Stonking Great T*ts
I was around 12 or 13 when I got my first Tomb Raider game (Tomb Raider 2 on the Playstation, to be exact), so I was just the right age to feel all the ways that most gamers have felt about Lara croft at one point or another. I cannot tell a lie: I even went so far as to secretly use the family computer to (gasp!) try and look up cheats to make her more… Naked. That’s the right word. However, underneath all the hormones was a young gamer just starting to really understand that games could be more than just idle distractions. TR 2 doesn’t tell the best story in the world, but it did feature some amazing locales and genuinely engaging platforming, with some moderate puzzle-solving for good measure.
That was the last retail release I actually picked up in the franchise before now, though I did play the demos for most all of them and rent a few others along the way. I watched with everyone else as the series stagnated, then tried to evolve, then tried to recapture its former glory. By the time we got to TR: Anniversary (2007) and TR: Legend (2008), the release of Uncharted only served to highlight the franchise’s slow descent into obscurity.
Everything old is new again, and we find a fresh-faced Lara Croft in a cabin on a ship on her way to investigate… something. The game starts off with a bang, and then a thud, scream, puncture wound, explosion and cave-in. If the idea was to make the player feel as overwhelmed and exhausted as Lara, the developers succeeded in spades. The end of this initial rush finds Lara stranded on a remote island, cut off from her crew and in desperate need of some shampoo, trail mix, and a good abdominal surgeon; she manages a bow, some arrows, and a rock tied to a stick.
From there, the player must try to survive, meet up with the others, and find a way off the island, in that order. Of course, things don’t always go as planned; there’s at least one group of haggard, possibly fanatical men running around kidnapping people and trying to do bad things to attractive young women. One of these lucky gentleman has the dubious honor of becoming the first person Lara ever kills; he does not die well. In fact, he dies so “not well” that I had to look at the ESRB rating and discover that the game did in fact receive a “M for Mature.”
Lara again finds herself separated from the crew, and then… I didn’t care anymore. I’m sorry for jumping the gun on this, but I can’t help it. The story in this game is a mess, and it honestly became kind of a distraction. The main thrust is supposed to be the whole “A Survivor is Born” tagline; that’s what the game’s last achievement is called, and then the damned words poop up on the screen pre-credits with a music spike to boot. I’ll admit that your first three kills – a deer, a wolf, and then Rapey McFeels-You-Up – are executed in such a way that they have gravitas, but literally two minutes after that you’re murdering guys left and right. Hell, five minutes after that the game is actively encouraging you to drop lanterns on guys and burn them alive.
Hot on the heels of that failed plot device are the rest of your crew, who might as well be called the following: BFF / Lover Maguffin, Dead by the End Mentor, Obvious Betrayal Glasses Guy, Nerdy Glasses Guy, Sassy Black Woman, Surly First Mate from UK, and Ethnic Heritage Wisdom Man.
The issue here is that the game seems to put all of its story stock in you giving a crap about these people, without ever giving you a single instance to get to know anything about them. The game’s maguffin character, Sam, is either Lara’s best friend or her lesbian lover; I honestly could not tell you which, because the games provides evidence toward both ends. This takes all the urgency out of a majority of the story, since I lack a point of reference for these characters, their relationship to Lara and each other, and their basic motivations. All it would have taken was an introductory level on the ship, where you interacted with each of them while learning a few mechanics, to give the player some bearing for the remainder of the plot.
Finally, the game commits that most dire of sins in games where there are collectibles scattered throughout the world; instead of enhancing the story, these knickknacks are given the burden of telling significant parts of the story. This bleeds over a little into the previous paragraph, but is at its worst concerning the aforementioned other island inhabitants, previous visitors to the island, and the island itself. The most noticeable victim is the game’s main villain, as everything about him – name, motivations, favorite flavor of ice cream – Lara just seems to know, but the player can only discover by stopping mid-play to read his diary pages. This is compounded by the fact that, while text for such items is narrated when looking at it in menus, it cuts off if you try and keep playing while listening.
I’m not saying there’s nothing good about the story, especially considering there’s an insane twist at one point that they managed to keep completely off-the-radar during marketing. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that the parts involved in this twist help the game earn its Mature rating in spades. The final act you take as the player – an event that is teased several points during the story – will also make long-time fans of the series smile.
For those of you who like to cheat and look at our scores first, you’re probably wondering “How did we get that number from everything negative he just said?” That number comes 100% from the gameplay; the platforming, shooting, puzzle-solving, free roaming, and set-piece surviving is all executed near flawlessly.
The first thing I have to talk about here is pacing, because the game wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t flow as well as it did. The basic formula is this: You’ll start in an open area where you might have platforming and combat, with a chance to look around and find hidden goodies; those tend to flow directly into linear action / platforming sections where the pace picks up; finally, you are thrust into a setpiece that mixes run-and-gun with zero-tolerance platforming, usually while the area you’ve been in comes to pieces around you. Inevitably you escape and do a bit of light platforming until you reach the next big area. The end result is that I almost never got bored, and found it hard to stop playing most nights.
The open areas are marvels of design, with multiple ways to get to and from each ledge, hill, and rope. The main draw of these areas is to scavenge for material you can use to upgrade your gear; secondary to me was the chance to find a hidden tomb; the last thing on my list was usually collectables, but damned if I didn’t get invested when I saw something I couldn’t quite reach. Most of these areas are usually visited twice, and tend to contain out-of-reach items you’ll need a gadget from the upcoming linear bit to finally obtain.
The combat is, in my opinion, an enormous step forward for games of this ilk thanks to two words: Auto. Cover. When you’re in an area with enemies nearby, any Lara approaches immediately becomes cover; move away from it, and Lara simply disengages and moves freely. Never again do expect to press a button for cover in an Uncharted game, only to take cover behind the wrong thing and then get stuck there as enemies use Drake for target practice.
Unfortunately, Tomb Raider does take a bad cue from its alternate-gender franchise: At the very climax of the game, it forgets to be an adventure-platformer with shooting elements and tries to be Gears of War. I don’t know what douche is infiltrating dev meetings at Naughty Dog and Crystal Dynamics, but his pitch is always the same: “Hey, right near the end, let’s throw double the number of enemies from any previous sections in there, only we’ll find arbitrary ways to make the environment cramped. Then let’s cap that off with a multi-stage boss fight involving quick-time events and waves of regular enemies.” I don’t know who you are, but if I ever find you, I’m going to discover your weak spot and deal damage until I can do something horrible to you once you’ve been downed. Three. Times. In. A. Row.
*Obvious Gripe Voice* This is an intense 3D platformer, where the platforms are occasionally falling, breaking, burning, or some other nonsense, and sometimes during these sections it becomes infuriatingly difficult to determine where the ^(@& I’m supposed to be jumping. *End O.G.V.*
The only other flaw comes in the lack of instruction concerning upgrading your weapons… or maybe my complaint is with modifying them? I don’t know, because the game won’t tell me. Essentially, one of them uses scrap to do standard upgrades, and one requires you to find parts scattered throughout the game to do a complete overhaul on your weapon. The latter of these two is so inconsistent – where you get the parts, how to tell if you have any parts, determining what parts you may have missed and need to go back for – that entire forums have sprung up about the topic. My honest suggestion is that you just kind of roll with things on your first playthrough, since the overhaul happens automatically at the next campfire once you have all the required parts. After you’ve finished, you can go back worry about any pieces you’re missing.
Body by Victoria
From a technical perspective, the game is fairly impressive. The graphics are crisp and consistent, and the environments are appropriately detailed and populated; some of the draw distances are fantastic, especially at times when you’re looking at something in the distance and thinking “I’m going to be there, soon.” I never noticed any real clipping, tearing, or what have you. The game does occasionally slow to a crawl while auto-saving, sometimes several times in a few minutes if you’re picking up lots of collectables in a small area. The sound is stellar, though the music, voices, and effects are sometimes balanced poorly; for some odd reason, sound effects and dialogue volume can’t be adjusted separately.
I did “enjoy” finding one massive technical flaw in the game, something which I can attest that others have encountered as well, but I’m going to save that for after my final score. For now, just know that it was game-breaking, for all intents and purposes. My sincere hope is that it has already been patched.
This isn’t twelve-year-old me’s Tomb Raider, that’s for damn sure; while Lara isn’t unattractive by any means, she spends the entire game so dirty, bloody, beaten, and exhausted that sexualizing her would take several long showers and at least two major surgeries. Though the writing of Lara’s rebirth as a “survivor” may not deliver, the gameplay delivers on almost every front, and definitely points toward the series having found better footing after years of clinging to the crumbling ledges of nostalgia. I can tell you this much: If the sequel can make the same leap that Uncharted took for Among Thieves, then Lara’s adventures can find me anytime.
TREY’S NERD RATING – 8.5
*Spoiler Alert* This section talks about a bug that concerns a late-game gear acquisition.
The bug I encountered is not uncommon; in fact, so many players have encountered it that there are numerous forums and videos dedicated to it already. No one seems to have found a clear pattern on how to avoid it; either it happens to you, or it doesn’t. In its current state, it is game-breaking, as the area you are in cannot be (easily) gotten out of, and reloading a save – or even rebooting the whole game – does nothing to solve it.
At one point, you find yourself on a derelict ship deck with no discernible way through; luckily for you, Lara has just acquired an item that allows her to pull heavy objects into new positions. The idea is that you find a weak spot in the deck, then use this gear to swing a crane holding cargo over the area. This lets you shoot the pulley on the crane and drop the cargo through the deck, allowing you to proceed.
If the glitch gets you, the animation for the crane swinging triggers, but the cargo remains in its original location in mid-air. When the crane reaches the spot above the deck, the pulley snaps, and you actually hear the sound effects that indicate the cargo has fallen through the weak point. The cargo hasn’t moved, though, and the placeholder graphics for the deck remain intact, barring your passage.
I spent half an hour trying to figure things out, and finally took to the web. What I eventually found was a video solution that made use of another glitch. I called the weak spot “placeholder graphics” because that’s exactly what they are, to the point where everything that’s not Lara herself – arrows, bullets, grenades, etc – can pass right through them. The solution I found involved positioning Lara at exactly the right spot between the deck and this placeholder. If you do it just right, she goes into her falling animation, because as far as the game is concerned she is falling. If you can keep her hovering there long enough, she slowly sinks past the placeholder and falls through to the corridor below. When you look back up, the deck appears broken, and you can climb freely between the two areas as intended.
I have numerous rants on this subject, but I condensed it to this: There’s no way this got past QA, which means that they caught it, but the underlying issues were too big to try and fix without delaying launch. Instead, the team released an unusually large (23 MB!) day-one patch to try and fix the problem.
But what about people who don’t have the internet on their console; while I know I’m usually not a big supporter of that group, this annoys me on their behalf for some reason. Probably because I do have internet, and got the patch, and still got screwed. What if I had been playing more frequently those first days after launch, before the issue became well-documented online? I would have had to restart my whole playthrough, and just crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t happen again.
In the end, the glitch genuinely did not affect my final score, which is a testament to how much fun the rest of the game was.
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