephemeral, and when it fits in-game logic (i.e. Lara hunting relics makes sense; an Assassin collecting hovering feathers does not), it feels like it’s – pun not intended – achieving something rather than grinding. Though the GPS caches were a collectible too far – no museum’s going to by those, Croft.
- But: I couldn’t stand the supporting cast. It was one of those cases where we were expected to care about them right out of the gate, without their having done anything to earn it. Twists were signposted from three furlongs away. The baddie made no sense and just appeared to pop out of nowhere unless you’d found and listened to the audio diaries. The father figure character seemed to be constructed only of stereotypes. I didn’t care when people died. Why did the black character need to be angry and unreasonable from start to almost-end? The idea that the tall, handsome guy in fashionable glasses was supposed to be some sort of feckless ultra-nerd who Lara couldn’t possibly be attracted to was laughable. The best friend/damsel in distress character had no definable personality traits. This was so clearly, and often so winningly, Lara’s game – it would have been better without these people in it, were she shipwrecked alone and trying to find a way home by herself. At least she wasn’t ultimately dependent on these people – in fact, she wound up leading them – but their very presence did diminish her.
The QTE overload, the super-prescribed wall-climbing and the unannounced, disorientating switching between cutscene and suddenly needing to act certainly grated at the time, but it’s now been a couple of weeks since I played Tomb Raider I find that my feeling about it is predominantly a fond one. I enjoyed being in that place, solving the grand puzzle of the environment with the grand Swiss army knife of my bow, and I think this reboot is a fine sign-post to where this series could and should go. Hopefully Crystal Dynamics, if they’re allowed to make another in the wake of the game apparently not meeting sales expectations, are receptive to complaints about quick-time events and Unchartedisms. I want more puzzle-fun in large, epic environments, because I reckon they did a stand-up job when they made that element of the game their focus.
And no, I couldn’t get the hair to run well either.