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Tomb Raider (PlayStation 3) artwork

Tomb Raider (PlayStation 3) review

"It’s impressive to see Tomb Raider go from setting up frightening encounters with wolves, to getting your blood pumping right before a shoot out, to giving your trigger-finger a break and making you get cerebral with a puzzle or two."

Whoa. This is the one word I most associate with Tomb Raider: A Survivor is Born. Whoa, a wolf just jumped out at me from the bushes. Whoa, is Lara going to make that next jump? Whoa, that looks painful. And the biggest one—whoa, I’m actually enjoying this.

I was skeptical about anyone’s ability to breath life into the dead Tomb Raider franchise, a franchise whose core focus on the sex appeal of its main character isn’t even socially relevant anymore, and whose main gimmick of vertical exploration has been far outdone by such series as Uncharted and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Yet, with an emphasis on details, atmosphere, and pacing, this reboot of Lara Croft grabbed my attention and held on until the ending credits.

The reboot takes obvious inspiration from the television series Lost, beginning with Lara and a ship full of people hitting a storm and crashing on a mysterious island. Soon they discover there are “Others” on the island, who worship an ancient and mysterious Goddess. Lara then has to endure her own people disappearing, struggle to gain the trust of the survivors, climb into an abandoned plane, bring a makeshift transmitter to a radio tower and send out a distress signa—okay, so Tomb Raider doesn’t so much borrow from Lost as it does blatantly steal from it, but that’s okay in my book, because it’s the only good Lost game we’re ever going to get.

Tomb Raider asset

Unlike Lost, the mystery here is pretty obvious from the start. Most gamers will probably have figured out the villain’s plot long before Lara does and be left scratching their heads when she dramatically “reveals” what’s going on in the final chapter. But it’s a very small hitch. Where Tomb Raider falls short (no pun intended) in delivering an interesting plotline, it does succeed in developing Lara Croft’s character in an emotionally satisfying way. Over the course of the game, Lara distinctly changes, going from an unsure young girl who has never borne the responsibility of leadership to a survivor who won’t compromise when it comes to doing what she believes is the right thing. A lot of attention was given to the details, here. No major action in the game occurs without the player getting to check in with how it’s affecting Lara, and her reactions are never at odds with what the player is feeling. For instance, though Lara has a hysterical reaction to her first kill—it is an intense scene following a harrowing stealth section which will have most gamers on the edge of their seats—you can’t expect gamers to realistically feel upset over the next hundred kills the game will require of them. Appropriately, after her third or fourth kill, Lara is asked by someone how she is handling being a murderer.

“It’s frightening how easy it is,” she says.

The game developers found a way to consistently make things worse for Lara, and make them worse in a primal way that was very disturbing. Just little things, like the simple act of seeing Lara shivering with cold, are placed at the exact right moments to have a huge effect on the player. And every time Lara finds herself emotionally or physically damaged, it doesn’t feel contrived: it feels destabilizing. Perhaps this is why I like the beginning of the game better than the ending: the beginning represents the most struggle for Lara, where she has the most obstacles to overcome and the most change to go through. This is a Lara who is learning the rules of the game along with the player, and that’s where I felt the most connection. By the end of the game, she has hardened and feels less differentiated from other video game heroes. Regardless, the end result is that anyone who was nervous about Lara being just another female vehicle for fan service or a damsel in distress (with the player as her savior) will be impressed by the amount of depth she’s been given and how humanized she is—including her bust, it’s normal size. Maybe a little perky, but I think that’s mostly because she spends a lot of time breathing rapidly after near-death encounters.

Details are one of the things which make Tomb Raider a successful experience, and nowhere is this detailing more evident than in the environment. There’s this point where you first get to realize just how large the island you’re on is and you start to feel like you are wandering around a substantial sandbox environment. This is an illusion. The island is hardly the size of even an older Grand Theft Auto title and nowhere near the size of Skyrim. However, the illusion works simply because every area has been given intimate attention. No two places are the same, which makes things feel infinitely bigger than those other titles I’ve mentioned. Actually, the game I was most reminded of while playing was Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. The same amount of care has been taken here, so that every corner of the island feels new and interesting and nowhere can you ever point and cry CTR+V.

Of course, I love that this environment is packed with things to find and challenges to complete. It reminds me of the old days of 3D exploration games, like Banjo Kazooie, Super Mario 64, or Gex: Enter the Gecko; because you wanted to explore every corner of those worlds, not just to see what was there, but because the game gave you active reasons to do so. Exploring in Tomb Raider is fun; not least of all because you often have to use your brain, rather than just your controller, to figure out how the heck to get Lara up to that relic or across that fallen bridge; also because you often get rewarded for your efforts with more of the back story of the island and the characters.

You have some tools to help you find this stuff. The most useful is survivor instinct. This is a little bit like Batman’s detective mode in Arkham Asylum. Hitting the L2 button makes the world go grey, with objects of interest lighting up; whether they be object you can climb on or hidden relics and treasures. The difference is that the mode only lasts until you move. This solves the problem Batman had, where he was encouraged to go through his entire beautifully rendered adventure in ugly, textureless x-ray mode. The fact that movement disrupts survivor instinct keeps it in the category of a useful tool, rather than a filter that gets placed over the entire game. Maps are also available to help find most of the items, but for the truly adventurous, you can go for the unmarked challenges. These are things like finding ten mushrooms, or shooting down twenty skull necklaces from the trees. To find these you pretty much have to explore every corner of an area, stopping very often to pull up your survivor’s instinct and see if anything glows golden. Players who complete these challenges will truly have explored all of Tomb Raider.

Tomb Raider asset

While exploration represents the highest design achievement of Tomb Raider, there are a few other areas a sequel could improve on. For one thing, in the next Tomb Raider I’d like to raid more, you know, tombs. Lara spends the majority of this game outside. The tombs here are relegated to special puzzle rooms where all of the game’s physics and timing comes into play. I don’t want to give away any solutions, because they are genuinely enjoyable to figure out, but I will say that this is where Tomb Raider feels the most like the games of old. There, the point was often to set in motion a series of chain reactions that opened up new areas to explore, or granted access to treasure. These Raiders of the Lost Ark style scenes were the heart-and-soul of the old adventures, and maybe the one aspect of them that shouldn’t be forgotten as the series reboots.

Along the same lines, in future installments I’d prefer to be pitted more often against the environment and less often against human opponents with guns. While I’m glad Tomb Raider has evolved from being an awkward platformer, I’m not entirely sure it should fully embrace the third person shooter route. After all, we’ve seen that play out in titles like Uncharted. Shooters get repetitive and their staying power lasts only as long as their enemies and situations remain diverse. Tomb Raider enters this arena with an already recognizable set of baddies—from the standard guys with automatics to the guys holding riot shields who approach slowly to flush you out of cover—and relies more on dynamic set pieces to carry the weight of the entertainment. Lara’s weapon set is also extremely limited, being made up entirely of four weapons, only one of which—the bow—feels like it adds anything blatantly new to the genre. It is immensely satisfying to pull off a difficult arrow shot and see a bad guy go down, clutching at the sudden protrusion from their throat.

I’m not necessarily complaining about how Tomb Raider has handled the third person action: the cover system is so smooth here that I didn’t even think about it half the time (the game knew when I wanted to be in cover and, more importantly, when I should be in cover), the gunplay is hectic and varied, winning against a large horde requires constant movement and improvisation, and you are encouraged to make use of Lara’s climbing skills in the middle of combat to get an advantage on enemies. In fact, the only truly mediocre combative segments of the game are the lackluster boss fights, the majority of which rely almost entirely on quicktime events. One boss was so immemorable that I didn’t even realize I’d killed a major character until the NPCs started talking about it.

Even so, the combat cannot help but get repetitive by the end, and it is because we've seen it all before. Maybe not this smoothly, but still we've been there and done that. By contrast, one of my favorite moments of Tomb Raider was in the beginning, when Lara is pitted against a pack of ravenous wolves. They were large, mean, and generally scary. You didn’t fight them in a cover-to-cover shoot out, but mostly by running away until you could desperately scramble to a place they couldn’t reach you, and then pick them off with the bow. It was an intense and frightening encounter. Unfortunately, you only fight the wolves a mere handful of times—less then the fingers on one hand—and there’s no other animals that Lara pits herself against (aside from the kind that run in terror from her mad bow skillz and whose supposed role as food for Lara was woefully underutilized). I would’ve liked to have seen more enemies like the wolves, which introduced a lot of atmosphere and intense pacing into the more generic gunfight.

And that’s a good note to end on, because atmosphere and pacing are the key words of Tomb Raider. For most of the game, Tomb Raider will read your mind and know exactly when there’s been enough drama and hand over some good ol’ fashioned shooting. In turn, it is very careful about when to break that off and feed a player more atmosphere and more story. It’s impressive to see it go from setting up frightening encounters with wolves, to getting your blood pumping right before a shoot out, to giving your trigger-finger a break and making you get cerebral with a puzzle or two. It’s amazing the difference good pacing makes between a game like this and, for instance, Max Payne 3. Both had fantastic graphics and smooth controls, but Tomb Raider is more fun because it is paced out so much better. In Max Payne, I got worn out. Tomb Raider’s pacing is so good that there’s never an easy place to stop. My few complaints here are concerns for the future, rather than problems with what is here now. Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix have clearly picked up the ball that was dropped so long ago; I just don’t want to see that ball dropped again.

And for the first time in a long time, I have hope that maybe it won’t be.

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (March 10, 2013)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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