Words by James Bacon
Lara Croft has a long and storied history. As far as famous female video game characters go, she’s second in notoriety only to Princess Peach. Lara debuted during the original PlayStation era to much fanfare, and she was lauded for the style with which she grabbed our attention, and took us on adventure after adventure. It’s true that she’s had her downs, as well, citing the entirety of last generation (and the majority of her cross-over into this one) as one of the most lengthy falls from grace this industry has ever seen, again coming in second, but this time to Sonic the Hedgehog.
The preview screens and videos of this new entry in the series, titled simply “Tomb Raider,” have left a mountain of expectations to live up to. Conjuring images of Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed Uncharted series – a series Lara, herself, inspired – and boasting outstanding visuals, mysterious dangers, and eponymous tombs, E3 2010 gave us a glimpse at what Lara hoped to be. But, as Gearbox Software tends to prove time and again… previews don’t necessarily make the game, and after the gigantic Aliens: Colonial Marines debacle, a bit of trepidation crept into the air. You can’t always trust everything that you see.
Thankfully, those fears were completely unfounded.
Survival Action. These two words lay at the heart of everything that Lara is and does; and the tagline for the Crystal Dynamics developed, SquareEnix published powerhouse — “A Survivor is Born” — is true in more than one way. The obvious meaning indicates the life-or-death struggle Lara is forced into, actively becoming a survivor; while an other meaning, and I’d wager an unintended one at that, is the birth of a new genre. Pure survival games have been attempted before, but never in such a lush, tight fashion, and never with such an incredible battery of action packed sequences framing it. The experience is so immediately raw, so strikingly visceral, that you can’t help but get pulled in. Hunting for sustenance (on an island that has a limited supply of fauna, which you can actually exhaust), scavenging for tools, and searching through a living, ever-changing island with your crew is an immediately understandable, if not relatable experience. No one wants to die, and it’s this commonality among human motivations that brings you, the audience, directly into the story. Add to this several genuinely intense scares, and you can see how “Survival Action” is not only apt, but an essential moniker.
Sweetening the deal are scores of smart development decisions: fast travel, hidden tombs that encourage exploration, remarkably crisp visuals, and the well-written strength of Lara’s character (as well as her particularly human, reluctant reactions) given her extremely vulnerable position make the game a joy to experience, and the plot credible and believable. It still deals in supernatural goings on, as the previous games (and Lara’s initial inspiration, Indiana Jones) mostly did, giving us all something not only familiar to reference in the series, but generating a crucial feeling of nagging curiosity, daring you to proceed. All of these elements combine to great effect, smoothly complimenting each other throughout the duration of your stay on Lara’s little island.
Concerning story, the game begins where the E3 2010 previews left us – on a (disturbingly) sparsely inhabited island, completely shipwrecked and alone, searching out your crew mates, and trying to avoid those locals along the way. This all started when Ms. Croft had decided to take out an expedition in order to discover the lost kingdom of one notorious “Storm Queen,” a ruler said to have the ability to control weather. She’s also not that great of a person… she also might not have died completely… she may also be haunting the island you’ve crashed on…
Anyway, the expedition members (Grimm, Roth, and Sam particularly) are all well likable, with one very clear exception, and you find yourself actually caring about the personalities involved. This is a big kudos to whoever penned this story. It can be difficult enough getting your protagonist to be well liked, but to have us concerned for the well being of an entire cast is really something else. The level of believable humanity and goodness in this cast is staggering, and I often found myself being jealous of the skill required to pen it. That’s how you know something is good, folks. You, yourself, wish you’d done it.
The game, however, isn’t perfect. One of the classic issues with 3D environments in games, the camera, strikes again; and though I never died due to camera placement, there were times when foliage blocked my view while trying to target something with a weapon, and this happened all over. Very frustrating. Also, I unfortunately got stuck in scenery. After performing a jump, Lara fell through a bridge, and I had to restart from a previous save. Checkpoint saves are so frequent, it didn’t much matter, but my heart always sinks when I discover these sorts of bugs. Just a bit more testing could have solved this issue; however, it never happened again, and I was able to complete the game without experiencing any other clipping issues.
Something that Tomb Raider is able to deliver on, despite the unfortunate bug(s) and infrequently frustrating camera, is ease of use. More often I find myself celebrating the decisions that allow my gaming experiences to not be mired down in all sorts of shift+pressing in order to get the damned controller to do what I want it to. I don’t want to hold down a shoulder button to completely change the functions of the face buttons so I can cast a spell, or work some other game mechanic that’s been made needlessly cramp-inducing because the designers just can’t help themselves when it comes to loading down functionality with just too many options. There are 16 (give or take) buttons on the face of my XBOX controller. That’s sixteen independent functions you can assign without having to create unnecessary shift functions. Sixteen is plenty. And it’s plenty for Crystal Dynamics, as well. One button, one action. And the response is as quick and tight as you’d expect it to be.
Also, there is no inventory screen. Instead, everything Lara picks up to use is visible on her person. If you don’t see it on her, she can’t use it. Walkie-talkies, a bow and arrows, a climbing pick/pry bar, side-arms, all of the tools she needs, you can see, completely removing the need to enter into some tiresome inventory screen, which subsequently keeps you in the game without breaking immersion. It’s a little thing, but it’s just one more thing in the long line of correct decisions Crystal Dynamics made, and should be praised for.
As previously stated, the game has been, almost necessarily, compared to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, and while the games share certain similarities in their action sequences, it’s generally an extremely poor comparison. Some of the things Tomb Raider does simply haven’t ever been done before. Where Uncharted is a linear action game, Tomb Raider takes place on an open island you can explore at your leisure. Even though the combat is handled similarly in both titles, it’s the breaks between the action that sets Tomb Raider apart. When you’re not engaged in intense firefights, you’re fighting for your survival against weather, fauna, and unfamiliar territory. One thing that Lara and Drake definitely have in common? Four little words: Game of the Year. Lara Croft is back, and once again, she’ll be inspiring game designers the industry over for generations to come.
Verdict: 9.0 – Double Plus Good.