What’s this… A review of Tomb Raider?! Didn’t you just get back from PAX East? Yes, and you’d be right. Somewhere in the middle of all this craziness, travel, and avoiding the dreaded PAX Pox, I managed to complete Tomb Raider… what I didn’t manage to finish, however, until now, is this review.
Long story short, this game offers an excellent adventure experience, complete with an engaging narrative, great audio design, and interesting locations. I think it’s important, also, to clear up a few potential misconceptions about the game. You may or may not remember the community reaction to some trailers that came out a while ago where it appeared Lara was put in some less than favorable conditions. This sparked reactions that called into question the treatment of Lara as a character, and the way some pretty intense topics were dealt with. Thankfully, it would seem little to none of that made it into the final release.
Lara is a character who starts out weak, not because she is a female, rather because she is unsure of herself, still looks to her mentors for guidance, and often places herself squarely within her father’s shadow. The game opens with her exploration vessel wrecking on a remote Japanese island, a destination, which we learn is one she fought to journey toward. So yeah, the Lara we start with isn’t high on confidence, and probably feels a little guilty too. It is certainty not the Lara we end up with. And the transformation of the character is where the game shines, but to talk about it here would be something of a spoiler and should be experienced first-hand.
Tomb Raider seems to borrow a little inspiration from Lost, for the island had many inhabitants over many centuries, and is currently inhabited by a crazed pack of unsavory characters led by a madman. There are even odd weather events and supernatural beings. Because of this however, Tomb Raider takes us to meticulously detailed landscapes including jungles, shanty towns, bunkers, caves, and yes… tombs! It was refreshing that each map in the game had a different feel to it. The Tombs themsleves are actually small puzzles (think PoP or AC2) that offer big gains in XP, they’re fun and not frustrating to the point where puzzle-adverse players would be turned off. There is also a day / night cycle that changes as the story progresses, which is also interesting to contend with considering you can fast-travel to places you’ve already been to find things you’ve may have missed prior.
Gameplay is what you might expect for adventure game (PoP, Uncharted, etc.) with some significant, satisfying twists. You run and jump, climb rock faces, glide down ropes, and search for loot. However, your weapons, gear, and abilities increase as you gain experience, and scavenge for materials. What makes this gameplay great is the stealth mechanic and close quarters combat. The game automatically puts you in and out of stealth mode when appropriate, freeing the player up to focus on making those beautifully animated stealth kills. The game draws you further into the gameplay by having a very minimal HUD, often just a small map in the corner. The overall effect is fluid gameplay and a polished UI.
Lara herself, also becomes a skilled adventurer through the XP system, and you choose how to best approach that situation. Fancy yourself a hunter? explorer? or a skill combatant? There are a lot of options for deciding how you want to play. Personally, I find the standard gear to be the most satisfying. There are times in which two enemies are having a conversation, kill one and the other will be alerted to your presence. Better yet, fire an arrow into the rock nearby, and pick off both silently, when they separate to investigate. Sure, you could run in guns-a-blazing, but in the words of a famous duelist it is “so uncivilized.”
Gripes, I have just few. Specifically, each map has a number of items to collect and challenges to complete. Once you gain enough XP the collection portion becomes more of a chore than anything. You could avoid the challenges, but you probably couldn’t max your abilities. That being said, all of the items you collect are fully voiced, so instead of just reading a document or inspecting a trinket, Lara reads or talks about it, it’s a nice touch. Secondly, the achievement system is completely transparent, so if that’s your thing, make sure you look at the list before you start, because at least half of them are totally miss-able. Finally, hunting animals to upgrade weapons… its just not my thing.
Finally, the multiplayer. It’s perfectly fine, but I just cannot get into it. I saw two kinds of people playing: those who are working toward that level 60 achievement, and those that jump in just to check things out. Because upgrades are unlocked through experience, the gameplay favors the experienced. I played a few team matches in which savvy players, who already knew the maps, base camped with the secret weapons hidden on each level and picked the opposing team off. In deathmatch, there’s very little incentive to move from a defensive position, which creates lopsided score results. Yes, there are other game modes, but I couldn’t find enough players to join in. Deathmatch reigns here, and with so many other games with better multiplayer, I can’t see sticking around here long unless you’ve got your own group of like minded players for private matches.
Gripes aside. After playing a few 40+ hour games before this, it is refreshing to get back into an adventure experience that plays like an action movie. Heck, just to give you an idea of what I was playing before-hand, I forgot you could jump in these games for the first 20 minutes or so. It’s a fun world to play in. This is a game not to be missed by fans of adventure or a good origin story. If you haven’t already, muster up your courage and explore Tomb Raider.