Tomb Raider is one of the biggest games to come out in 2013. Some have even heralded it as GOTY material. Although I tried to avoid read much about this game prior to playing it I still heard enough to go into it with high expectations. Not only was there rampant praise for the game but it was written by one of my favorite video game writers Rhianna Pratchett(also wrote Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword, and the Overlord series). In preparing to write this article I found myself torn in the I enjoyed the game yet had several issues with it. Such is the case I decided to not only write a review but a critique as well. This is the review portion.
While this game looks great on consoles it shines on PC. This game really shows off what PCs are capable of by utilizing two of the newest graphical advancements: Tessellation and TressFX. Tessellation has been around for a couple of years and deals with geometrical shapes and giving them texture instead of being flat. TressFX is brand new(Tomb Raider is the first game to utilize it) and deals with hair rendering. TressFX gets rid of the clumpy hair styles we are use to and renders each individual hair strand. Here is a comparison video of regular hair quality and TressFX in Tomb Raider.
The environments in Tomb Raider are gorgeous and varied. Dense forests and snow covered mountains contrast the rusted thrown together towns made of plywood and tin panels. A lot of effort has gone into not only making this game pretty, but also straying far away from washed out, bland visuals. Color is used to great effect to emphasize the beauty of the island as well as the danger. Lara’s character model looks great. TressFX really gives her that extra edge of humanity and her body acquires wounds and scars over the course of the game. Some of these look exceptionally brutal. Blood, mud, and dirt stay on the skin and clothes until Lara enters water. Clothes stay wet when exit bodies of water as well. A lot of attention was put into how Lara’s model interacts with the world. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the supporting cast. The characters are standard fare, visually, for anything that has come out in the last couple of years. They all seems to only have one model so there is zero visual progression from beginning to end. Their clothes may get a little dirty and torn but that is all. Also, they only have the static, clumpy hair model. TressFX is only available for Lara. This applies to enemy characters as well. For better or worse you rarely see the supporting cast and combat is over too quick to really notice how much better Lara looks than the other characters. A nice addition is in the form of your weapons. All weapons can be leveled up and change visually. Whether you modify the stock, barrel, duct tape magazines, or add a silencer all of these come with a visual modification as well.
The voice acting is the only aspect of the sound design that I can praise. While old fans are still getting used to Lara’s new voice, it is impossible to say that the voice actor did a poor job. Camilla Luddington and Robert Craighead did amazing jobs voicing Lara and Mathias, respectively. Camilla captures Lara’s innocence, fear, and uncertainty in the first half of the game perfectly. She did a great job being confidant towards the end but she really brought the innocent Lara to life. I think there are very few VA who could have created the deceptively charming character of Mathias. His insanity towards the end of game was chilling and Robert really showed how desperate Mathias was becoming to leave the island. The guns all have some heft behind them and definitely sound powerful. Also, the explosions have enough bass and swell to them to get anyone’s adrenaline pumping as you are platforming through an exploding and crumbling town. These are pretty standard in the action genre though.
Tomb Raider borrows from several popular games and brings marries them all, quite well I might add. The obvious inspiration would be Uncharted. Between the mix of exploration, gunplay, and platforming the similarities are abundant. There were several climbing areas that would have fit right into an Uncharted game. On top of that there are a ton of collectables to search. Trinkets can be rotated in a 3D plane to examine and each document can be read. The gunplay was, thankfully, not taken from Uncharted. They did use a cover based system but eschewed having a button to get into cover and instead opted for Lara to be aware of her surrounds. If you have a gun out and are near cover Lara will automatically press against it. When you decide to move away from the cover Lara “unsticks” to it. It is very natural and fluid and doesn’t feel as stiff as Uncharted’s cover system. Huge set piece platforming with buildings falling apart around the player is another aspect that Tomb Raider borrowed from Uncharted. Although Tomb Raider draws a lot of influence from Uncharted it failed to capture the weight of movement. Where as Drake’s movements follow the laws of inertia and momentum, Lara’s follow a much more arcade-y set of rules. There is even a perk you can learn to speed up all climbing animations. This was one of the points where I was pulled out of the action and reminded this was a game. The other was the overabundance of QTEs. The first hour or two is heavily saturated with them and then after that they are used quite sparingly. There are only three boss fights and they rely on QTEs after damaging the boss to a weakened state. To aid in her exploration, Lara has “Survival Instincts”, or basically Batman’s Detective Mode from the Arkham series. Enemies, objectives, and wild game are all highlighted for her. As a whole the gameplay is very satisfying. Although the exploration, platforming, and gunplay never really overlap they are all well done on their own. On the other hand, though, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before; and to a greater extent, nothing that hasn’t been borrowed from. There is even a tiny bit of Metroid-vania as a lot of areas cannot be accessed until you get equipment from later in the game.
The story in Tomb Raider is amazing….for the first few hours. Rhianna Pratchett does a tremendous job in creating a tale that shows how innocent Lara was and her transformation to the gaming icon we all know her for. Unfortunately that transformation happens all too quickly. The first few chapters depict a young, naive Lara who tries to convince her fellow archeologist crew members to go against previous expeditions in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai. The head archeologist decides to go on Lara’s hunch and a head East, instead of West, into a huge storm that leaves the crew shipwrecked on an island. Lara is knocked unconscious and tied up in a cave where ritualistic murders have been committed. What follows this are a series of events that are designed to break Lara. After escaping she must kill for food. She teaches herself to hunt with a bow and arrow she finds on a corpse and kills the first deer she finds. She even apologizes to the deer before she guts it. It as all downhill from here as he is constantly finding herself getting injured. Falling from a parachute and hitting every branch on the way down, getting a bone impaled through her side, being hit by bullets, and (suggestively) being sexual assaulted are just some of the events that happen to her. This all leads up to her first murder. She ends up with a gun pointed to her and a kill or be killed situation. After this moment, and a few cutscenes of her being quite shaken from taking a life, the game switches pace and becomes a typical action game as Lara decides she must stop the islanders from sacrificing her best friend Sam. While I appreciate the tone of the story at the beginning everything is lost in guns and explosions after Lara comes to terms with her first kill. So 33% amazing character development and story, 67% guns and explosions, one woman army, action game.
Overall I would recommend the game to anyone who enjoys action titles. Every gameplay aspect is extremely solid without one detracting from the other and the story is told well enough to ensure that gamers will stick around to save Sam from the islanders. The only aspect that I cannot recommend is the multiplayer. I don’t have a lot of experience with it(i could only find one match and I played for roughly 45 minutes) it wasn’t anything memorable. I will say, since we have compared the two before anyways, that it is better than Uncharted 3’s multiplayer. 3 standard game modes(DM, TDM, CTF) and one semi new one(Team A scores by killing Team B, Team B scores by capturing a flag) don’t add anything we haven’t seen before and the merger of platforming and gunplay isn’t that strong yet. On a positive note, the Single Player is well worth the admission.