Disheveled Beauty

Tomb Raider Review

Tomb Raider as a franchise, has a past as storied as the history Lara uncovers in her own adventures. The series has been through the rough several times over, and the newest addition, simply entitled Tomb Raider, is one more brutal stab at reinvigorating the franchise proper. With survival in focus, and Lara Croft’s newly defined reputation at stake, does this game indeed give way, to the birth of a new survivor?

From the get go, and as you might have picked up from my initial thoughts on Tomb Raider, the game explodes forth with a full on sprint. Lara is thrust directly into nature’s harsh despair, with no choice but to survive.  This constant balancing act of survival, and her resilience in these trying circumstances, will act as the primary focus of the story, and does an admirable job of creating a fetching spectacle.

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The game’s basic premise revolves around surviving in a natural element, and helping Miss Croft discover the mystery of the island her crew had the misfortune of shipwrecking on. I described the entire experience in my preview (for easy digestion) as “Resident Evil 4 meets Snake Eater”. This should give you an idea of the blend of third person action and survival stealth inherent through out the title.

Tomb Raider Stealth

The story lends itself to satisfying simplicity, like much of the experience does. Through desperate scrambles and horrendous encounters, Lara is portrayed as a far more capable female than we are use to in the video game realm. From her earlier moments of escaping capture, involving Lara lighting her self on fire to break free, to her wrestling with a bear trap and murdering a pack of wolves with nothing but a bow and arrow, Lara’s rugged nature is apparent. Crystal Dynamics goes the extra mile in helping to  positively re-define Lara, in all the right ways.

She remains safely distanced from overblown action trope, like so many other protagonists of our day. Her frailty and desperation, through being portrayed as a regular human being, helps to enhance and highlight her moments of triumph.

The fact that Lara can’t just leap buildings in a single bound, or engineer a gigantic mech to down her unruly foes, makes her a more relateable character. This helps to tie the entire experience together, and creates a motivating dynamic in seeing each new desperate situation you and Miss Croft are faced with. I was always on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would become of dear Lara. Her weakness has a passive way of beckoning me: I wish to see her soundly through her adventure, whether I forge through hell or high water to do so.

Tomb Raider Hell

Tomb Raider makes epic the struggle of the simple, with a humble look at Lara‘s success story starting out from scratch. At first, even avoiding a long fall by balancing over a log, and creating a fire for warmth are note worthy endeavors. The story escalates quite a bit, and so does the pacing in helping to create furious action. This is right along side in developing a sense of how kick ass this new Lara really is.

That’s not to say the game surrenders it’s better sense of simplicity to overdone grandeur. Through out the story, events such as downing beasts of the forest, and climbing a radio tower to send an S.O.S feel like massive satisfactions. This is in large part due to the cinematography and ambiance in affect, helping to remind us of an interest in a more basic struggls. This translates as a huge success for Lara, and subsequently, feels like a true triumph in the video game world.

Bearing in mind, that many other game hero’s climb 10 times higher 5 times faster, helps to put into perspective, the game’s ability to make you appreciate the simple, without sacrificing the complexity of satisfying accomplishment.

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The combination of Lara’s own struggle of self-identity, and the brutal nature of the stand out moments of the title, provide gamers with merits of excellence. One of the more distinguished moments I’ve enjoyed in this current generation of consoles comes from a rather extraordinary instance earlier in the game. Due to spoilers, I will avoid describing the situation in the explicit, but will make mention of the game’s commitment in trying to create a unique character within Lara. Through the intimate lens we’re forced to view the event, and the intense interactivity that follows, I started to forget Lara wasn’t just another video game character, but an actual person. The game’s efforts of exposure on this visceral level of emotion, in dealing with Lara’s pain and agony, individualize Tomb Raider among peers of comparably shallow compromise.

Tomb Raider Death

My original preview for Tomb Raider was entitled Filthy Gorgeous, and the description was apt. Between the eye catching set pieces of the island, to the detailed graphic fidelity of the environments and character models, this game looks beautiful a midst the grit and grime. The real element that ties it all together is the subtle use of atmosphere and sharp audio design. Very often, nothing but the sounds of the wild, and this creepy sense of foreboding accompany you and Lara, and never fail to create haunting suspense.

The game is about survival after all, and the oddities you will observe with both eyes and ears will help to shock, horrify, and wow

From the easy to master controls, to the slick interface involving a largely HUD-less design, the game is never hard to understand or control, offering  you a lot of comfort in moving to and fro. The inventory system is simply mapped to the d-pad, and the contextual interactions with objects and your surroundings are straight and to the point. I never had trouble with any sort of maneuvering, and this helped in creating clean cut control to navigate through the constant desperation.

The formula the single player provides, does well for the most part of mixing up the variety. The exploration elements and tombs feel natural, with the hunting and scavenging feeling like a nice break from the crazier circumstances you’ll find yourself in. The combat is appropriate in giving way to  new game play vectors (like newly acquired gear), and will regularly offer a stealth option for those with a quieter nature.

Tomb Raider Stealth 2

As far as replayability Is concerned, I found an easy time of staying on the beaten path, knowing I had the option of straying off of it. While I will surmise many who play will be easily pushed forward by the story, that doesn’t mean you can’t stop and smell the blood drenched flowers.

The islands imbued sense of history leaves plenty of interesting tid-pits to find, journals to read, and Tombs to Raid, leaving a well rounded but compartmentalized adventure. The ability to fast travel is key in creating a more robust exploration experience, and even lends itself to a Metroid-vania stylization of post-game discoveries. A nice compliment to an overall very engaging experience.

Tomb Raider Explore

Having enjoyed so much of this game, it pains me to go from mentioning the good…to the bad. I usually leave myself room towards the end of my review process in detailing these elements, and the length at which I must discuss them now with Tomb Raider surprises me, very honestly.

As mentioned, the games better half does a fantastic job of portraying dreadful suspense, intense emotion, and crafting an impressive character in Lara. This is all the while, looking fantastic while doing so, and maintaining an equally engaging experience…

…for most of the game

Somewhere towards the end, I felt a sudden shift in priorities in design ethics, and Tomb Raider quickly devolves from indepth  survival thriller,to run of the mill action romp. While this might entice many who would rather shoot their way through detail rather than appreciate it, I feel as if it betrays the basic tenants the game works so hard at creating in the first place.

Where there was once quietly suspenseful intensity, then there was overblown predictable action redundancy. Where I once looked forward to what waited around every corner at adventures beginning,  the ending constantly sought to test my patience.  The thought of me taking one more aggressively blocked step after another towards the bullet riddled inevitable, left me with repetitive dread. The game really takes a 180 from subtlety to the overdone, and in the final stretches of the game, never recovers from this.

Tomb Raider Shooting

This drastic change in pacing is very noticeable, and stands out to me as damn deafening. What’s worse is that the game also ceases to create fluid game cohesion, and degrades into a far glitchier experience as time rolls on.

So while I’m drawn into the intimate sense of who Lara is, and how they portray her earlier on in the game, it’s towards the end when they cease to focus on her as a character, and more as a soldier when the game really starts to falter. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing when there was a greater emphasis on your survival of the unknown, rather than your fight with the painfully familiar.

In this case,the painfully familiar being an army of never ending henchmen.

Tomb Raider Army

While I enjoyed the intimate moments of triumphant, defying gravity for a high climb S.O.S, and fighting tooth and nail against the primal, Tomb Raider’s ending portions left me scratching my head out of boredom. The Shanty Town, from first glimpse, added a bit of flair to the ever changing moments of survival. The beginning of the town represents Lara’s first use of her Fire Arrows, and the introduction stands loud and proud. I even enjoyed the rushing chase of men as I weaved and darted my way through the decrepit shacks, breaking through barriers, and snaking into doorways to elude capture.

A perfect blend of aggressive pacifism and forceful stealth, Lara at her best.

The Shanty Town, however, ended up being an early sign of doom for things to come. While the locale is book ended on both sides by worthwhile game scenarios, it was in Shanty Town I first ran into a number of unfortunate and repeated hiccups. From weapons going wonky, to Lara’s character model defying reality, and re-spawn closets with soldiers of no variety. I was kind of thrown off by this unpolished sense of error, in what had been a completely smooth game experience, always offering solid structure, and endless surprise.

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Further, the longer I stayed in Shanty Town, the more I was disinterested in it’s approach of testing Lara. The more naturalistic elements slowly faded away from existence, and I was faced with nothing but the focused exhaustion with wave after wave of similarly looking baddies. This lazy use of enemy encounter always helps to pad an experience for time, but shatter the immersion of satisfaction.

When I have no other option but to fire away, and endlessly so, I start to wonder if the designers ran out of interesting scenarios. Lara had already been proven as a successful stealth saboteur, and unrelenting survivor. I question, why then at that moment (and many others in the games finale), was Lara faced with this misplaced call of duty, and the inability to refuse what ends up being a focus on  gun porn?

Tomb Raider Army 2

The stand out moments of the title focus more on feelings outside the norm of what video games so often portray. One of the reasons I like Tomb Raider so much, is the game’s flirtatious sense of emotion. Where shooters may just want explosive, Tomb Raider will seek to startle. Where other action games may only want to make your blood pump with adrenaline, TR looks to unsettle you with fear. Not to say TR doesn’t have excellent moments of white knuckle action glory, but the places the title goes up and beyond exist in the gruesome. The campaign has moments I found delightful from a sheer sense of surprise, and not their forceful nature into already exhausted game design territory. They help frame Lara’s desperate nature, and give way to pure blooded, full bodied suspense, something a great deal of the end of the game completely fails to do.

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I wish Tomb Raider had remained a little more grounded, at least in how they dealt with Lara’s feats. While I don’t mind the larger jumps of fantastic the story takes later on, the way they make her deal with it becomes slightly too outlandish. One of the bigger moments in crossing the boundaries of disbelief, exists in one of the last encounters of the game. One scene in particular has her fighting off a literal army of savages on their home territory. I know the game was in “climax mode” and trying to impress, but it felt completely out of place and estranged from her character.

Lara waging an all out war with adversaries, whom on an individual basis, were veterans of combat, let alone en masse attacking, was too unbelievable. If we were to take even my play through as the standard example of the narrative we’re left with something of a crude farce at the end of a serious drama.

Let me frame it for you a little differently.

Lara, having not slept in days, and only having recently come to terms with murder in self-defense, somehow took out an entire platoon of elite warriors on their home turf, armed with nothing but a couple of pistol bullets and a pick axe.

No, fucking, way.

Overall, the ending feels very anti-climactic, and doesn’t at all match the bravado of the rest of the adventure. Somehow, the whole reality that exists in creating Lara as a believable and well rounded character dissipates to very minimal degrees in the finale. She doesn’t entirely lose her impressive ruggedness, but much of it is lost in misguided translation during the ending sequence.

She falls further into the pitfall of what I was hoping the game would avoid, which involved a completely misused villain,  an all too familiar character arc, and a final battle that’s been done to death. My initial hope was something far more sinister in nature, with Lara finding herself at the very end of her rope, her character faced with utter terror.

They ended up taking her in the opposite direction, arming her with luck and invincibility, instead of willpower and spirit.

TOmb Raider Awesome

There is also, the matter of multiplayer to mention…

I’m always immediately worried when I can’t find a single multiplayer game in a newer release, and Tomb Raider started me out on it’s competitive dealings with feelings of foreboding. After a lot of trial and error…and waiting, lots of waiting, I was left dumb founded. Once I found myself actually in a multiplayer game, I was struck by what an awkward mess the whole thing ended up being.

This wasn’t an isolated experience, mind you. My connections were regularly terrible, and the  matches ranged from complete quagmires of teleporting players, to barely managing a mediocre mayhem of an early stage beta build, accidentally released to the public. Players would zoom, as if human blurs, in every which way possible in the worst examples, making any aiming or precision weaponry useless by design. Everyone playing must have been as painfully aware of this as I was, with the only weapon seeing use with any regularity being the automatic rifles.

Tomb Raider Multi 2

The multiplayer reminds you of how bad the single player could have turned out, being filled to the brim with the hollow desolation of the competitive arenas, devoid of any impressive visuals or eye candy to speak of. All strategies and cunning were removed in the translation, with the varied themes of stealth from the single player left behind almost entirely. Leveling up lacked any sense of satisfaction, and even winning matches felt like a sigh of relief from the monotony, rather than a motivating boost to see what the next match held.

All in all, the multiplayer seemed like a bad excuse at over reaching demographic, and further devalues the experience rather than adds to it.

This isn’t too uncommon, as multiplayer modes in other wise single player games have this forced feeling of tacked on, much like we find with Tomb Raider. I came for the grand adventure, and wasn’t really looking for a romp with some strangers in the mud. The replayability exists for anyone who is in absolute love with the game, but with so many more refined and highly popular examples of death match out there, one has to question who this mode is really aimed at, especially considering it’s below average quality.

What worries me even further, is that the mulitplayer experience may not have been planned from the get go, or not necessarily implemented as a “want”, acting out as more of a “need”. This goes back to what a game “MUST have”, despite the historical contrary. The game’s mishandled ending, and rougher around the edges single player, could have been marvelously honed and polished with the same amount of development time it must have taken to force a sub par extra mode into the equation. If Crystal Dynamics hadn’t had to focus on this tacked on feeling of marketing hype in a mulitplayer sense, Tomb Raider might have been a top tier treat from start to finish, rather than begin with a bang, and end with a whimper.

Tomb Raider Multi 3

As just one more conceptual aside, seeing one of the enemy character models in the multiplayer lobby, just standing there in the rain, kind of made me realize how devaluing a multiplayer experience can be.

Sure, Tomb Raider‘s multiplayer isn’t completely devoid of fun, but this odd sense of embarrassment and exposure washed over me. Seeing what once represented a domineering figure in the single player, so exposed and lifeless in the multiplayer mode, made me cringe a little. This was a man who made me fear for my life in the campaign, representing the wild and unknown. He now stood there, lifeless and unanimated, being used as some pointless avatar in some virtual dick war. This all reinforced my realization of where the game might have gone wrong, with an out of touch focus negatively affecting a worthwhile game.

An odd realization, to be sure.

TOmb Raider Multi

I’m still astonished that the game, in some way, seemed to get “sick of itself”. The formula the game laid out worked so well, why the experience betrayed this sense of success and conformed to loud explosions is beyond me. I will stand by the sentiment that the over all feeling of the single player has moments of brilliance, and fierce satisfaction, but wilts and withers towards the end with repetitive and all too familiar shoot outs.

While the adventure may disrupt my own sense of appreciation, in dealing with some major design concepts, one thing the title never compromises on is Lara’s character. She is portrayed throughout, as a strong willed, sensible woman who just won’t stay down and die. Tomb Raider, and with thankful awareness, owes much of the experiences appeal to Lara Croft’s reinvention, providing a refreshing take on not only an excellent action character, but a great female role model in video games. While I’ve made prior note of her being an icon, that is from an unavoidable observation and not personal belief. I always had trouble getting behind the over the top sex appeal Miss Croft represented, and saw her more as this bizarre fantasy than an actual character. I find new Lara far more attractive, because of the content to her character, and not the looks concealing them.

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I said it best in my preview:

“(Lara’s) contextualized nature of the struggling is a drastic and powerful divide from her once familiarly unstoppable avatar, instantly endearing her to me as a character. Lara is a surrealistic kind of bad ass in this reboot, as opposed to someone who exists only in the hyper fictionalized, making Nathan Drake look like Bugs Bunny in comparison.”

While the end of the game tried to dismantle this sentiment, it did not destroy it.

Tomb Raider, while certainly flawed, is not without merit. The troubles that exist on the island do no contradict the intense elements within, and engaged me time after time with unrelenting extremes.

In closing, I still stand impressed, and impart the words of wisdom that Lara’s resilience is well worth experiencing, even if it means enduring through her  adventures more troubling rough spots to do so.

Tomb Raider Lara Pain

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