— The following post contains spoilers.
Tomb Raider opens with an incredible cinematic showing us how Lara came to be stranded on — as we discover later — Yamatai.
It’s a solid enough opening, this. The thing, however, is that it creates something of a false impression of how good the game looks. Don’t get me wrong, even on last-gen hardware, Tomb Raider is a great-looking game, but switching suddenly from that stunning, pre-rendered opening to the in-game visuals is jarring, and, honestly, disappointing. It reminded me of my time with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on PlayStation 2, in which you’d be treated to clips from the film before being thrown into levels that were — looking back — pretty horrendous-looking.
Thankfully, though — jarring introduction aside — that’s not something that can be said of Tomb Raider. Scrambling out of the cave in which she found herself trapped, Lara emerges, battered and bruised, onto a sea-side cliff bathed in the light of the setting sun. The ocean roils before her, powerful waves crashing against the island’s rocky outcrops, littered with the wrecks of ships its fearsome storms have claimed. It’s one of the many moments Tomb Raider that demands that you pause for a moment to take it all in.
As night falls, Lara makes her way inland, and the adventure proper begins.
From beginning to end, it’s clear that Tomb Raider is a very well put together game, and, for the most part, it’s a pleasure to play. Everything, from the intuitive controls to Lara’s little intake of breath each time she jumps, makes for an enjoyable, immersive gameplay experience. The Definitive Edition brings its own set of accoutrements to the control scheme, making smart use of the DualShock 4’s touchpad and adding some limited voice-control functionality, which is fun to try out, but not a viable option for serious gameplay — at least in my case; my system repeatedly paused the game each time I tried to switch to Lara’s bow.
An oft-discussed element of Tomb Raider’s gameplay is Lara’s Survival Instinct, an ability which, properly upgraded, allows Lara to see various objects and enemies throughout the world in a manner similar to Assassin’s Creed’s trademark Eagle Vision. Many fans are of the opinion that it takes away from the sense of discovery of earlier titles — certainly, being able to, effectively, see through walls doesn’t work too well with the gritty, ‘real’ new approach to the series. Nevertheless, though, I like it — its thanks to it that Tomb Raider is the first game I’ve played to 100% compeltion entirely by myself in quite some time. In fact, in my original, last-gen playthrough, I finished with more than 100%, an impossibility brought about by the presence of an extra effigy in the Shantytown area, which I have, sadly, been unable to replicate since.
All this aside, though, there is something negative I must mention in regards to the gameplay: the climbing. Firstly, there’s simply not enough of it — in the classic sense, at least — and, secondly, the animation is incredibly unrealistic. There’s a definite element of hypocrisy here, because I love some of the other ‘unrealistic’ elements of the game — the snappy salvage-collecting animation, the ability to correct Lara’s direction mid-jump — but, ask yourself, how many people do you know who can jump up against a flat surface and simply propel themselves upwards?
This sparse, generic, immersion-breaking climbing is a major factor in my overall opinion of Tomb Raider: it’s a great game, but it doesn’t feel like Tomb Raider.
Tombs themselves are very short, very easy, and mostly optional. Coupled with the fact that they all end the exact same way — Lara opening a chest aglow with golden contents with a little gasp of wonder — makes them feel perfunctory, like afterthoughts.
Take those unimportant tombs, the uninspired traversal, and a generous helping of entirely too much gunplay and you have your answer as to why some detractors have dubbed Tomb Raider a glorified Uncharted clone. Tomb Raider influenced Uncharted, and now Uncharted influences Tomb Raider.
On a story level, Tomb Raider is solid. Said story sees our stranded heroine struggle against the hostility of the Solarii Brotherhood, and that of Yamatai itself, as she tries to get to the bottom of Father Mathias’s intentions and rescue her friend, Sam, from his clutches. Like I said, solid — but definitely not without problems, the biggest of which is that the story makes Lara, to put it bluntly, seem like a bit of an idiot.
The truth about Queen Himiko is all but screamed in her face, multiple times, yet she persists in wondering, ‘What’s going on?’, ‘What does this all mean?’ right up until very near the end of the game — in a moment of revelation that is itself marred by the horrifically corny, ‘Well, you’re not getting her!’
There’s a sense of unnaturalness to Tomb Raider, a feeling that the characters are being bent to the will of the story, when, sometimes, it’s better, and more genuine, to let them take over influence it themselves. It doesn’t help, either, that, often, Camilla Luddington’s vocal performance makes Lara sound profoundly silly — but we’ll come to that later.
Tomb Raider culminates with Lara managing to rescue Sam at the very last moment, plunging a flaming torch into the Sun Queen’s desiccated face to prevent her vengeful soul from transferring to her friend’s body. Like the story, the ending is solid enough, but, experiencing it for the first time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off, out-of-place.
You can, therefore, imagine my complete lack of surprise when I learned that, originally, Lara was supposed to fail in her efforts to save Sam, but that this conclusion was ditched because it ‘tested poorly’ and the developers didn’t want to end the game on a downer.
I can’t tell you how deeply that disappoints me. Sam’s death would’ve been a much bolder, and, ultimately, vastly stronger, path for the game to take. It would’ve worked perfectly with Roth’s comments about the difference between sacrifice and loss, and — in my opinion — would’ve been the perfect catalyst for Lara to become the hardened, driven Croft we’ve known for years: haunted by Sam’s death, she’d never tolerate failure again.
The decision to change Tomb Raider’s ending was weak, cowardly — playing through the game armed with the knowledge of the original ending, it’s clear to see that the story is designed to build towards Lara’s failure. The fact that it doesn’t feels like a cop-out.
With that out of the way, back to the voice acting. As you can probably surmise from my earlier comment, Tomb Raider’s voice acting is a particularly divisive issue for me. Certainly, it’s obvious why Luddington was chosen for the role: when her vocals work, they’re excellent — ‘That’s right! Run, you bastards! I’m coming for you all!’
Unfortunately, though, when they don’t work, it’s painfully, painfully apparent.
There’s just something about her performance that makes me cringe — one particular moment occurs near the beginning of the game, just after having escaped the Scavenger’s Den. Looking out over the battered shipwrecks along Yamatai’s coast, Lara spots a lifeboat on a small beach below. ‘A lifeboat!’ she exclaims, sounding air-headed with surprise. ‘Where are they?’
That same tone occurs repeatedly over the course of the game, and each time it does, I cringe until my face hurts. I have my fingers firmly crossed that Lara’s voice will mature as the series progresses, much like that of Ezio across Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations.
Lara’s vocals, however, aren’t solely at fault — and they’re certainly not the game’s worst. Those of the various side-characters range from okay, to (to put it mildly) atrocious.
This situation isn’t helped by the fact that almost every character, bar Lara herself, is a complete stereotype. Tomb Raider is at its weakest when Lara isn’t the only character on-screen. Grim sounds absolutely ridiculous; Mathias’s utterly uninspired performance and portrayal is that of the typical villain; the same, though to a lesser extent, can also be said of Whitman; and everything that comes out of Jonah’s mouth is a cliché wrapped in a cliché served with an extra large helping of corn.
Roth is fine; Alex is almost a complete nonentity, and Reyes never quite seems to find a balance between being, on the one hand, strong and driven, while, on the other, a complete b*tch.
A peculiarity of Tomb Raider’s is that, while most of its ‘main’ characters are relatively bland, some of those in the background — namely members of the Solarii Brotherhood — actually seem quite compelling. If you take the time to employ stealth, to wait and listen to their conversations before planting an arrow squarely between their eyes, you’ll overhear some genuinely interesting things. Some discuss a series of books they’ve been reading, others barter with each other for cigarettes, and still others discuss the intentions of their leader, Mathias, even going as far as to question his actions, and the necessity of the violence they commit in his name. They provide a pleasant sense of depth, of reality.
On the technical side of things, perhaps the biggest draw of the Definitive Edition is that it packs both a much more detailed and ‘alive’ Yamatai, and a meticulous redesign of Lara. This redesign in particular has sparked a great deal of controversy amongst the tomb-raiding community. When I first saw it, I was cautiously optimistic. Yes, in certain pictures, it makes Lara look a little too young, and I do miss her original, more edgy appearance, but the new model looks considerably closer to Tomb Raider’s promotional material, and — though this is nothing more than wishful thinking on my part — seems to have the potential for Lara to come to look a little like her Underworld model as she gets older. (Have I mentioned that Underworld is my favourite Tomb Raider game?)
Among the various upgrade’s Lara possesses is fantastically lifelike hair, made possible by a technology known as TressFX. As fantastic as it looks, however, none of the other characters have been treated to it, and so, when they’re onscreen alongside our heroine, things can look a little odd.
As far as other visual elements are concerned, there was, in the last-gen version of the game, profound pixellation on things like Lara’s walkie-talkie, Roth’s hair, various characters’ skin, and some of the fire effects. I’m happy to be able to report that the Definitive Edition solves these problems completely.
Unfortunately not set to rights, however, are the facial animations. There’s no sugar-coating this one: they’re just not very good. In fact, by the standards set by some of the game’s contemporaries, they’re appalling — worse, even, than those of 2008’s Underworld.
Backing up Tomb Raider’s otherwise impressive visuals is a compelling score provided by Jason Graves. While I do feel that it draws a little too much from the survival/horror aspects of the game, it does, nonetheless, pack some moments of excellence. Lara’s updated theme is one of them. There’s a moment close to the end of the game, as Lara makes her way up the final, climactic section of the ziggurat, shards of ice falling around her as snow swirls crazily and lightning slashes the sky… the main theme kicks in and carries a bucketload of chills with it.
And that, I think, is all I have to say. Tomb Raider is a well-made reboot that provides a solid origin story for Lara whilst taking players on an action-packed adventure. It represents an interesting — if uncertain — new direction for the series, and certainly isn’t without its problems, but, as far as a first attempt goes, 'it could’ve been worse, John. A lot worse.' (Spot the Reference.)
Looking to the future, it’ll be interesting to see where this game takes the franchise. One of Tomb Raider’s most lauded aspects was its near open-world design, but can Crystal realistically go down that road again? Would it be believable for Lara to once again find herself confined to a single location? I’m not sure.
Perhaps we’ll see massive, separately open-world locations, but I can’t say I’d mind a return to a more linear, level-based structure. It’s the format I fell in love with in Legend, Anniversary and Underworld. As long as both the gameplay and story are good, though, it doesn’t really matter. Though I may never get to see what ‘my’ Lara’s next ‘book’ might have been (Spot the Reference, Round #2!), I’m excited to see what will be written in the pages of this new one’s.