Tomb Raider Review
Lara Croft is an iconic video game character. However, that iconic stature doesn't come without a little wink and a sly grin. After all, Lara is one of the very first true mainstream sex symbols in the industry's history and admittedly, her physical attributes are more often lauded than the games in which she stars. As such, this is a character that has always been closer to a cartoon or a caricature. The difference with this reboot is that for the first time in her storied legacy, Ms. Croft finally appears as a realistic female, with realistic vulnerabilities and emotions. And that's what very nearly puts this title in elite company.
The graphics may not be the game's strongest suit, as we've seen better technical examples in the past. The character designs and animations are great but perhaps not stellar when compared to other offerings in similar genres, and the detailing isn't overly impressive. That being said, it's the entire package that stands out. It isn't just one little detail here and there; it's the fact that this environment is extremely well crafted and every aspect of your surroundings feels immersive. This is a fully cohesive visual presentation that is diverse and engaging, and you're always interested in exploring this extremely well created island. Appropriately intimidating, the island of Yamatai is indeed memorable.
The sound design excels in the realm of special effects and music, and many of the voice performances are well above average. Camilla Luddington is fantastic as Lara, too, by the way. Every crack from a firearm, every explosion, and every high-octane set piece vibrates and reverberates with professional crispness. There's a solid balancing between the effects and the score, and that soundtrack swells and diminishes to fit the on-screen action. Much like the visuals, the audio works to involve the player in every element of this adventure, which is no easy feat. Finally, the ambient effects during the slower portions of the game are much appreciated.
As you may already know, the Tomb Raider reboot is a prequel. It shows us how Lara became Lara, essentially, and you'll soon find that her initiation is the epitome of "trial by fire." At the beginning, Lara is more of the bookish sort. Although she is obviously a healthy and very fit young woman, her focus and skills tend to lie on the intellectual side of life. But when her ship sinks just off the coast of a dark, unknown island laden with dangerous legends come to life and freaky natives, Lara must learn how to survive. Fast. You may recall that scene where a man tries to force himself sexually on Lara (it was part of a controversial trailer), but that is done tastefully.
This is about survival. This is about putting a woman in a ridiculously dangerous situation and expecting her to somehow adapt on the fly. The best part about this is that, much like Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series, the protagonist here isn't a superhero. Perhaps she's stronger and more agile than most women, but she's still human. This is what makes this adventure so appealing on so many levels, because although the developers don't quite explore this fragility aspect enough, it does shine through. And that leaves us on the edge of our seat. Personally, I rarely feel this sense of responsibility when controlling a character; i.e., if she dies, you kinda feel it in your gut. That means the designers did something right.
Here, I'd like to bring up something unexpected; what may be perceived as an odd movie reference. But I compare this transformation of Lara to what I saw in some of the females in the horror film, "The Descent." Much like Lara, they are young, healthy and fit, but they are not accustomed to survival. In order to survive, they must actually become animal-like and embrace a kill-or-be-killed mentality. It's a frightening and often uncomfortable transition, and that's precisely what I saw in Tomb Raider. Towards the end, when Lara is screaming and doling out large amounts of pain, you realize she has become...something else.
The control is solid and reliable and the combat is well-constructed and even intoxicating. You may also have questions about the hunting you've seen in previews; it's not all that well developed but at least that wildlife adds to the dynamic nature of the environment. Hunting can also be entertaining and acts as a prelude to the faster-paced fighting later on. You'll learn how to use a bow initially and then you'll graduate to handguns, rifles and shotguns. There are even some cool stealth sections that allow Lara to sneak about and perform stealth kills from the shadows. Best of all, the pacing and variety is just about right: As soon as you start to get your fill of one section, another very different gameplay section arises.
To top it all off, Lara becomes a well-rounded combatant. She is capable with her weapons (which she can switch between on the fly) but she can also handle herself when a foe gets too close. And by the time Lara gains access to special arrows and super weapons like rocket launchers, she will have morphed into an absolute fighting machine. Then you factor in some of the platforming and environmental aspects in the gameplay, and you've got a continually involving adventure that keeps you riveted throughout. So for the most part, this is a fantastic game that hits all the right notes; if it weren't for a few small problems, I'd say this is easily a 9+ game. But let me be clear as to why it falls just shy.
Firstly, the multiplayer is just plain lackluster. It works fine but the four modes are nothing special and in general, it feels more tacked on than anything. Whenever this happens, I wonder why the developers even added the option; I'm aware that everyone thinks online multiplayer is a necessity these days, but it really isn't. Secondly, as I mentioned briefly above, more could've been done with this story. It really does portray Lara in a light that most women would appreciate and even applaud, but the writers don't take it far enough. Thirdly and lastly, I miss the heavier focus on puzzles, which have always been a major part of this franchise. I would've preferred to see Lara's obviously capable mind get tested more often.
I also think the transformation for this character happens too quickly and too easily. Still, I have to accept that this might be necessary; the campaign is plenty long enough to be satisfying and let's face it, this is an action/adventure game at its core. Hence, an in-depth and highly intelligent script might be pushing it. You could lose your target audience. Besides, you're always so captivated by what's going on that you often want to keep playing, even if it's at the expense of a more fleshed-out plot. Character development is a tricky thing and despite my reservations here, it's obvious that this is a big step in the right direction. I doubt any would deny that.
Tomb Raider is a triumph in many respects. It's exactly what this franchise needed: A modern-day wake-up call that revamps an outdated character and gives us a role model of whom this industry can be proud. Our pride - however misplaced it may have been before - no longer resides in Lara Croft's chest. The setting is excellent, the character's transformation is emotional and effective, the control and combat is rock solid, and the pacing and variety is top-notch. They could've done more with the ideas they present and the multiplayer is lacking but beyond that, this one is a can't-miss for all serious gamers out there.
The Good: Great, gripping environment. Top-notch effects and good voice performances. Responsive, reliable control. Excellent pacing and variety. Immersion is almost unparalleled. Lara Croft's very human revamp is refreshing and praise-worthy.
The Bad: Multiplayer doesn't do anything special. More could've been done with the intriguing storyline.
The Ugly: "No 'ugly' here, besides some of the nasty brutes Lara must face."
3/5/2013 Ben Dutka