Tomb Raider Review – Lara Croft is back on Top

Foreword

As always, I’m playing this on my 32-bit Windows Vista toaster and cranked up the resolution to as high as I could whenever I wanted to take nice screenshots (and yeah, that means that the game was running at 5-7 fps during those times). Unfortunately, I couldn’t take this one to its maximum and the toaster does not support Lara’s TressFX hair. I apologize for that.

PC Optimization

If, like me, you are playing on a PC, you needn’t worry. The game runs perfectly, even on machines weaker than mine, like the Acer Aspire E1-410 laptop that’s popular in Southeast and South Asia. Resolution and anti-aliasing can be changed on the fly from the pause menu, so you’re sure to find a setting on which the game will run. Players can also freely switch between a gamepad of their choosing and the typical mouse and keyboard combo. Even the menu can be navigated with the mouse.

But enough about that. Here’s Tomb Raider:

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(Gameplay screenshot), Lara brooding on what to do next. Also shown, Sure-Shot DLC costume.

Lara Croft is Back – Bigger and Better Than Ever

A little background to the franchise

Tomb Raider is a series revolving around Lara Croft – genius, billionaire, philanthropist, oh, and aristocrat. First designed by Toby Gard at Core Design in 1994, Ms. Croft was originally supposed to be male, but after developers saw that their game idea was too similar to the Indiana Jones franchise (1981 ongoing), they decided to overhaul the entire concept and later even included spy movie aspects while still staying true to the adventure/quest story genre. (Fun fact, Indiana Jones himself is largely based on Allan Quartermain, created by Rider Haggard. Be sure to check his work out.)

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Overlooking Yamatai. Also in picture, the Aviatrix costume DLC.

Lara finally saw her first action-adventure with Tomb Raider (1996, now retitled to Tomb Raider I) and took the world by storm. She almost instantaneously became one of the most recognizable pop culture icons and by time of writing this article, starred in a staggering 22 games, two feature films starring Angelina Jolie, several novels, comic books, made an appearance in a German music video by Die Ärzte, was put on her own postage stamp in France, and even has a Londoner street named after her. Many of her games focus around travelling the globe and having players engage in platforming, puzzle solving, and killing hordes of enemies guns blazing. But the series had its ups and downs.

With the fast pace with which each new Tomb Raider title came out, the small developing studio, Core Design, was not able to uphold its set standards and when the sixth instalment, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness (2003), was released, the game experienced a huge backlash from players. Its publisher, Eidos Interactive, subsequently handed the franchise over to Crystal Dynamics with mixed results. While the new developer brought back high standards and received praise for Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), it tried to stay true to established formula. This ended up being problematic. The franchise swiftly found itself overshadowed by new contenders, most notably Uncharted (2007). Originally, this franchise revolving around Nathan Drake, took inspiration from Lara Croft’s and was subsequently called a knock-off, but its polished mechanics, superior platforming, story driven gameplay, and overall style simply left her in the dust.

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Lara and Roth enjoying a hearty conversation.

But that wasn’t all, Lara herself felt outdated. In the first decade of the 21st century, many companies scanned actual human faces to make their characters look more human, but not Ms. Croft. Her brick shaped face from the early days stayed with her up until Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008) and made her look somewhat out of place. At the same time, hardware limitations in the 1980s and 1990s meant that many action based games had barely any in-game story to them. Players would just fill in the gaps themselves and rationalize the protagonist’s actions. Yet as technology pushed the boundaries, games could include more and more narrative, which meant that character actions would be judged at face value. So in the early 2000s, Lara killing both endangered hordes of wildlife and people for no discernible reason (or leaving her helicopter pilot to die in Tomb Raider III [1998] or letting Pierre fall down a cliff in Tomb Raider: Chronicles [2000]) could not be defended. They were seen as the actions of a cold-blooded sociopath. All in all, multiple aspects of the games felt outdated and it was time to reinvigorate the franchise.

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The bow is a new weapon added to Lara’s arsenal in this game.

Tomb Raider 2013

In an attempt to make Tomb Raider feel less dated, the developers went through a great number of changes, one of them immediately noticeable: The game looks and feels like a big budget blockbuster. During several segments it even pays homage to famous films like the caves scenes taken from The Descent (2005), or the boat ride near the finale, reminiscent of Apocalypse Now (1979). The game mechanics too were completely overhauled and at times, elements like the platforming, feel inspired by other games, more about that later. But changes can also be felt in the narrative. In 2013’s Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics gave the series a proper origin story.

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(Gameplay screenshot) Lara Croft jumping over a chasm into a safety.

Lara Croft is no longer a “maniacal killer”, but a regular archaeology graduate trapped in a horrific situation. She, together with her friend Samantha “Sam” Nishimura, and her father’s old crew, is searching for the forgotten kingdom of Yamatai, which was ruled by the sun queen Himiko. During their search in Japanese waters, the group gets trapped in a storm and ends up stranded on an island’s shore. However, not only does the current separate Lara from her group, it also leaves her at the mercy of a death cult. After managing to free herself, she fears that her friend Sam has now been taken by them as well.

The game takes the typical adventure/quest story route by combining historical reality with fantastic fiction. Yamatai (邪馬台国) was not just one Japanese kingdom among many; it was likely one of the first in the archipelago. And Himiko (卑弥呼) of Yamaichi (邪馬壹) was indeed their queen. American linguist Roy Andrew Miller, even believed that her name is derived from “Hime Miko”, with “hime”, princess (姫), not only being joint ideograph of “woman” (女) and “state official” (臣), but that the word itself came from  hi (日,sun) and me (女, woman), while “miko” may then have come from the Japanese term for “female shaman” (巫女). However, as pretty much the only written record about this realm comes from the Wèi Zhì records (魏志, ca. 1003 AD), it lends itself to some artistic flowering to fill in the gaps. The cultists themselves used to be sailors who suffered shipwreck and little by little gave in to the malevolence pulsating through the island.

Though I love that a Western developer took a more serious interest in Asian history, I was slightly confused at the lack of Japanese among the enemy cultists in the game (or Asians in general, especially considering the high number of Filipino sailors on ships). After learning more about the media landscape in the USA, I then realized why it might have been wiser for Crystal Dynamics to make them all Westerners. Meanwhile, Lara Croft is tracing the footsteps of her father and his friend, Conrad Roth. Her relationships to Roth and Sam are very well fleshed out and her desire to safeguard them both is what drives her through the story. And while the overall plot is amazing for the most part, it can be a bit rough around the edges.

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“We’re going to make you look like Gordon Ramsay in editing. ” Camcorder recording of Sam making snarky remarks.

It’s noticeable that plot elements were taken out for one reason or another. (Maybe the game would have been too long or some story arcs didn’t go anywhere.) Sadly, the exposition suffers from the cuts and relieves some events of their gravity. The many deaths and murders on the nightmarish island are meant to give Lara a clear motivation to escape and the psychological, alongside physical trauma inflicted on her force her hand to be violent herself. Yet aside from Roth and Sam, several characters don’t get enough screen time until their deaths progress Lara’s story arc. Without giving away too much, during my first playthrough I came to a scene around the middle of the game where Lara witnesses the heroic passing away of an older gentleman and gets very emotional over it. I knew I was supposed to feel the same way, except that he only showed up briefly in a couple of cutscenes that were never about him. When he died, I had no idea who he was. And seeing as the game’s body count rivals that of Cabot Cove, I did not take it too seriously.

On the other hand, Crystal Dynamics succeeds in making players not only feel empathetic with Lara, but actually like her. She is portrayed as an endearing person with actual passion, interests, and hobbies. Unlike in previous games, she slouches a bit and goes full-blown archaeology nerd whenever she finds a trinket – passionately explaining what she can about its history. These little nods are truly charming and turn Lara Croft into a three dimensional character. Moreover, while venturing through the island by herself, she always keeps Sam’s camcorder with her and watches the videos her friend took of them both whenever she feels lonely. Lara is also portrayed as someone with insecurities but manages to keep her mind on track by reminding herself of Roth’s advise and reiterating “I can do this” to keep going forward.

The Gameplay

As mentioned earlier, the platforming is inspired by other games, which isn’t a bad thing. Already existing, solid mechanics always trump innovation made simply for innovation’s sake; and Tomb Raider definitely uses established gaming procedures to its advantage.

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(Gameplay screenshot) Lara’s survival and animal instincts help her find important clues, trinkets, and lootable objects.

Lara’s overall combat style has definitely been improved for the better. Often times there will be multiple ways to kill enemies, either by stealthily sneaking up or by facing them head on, depending on your play style. The new, gritty mechanics even allow Lara to engage in close quarter combat, dodge enemy attacks, or throw dirt into their eyes. Many of the series’ staples, like Lara’s climbing abilities, make a return, however, long-time fans might be slightly disappointed that she no longer somersaults around and has swapped her dual pistols for chest high walls with cover based shooting, yet they can take solace in her still being marvellously acrobatic and nimble.

The island itself is massive and each area lets players engage in fun, little “collecathons” where they can find totems or flags, as well as GPS caches (I’m still not sure what the last ones do). There are also diary entries scattered about that let Lara know more about other major characters and Yamatai’s history. Discovering trinkets, killing animals or enemies, finding notes, discovering totems, and raiding tombs will get her experience points. Those can then be used to upgrade her survivor, hunter, or brawler skills. Her “survival instinct” and “animal instinct” definitely help here. When activated, they let her see way points, interactable objects, and loot, on top of informing her about nearby enemies. I also often used it in dark areas when I didn’t have a torch; it let me see where I was going.

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(Gameplay screenshot) Bruised and battered. Ms. Croft won’t give in to the forces of this island.

Lara can also fast travel between locations by using camp fires. This way, there is no need to find all collectibles at once. Further, Tomb Raider further frequently so that, in case Lara should die or real life calls, players won’t have to start from far away places. Even boss fights use this feature, making the game overall more about Lara’s journey than rage quits.

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(Gameplay screenshot) The island took its toll on countless lives already. Also shown, Guerilla DLC outfit.

The only thing that was lacking was puzzles. There are only seven tombs in the game, plus one DLC, the Tomb of the Lost Adventurer, none of which are mandatory. These are all physics based puzzle sections that grant Lara shrapnel and experience points upon their completion. I love puzzles in video games and I loved solving them in this game as well. I only wish that there would have been more of them. I understand that many action fans don’t necessarily think that they add anything to action games, but these complicated contraptions are a traditional part of adventure/quest stories like Indiana Jones. I think, they add to the overall feel to the game. My only nitpick about the treasures Lara finds in these tombs is that she never says what she finds, which is very different from when she discovers other trinkets on the island.

Voiceover and score

I’ve played through the game multiple times now and am having a blast every single time. The German, French, and English voiceovers in Tomb Raider are all on point and the actresses and actors went all out. The music is also just as “blockbustery” as the visuals giving the game its appeal.

Online Multiplayer

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(Gameplay screenshot) Lara climbing to the foremost front of a wrecked ship. Also shown, Hunter DLC costume.

Though just tagged on to the game, the multiplayer is loads of fun, if you’re playing with the right crowd. By default, the game has five different stages, but four additional ones can be bought as DLC. When people who have the DLC want to play with those who don’t, the game will automatically limit itself to the maps everyone has. During matches, one of the players will also act as host and should they disconnect (for being AFK too long or whatever reason there may be), the game will automatically designate a different player as host. There are also different four different online multiplayer modes that can be played in ranked or casual matches:

  • Rescue:
    Solarii cultists have to kill 20 survivors who try to retrieve five health packs.
  • Team Deathmatch:
    Two teams of up to four players each try to best one another.
  • Cry for Help:
    A mode where the survivor team tries to activate radio towers to call for help, while the Solarii cultists try to steal their batteries.
  • Free for All:
    Every player plays for themselves and tries to get the highest kill to death ratio.
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Lara climbing the radio tower. Also in picture, the mountaineer DLC costume.

For playable characters, there are twelve survivors (plus one DLC character) and another twelve Solarii (plus three DLC characters). By playing, one can earn experience points and shrapnel, which can then be used to unlock new characters, weapons, or abilities. After reaching level 60, players can then opt to unlock Prestige, which changes their in-game icon and resets their level to 1. Afterwards they have to restart the levelling process and unlock weapons and skills anew. If they want to unlock the final Solarii character, they’ll have to reach Prestige 2, level 1, which requires quite a lot of grinding.

Each player is also given a primary and secondary weapon, so running low on ammunition should not be too big of a problem. The primary weapon is usually a bow, shotgun, or machine gun, while the secondary one is a pistol. There are also offensive and survival (defensive) skills that can be equipped to level the playing field. Finally, everyone can equip explosives like landmines, dynamite, or grenades to spice things up.

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(Gameplay screenshot) At the end of each tomb lies a chest with experience points and shrapnel.

All said and done, there are two major problems with the multiplayer, one is that some achievements are linked to it. Especially the I’m all that! achievement (Win a ranked match in every multiplayer mode) is hard to get unless one finds eight players who want to play ranked. The other issue is cheating. The multiplayer was not well maintained and has since been overtaken by cheaters, making it impossible for regular players to enjoy themselves. In some stages like the Monastery or the Shrine, players can also reach the spawning areas of the opposite team by pressing CTRL+Space continuously. Players can also work their way to other unreachable areas, if they know the game’s mechanics well and exploit them.

DLC

There are two kinds of DLC available for the game, those for the online multiplayer and those for the single player campaign. My favourite are the multiplayer level packs and the different outfits for Lara. Sadly though, some effects won’t work on them. Most notably during that one scene based on The Descent, where Lara is covered in blood. If players wear a DLC outfits they won’t see that at all. If players have to choose between DLC, then I definitely recommend the Tomb of the Lost Adventurer. It is near the starting point of the game and will add an additional puzzle. Solving it will reward the player with more experience points, shrapnel, and other neat stuff.

 

Conclusion

Tomb Raider is, hands down, one of the best games I have ever played on Steam. It’s not perfect, but it’s just so darn enjoyable and I loved every minute of it so much that I have replayed it multiple times. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job in rejuvenating the franchise and in re-establishing Lara Croft. The story has some blunders, but is engagingly told. Lara’s relationships, especially the one to Sam is just awesome and I hope to see her in some future adventures again. As for the refined mechanics, they are not brand new, but they are solid and appropriately applied. Lara manages to make them her own and captivate players through them. The tagged on multiplayer might not be the best thing since sliced bread, but I had a lot of fun with it. If some day I should get a 64-bit computer, I’ll make sure to play its sequel.

The PC version is more akin to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports. I was told that for the best experience, players should get the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One rereleases in which they completely reworked Lara Croft’s face and hair. Those two ports are said to be the definitive editions of the game. For those that don’t have those platforms, it’s said to be the same game, except for the graphical updates and the and that one voice over during that scene with the storm and the pilot. Also, please keep in mind that if you only have the digital download version from Steam, you will not be able to register your game over at the Square Enix homepage.

No puns this time, this game is a solid 10 out of 10

Where to Get

Tomb Raider is available for $19.99 USD or your local equivalent at a retailer near you or as digital download on Origin, Steam, PlayStation Store, or Xbox Marketplace.TR19

Also feel free to visit my Steam Curator page, if you like. If I have a subscription to a game there, I put my review to it there as well:

http://steamcommunity.com/groups/gaoscorner#curation

All screenshots taken by me during my playthrough and recorded using the Steam Overlay feature.

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