Friday, 24 May 2013

Now Playing: Tomb Raider

I don’t have much experience with the Tomb Raider series. I played the original game upon release in 1996, and I returned to the series with The Last Revelation (1999). There were several other titles which I missed, so I’m probably not the best person to judge if this new entry is a worthy addition to the franchise. However, I do recall a few of the titles not being very well received, and it seemed for a time that the series had run out of steam. So perhaps this reboot, overall, was a good thing.

Tomb Raider takes us back and serves as a prequel of sorts. Lara is younger and on her first real adventure, searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai. It’s primarily a third person action game with platforming elements and some puzzles mixed in. It’s lovely to look at with some wonderful environments. The lack of any sort of HUD and the good use of lighting, sound and effects makes the game very atmospheric and immersive.

The story sees Lara shipwrecked on a mysterious island and tangling with a nasty cult. It’s interesting enough and fairly well paced. Lara’s evolution throughout the game is handled well, although it doesn’t quite gel with some of the actual gameplay segments which I’ll touch upon later. There are several side characters, some of whom are more interesting than others, but none of which particularly stand out. The primary antagonist is unfortunately pretty crappy and not very threatening which is a shame.

The game shifts smoothly into cut-scenes here and there, but it wasn’t as irritating as I found it in Max Payne 3. It relies a little too heavily on QTEs at times, but that didn’t bother me so much either. Like MP3 it’s a very ‘cinematic’ game, with the camera shifting to fancy angles showcasing plenty of entertaining action set pieces that offer little in the way of player interaction bar the odd QTE, and are more like visually spectacular roller-coaster rides.

The game is very polished and tightly designed. It took me about 15 hours to beat 100% with all collectibles and upgrades. There’s not much in the way of replay value, but it was certainly an enjoyable and entertaining experience while it lasted.

Okay, now onto some of the not so good stuff. First of all, I like how they’ve handled the development of Lara. She washes up on this island not entirely helpless, but certainly scared and thrust into a dangerous, violent situation she’s never had to deal with before. But over the course of the adventure, as she struggles to survive and overcome the odds stacked against her, we see her slowly begin to transform into the Lara Croft we know.

Which is all fine, but that transformation isn’t handled well against the actual gameplay, particularly the combat segments. The problem is, they simply get too over the top, as the game throws several waves of bad guys at Lara all at once and the player is required to mercilessly slaughter them all. It just doesn’t quite gel with the story or her character.

The human enemies Lara faces are okay. There are several variations with different weapon types and attacks, but they’re rather stupid and easy to take down. Combat is pretty much a cakewalk (I played through on Normal, but I doubt Hard makes much difference) and with a few upgrades Lara can QTE kill her way through a dozen armed thugs without taking so much as a scratch.

As a result, the large scale combat sequences almost feel out of place in Tomb Raider. The best combat moments are when Lara must take down a smaller number of guys using stealth and guile - utilising the environment, or different arrow types. It’s more tense, more engaging and more fitting to the story and character. When Lara suddenly turns into John Matrix and mows down a small army, it’s all a little jarring.

It’s clear the developers really wanted the player to feel something towards Lara as a character and what she’s going through. But once again they push it too far - initially it was rather horrible to see the knocks and bruises she was picking up as she was tossed from one nasty situation to another, but by the end it just grows a little comical. She ends up practically indestructible as she walks away from falls that would have certainly smashed nearly every bone in her body. Hey, that’s fine as long as you’re being consistent, but in Tomb Raider, in an effort to make us continue to care about Lara’s ordeal, it just keeps upping the life threatening situations to a point where it gets pretty ridiculous and you simply can’t take it seriously anymore.

One of the best moments in the game was when Lara had to venture into a cave to retrieve an item. It was tense, dark and you knew a wolf was prowling in the shadows. Despite relying on a QTE for the actual attack, it was still far more engaging than a dozen of the large scale fire fights.

What else? Well, I didn’t really get the need for XP and having it pop up regularly was rather irritating. The skills system was fine and I really liked the visual upgrade system for your weapons. There’s also a nice sense of progression to Lara as her clothes are torn and she acquires cuts and bruises throughout. I also liked the pace of acquiring new gear which allows access to new areas. It reminded me a little of Arkham Asylum in that regard.

Your route through the game is fairly linear, but some areas are large enough to allow for a little exploration. There are plenty of collectibles to keep you busy, along with bonus tombs to raid. I was pretty disappointed to discover, however, that these ‘tombs’ amount to a single puzzle and a chest containing a rather lame reward of weapon upgrade parts (wait, what?) or a map of local collectibles (huh?). Where’s my ancient relics? Oh, you do still find some but not in the tombs. Whatever.

The puzzles are basic and not very challenging, and the lack of any real tomb raiding is really my biggest gripe. It would have been nice to have to navigate a series of tricky, challenging tombs at points in the game but that never really happens. I would have also liked more emphasis on the survival elements and Lara vs the island itself. But instead we get a more generic, combat heavy TPS. Oh well.

I guess I was looking for more of a spirit of adventure, a sense of mystery and discovery with survival mixed in. I get some of that, here and there, but it’s badly balanced against a series of unnecessarily pointless, drawn out and over the top shoot outs.

In addition to the single player there’s a multiplayer mode which I didn’t bother with and I have no idea why it exists. I mean, was there anyone who really wanted a multiplayer mode in a Tomb Raider game? Anyone? Did it need one? Nope! You can also unlock concept art and character models in SP as a nice little added bonus.

If it sounds like I’ve been a little hard on Tomb Raider that’s because it’s another one of those games where it feels like it had a lot more potential to be better than what we got. But despite my issues with it, the new Tomb Raider is still a highly entertaining, very enjoyable, exciting experience. It’s a fun, sometimes exhilarating adventure and a fine start to what is hopefully a fresh beginning for the franchise.

I just hope the next game has more, you know, tomb raiding in it.


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