Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tomb Raider (2013)

Developed by Crystal Dynamics
Published by Square Enix

            I personally did not care at all about the Tomb Raider franchise until Legend came and blew me away with a fun platforming and puzzle-solving experience. Anniversary began to show some flaws, but was still entirely fun to play.  And then Underworld came along and showed the reboot franchise going right to what killed the original, with dull environments that made the game boring to play.  And I didn’t think that rebooting the franchise again, while also making it darker and edgier, would lead to anything good.  But surprise among surprises, Tomb Raider is back and taking new, great directions.
            Taking place as both a reboot and a prequel, the game features Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington) as an archeology student on a ship, looking for the island of Yamatai in the Dragon’s Triangle near Japan.  The good news: they find it.  The bad news: the ship wrecks, the island is filled with insane cultists, and it seems like there’s no way to get off.  Lara has to go from simple student to badass adventurer in order to save the ship’s crew and get off the island.
            Lara’s personal journey is easily something that could’ve been done simply through cinematics, and yet, one of the game’s strongest features is that it works its way into the gameplay.  Early on, you have nothing but a bow and arrow, melee attacks are nothing but a shove, stealth kills require work.  But the game’s upgrade system naturally works to make sure that you get upgrades at a good rate and the environments and enemy battles just become slowly more complex.  Before long, you can hide several feet away and stealthily take out every enemy with the bow, up-close stealth kills get more brutal, your weapons start including a shotgun and an assault rifle.  When you start out, you feel you have to hide.  By the end, it’s not unusual to get the urge to go rushing right into battles.
            The game does wear its two biggest influences on its sleeve.  It’s obvious that the over-the-top, scripted action sequences are paying homage to Uncharted.  And it’s hard to argue with having plenty of big action sequences.  They make the campaign plenty exciting, although the QTEs feel frustrating sometimes.  It does help that there’s only a few actions that tend to show up, but getting the timing right can be a pain, especially early on.  The other major influence is Metroidvania titles, but especially the Arkham games.  And this is easily the game’s biggest and best change from previous Tomb Raider games.  Instead of simply progressing from level to level, you explore the island of Yamatai and gain new abilities throughout.  And as always with these games, it is great to see pieces of the environment and wonder how you get up there, and then much later discover an item that answers the question.  The scripted sequences are great for the campaign, but for post-game, roaming around the island and getting to freely use all your abilities to uncover items is the best feeling.

            This reboot may not be the most original game, and its darkness can sometimes lead to unnecessary gore, but the most important part is seeing Tomb Raider not just daring to try new things for the franchise, but also doing those new things well.  Once again, Lara Croft is back.

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