Developer: Crystal Dynamics / Publisher: Square Enix / MSRP: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
Tomb Raider comes with a bold set of promises from the franchise’s longtime developer, Crystal Dynamics. Beyond just rebooting and modernizing the character of Lara, they have the ambitious task of retelling her origin story. In a way, you know Lara is going to end up as the badass action hero she’s known to be. This is a game that wants to show you how she gets there. But this begs the question of “how do you do this while making a fun game?” It’s one that Crystal Dynamics wasn’t willing to answer. Instead they rely heavily on genre tropes and high action to carry what little character development there is. The game is filled with disappointingly one dimensional characters, lackluster combat, and jarring disconnects between action and story that make even the biggest explosions hard to care about. Though they are nice explosions.
As with most origin stories, Lara is involuntarily flung into a crappy situation. As a young archaeologist, she’s part of a research expedition to the Dragon’s Triangle, an area of the Pacific Ocean just south of Japan. Lara and crew find out the hard way that it’s infamous for its brutal storms and they end up shipwrecked on a mysterious island. And it’s a good thing the rest of the crew has Lara with them because they all seem pretty incapable of accomplishing anything other than complaining and getting captured by the not-so-friendly group of cultists that happen to be inhabitants.
It’s here Crystal Dynamics attempts to tell (or retell) the origin story of famed series protagonist Lara Croft. Up front she is painted as an inexperienced adventurer who must overcome adversity and the elements to discover what she is capable of. The problem is the overwhelming disconnect between events of the narrative and the actions of the player. In a moment early on Lara balks before cutting open a deer she killed. However, this was immediately followed by me killing and opening three additional deer without so much as a peep from Lara. Shortly after that Lara is forced to kill her first human out of self defense. Any emotional impact of this traumatic event is completely washed away when five minutes later Lara is ducking behind cover and shooting large groups of enemies in the face like a trained military combatant. Tomb Raider is full of jarring transitions between narrative and gameplay like this. There’s a perpetual disconnect between what you’re doing as a player and what Lara is experiencing in the cut scenes to the point where it feels like they were designed separately and pieced together at the last minute. Tomb Raider’s narrative never really recovers from these huge deficits in its flow.
This criticism is not particularly unheard of for the action/adventure genre. The lighthearted tone of the Uncharted series often feels directly at odds with the murderous rampages of Nathan Drake. But there’s a difference here. In Uncharted it’s easy to be swept away by the charm of Drake and forget what he’s doing. Lara and the rest of Tomb Raider’s characters lack any of the endearing qualities of other popular action heroes. In fact, the most interesting Lara ever gets is with her action-hero physical accomplishments. Maybe she’s afraid to climb a tower? But then she manages to climb the tower. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to feel invested in the game’s exciting or dramatic moments with such flat characters.
This point is especially disappointing because on a surface level Tomb Raider does have some visually impressive moments made up of well-constructed set pieces. The game is filled with epic scenes of Lara ziplining from a burning building or narrowly making jumps across large gaps. While there is very little that resonates emotionally here, it’s not difficult to appreciate them from a technical perspective. In fact, that goes for the entire game. The environments of the island look gorgeous and are constructed in a way that’s makes it easy to forget they are crafted by a person. It all looks very organic.
And you’ll spend more time in these environments than you might expect from a modern third-person action game. Tomb Raider isn’t quite open but it does allow you to go back and explore parts of the island you visited previously. Taking a page from Metroidvania-style games, Lara picks up weapons and items that allow her to access different, blocked-off sections of the world. These usually end up being optional tombs or areas you can score salvage to upgrade your weapons at bonfires.
Of course you’ll be upgrading these weapons for combat. And much like its narrative, Tomb Raider’s combat makes some promises up front it fails to keep. Early on you’re taught a few key lessons: “stealth is a viable option” and “use cover.” But often this advice seems like a form of (unintentional) misdirection. Enemies tend to be very aggressive about rushing you and using fire bombs and grenades to draw you out of cover. But Lara is pretty fragile and the encounters tend to be designed to occur in tightly confined areas. This means you’re rarely afforded the tools or space needed to deal with these encounters in a strategic way. They are never particularly difficult but often my successes and failures through them seemed entirely random.
There are other elements of Tomb Raider’s game world that seem to react just as inconsistently. Like stealth, for example. More often than not it’s a useless and misleading mechanic. In only a few instances where all the enemies of a certain area were spawned before Lara encountered them (an uncommon occurrence) did the stealth mechanics really shine in any meaningful way. And their contextual nature frequently implies it’s time to go stealth when it really isn’t. Layer on top of this the occasional insta-fail stealth sequences (which aren’t clearly communicated as such up front) and you start to wonder how late into development his mechanic was shoehorned in.
Along these same lines are enemies that frequently defy the logic of the game world. Later in the game you’re able to upgrade Lara’s bow so that it shoots napalm arrows which, naturally, causes enemies to go up in flames. The problem is that many enemies would refuse to catch fire until they were hit with three or four arrows. While other enemies of the same type would catch fire immediately. This might sound like a small complaint but this poor communication in Tomb Raider’s design feels indicative of the entire product.
When you’re not fighting against Tomb Raider’s design, you feel like you’re just going through familiar third-person adventure motions. As you may expect, combat encounters are broken up by largely straightforward environmental puzzles. These usually involve figuring out how to apply the set of upgraded weapons or items that Lara has acquired through the game. On top of this, Tomb Raider is overblown with quicktime events. They are often used to pull you up from a ledge or open a door. They aren’t inherently bad but I often felt removed from the on screen action when all I was required to do was a press a single button to perform a death-defying maneuver.
Tomb Raider’s multiplayer is a largely forgettable, but inoffensive, experience. It’s of course filled with a string of unlockable gear that can be used to build custom load outs along with all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect from a modern multiplayer game. The moment-to-moment gameplay respectfully attempts to integrate elements from the single player. So you may have a moment when you step on a trap and must shoot enemies while upside down or can blow up an explosive barrel near an enemy to take them out. While it’s a novel idea to try and make this part of the game stand out, these mechanics feel there just for the sake of being there and don’t provide any interesting gameplay benefits.
It’s really hard to be excited about the future of Tomb Raider after this game. It fails where more successful films and games of its kind succeed: in its characters. The way in which Lara goes from inexperienced to full-on action movie hero survivalist is so jarring that it’s near impossible as a player to remain on the same emotional wavelength as the story. Because of this the rest of the game falters. It’s appeal is grounded in intense, exciting action moments. But these are impossible to care about with the poor handling of Tomb Raider’s star character.