Step aside Nathan Drake, and get ready to meet your maker! No, Lara Croft did not give birth to Nathan Drake, that’s not what I meant...(though that would be an interesting twist). The Uncharted series is often referred to as "Tomb Raider with a guy" for a reason. Back in the PS1 days, the gaming world was hit by storm with Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft; an English archaeologist who’s as skillfully adventurous as she is beautiful. With the first six games developed by Core Design, Lara Croft became the shining example of a successful video game heroine. Unfortunately the last game of the Core Design era was a critical failure and the franchise was delivered to Crystal Dynamics, the developer of the previous four Tomb Raider games to date. The most recent of these four is, however, one of the most unique entries in the series, and aims to reboot Lara while simultaneously giving us a canon origin story. Hardcore fans always keep a close watch on reboots like a father giving his daughter’s date the evil eye on prom night...but fear not; Crystal Dynamic’s latest outing is not only among the best in the franchise, but it’s so far the best action game of the year.
Sailing aboard the ship Endurance to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, Lara Croft is joined by a full crew of supporting shipmates, two of which are her closest friends. They are on their way to fulfill Lara’s very first expedition: the investigation of legendary shaman Sun Queen Himiko and her apparent mystical powers. Though Lara’s suggestion of entrance through the Dragon’s Triangle prevails over archeologist Dr. James Whitman’s opposition, the area is rumored to be the direct cause of wrecked and missing ships attempting to visit the "cursed" land. A seemingly unfortunate storm ends up splitting the Endurance in two, leaving Lara and her crew stranded on the mystical and mysterious island...but this feat is not so unfortunate. Lara must take the most difficult struggle she’s ever had to endure head on, and become the iconic video game goddess we know and love: a survivor reborn.
"Crystal Dynamics has crafted an origin story of gaming’s most awesome video game heroine for a new generation by giving her genuine empowerment rather than over sexualizing her, and it works on most fronts."
This new Tomb Raider aims to focus heavily on the character of Lara and how she came to be everyone’s favorite female adventurer. This time around, she comes equipped with her best friend, mentor, mechanic, computer specialist, ship helmsman, fisherman, and a greedy celebrity archeologist. After the initial crash, Lara is separated from her group and gets constantly wound up with the island folk who will not stop until she is captured. This is without a doubt the best Lara we’ve seen in a Tomb Raider to date. Appearing vulnerable and submissive at first, you watch and help Lara fight her way into the shoes of a straight up badass. Her emotional journey is genuine and even a little hard to watch at times, but you want to see her succeed in what she needs to do by the end of the game, and the fact that you are in control of her seeing this through is especially motivating. Lara shines so bright in this new Tomb Raider, that her entire supporting cast unfortunately appears lackluster in comparison, with the exception of her best friend Sam and mentor Roth. It even is a bit of an annoyance when the plot surrounding the island rears its head when you’re trying to focus on what’s really interesting: Lara’s journey.
On the surface, Tomb Raider’s core game mechanics can appear very Uncharted-esque with over-the-shoulder cover shooting, light puzzle solving, and occasional huge set piece moments accompanied with a quick time event. Stick with the game through and through, and you’ll receive an experience that remains significantly different than the aforementioned. Tomb Raider’s gameplay focus is putting gamers in the shoes of Lara herself, and experiencing her grand adventure on the island. This doesn’t go without a problem or two, but the goal is met with moments in gameplay that complement the journey it surrounds. Everything from shooting a zipline across a chasm to climbing up a jagged wall with your pickaxe makes for an incredibly fun and immersive experience you won’t want to put down.
You begin the game with some thrill-ride set pieces and a small puzzle in a watery cave to set the tone, but it won’t be long ’til you’re blasting enemies away with projectiles and searching for hidden treasure amongst the vast land of Yamatai. While shooting with a firearm can feel a tad inaccurate at times, Lara’s bow and arrow are a different story. Tapping the trigger allows for a short, less powerful shot while pulling it back all the way results in a satisfying and more powerful snap. Add the fact that you can upgrade it with flame and explosive tips and you have the go-to multipurpose weapon gamers will end up using the most whether you’re in a stealth or high profile action sequence.
Sure guns are nice, and a bow is even better, but quite possibly the best thing about Tomb Raider’s shooting sequences is the cover system. The days of clunky wall bouncing are gone; Tomb Raider’s cover system allows you to simply move toward a sizeable object and Lara will automatically go into a cover stance. What makes this system work so well is when you draw your weapon with the left trigger, Lara’s body and perspective adjust to the position and situation at hand absolutely perfectly every single time. Now, we’ve seen this automatic cover before in games like Batman: Arkham City and most recently Assassin’s Creed III, but not only does Tomb Raider do it even better, it’s the only one of those games that actually feature core gunplay mechanics in conjunction with it. That’s not to say this makes the game too easy rather than challenging; the enemy AI will constantly attempt to chase you out of your cover with explosives and arrows of their own. Combine an arsenal consisting of a handgun, shotgun, automatic rifle, melee pickaxe, bow, and one of the best cover systems in a video game, and you’ve got something other developers should take note of.
It’s interesting how Uncharted took inspiration from Tomb Raider back in the day, and now it’s coming full circle with Tomb Raider taking inspiration from Uncharted’s epic movie-like set piece moments. In Crystal’s reboot, these moments are up to genre standards and are just as exciting as ever. One of the most thrilling moments in the game is a sequence in which a plane crashes onto the island with pieces of the plane tumbling down a hill just behind you as you slide down, which subsequently has you running for your life over a crumbling foundation. If that’s not spectacular, I don’t know what is. Additionally, all of your standard "accidentally falling and grabbing something to climb on at the last moment" occurrences are still here in spades, and it is still wonderful. In fact, I’d be disappointed at this point if these types of games didn’t have me escaping a burning structure at least once.
Lara can’t be the female gaming legend she is without the right skills, now can she? Upgrading skills and weapons are an integral part of Tomb Raider’s gameplay experience, as you will constantly need to become stronger and more efficient in combat. Experience points are for obtaining new skills and salvage is for upgrading weapon attributes like strength and ammo capacity. Tomb Raider has a wide variety of skills like upgrades in melee and finishing moves, and that’s not the problem. The problem is in how you obtain this upgrade currency. At the beginning of the game, you are told to hunt for food, and therefore you kill a deer. However, after this point, hunting animals is completely optional and does nothing more than give you XP and salvage. With a game centering around the survival and empowerment of the main character, you’d think hunting animals for food would be mandatory, but that aspect isn’t played up as much as one would hope. It isn’t long until you find out the survival aspect you were waiting for isn’t so much from a gameplay standpoint as much as it is a narrative one. Unfortunately, gaining XP gets even more bland than that. Often the player will find boxes to break open that literally only give you XP. Walking over to boxes and animal corpses and pressing a button isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of an in depth upgrade system.
Even if Lara says "I hate tombs" at one point in the game, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of those here. In fact, aside from the main ones in the campaign, the island has many tombs free for you to search and explore. Grab a torch and take a gander at the eye-popping scenery and puzzle solving fun these tombs offer. Although the tombs don’t offer much of a reward for your curiosity, it’s worth it just to see everything Yamatai has on tap. Just going by the amount of optional tombs in the game, most of your puzzle solving will be done there (though the campaign offers a solid amount as well.) These puzzles will never seek to frustrate and are always a breeze, especially with your trusty Survival Instincts button you can press, usually highlighting important objects in the area.
Technically, Tomb Raider is among the best looking and sounding games we’ve seen in awhile. Yamatai is well represented here with visuals that will immerse and bask you in the atmosphere of this sacred and mystical land you’re traversing. Lara has never looked better, and character models are detailed and polished with the exception of some stiff facial expressions at certain points. Caves dripping with moisture are particularly the most beautiful to look at, and I was specifically mesmerized by the image of Lara completely drenched in blood, ala The Descent. If that wasn’t enough to convince you, maybe the game’s impressive zero load times will. Yup, players looking to be immersed in Lara’s latest adventure need not worry.
If there’s one thing about recent AAA titles with strong campaigns that sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s tacked on unnecessary multiplayer, and I’m sad to say Tomb Raider isn’t an exception to this trend. Tomb Raider’s multiplayer is unnecessary, bland, and just not a lot of fun. The single player’s shooting mechanics work well for what it is- single player shooting mechanics, but there’s no reason to bring it over to a multiplayer aspect spanning just four modes. Team Deathmatch and Free For All speak for themself, Rescue is your typical capture the flag but instead with health supplies, and Cry For Help is a sort of multi-king of the hill where you have to either activate radio transmitters or steal the other team’s batteries. Multiplayer was created by Eidos Montreal, and it shows. Graphics and animations appear a lot worse than in single player, and the glorious cover system from the main game is replaced by what turned out to actually be a less efficient crouch button. Also, it shouldn’t go without mentioning that this was one of the hilariously laggiest multiplayer modes I’ve played in a while. You’ll end up trying it once, and never touching it again.
Crystal Dynamics has crafted an origin story of gaming’s most awesome video game heroine for a new generation by giving her genuine empowerment rather than over sexualizing her, and it works on most fronts. Gaining XP is a drag and multiplayer is unnecessary, but Lara’s latest adventure is one of the most fun, immersive, emotional, and thrilling rides the series has ever taken us on. Yes, Lara Croft is back, and if the success of Tomb Raider is any indication of the future of the franchise, it will be a glorious one.
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Release date : 2013-03-05
Publisher : Square Enix
Developer : Crystal Dynamics
Gameplay : Action-Adventure
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