Scott’s Review: Tomb Raider

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OK if you follow us here at Nerd Rating on a normal basis (and why wouldn’t you?) you should know how excited we were to finally get our hands on [amazon_link id=”B00A7QA0XE” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Tomb Raider[/amazon_link]. I have been posting every bit of news, trailers, survival guides, any piece I could get my hands on to get you just as excited. The game has been on everyone’s radar since E3 2011 when Crystal Dynamics showed off the first bit of gameplay and wowed everyone on the floor. The team decided to take Lara back to the beginning and show exactly how she became the dual pistol toting, short short wearing adventurer that we first went gaga over back in 1996.

Did they succeed in bringing Lara back to the forefront of gaming? Let’s take a look and see.

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I’m just a girl, in the world.

You are thrust into the story of Tomb Raider much quicker than you might think. Just as you are getting used to seeing this new, younger Lara and her shipmates there is a massive storm and you are washed up on shore after your ship has been broken apart at sea. You find yourself knocked out by someone and regain consciousness hanging upside down in a cave surrounded by dead bodies and a creepy “it puts the lotion on it’s skin” vibe from your surroundings. After freeing yourself, you immediately feel a sense of helplessness that is quite new from most games. You are not a raging badass marine or an ex-con with a load of weapons, you are a scared young woman with not a knife, or hell, even a rock in your possession.

It is in the beginning parts of Tomb Raider that Crystal Dynamics takes some of the biggest chances. For the first hour or so it is a mixture of learning basic controls and quick time events. Now don’t let the dreaded QTE get you down. This is all done with the express intent to have you more involved in Lara’s dire circumstances on the island and happen far less as you get into the real meat of the gameplay and gunplay. Even when you begin brandishing your first piece of weaponry, a bow stolen off of a rotting corpse, you still have this overall feeling of impotence against what the island has in store for you. It may be weird to read this, but I rather enjoyed this part of Tomb Raider. Hoping my torch would not go out from running water in a cramped, claustrophobic cave of hearing the howl of a pack of wolves that are coming is the way more games should handle the beginning hours of a hero’s story.

Now if you have read more than one review about Tomb Raider then this is going sound very familiar, but it is probably because it is one of the major trip ups of the game. Over the first hour or two of the game you are introduced to a very human Lara. She shows sadness in her face the first time she has to kill a deer in order to eat on the island. When it finally comes time in having to choose between being (possibly) sexually assaulted and killed or taking a life, it is handled in such a meaningful and dramatic way that you really feel that this game can do no wrong.

And then it does wrong.

There is no easing Lara into the process of killing. Once she has evacuated the first man’s head of brain matter, the game thrusts you into the role of killing machine that we are used to. It takes all the previous good works and says “fu** it, here is your action”. But even in one of Tomb Raider’s biggest slip ups, it finds one of its greatest attributes. When you begin to carry pistols, shoguns and more, the controls and gunplay are superb. I did find the quick transition into human grind machine very stark and contrast to the beginning of the game, but dammit if I did not have fun with what the game was throwing at me. As a man who loves Uncharted and will until the day I leave this mortal coil, I can truly say that these controls are what Nathan Drake should only hope to be. I hope Naughty Dog is taking notes off of this because this will be on the Uncharted 4 test. Lara moves with such ease and fluidity. There is no need for a cover button because the game’s auto cover system actually…..get this….WORKS! She naturally takes cover when close to nearby threats and can run out without having to worry about getting stuck to environments or going behind the wrong wall. Whoever at Crystal Dynamics designed this deserves a raise and a nice big cookie because this should be used by every adventure game from here on out.

Beyond that, Lara’s movements around the rest of the island feel natural. Platforming is just freaking fun especially with the verticality of the levels. The level design lends itself to multiple paths in which to avoid enemies or give two or three different options on how to take them on. Running, jumping, using the climbing ax to ascend and descend rock faces, making rope bridges to climb over gaps and so much more are available to help Lara discover all of what the island has to offer and it all just plain works. I can not applaud the controls enough.

The island is not exactly open-world, but it takes the Arkham Asylum approach to make it feel like the massive levels all interconnect together to create an open-world game. Every open area has its own section on the overall island map and holds its own litany of collectibles to be found and tombs to be raided. There are diaries of various characters that will open up the story, GPS caches scattered throughout and various artifacts to be discovered. All of these are basically here to serve two purposes: to get you more XP so you can upgrade Lara’s abilities and weapon uses and to completely piss off OCD gamers, like myself, that need to see a 100% completion number by your game save.

Lara’s upgrade system is not going to set the game world on fire with how unique it is, but it gets the job done. Most of her abilities are what we have seen in every game such as taking less damage from falls and stealth kills. There is a good reason to upgrade all of these because you are awarded a different melee kill with every weapon you have equipped. When an enemy attacks and you dodge, you are given a small window to hit the Y button and incapacitate your opponent then they are at your mercy for a brutal, bloody kill.

The weapon upgrade system is a mixture of unneeded fluff and useful tools. While I don’t really care about putting a silencer on my pistol when I am going in guns blazing, I do have to upgrade my bow parts to be able to make rope bridges and attach a grenade launcher to my assault rifle to blast into new areas. Tomb Raider has mixed the fluff and needed together well enough so you don’t feel like you are simply wasting your time upgrading most weapons. Realistically there is a point you can stop when you unlock all the new ways to get to previous areas, but I was already engrossed with getting the achievement points that there was no reason to stop there.

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 Lara and the smoke monster

Tomb Raider creates such an entertaining locale with the island that it is a bit of a down note to say that the story is not up to par with the rest of the production. When Lara’s adventure begins there is any number of directions that the story could have gone. But you realize all too soon that she is the only fully developed character in the game. The rest of the people are a veritable who’s who of video game cliches. As I think back on the game, I am trying to remember any of the names of Lara’s shipwrecked crew that I spent the game trying to save and I can only think of one and that is just because she may have had lesbian feelings for Lara and well…I am a guy. Survival is your main motivation, but don’t expect much in the way of caring about your group enough to rescue them. Honestly I am glad, for their sake, that it wasn’t a choice like at the end of Far Cry 3 because I would be the only one getting out alive.

When you become aware of the “twist” in Tomb Raider’s story it is a big disappointment. Guess what?? It’s supernatural!! If Uncharted had not already blew my dick off with that back in 2006 then I would be agape with surprise. There were so many more places to take this story, especially with the great and noticeable nods to TV shows like LOST and movies like The Descent. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t make your way through Tomb raider rolling your eyes or anything, but you are not going to tell people to pay 60 bucks for its story either. It is just a shame that they spent so much time making Lara such a real and relatable protagonist that it is doing her a disservice by surrounding her with a forgettable secondary cast of characters and a hokey story that has been done before (and in Uncharted’s case, better).

Don’t get me wrong, when Tomb Raider does something right, it does it very right. The game is visually stunning and really should be at the forefront of any argument as to why this current generation still has a lot of life left in it. There were times going back through the game to find all the collectibles that I would stop for a moment and appreciate just how much work went into making this game a realization. The story does leave something to be desired, but that is why we have that wonderful word: sequel. Crystal Dynamics has crafted a game that is a solid stepping stone for a new Lara Croft that will hopefully yield greater results in the future. Gameplay is as smooth as any action game and the upgrade system is more than serviceable. If Crystal Dynamics can get Lara a better cast of characters and a stronger story then there is no telling just how great the next Tomb Raider game could be.

Welcome back Ms. Croft. You are a survivor.

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