Not that kind of Croft: PAR reviews Tomb Raider
Is there a moment in our lives where we become ourselves? Are there events that help us to realize our potential, and set the course for our adult lives? Our personalities are an ongoing collection of thoughts, events, reactions, and decisions, but most of us can point to one or two things that contributed to our development and shaped our path.
Tomb Raider is a game that explains how a young woman named Lara Croft transitioned from one stage of her life into the next. It’s a story of trauma, violence, ability, and potential. Tomb Raider successfully re-introduces us to the character of Lara Croft, the game explains how she became the hero and adventurer we came to love, and sets the stage for her next adventure. It’s a strong game with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. It’s also one of the best games of the year.
The game begins when a small crew is marooned on an island and a young Lara Croft is taken prisoner by… someone. What follows is a scary, claustrophobic escape into a situation that continues to deteriorate. Tomb Raider throws a number of people, and groups of people, into a mysterious situation and then explores what happens as everyone tries to survive, in both the short and long term.
After playing through the full game, the question of sexual assault, or whether the player will want to “protect” Lara Croft both feel silly. The scenes where Croft is in jeopardy make sense in the greater context of the game, and at no point did I feel protective of the character. She wasn’t a cowering thing, being guided by an unseen presence with a controller as much as she was the player’s avatar in a situation that offers an overwhelming sense of danger. Violence is a cheap commodity on this island, and in that environment you can either give up, or fight.
Lara Croft, unsurprisingly, chooses to fight.
That decision isn’t made lightly, and in fact the cowering girl from the game’s opening scenes is replaced by a character who has decided not to go quietly, and that move happens in a number of stages. You gain a bow and arrow early in the game, but that weapon is complimented by others, and you’ll be salvaging supplies, upgrading your abilities, guns, and gear, and learning how more about the island as the game moves along at its steady, relentless pace.
Games that wear their influences so openly can be off-putting at best, and at worst they can seem like cheap knock-offs of the source material, but Tomb Raider openly borrows, learns, and appropriates scenes and moments from a large number of well-selected pop culture artifacts. You’ll be reminded of films like The Descent, and one tense moment is lifted from Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about dinosaurs.
You’ll also notice echoes of LOST, and even Resident Evil 5. Tomb Raider isn’t shy about aping some of the sense of scope and the gigantic set pieces from the Uncharted series, but Lara Croft and company put their own stamp on every piece of this diverse pie. Some artists sample, and others create something original and cohesive by using bits and pieces of old material and putting it together in new and interesting ways. Tomb Raider is the latter.
It also helps that the gun play, and there is extensive gun play, feels great. The shotgun blows enemies backwards, the machine gun is effective at crowd control, and the hand gun packs a punch at close to medium range. The bow and arrow also offers a silent way to take down enemies.
You can find pieces of new weapons to upgrade your arsenal, and you can also use salvage you find around the island to increase the capabilities of your weapons. While the combat in Uncharted often felt like something one tolerated to get to the next story beat or environmental puzzle, the gunfights in Tomb Raider are well constructed and enjoyable. You’re give enough ammo to be effective, but not so little that the game wanders into survival horror.
Combat, item collection, and even hunting earns you experience and sometimes salvage, which you then use to level up your survival abilities. You can buy a skill that allows you to find more ammo on dead enemies, for instance, or to see items when you hit the button that activates your survival instincts, a view that causes important items or possible interactions to glow a bright yellow.
You don’t really need to hunt for food, but killing the wildlife is a good path to experience, which you can then use to enhance your powers. It’s a streamlined system that does a good job of giving you a reason to take aim at deer and rabbits in the forest, but it never feels like a grind. You can ignore it completely if you’d like.
Let’s take a break and raid some tombs
It’s easy to stick to the story if you choose, and you can run through the main campaign in around eight to ten hours, but there are optional tombs to find, each of which offers a puzzle and some choice gear. You can also spend time searching for salvage, looking for items that explain the lore of the island, as well as searching for artifacts. The island offers a variety of environments, but it’s not quite as unbelievable as games like Just Cause 2, which seem to pack an entire world’s worth of climates into a relatively small area.
I spent a moderate amount of time on side missions and enjoying myself, I finished the game in eight hours, and I’m only at 65 percent completion. Tomb Raider is more controlled than open-world games like Far Cry 3, but it does offer chances at exploration so you can enjoy the scenery and max out your abilities and equipment.
I was also struck at how many games fumble basic mechanics that Tomb Raider makes effortless. You don’t have to hit a button to go into cover, you merely slowly walk to a wall and Croft ducks behind it. Bring up your weapon and you aim over the barrier. Stealth is also handled well; you’ll rarely be frustrated by the enemy seeing you in situations where detection makes little sense. Cycling through weapons and the options for those weapons is simple and easy to understand. The game’s checkpoints are handled remarkably well; sections of the game remain challenging, but you’ll rarely be sent back to repeat major firefights or puzzles.
I have a tendency to pay attention to the flaws that make me want to quit a game; the frustrating bits or designs that cause friction between the player and the game and cause one to walk away for the night. Tomb Raider is a game that does so much right that it’s hard to walk away, and long, fulfilling sessions in the campaign are the norm, not the exception. So much of the game is simply fun, and you’re always close to a scene or moment that will either horrify you or impress you with the beauty of the island. There is always reason to continue on.
There are many moments from the game that are memorable. At one point Croft climbs a radio tower and, while the sequence is not difficult mechanically, the camera does an effective job at giving a heart attack to anyone who is scared of heights. The music and camera work at the top provide a great pay off to the scene, giving Croft a moment to catch her breath and enjoy the beauty around here. Again, from a mechanical point of view this sequence is not difficult, but I am scared of heights, and it felt like the game was rewarding me for facing that fear. Expect any fears of enclosed spaces to also be manipulated to delightful effect.
You pretty much need to get this
The few criticisms to level against the game, and I’ll admit I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, involve the vast number of bodies created by Croft’s gun. That particular criticism has also been leveled against Nathan Drake, but Tomb Raider at least offers the common decency to make the gunfights enjoyable. Croft’s ability to take on a well-armed and numerically superior foe is a little suspect, but hey, this is a video game.
Croft’s body also takes an amazing amount of punishment for her to continue to not only function, but fight effectively, but you can say the same about most action films. These are well-established tropes and shortcomings of most games and movies. It’s not surprising to see Tomb Raider fall into these traps, but it’s also fair to keep hoping for a game to design its way around them.
On the other hand, if you like to watch a woman get impaled by all sorts of sharp and nasty objects, fail a few of the quick-time events or environmental sequences. When Croft dies, she dies in spectacularly brutal ways. The quick-time events are sprinkled throughout the game, but rarely overstay their welcome.
The missteps are small and few, and the triumphs are many and large. Tomb Raider re-introduces us to the character of Lara Croft, explains how she came to be the hero we know from earlier games, and then sets her on her way to more adventures. The game’s final line, and the tiny hint at a possible sequel if you know where to look, do a great job at capping off a fulfilling adventure. I walked away from the game as the credits rolled like one walks away from a grand meal: Feeling satisfied and refreshed.