Lara Croft – with almost two decades of spelunking and antique-collecting under her belt, she’s synonymous with female videogame characters and easily ranks along the likes of Cortana, Chun Li and Princess Peach as major players in the industry. Yet… apart from an arcade game, Lara’s been MIA for almost 5 years now. Taking advantage of the hiatus, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix now take us back to the dawn of Lara’s adventuring, to bring us her “origin story” and show us how she was shaped into the determined lady we know.
Harking back to Lara’s initial forays into archaeology, the story begins with the intrepid explorer in the midst of a shipping mishap aboard the Endurance in the middle of a storm. With everyone forced to abandon ship, the survivors struggle to shore and, separated from the group, Lara is forced not just to fend for herself but to steel her resolve merely to survive. For the jungles aren’t as empty as they appear, and not all the predators walk on four feet…
As far as the storyline goes, there’s definitely a blend of influences on show. From the typical “jungle/island warfare” fares from Dead Island (sans zombies) and the Far Cry series, to the Die Hard movies (when going for action sequences, who does it better than John McClane?), Crystal Dynamics have pinpointed what exactly is needed to help the gamer relate to Lara and her plight. With the darker tones of this installment, there’s also some edgier references to the horror genre, including a couple of (seemingly) direct references to The Descent… which I won’t spoil, as it’d be a shame to ruin the great story the developers have so carefully polished.
In that regard (and as they’ve aimed for all along), Crystal Dynamics have showcased exactly how you appeal to your audience and make them sympathetic to their star’s plight. The mood of the game is great, but most importantly the timing and pacing of the story is spot on. Moments of both adrenaline and stealth/research are bountiful, yet there’s also times of (apparent) peace to explore the areas and take in the tranquility and beauty of the island and its constructs. Across waterfalls and jungles, desolate mountain ranges, claustrophobic caverns and the ruins of a number of eras of settlements (yes, the island has had its share of “visitors” over the decades… to mysterious ends…), the game is a visual delight. Complimenting this to a tee is the soundtrack, which is not only a wonderful score in its own right but also situated so it actively enhances the mood of the action unfolding. Wound over the top from all these elements is a sense of both wonder and decay, of how could someone survive on this island, and what happened to them in the end. Yes, there’s a darker tone than what we’ve all come to expect from the Tomb Raider series, but it does enhance the player’s affinity with Lara’s toils and struggles.
Structurally, the game is set up as a blend of action, platforming and 3rd person shooter, with RPG elements of experience and tiered/upgradeable weaponry added in for good measure, all in a segmented yet interconnected web of smaller “area” maps. If that all sounds a little confusing, think of the earlier Assassin’s Creed games and you’ll get the idea. Navigating to the next waypoint furthers the main story, but there’s always plenty of exploring to do in the immediate area as well (often pulling us in two directions – to stay and play, or to go on and find out what happens next!!). Also prevalent is a lot of 3rd person shooting areas. Whilst at any time Lara can aim her weapon of choice to enter this mode, in areas where she is under attack she’ll react to the environment in an appropriate manner – crouching, cowering from gunfire and moving into cover when near barriers or objects. This is all automatic according to where you move Lara, yet done seamlessly and perfectly. Run from cover and she’ll sprint whilst covering her head; move slowly near and an object and she’ll move from creeping towards the barrier to use as cover. Even little things like touching a side wall or cliff face for balance when walking along narrow ledges all add to the immersion – Crystal Dynamics have outdone themselves in this regard.
Despite all this, the developers have certainly given a level of freedom (well, as much as they can) as to how you play the game. Stealthy and “shooty” approaches are interchangeable, and even as far as how much you use the “Survival Instincts” vision (which highlights things of interest or puzzles) for help to problem-solve your way through areas. And above it all is layered a Metroid-esque layer of back- and side-tracking – getting a rope, access to fire or learning new agility or climbing abilities open up further parts of areas previously explored. This method of “upgrading” also leads to plenty of “Eureka!!” moments for the various collectibles strewn around the island – sometimes being unable to reach a journal or artefact behind debris, when you find a new tool like the rope or shotgun and realise how they work with the environment, all of a sudden it becomes “relic hunter” time!!
Speaking of collectibles, Crystal Dynamics have utilised this “easy to include – hard to make relevant” feature extraordinarily well. Journal entries from multiple eras of the island’s history and little relics from bygone ages both help to further the backstory of this adventure, particularly of the antagonists and their cult. All the other little extras also help entice the player into exploring every nook and cranny of the larger areas.
A minor niggle is the implementation of the actual “tombs” – the game could really have been nicknamed “optional Tomb Raider”, as they’ve been relegated to side-quests and simplified to one-puzzle affairs. Whilst seemingly a strange change of focus for the series, it actually almost becomes understandable as you progress through the game. As Lara herself utters, “I hate tombs…”, and you come to realise that these are reduced in influence not just because of the isolated location of the island, but that she’s still developing into the legendary Lara Croft we know and love. Why start on delving into ancient fortresses with multiple layers of ancient security when Lara and her companions are solely bent on survival?
Another point of contention that must be mentioned is the proliferation of quick-time events (QTEs). Everything from stunning and finishing enemies in close combat, to action sequences in cinematics contain QTEs – often resulting in a particularly gruesome end if failed. Whilst some really make you feel the consequences of your mistiming with their gruesome deaths, after a number of tries with getting a little further each time you can quickly become a little jaded at how Crystal Dynamics have tried to spice up their cinematics.
Those small incidents aside, the single-player side of Tomb Raider is every bit the polished, emotional rollercoaster we were promised. Gripping, emotional and raw, and well worth playing through.
The multiplayer side of things is a different kettle of fish. Developed by a different team, this time over at Eidos Montreal, it still maintains a similar look and control to the single player aspect. However, unfortunately here the similarities end. You have a range of characters (and generic henchmen) to choose from, playing either as the “survivors” or “Solarii” (cultists from the story mode) – sadly, the only real points of difference is in the load-outs and abilities you give them, which in turn are direcly related to your rank and experience earned already. As far as modes go, there are the standard “Survival” and “Team Deathmatch” modes for team and non-team firefights, but also “Cry For Help” and “Rescue”, where teams must work together to complete a set of goals or deny the opposition them. The cruel problem with the latter two (and conceptually more interesting) modes is that they’re inherently unbalanced, mainly because of trying to keep with the theme of this game. For example, in “Rescue” the survivors are tasked with retrieving first aid kits back to their base, whilst the Solarii have to kill 20 of the survivors – the catch being that Solarii have to get close in on “downed” survivors to finish them with a melee and get a point, whilst when a survivor has a medical kit they are lit up like a beacon on the HUD map. Whilst slight imbalances should even out as teams switch sides after each round, it still does detract from the enjoyment. And that’s the catch – unless a game can hold people’s interest in multiplayer, people are less likely to stick around with it, creating a vicious “catch-22” situation.
Overall, Tomb Raider delivers what we all hoped for – an amazing single-player experience that does wonders to enhance Lara Croft’s history. And more importantly, it’s also the stepping stone that Square Enix were hoping for to re-establish their Tomb Raider IP as a mainstay in the industry. Unfortunately the multiplayer suffers from some glaring problems: it suffers from balancing problems, doesn’t entice you in and to keep playing, and does nothing to stand out from the crowd of other online multiplayer experiences. But let’s be honest – you buy Tomb Raider games for the single player adventure, and in that area it’s a joy to experience and a must-play for any action/adventure fan. Welcome back Lara!!