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So how do you solve a problem like Lara?
on 2 July 2013
Well, you reboot the franchise using a company best known for top-selling games such as Deus Ex and its more recent prequel Human Revolution, as well as the infamous Final Fantasy series. Add Rihanna Pratchett as a writer (daughter of fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett - yes, he of the Discworld) and a heavy dose of Uncharted and you get a darker, more adult origin story that puts the player in the shoes (and full-length trousers and sensible strappy top) of a quieter, more introspective young Lara Croft.
All in all, it's a great effort. It's just so easy to get drawn into the game and its world. The areas you explore are nicely varied: from lush forest jungle to abandoned buildings to dirty, muck-filled, claustrophobic passages; there are also mountain villages and one very, very tall radio tower. The enemies are likewise varied, ranging from general pistol carrying cookie-cutter minions to snipers, molotov cocktail throwers and heavies, and they all need a different strategy to defeat. Combat, like climbing, is not terribly difficult, but it's nicely implemented. Lara has to build the weapons she needs, including a bow and arrows. Want to crank up the challenge? Try completing the game using nothing BUT the bow and arrows.
The game does depart quite dramatically from previous releases in several ways. Tackling an established and much-loved title and character comes with a certain amount of risk. How much do you change so that it feels fresh, and at the same time not alienate your core gaming audience whilst simultaneously making the game accessible to those who have never picked up a Tomb Raider game before? This is where the development and writing in the game really shine. This prequel features:
- A younger, less self-assured Lara: forget the wisecracking, gun-toting, short-shorts wearing doyenne of all things artifacty; this is Lara's first ever expedition, and her character is a lovely mix of intelligence, insecurity, youth and a desperation to prove herself to her fellow explorers. She is also superbly voiced by Camilla Luddington, and Lara as a character noticeably evolves over the course of the game. Whilst the layers to her personality are very welcome, Lara's emotional development is occasionally jarring - she goes from drama-filled first kill to mowing down enemies with a rifle in a painfully short time. That said, it's a mechanic used in many games. In Far Cry 3, for example, your character says "I've never shot anyone before" and the NPC you're talking to shrugs and says "Yeah, there's a first time for everything". Such a mechanic is to be expected, and the overall storytelling more than makes up for the first-kill scenario ringing a little hollow.
- Free-running: don't panic, there's still plenty of free-running, jumping-swinging-climbing on stuff to do, but honestly, it's not challenging. The route is practically laid out for you using Square Enix's Survival mode (a variation on what I like to call cheat-o-vision, like Eagle Sight in Assassin's Creed, or Detective Mode in the Batman games, widely acknowledged as making many games too easy) and even if the mechanic itself didn't exist, it's still a pretty obvious route through the game; there's no way you're getting lost on Yamatai Island. The free-running is also very forgiving, occasionally allowing Lara to break the laws of physics to successfully jump gaps.
- Tomb Raiding: Disappointingly enough, the raiding of tombs is entirely optional - successfully solving the tomb's puzzle highlights collectibles on your map and give you some XP, but to be brutally honest, you could skip the tombs entirely and you wouldn't lose out. Additionally, the puzzles in the tombs are criminally simple to solve. I was hoping for some mind-bending puzzling and platforming action; alas, it was not to be.
- Quick-time events: these are also pretty forgiving. The level-up system is also run-of-the-mill - upgrades to weapons are mainly limited to damage and ammo capacity increase, upgrades to Lara are mainly reduced damage or larger carrying capacity, and so on.
- Survival: Lara is alone and injured and has to survive. There are nods to survival horror in the game (several times Lara has to escape the clutches of some of the insane island residents) but this isn't a scary game. There are also some spectacular death scenes in the style of Dead Space, should you fail a QTE or hit an obstacle during some of the more intense sequences (I won't say more because spoilers).
Those are the main differences, and whilst they may not paint a flattering image of the game as a whole, I'll add this proviso - despite its occasional shortcomings, the game itself is incredibly fun to play. The storyline is typical of a Tomb Raider game - human enemies, but a supernatural flavour to it all. The free-running itself is smooth and good looking and Lara herself is far more realistic in both body shape and attitude, which is a refreshing change.
Yamatai also looks beautiful - on console as well as on PC. Yes, you're going to get better graphics with a PC (when do you not?) but having played on PC and 360, the 360 graphics are certainly still good-looking.
What Tomb Raider doesn't do is innovate; none of its mechanics are new, and it borrows heavily and unapologetically from the Uncharted series. If you're looking for a never-had-before experience, and have played any free-running games like Assassin's Creed, Sleeping Dogs, etc, then look elsewhere.
What Tomb Raider does do, and does very well indeed, is tackle the origin story of one of the most famous video game characters in videogame history (indeed, she's probably the most famous female protagonist the industry has ever seen) in a compelling, mature and well-designed package. Rather than a standalone title in its own right, the game feels like one giant "setting the scene" for future Tomb Raider titles - laying the groundwork for a sequel, maybe even a trilogy.
If this game were a novel, it would be a thumping good holiday read - enjoyable, memorable in places but nothing too taxing on the intellect. I don't say that to its detriment - I really enjoyed playing Tomb Raider and, like a holiday read, I will be picking it back up from the shelf and enjoying it again in future.
It's a game that knows what it is, and it shines for it.