To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
If you are a studio given the enormous responsibility of stewarding one of modern gaming’s most beloved franchises, obsession in the service of creating the world that character inhabits is essential. Thus seems to be the case with Crystal Dynamics, and Tomb Raider. How does this re-envisioning stack up?
Tomb Raider’s gaming universe was always inspired by the pulp adventures of yore. She was an unabashed action hero, taking on modern fantasy, human villains and ancient tombs with the aplomb of a veteran, signature dual handguns blazing. Accruing just as much cachet for being empowering to women as she did for her skimpy shorts and bodacious figure, Lara was never subtle.
This review will neither focus upon, nor compare this Croft adventure to her older work. In order to respect the dignity of the reboot Crystal Dynamics offers, I will focus on the main game-play elements and story that have truly made this amazing.
Lara as a Millenial? Yup. The game opens with Lara on a scientific research ship with a small cadre of crew, assistants, and her boss, a whiny 40-something archeology professor. The erstwhile crew is is search of Yamatai, a legendary island in Japan’s Dragon Sea, called by some the “Bermuda triangle of the Pacific”. Legends abound about Yamatai, and the mysterious Queen Himiko, who demanded tribute from local lords on other islands and even China itself over a 400 year period roughly contemporary to the Roman Empire. Guided by Roth, an old friend of her fathers who virtually helped raise her, she asserts that Yamatai is within their grasp, and convinces the crew to set course for her projected coordinates.
Lara begins the reboot with some solid base competencies. She’s been adventuring around the world with Roth and this crew for several years now, and is a natural athlete and gymnast, as well as getting her degree from a prestigious university. I loved the fact that Lara is 19 or 20 maybe. She’s not uber-confident, and not wise about just how bad “adventure” can get, despite growing up on her father’s (and Roth’s) stories. It’ll take everything she’s got when the ship hits the rocks.
Like a great action movie, rushing water and squealing metal herald the end of Lara’s innocence. She barely escapes the wreckage of the shattered ship alive, sustaining bruises and a wound to her side from a jagged piece of metal. She’s taken prisoner by cultists after washing ashore, and must escape a grim tableau of skulls, blood and a bizarre candle-lit alter.
These sequences serve as a tutorial, although never intrusively. It’s something that separated this game from a similar “island jungle adventure“ in Far Cry 3, which spoon-fed you EVERYthing up front, as if those playing the game were new to this whole “gaming” thing. Lara’s tutorials never took me out of character.
When she gets a quiet moment, she begins to realize just how screwed she is…. no weapons, no fire, no support, no communications, no shelter. She is terrified, alone, cold, and soaking wet. Welcome to adventure, kiddo: at least you have good boots.
MECHNICS AND GAMEPLAY
Much of the game-play is defined by leaping about acrobatically, the next game in a lineage going all the way back to Prince of Persia. As in many 3rd person action games, Lara’s experience is enhanced with upgradable badassery. Playing the game on Hard Mode, as I did, I needed every single upgrade Lara finds laying around.
It’s possible to win the game with nothing but XP derived from slaughtering the local fauna and splitting cultist skulls with arrows (and that never got old!). However, optional tombs and collectibles, are scattered around for completionists. The setups were both logical and reminiscent of other physics puzzle games… one of the tombs had a see-saw-and-weights apparatus lifted almost whole-cloth from Half-Life-2, for example. Still, although not necessary, these side trips into the bowels of the island were VERY useful, both from a sweet XP standpoint, and also in punching you in the face with the fact that Lara might be a noob, but she is both smart *and* strong.
Lara has what I’m coming to call Adventure Vision, the ability to push a button and see all activatable structures and textures in an area. This game mechanic has been standard for awhile now, in varying degrees of retarded. In Lara’s case, she could stand still and, in her mind’s eye, see where it was possible to interact with the environment. Note, this did not show you where to go, nor did it stay activated while moving, nor did it show you how or where to use your tools (rope arrows, for example). I rarely used it, preferring the challenge of finding out the true paths myself. But for a newer player, or someone who is frustrated, it’s a nice nudge in the right direction.
And speaking of adventuring, Lara’s movements were astonishingly fluid, almost “next gen” as the grognards say. It’s been inspiring to watch the progression of this art form; from Prince of Persia through God of War, the Nathan Drake series and now this. The body model must have spent weeks in a gym with a mo-cap harness getting these acrobatics just right, from parkour to rock climbing, from hauling on a rope to impaling the eye of a bad guy Legolas-style.
Inventory management was consolified, but in this case, it was a good thing. Could they have given her the ability to combine things herself, immersed in the crafting aspect? Sure, but we get a sense of her “leveling up” just as well by keeping the RPG elements as lean as Lara’s shapely-yet-realistic figure. Even as an avid PC gamer who likes complexity, I was happy upgrading every now and then, and to the game’s credit, usually when I had need of it most.
Lara’s equipment was absolutely it’s own character in the game. The guns were grimy, strapped-together scavenged kludges, repaired to a barely-working state by the local cultists, and later upgraded with parts that Lara finds in storage boxes or steals from a fresh corpse. They go boom, and are as accurate as you need them to be. Guns be guns — solid work, there. In certain sections of the game, there are what amounts to quick time events, where the shotgun gets it’s due. Lara plummets into rivers periodically, and those are often choked with debris. A well-timed blast from the blunderbuss demolishes these deadly obstructions, usually less than a second before Lara would become fish food. The shotty can also blast open pathways on land as well, allowing access to XP, bits of story, logs, diaries and artifacts.
And now we come to the finest bit of kit any adventurer can own. Bullwhip? Naw. Climbing Pick? Maybe. I’m speaking here of Lara’s bow. Maybe it’s the Hunger Games, maybe it’s just the culmination of the cultural zeitgeist of the last 15 years (Hawkeye, Arrow, Brave, Legolas, etc) but that bow holds a special place in my heart. Dynamite Arrows straight outta Dukes of Hazzard. Rope arrows, like in the old 90’s Thief games, which create impromptu zip-lines and can be used to harpoon enemies and drag them to their deaths over cliff sides (VERY satisfying). Except for dire situations, you won’t WANT to use anything BUT your bow. Silent, deadly, efficient, and the game designers thoughtfully put ammo everywhere.
GRAPHICS, SOUND AND MUSIC
The beautiful island setting evokes LOST, the original Far Cry, or a number of different 80’s action films. The lighting effects increased the immersion by a huge factor. Tomb Raider gave us “rainbow/prism refraction” and an Abrhamsian Lens Flare during the final sequence of the game. But it also gave us beautiful clouds, streaming light through them, flickering, warm firelight, and moody gray overcast gloom.
The character design was superb. Lara herself is almost unbelievably pretty. The characters of the crew had distinct looks and styles, and the water was animated nearly as well as Bioshock… which is saying something, because very few games attain that level of awesome.
One of the best graphical flairs was the effect of adventuring on Lara herself. She gets dunked from time to time, which washes off the dirt and blood. But you watch her get more and more degraded, which really added to the “yo, this shit is REAL” sensation as you played. The injuries she sustains accrue on her character model with bandages and bruises and torn clothing. Lara runs to the point of exhaustion over a 5 or 6 day period in the game, and simply has no other clothes to change into. (dead Cultists togs? Eeewww!) For lack of a better phrase, our heroine gets the ever-loving shit beat out of her, by both nature and her adversaries. Repeatedly. And it shows.
The sound design was as lush as the graphics. Howling chasm winds, smashed and cracking timbers, rumbling rock-slides, rushing rivers, staccato gunshots, explosions with thunder and screams mixed into them (appropriate to the story, actually), and even the authoritative THUNK of an arrow, all kept me in 7.1 Surround Sound bliss. The voice acting was beyond superb. I never had a moment where any one of the characters was less than fully believable, and Lara herself should get an Oscar. The music swelled grandly, in that generic-action-movie sense. If there was one place the sound fell down was here. Aside from some nice Japanese Koto Drums, and a decent main theme, it suited the need, but … meh.
What drives people to explore? What makes them want to leave a perfectly good house with food and heat and friends to throw themselves against the unknown, possibly to die there? For those exceptional few, the ones who have both ADD and the ability to run, jump and slay, the call of adventure is too strong. And in Lara’s case, her motivations (as they are revealed at the end) are both simple and powerful.
We play games like this to get out of ourselves for awhile, and nothing portrays the notion like this, which was one of the most powerful gaming commercials I have ever seen. Of all the vidya game action heroes out there, only a few are driven by the need to know, the need to go over that next mountain, the need to see what’s out there. Most of the time, they are out for vengeance, or trying to escape, or trying to save someone. In this game, Lara Croft– along with Nathan Drake, Indiana Jones and others in the genre– embodies that in a way that resonates with us on a very human, very visceral level. Lara’s got a goal: survive, secure her friends, wait for rescue. But she never looses sight of the greater one: What the bloody freaking Hell is up with Yamatai and the Sun Queen? There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that something supernatural is happening, and Lara never forgets how important that is, even with cultists kidnapping her friends and murdering them. Co-equivalent to survival is exploration. The push to go further, see more. Learn more. We’ve lost that, in our Wal-Mart culture. And if this game can give that back some people, even a little bit, even for a short time, it’s worth experiencing. Play Tomb Raider. We are all Lara Croft.