360 review: Tomb Raider

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Tomb Raider isn’t buggy, broken, or bad. It’s not unplayable or unenjoyable. There’s a solid game here, and the core mechanics are some of the better third-person shooting mechanics around. I really appreciate its fluid cover system, and Lara’s bow is an interesting and versatile weapon.

But Tomb Raider radiates wasted potential. There’s a spark here of something unrealized, a lack of foresight that makes the game fall flat. It’s a problem of authorship. Tomb Raider makes its central theme incredibly clear before bungling it in the worst way, creating an incredible disconnect between what the story’s saying and what’s happening in-game.

Ostensibly, Tomb Raider tells a story of survival, as Lara escapes a sinking expeditionary vessel before washing up onshore and being taken captive. The opening cutscene is extremely abrupt, but the first hour of gameplay takes it time to build up tension and drive home the brutality of the situation.

Lara wakes strung up in a cave of bodies, falling with a crunch as she escapes bondage. She finds a torch to light her way and squeezes through claustrophobic tunnels in search of an exit. Somebody is chasing her, and we sense that she’s pushing as hard as she can because every moment matters. The game employs great character gestures, such as the way Lara runs her hand along the ceiling as she works through an enclosed tunnel of chin-deep water.

The opening segments work well, even if they do lean a little too hard towards cinematic flair. For every likely moment, such as when Lara hesitates to walk across a log suspended over a ravine, there’s an incredibly harrowing moment that’s given little foresight. Lara is forced to climb up the face of a dilapidated airplane, an incredible escalation upon what’s come before, and she doesn’t stop to prepare for even a second.

But I can forgive that because, really, what else can Lara do? She can either climb that plane or she can stand there. As she says herself, she needs to keep moving. She doesn’t have a choice.

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In the first moment that rattles the game’s established fiction, Lara has stepped in a beartrap. She lays down her recently acquired bow and scrabbles to pry the trap open, when she hears wolves howl in the distance. She stops and readies herself. They’re coming.

There’s a good moment of tension here, and I don’t mean to undermine it. The wolves don’t show up right away; there are howls, then a long pause before one actually jumps out from the underbrush. But when it does, something peculiar happens: the game slows down, and Lara is able to kill each wolf in succession with one carefully aimed shot apiece.

I’m not one to fault Lara’s survival instinct, and I’m willing to believe that the world goes bullet-time when you’re under incredible pressure. When these wolves drop dead, though, they drop stone dead. They don’t writhe in pain, they don’t howl, none of them survives long enough to even attempt to bite her. And you know, in itself that’s perfectly fine. Not every hardship needs to be doted over.

But, having played through the game, it seems like a sign of things to come. As the game progresses, you’re not shooting three wolves. You’re shooting hundreds of people, with bow and shotgun and rifle. You blow up barrels and things go boom. And it’s incredibly easy – at one point I headshotted five enemies in rapid succession, thunk thunk thunk thunk thunk. And then a little scoring indicator came up on the left, told me I’d scored some killer headshots, and awarded me a few hundred experience points.

Look, I’m not against games where you shoot things and they blow up. I love shooting things, and I love when they blow up. I hate it when my actions in-game don’t produce an incredible result.

But Tomb Raider constantly removes control from the player, and when it does so, it loves to emphasize that Lara is surviving. This is difficult, says the cutscene. Lara’s overcoming incredible odds.

In-game though, she’s an avatar of destruction. Half of the game’s scenery crumbles when she so much as stands on it. She guns and bows down everything in sight. It’s good that ammo is plentiful, because she kills everything. The game doesn’t feel structured toward its survival story, it feels structured toward gamers who want to blow stuff up. But then it removes control again and says no, Tomb Raider isn’t about having fun and shooting things, Tomb Raider is about survival.

I can’t help but feel like this is a holdover from classic game design. Players have spent so long playing games about saving the world that it’s hard to make a game about saving yourself, about survival in a hostile environment. Tomb Raider is a holdover of “space marines killing demons” design. It shouldn’t be.

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Please don’t fall under the impression that I think Lara needs to be helpless, that somehow she shouldn’t be able to do these things because she’s a woman. The Lara Croft of older Tomb Raider games is incredibly capable, and she doesn’t feel out of place at all. She does anything she sets herself to, entering incredibly dangerous situations and succeeding in spite of whatever insane archeological constructs block her path.

But this Tomb Raider wants to be about survival, and it just doesn’t feel that way. I feel like I’m winning. Crushing. Destroying.

Tomb Raider isn’t a bad game. The combat systems are solid, and I enjoyed the first few hours. I think fans of third-person shooters will really dig it, because it does play better than most. The game does get a little boring as the main enemy is revealed to be some cult-leader psycho blah-blah, and I found myself uninterested more often than not. There’s too much shooting and not enough meaningful exploration of environment or theme. Whatever. Maybe it’s just me.

The really damning thing for me is not that the story is incredibly bland, though it is: There’s little to no character growth, the enemies are stupid caricatures, and every major plot twist is telegraphed from a mile away. No, the real problem is not only that the gameplay interferes with Tomb Raider’s storytelling, but that the storytelling interferes with compelling gameplay.

Tomb Raider tries incredibly hard to be taken seriously. Even if setpieces explode and crumble in the most extravagant way, there’s a sense that the developers don’t want to break loose with anything too crazy too soon. There’s no Tyrannosauruses, no minotaurs, no mummies, no yetis. That would just be silly, right? That’s so nineties. We need to empathize with Lara’s plight, and we can’t do that if we don’t believe it.

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What this translates to, in gameplay terms, is that there’s very little diversity in enemy design. The shooting you engage in during the first two hours is the same you’ll face for the rest of the game.

Sure, players will shoot a few wolves and some wild game during their adventure, but every other enemy is a person, and you’ve killed them all before. There’s the token machinegun grunt, the machete wielder, the molotav cocktail thrower. There’s the fire arrow dude and the riot shield guy.

These are incredibly stale designs. I’m sick of them. Towards the end of the game, a new enemy faction is introduced but – surprise! – they’re tackled just like any other human opponent, just with more armor. Boring.

The puzzles also suffer from this more serious approach. Instead of mythology-inspired archeological puzzles, we’re typically stuck with lame environmental puzzles, which occupy some weird limbo between man-made and natural design.

I can believe that tombs are littered with booby-traps, but I can’t believe that these man-made buildings just happen to be scattered with problems that can only be solved one specific way. The first puzzle in the game revolves around a chute that Lara has to lift boxes into to light them on fire, so she can propel the boxes past a waterfall where they’ll light some rags and boards and she can progress. It feels incredibly contrived.

Obviously, nobody in Tomb Raider’s world specifically set these puzzles up, but there’s apparently only one way to get through. Lara can’t just remove boxes and boards from her path, but instead needs to manipulate the environment in precisely the right way, which usually involves burning something. It’s really weird and kind of dumb. And it wouldn’t be an issue if the game simply placed more of its focus on archeological finds, mythological puzzles, and ancient traps.

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Tomb Raider arrives at a middle ground where it doesn’t excel at one thing or another. More emphasis on stealth and survival, perhaps in the form of restricting Lara’s abilities or access to ammo, could have really strengthened the storytelling. Toning down the story a bit would have allowed them to get really creative with their environmental and enemy design.

Tomb Raider’s problems might arise from the developers’ lack of faith that players are ready for a game with more than just perfect shooting mechanics. But we’d understand if the game started out some design conventions altered. She doesn’t need to be an action hero right away. Start her off a normal person.

Then slowly build her up, naturally. None of this investing experience points from kills business. Lara aims steadier because she’s been shooting, she runs faster because she’s been running. The feeling of triumph would be much stronger if Lara didn’t start off a god, if we as players had to struggle for our survival.

Videogames have been making players feel powerful for years, and that feeling of liberation is one thing I love about games. But don’t tell me I’m a survivor after I’ve decimated an encampment of thirty-five heavily armed enemies. Don’t tell me I’m a survivor when killing is completely effortless, when it’s the entire point.

That’s not surviving, it’s winning a game. Killer headshot. Plus fifty points.

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4 Responses to “360 review: Tomb Raider”

  1. Albedosrighthand Says:

    Another game that dealt with Survival was a title for the PS2 called Raw Danger. It focused on 6 people struggling to survive in a city as it floods. It had some major flaws but definitely one to look into if anyone here loved the survival aspect/theme of Tomb Raider.

  2. Albedosrighthand Says:

    One of the most intense moments was running through, up, and out of a flooding subway system while carrying an unconscious friend on your back in Raw Danger.

  3. GFoppy Says:

    Agree with the supporting cast. They are completely forgettable and I totally called which ones would bite the dust from the start.

    Despite its flaws with narrative dissonance (something that is very hard to avoid for games that try to take their stories seriously), I still found myself enjoying the combat and exploration in the end. It’s a great reboot and I hope to see more of this new Lara.

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