Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tomb Raider (2013) - A Survivor Is Born

While my experience with the Tomb Raider franchise before now has been absolutely none, that didn’t prevent me from being curious about the recent reboot by Crystal Dynamics (which is also apparently the second reboot in the franchise overall). Since this new game, Tomb Raider, was a reboot by nature, I figured that it would be a good place to jump on and see what it was like. I’ll clarify now that while I was interested in playing it, I didn’t get around to doing so until this past week because not only did I keep myself busy with other titles, I started having to do stuff for school (and my semester so far feels pretty light, so I’m accomplishing more than I thought I would). Once I finally got to play this reboot I thought that it was actually very good, though of course not without its own share of problems, but these are mostly in the narrative.

Lara Croft sets out on her first archeological expedition aboard a ship called The Endurance in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai, home of an ancient Japanese queen, Himiko, who is said to control the weather itself. By Lara’s suggestion, The Endurance veers into the Dragon’s Triangle, located east of Japan, where a freak storm causes the ship to crash into an island and shipwreck. After regaining consciousness, Lara realizes that she is split off from the rest of her group and attempts to re-establish communication so she can meet up with the rest of the expedition. With no supplies or food, Lara must learn how to survive on the mysterious island and deal with a cult which also inhabits it.

Lara Croft as she appears in this game.

As an origin story, Tomb Raider seems to tick off a lot of plot points some observant players will have seen before, but in this case the game uses them to establish Lara as a three-dimensional character and give her good motivation to do what she does near the end of the game. Her back story is gradually revealed through throwaway dialogue or video recordings from The Endurance, which is a better and much more natural way of handling someone’s past. By the end of the game I was able to feel for Lara, although by then I was also able to predict much of the plot in advance and some of the excitement had worn away. While in the end it still made me want to play through further adventures with this incarnation of Lara, there are still a couple of things off about the story which I’d chalk up more to co-writer Rhianna Pratchett (responsible for the story of the Mirror’s Edge game and comic) being kind of bad at her job.

One of these issues is that while I was able to identify more with Lara by the end of the game, I can’t really say the same for her companions. Apart from some action in the game or small bits of background, like how one of them explicitly says they are from Glasgow, I couldn’t really tell you much about anyone apart from maybe their names. These aren’t exactly memorable characters by a long shot, so when something tragic, like death, strikes one of them, I had no feelings during what I think was supposed to be a very emotional point in the story. If we were able to get to know them more then maybe I’d think they were more necessary than they felt. As it stands, the character I really know the most about is Sam, who is kind of integral to the plot.

I kind of know who these guys are, but not who they are.

This leads into the other major issue I had with the story: sometimes Lara comes off as an idiot. It doesn’t happen very often, but there is more than one instance in the game where she suddenly forgets a key piece of information revealed to her at the very beginning of the game, or even before then. Sam informs Lara that she is a descendent of Himiko, which is why the trip is special to her in particular. However, when Lara is asked why the island’s Himiko-worshipping cult wants Sam, Lara says that she has absolutely no idea why. I’ll repeat: Lara is told that her best friend is a descendent of Himiko and doesn’t think that maybe it’s possible that a Himiko-worshipping cult would want this woman who explicitly says that she’s a descendent. This infuriated me to the point where I actually paused the game for a minute and yelled at the screen, specifically at Lara, before letting the story continue. Apart from these flaws, and some other ones people might find, the story was pretty good.

What I found most interesting about this game however is just how similar it felt to Uncharted. This isn’t a bad thing at all since I like Uncharted, but I couldn’t help but feel that Tomb Raider possibly made improvements to certain aspects of the formula. It doesn’t feel like playing as a modern Indiana Jones, but Lara shows more platforming ability through the use of a greater array of gear and weapons, including a bow and arrow that can also close gaps between areas or easily unlock new ones to explore for rewards. Instead of only two weapons, Lara holds four unique ones that can all be upgraded for better firepower and more tactical possibilities. The more open nature of the island certainly helped, as exploring outside of the confines of the plot will net you some collectibles, including relics like in Uncharted, and allow you to hunt animals native to each area. Another improvement is being able to Fast Travel between certain camps, which grant the ability to go back later and collect something you may have missed the first time around. Apart from that, the controls are very smooth and the difficulty is such that every single death felt like my fault for not approaching a situation carefully enough.

I also liked the general layout of the island itself. No two places feel identical and they are all very good to look at. Rather than focus its attention on massive set pieces, a lot of the awe comes from the great camera angles and perspective shots which show just how big something really is. It was very fun to explore for collectibles and finding Tombs excited me because whenever I entered one, I looked forward to the sorts of puzzles I’d have to solve for rewards that always felt worth it. There isn’t too much of an emphasis on puzzle solving on the island, but that’s all right because it felt like just the right amount, for now at least.

The graphics of Tomb Raider are very good, with a good amount of detail in the foliage and other elements, including fire that actually looks impressive. Whenever something happens to Lara, there’s an interesting attention to detail regarding how she looks afterwards; her clothes even take a subtle amount of damage over the course of the story like in the Batman: Arkham games, so I was able to be immersed in the environments. I like how Lara looks in general, as she seems more realistic in proportions than in the previous games, and I think her choice of attire is pretty practical for what she ends up going through. I suppose the other characters look all right as well, in a realistic kind of way, but, again, I don’t really remember too much about them due to having not even close to as much screen time as Lara. Voice acting also has a lot of range and emotion and the music is very well-written.

The island is a little visceral, but you get used to it.

All in all, Tomb Raider is a very good game. Though the story is predictable, it’s pretty well-written for the most part and the Uncharted-inspired gameplay only strengthens how fun it is to play. There is a good amount of replayability in trying to collect everything and exploring the island is very fun, with a great combat system to boot. Die-hard Tomb Raider fans may have some reservations about trying this game out, though I’d suggest they try it anyway to form an opinion. Newcomers should try this out too, especially since this is a pretty good substitute for the Uncharted series if they can’t possibly play it. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel is even better.

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