Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tomb Raider Review

By Mike Fleskes

Going into the reboot of Tomb Raider, I was expecting something more than what I saw in all of the gameplay demos and promotional material. It was clear from that start that developer Crystal Dynamics was working off of the success of the massively popular Uncharted series, and this influence bleeds out of every portion of jumping, climbing, running, and gunning that this action spectacular has to offer. This made many onlookers call Lara Croft’s new outing a clone, or a ripoff. What Lara has that Nathan Drake doesn’t, however, is a much more open world that lets you improve the fresh-faced heroine’s abilities and rewards exploration like a classic adventure game. As enticing as this all sounds, it falls flat in a number of areas that ultimately pull me out of the experience and can occasionally make this game a chore.

The game starts off well. After a cinematic of a massive shipwreck that lands Lara in a new world of danger, she awakes in a tomb and is forced to make an escape. The game gives you controls and button prompts on the screen as you progress through the cave, without ever stopping the gameplay. This is a refreshing change of pace from most action games because the jumping and climbing is fluid and there are lots of clever design choices with level structure, lighting, and the camera that keep you pointed in the right direction, all without waypoints (but they’re visible in Lara’s “survival instinct” ability if you ever need them). On top of all this, the game looks fantastic. The game treats you to many gorgeous vistas, and Lara’s hair even has its own engine to make it look super realistic (except this is also probably the most graphically demanding feature ever implemented in a game so I avoided it).

The story falls into place as you play the game. While I won’t spoil anything, the plot has a lot of potential, but once the intrigue wears off, the narrative utterly falls apart. The story often abandons common sense to make room for drama. I got a good chuckle when Lara killed a man for the first time. She was almost sick to her stomach with guilt (but mostly the bits of brain on her face. This game is really gory). Literally 15 seconds later she rounds a corner and goes into bullet time and dispatches a group of enemies without even flinching. Halfway through the story, I stopped caring about the characters and often forgot why Lara was even doing what she was doing.

Climbing and movement in Tomb Raider is, again, heavily drawn from Uncharted’s playbook. You climb deteriorating metal towers and old monasteries, and zipline down many, many ropes. While the location is almost always changing, it all feels the same. I can always be confident that Lara will make a leap of impossible distances and her grip will be strong, unless the story dictates that she must fall.

This is one of the biggest problems that I have with Tomb Raider. Any segment of decent action and suspense is chopped up by cinematics that completely take control away from me. I’m never once concerned for Lara’s life because whatever happens to her is completely out of my hands. Where Uncharted’s set pieces have numerous pitfalls for you to make a mistake and die, all I have to do here is hold forward on the control stick and press the A button a few times until the next cutscene.

The combat in Tomb Raider is by far its best asset. Shooting levels are large and open, and throw a lot of verticality into the mix. The game has an automatic cover system that works extremely well, and lots of cover will break apart and force you to scramble to the nearest conveniently placed crates. As you progress, you collect new weapons and attachments, and upgrading Lara’s abilities gives you plenty of ways to dispatch foes.

The problem with all of this is that it is squandered by lousy enemy AI. Identical baddies will either hide behind chest-high walls until you score a headshot when they sneak a peek, or charge at you face-first with a machete, mouth open wide for the lead salad you’re ready to feed them. They never try to flank you and aren’t very good shots. While the level design encourages staying on your toes and getting the drop on the enemy, it’s just as easy to kill everyone in the area from a single location. The combat upgrade system would be rendered utterly pointless if it weren’t for the fact that it provides you the means to get creative with dispatching the imbeciles that inhabit the island. While the combat is flawed in many ways, it was still the only part of the game that I was actively looking forward to.

Tomb Raider had a real chance to provide a new experience that’s the best of both action shooters like Uncharted, and old-school open-world adventures. It’s a shame that cinematics are frequently favored over the fun and often exhilarating action, and completely pull you out of the experience. While exploring the open island can be both fun and rewarding, the freedom eliminates all sense of urgency from the main story. The puzzles are laughably easy, and the enemies have such a massive amount of dialogue, both in and out of combat, that their bark is a lot worse than their bite. Tomb Raider is not a bad game. As an Uncharted clone, it falls short. As an open-world cinematic action-adventure shooter puzzle-platformer with RPG elements, the talent of the development team is spread thin in most areas.

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