This is the second part of my Tomb Raider coverage. The review section can be found here. This is the critique and will deal with how all of the aspects of the game compliment or clash with each other, both from a narrative and from a gameplay perspective.
The glaring issue with Tomb Raider is in it’s story telling. While the actual narrative is done quite well it disagrees with the story told through the gameplay, that the game exhibits a strong sense of ludonarative dissonance. The first hour or two of the game are still extremely compelling and does a great job at bringing Lara out of her comfort zone and preparing her for “coming of age” journey. Her first kill, the deer, is completely unnerving, both for the player and for Lara. Sound effects and visual cues create a tense environment that, when mixed with Lara’s facial expressions and actions, is quite dramatic. This leads up to her first human kill. The eerie music mixed with the tension of rapid button press QTEs gets the adrenaline pumping and hopes to achieve the same anxiety Lara is experiencing. Lara is devastated after she commits her first murder. Extremely shaken and shocked she is forced to run quickly before her mind can process what has happened. She catches up with Roth and breaks down. She confesses to her first kill and it is obvious it has affected her deeply. This would be completely human except that she had to kill 30-50 guys with her bow between her first kill and meeting Roth. On top of that, the game tutorial teaches how to hit lanterns to rain fire on your foes, burning them alive. Lara constantly flips from the innocent Lara in the cutscenes to the murdering machine in the gameplay. Fortunately this back and forth ends quickly as Lara’s quest towards becoming a hardened killer ends quickly. Within 3 hours the game changes from Lara discovering the “strength of being a Croft” to “lets rescue my friend and murder the kidnapper.”What could have been a nice, realisticly paced story of survival ends up being a shortened introduction to a summer action blockbuster title. And I feel that this aspect was rushed not by the story development team but by the game designers/focus testers. All of the ads marketed the game as action and the trailers did their best to promote it in the vein of Uncharted. I feel the story was rushed to become an action title as to not lose the “target audience”, as if an actual build up of story and character is something gamers don’t want. I feel that adding a stealth aspect could have helped to emphasize her unwillingness to kill again, but it wouldn’t have been an action game then, and we all know stealth games don’t sell(neither do games with female leads.)*(italics all sarcasm here)
After I was pulled out of the game with that jarring shift in direction several other issues really diminished the experience. Such as the supporting cast, which are entirely lackluster and cliche. I feel they are more of a means for Lara’s action rather than actual people. And after all of the work done trying to make Lara more real it seems like a missed opportunity to forget about the other characters. She learns loss from Roth, sacrifice from Alex, betrayal from James, etc. While a lot of critics saw the relationship between Sam and Lara as endearing but I can’t see Sam for anything other than a damsel in distress. This idea seems to be compounded by the visuals as well. TressFX is only applied to Lara. The rest of the cast has the traditional, clumpy hair. This could be hardware limitations but the fact that the characters are underdeveloped visually and narratively doesn’t help their case.
The final issue, though small and actually just a personal issue, is that the defining moment for Lara, when she becomes the gaming icon, is done with a QTE. Mathias is weakened and Lara just picked up dual pistols. Anyone who knows Lara Croft would understand the significance to the weapon choice. I was expecting to actually get to use the dual pistol set up when I am presented a QTE to rapidly alternate between left mouse and right mouse(left trigger and right trigger for the console readers). Of all the times to decided to use a QTE why make it during the most dramatic, exciting, Tomb Raider-y part of the game?
Just some small quips
– Hunting was introduced because, narratively, Lara needed food but this concept was never reintroduced as a gameplay mechanic. Instead hunting was used to grind for salvage, which was used for upgrading guns. Explain to me how rabbit skin helped her make a silencer and extended magazine.
– the names of the level tiers for Lara are Hardened and Specialist. To me these seem more attuned for a soldier and would have worked well in a CoD game. For Lara they just felt out of place.
– Mathias could have been killed several times throughout the game but no one ever took the shot and fired at him. While I understand this was to add length to the game it showed a drastic lack of initiative in Lara to end Sam’s torment.