Tomb Raider
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 2-8 online multiplayer
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Spanning the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, PC, Mac, Dreamcast, Gameboy Advance, PS2, Gamecube, Xbox, Wii, PSP, DS right up to today’s PS3 and Xbox 360 this is what by my reckoning is at least the 10th major home console outing for Ms. Croft. This is an “origin” story that shows us how Lara came to be the tough, “never say die” adventurer that we all know and love. The adventure is set on the mysterious island of Yamatai, a beautiful yet storm-struck volcanic island in a hostile area known as the Dragon’s Triangle, thought to be home to the legendary shaman Sun Queen Himiko, who it was believed, had immense mystical powers... It’s an exciting if slightly unlikely story written by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Discworld author Terry) that will undoubtedly keep you playing until the spectacular, supernatural end.

From the first moments, the weather effects, wind, rain, flowing water and wave effects in the ocean are simply stunning. The smoke, flames and explosions will have you gasping, coughing, shying away from them and ducking for cover. Simply put, Tomb Raider is one of, if not the best looking game of the generation, and brings to life a rich, organic and immersive world without displaying horizontal tearing or frame rate jitters. Unlike a lot of games, cut-scenes use the game engine and seamlessly lead in to gameplay-often so smoothly that I found myself sitting there waiting for something to happen, not realising that I was now in control...

Perhaps surprisingly in a game with so much ducking, diving and cover shooting you don’t have a ‘cover’ or ‘crouch’ button for Lara, instead she does it all contextually. If, like I did, you doubt this can work then you’ll be pleasantly surprised the first time you get pinned down and outnumbered by a band of machine gun firing, Molotov and dynamite-throwing enemies and come out on top. This ‘loose’ cover mode works superbly, and developers of games like Halo, Call of Duty and even Gears of War (with its ‘sticky’ cover mode) need to look at it. Move up behind an object when in combat and she’ll crouch behind it, smoothly letting you pop out to shoot by holding’ L1’ (PS3) or the ‘L trigger’ (Xbox 360). Lara performs so well during combat and some situations are so much fun and have so many possibilities that I found myself pressing ‘Start’ and resetting back to the last checkpoint so I could play a shootout again, and I can count the number of games that I’ve done that with on the fingers of one foot. During normal exploration Lara also crouches automatically to get through low tunnels and picks up all the ammo she can when you press the action button, unlike the recent Aliens Colonial Marines that drove me mad with its finicky pick-up mechanic.

Like seemingly every other game on the planet Tomb Raider now has an RPG-like levelling system and XP is gained for collecting pickups and performing certain actions. Every time you level up you also get a “skill point” to enhance Lara’s abilities. Salvage can be found in crates and on downed enemies-bizarrely, even on hunted animals-and can be used to upgrade weapons. I’m not sure Tomb Raider needed this; it adds a good deal of faffing about but also gets you searching every nook and cranny of the various stunning locations. Personally I’d have been just as happy to have to complete a certain tomb or trial in order to upgrade Lara’s abilities, and wouldn’t have minded one bit if I’d just stumbled across a new, better weapon-perhaps dropped by a downed enemy-rather than the system used, which would have you believe that a posh 21 year-old girl could save bits of junk and somehow botch up her existing weapons to enhance them. Having said that, when Lara fixes the lighter to the bow (to make flame arrows) or straps the grenade launcher to the rifle (to basically give it a secondary fire mode), you’ll get the same sort of “THAT’S SO FLIPPIN’ COOL” emotion as when Ripley tapes the flamethrower to her pulse rifle in the movie Aliens...

The Tomb Raider franchise has never been too ecologically correct, and Lara seemed to kill endangered species here there and everywhere during her early adventures. Hunting (deer, rabbits, crab, rats and various birds) is a part of the game here, and although after the first kill it’s an entirely optional way of earning XP and salvage, it soon becomes second nature to shoot anything that moves. Lara’s first kill is compulsory, and there’s a truly raw (pun intended) scene when Lara has to kill a deer for meat to survive, which will probably go unnoticed by the desensitised masses, but it’s an emotional moment in a game full of brutal, gory violence and countless moments of extreme peril for our heroine. For some reason, despite the events of the game’s plot seeming to last for several days, Lara never actually has to kill for food again though, which seems odd.

The Tomb Raider games have never been scared of letting you kill Lara in a number of horrible bone-crunching and painful-looking ways, but this game is brutal; impalements, beatings, high falls, shootings, crushings, stabbings-you name it and it happens to Lara during this game. But fear not, checkpoints are generous so you rarely have to retread previously played areas, and Lara can survive all this and dish out a remarkable amount of punishment to the numerous Solarii henchmen that mean her harm. Lara finds a bow and arrows early in the game, and although she later finds a pistol, a rifle and a shotgun, the bow is frequently the best option. The bow has excellent range, is very accurate and can also be upgraded to use flame arrows and the rope arrow, which allows you to set up zip lines in various places and open previously blocked doors. As I mentioned earlier all the weapons can be upgraded and the shotgun can fire incendiary shells to add to the damage. The aiming is smooth and accurate, and the weapons all feel right, the bow in particular as you can ping off a quick shot just by pressing the trigger (R1on PS3 or the “R trigger” on 360) or by holding it to stretch the bow then releasing it for a more powerful shot. I’m delighted to report that there are no classic third-person aiming issues either; if the aiming reticle is pointing at something then your shot will hit it, unlike just about every other TPS out there. The ability to aim carefully is even aided by a shoulder swap (L3 click) that moves Lara to the other side of the picture, so moving stealthily and peering round corners is always possible.

Lara’s “survivor instincts” (mapped to ‘L2’ on the PS3 and ‘LB’ on the 360) work in a similar way to Agent 47’s in the recent Hitman Absolution game; they drain the picture of colour and make useful things glow, even allowing her to see useable items and collectible objects through walls once it’s been enhanced with skill points.

Most of the gameplay is free moving exploration interspersed with shootouts or sneaking sections; the tactical choice is usually up to you, but there are also QTEs (Quick Time Events) placed throughout the game, these are basically pre-rendered sequences where the outcome is determined by whether you press a button or wiggle the left stick at the right time. Lara’s optional mêlée attacks can also be enhanced by timely presses of ‘triangle’ and ‘circle’ (PS3) and ‘Y’ and ‘B’ (360). There are a few other sequences that borrow heavily from the Uncharted games and see you fleeing into or out of the screen from a collapsing building or some similar peril. Perhaps surprisingly wolves (usually in pairs) are the most dangerous creatures on the island, and this may be hard for the TR faithful used to fighting lions, tigers, bears, mutants, sharks, crocodiles, mummies, sea serpents, giant octopus and of course, the odd T.Rex. They are however, a scary enough thing to encounter, especially as this usually happens at night.

The new rebooted Lara looks great, the all-new character model is an attractive, if not stunning girl, and she’s beautifully animated and controls accurately and smoothly. Even when you’re not making her, she moves constantly and looks around like she’s a living, alert character. Other nice touches are that she puts her weapons away when she should, and strains with the effort of opening certain huge treasure chest lids. The only grumbles I’d have is that she doesn’t look wet or even drip when she comes out of water, and there’s also no swimming or underwater diving in the game, which is a real surprise in a game with so much damned water in it (and good looking water at that!) I’d like to ask the level designers, what happened to the swimming/diving levels that have been a ubiquitous part of every Tomb Raider game until now?

I read reports that the game has been criticised for being misogynistic, and I’d like to say categorically here that that’s a load of bollocks. A scene in which our heroine has a close encounter with a band of scavengers and is captured and bound has been inaccurately described and overblown into an “attempted rape scene.” There’s plenty of threat perceived in this sequence but far from being a male voyeur’s wet dream, this is the moment Lara becomes a survivor, and fights viciously back, kneeing her attacker in the family jewels, biting him and then, in a thrilling life or death struggle, turning his gun on him and blowing his head off! Does that sound disrespectful of women to you? It’s an intense, emotional turning point for the young Lara (and the old me), and after that she doesn’t hesitate to kill anything or anyone in her way.

In fact, just to be paradoxical, talking of Lara’s sexuality, I’d like to know why we never see Lara change clothes, despite more than a few opportunities to do so. She wears the same grimy cotton vest and jeans throughout; as she gets cut, bruised, scraped and stabbed they get covered in a mixture of blood, mud, grime and God-knows-what else, and although there are 3 premium downloadable outfits (Hunter, Aviatrix and Guerilla) they’re not very interesting. How about letting us run her around the beach in a bikini, or giving her a warm jacket for the mountainous sections? This might sound sad and read like a complete contradiction to the last paragraph, but I’ve been playing with this girl/woman since 1996 and have seen her in everything from her classic blue vest and shorts to an evening gown, a skin-tight cat suit and yes, even a bikini. The point here is that while Lara’s inexperience, self-doubt and angst is put well to the fore, if anything her sexuality is downplayed, and apart from that moment of menace from a Russian scavenger and a couple of down-cleavage shots we don’t really get a lot to ogle at, which, in the first ever 18-rated Tomb Raider, is disappointing for this particular Lara fan. The 18 certificate is for the gory way in which Lara kills and gets killed, and as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of genuinely nasty ways to die-and kill-throughout the adventure.

The voice acting is a bit of a mixture, Camilla Luddington does a decent job of Lara but some of the others are a bit wooden. The action is accompanied by some good, but forgettable orchestral music, that rises as the action intensifies. The trouble is that it could be from any game or action movie and this is a shame considering how memorable the recurring theme from the first few Tomb Raiders still is after all these years.

The new Tomb Raider may not have that many tombs to raid, but it does have a massive amount of verticality, and this means a lot of climbing. Some climbs are simplified to the point where all you have to do is push the left stick ‘up’, others will have you scratching your head as to where to go next. Lara’s instincts will usually reveal the answer, and at times make the game a bit too easy for my liking.

The game is beautiful throughout, even yucky bits like caverns running in blood and strewn with skeletons look amazing. As for the tomb raiding itself, well it does seem a little dumbed-down; there are some neat physics-based puzzles, but no tombs to hold a candle to classics like St. Francis Folly or the Cistern for complexity or the ‘wow’ factor of that moment when Lara walked out on top of the Sphinx. Having said that, the quality of the graphics, the game engine, sound and music do such a good job of immersing you that there were moments when I was emotionally involved enough to be slightly choked and genuinely relieved that I’d managed to get Lara through another dangerous situation and extremely glad to emerge from some of the nastier environments on the strange island of Yamatai.

Multiplayer
Unlike a lot of gamers, reviewers, developers and publishers us lot at Gamecell don't actually think multiplayer is vital to a Triple-A game, and some high-profile games could definitely have benefited from sticking their tacked-on multiplayer modes in the bin, and concentrating on the solo campaign story a bit more. Uncharted 3 made it clear that a game mainly seen as a solo experience could supply a high class multiplayer experience without compromising the solo campaign’s quality; thankfully Tomb Raider’s solo game is excellent and the bow and gunplay works superbly, but would it transfer successfully to an online arena setting and would the multiplayer mode be worth all the work?

In the multiplayer mode you can either play as a Survivor of the wreck, or one of the Solarii. There are 5 maps themed on locations from the solo campaign; Beach, Shrine, Chasm, Underground and Monastery. Game modes are Rescue (one team must attempt to recover medical supplies while the other must kill with melee attacks), Team Deathmatch (all-out killfest, highest score wins), Cry For Help (survivors try to activate radio transmitters while keeping the Solarii from stealing the batteries), and Free For All (get a kill streak without dying to become the Executioner.) The 5 maps are a small but superbly designed collection, all have a dynamic feel to them with plenty of destructible scenery, exploding barrels etc. Although there is no single player DLC planned there’s a multiplayer DLC map pack called “Caves and Cliffs” already available. The three maps (Shantytown Cliffs, Scavenger Caverns and Burning Village) all closely resemble settings from the solo game and promote team play.

As in the solo adventure, you level up with XP and there’s collectible salvage in crates spread around the maps which is used to upgrade weapons, and thankfully there’s plenty of time between rounds to do so. As well as upgrading weapons and passive abilities you can also choose a tertiary “drop” weapon such as land mines or a boobytrapped ammo box. In the maps there are also snare traps, impaling traps, explosives and lightning rods (when set lightning will strike these and frazzle enemies) dotted around.

The game plays extremely well, like most new multiplayer games it took a bit of getting used to, and it plays a lot like Uncharted 3’s multiplayer, only with more complex and dynamic maps. There are a couple of notable changes to the controls in multiplayer; Crouching isn’t automatic anymore, it’s mapped to ‘R3’ (the right stick click), shoulder swap isn’t as effective and only works while aiming down the sights, and ‘circle’/’B’ gives you a limited sprint. After just planning to try each game mode and every map I found myself 2 hours or more later completely hooked, at level 15 and wanting more, and having added a couple of new friends that I’d been chatting to and teaming up with too. They’ve even thought about those things that annoy real gamers, like the other team dropping out when they’re getting beat, and if the other team quits out you get the win (and the XP) by default – it’s a shame all games don’t do this. The vast majority of people who buy TR won’t be buying it for the multiplayer, but it’s so user-friendly and playable, it’s definitely worth a go.

Unfortunately I have to report that the multiplayer game froze on the loading screen once, and I also had an inexplicable “connectivity lost due to inactivity” message pop up at the same point once. Inactivity? EH? What are you supposed to do when you’re sitting there thinking the game is loading a new multiplayer game, get up and dance around the lounge? Then I also discovered that my rank had been reset to 1, which is obviously infuriating! I’m told CD are working on a fix, and although your kills/deaths remain on the online leaderboard in my experience I’d say it’s unlikely anyone will get their XP, unlocked characters, salvage or rank back. Fortunately the game is so much fun (and you rank up relatively quickly) that most people have just jumped back in, many regaining or surpassing their previously obtained levels already.

Gripes, well I had to think hard so that’s a good sign. Apart from the online ranking glitch there really is little to complain about. Lara (or her weapon) clips into the scenery when close to a wall and I know it’s a common occurrence but I long for the day when this doesn’t happen anymore, it’s such an immersion-sapping thing to happen in any game. There were few instances of pop-up but when they do happen, they really grate because the game looks good for the other 99.99% of the time. There’s another minor glitch when Lara jumps onto an object she can’t stand on top of, and slides around like she’s surfing until she falls off. We also had an occasion when all the bad guys in an area left their torches hanging in mid air, long after they were dead! In addition we’ve also had Lara burn to death when the flames from an enemy’s Molotov have disappeared, which is a very confusing way to die. I was also surprised to see that there’s no splash when things drop into water, another odd omission as this happens frequently.

Overall then, an absorbing and spectacular game, truly worthy of a gaming icon like Lara Croft. You feel protective of her youthful vulnerability and uncertainty at the start, and emotionally involved as she flourishes and grows into the empowered survivor we all know and love. Games don’t come much better than this, and it’s probably worthy of a 10/10 score even without the multiplayer mode, but even with the ranking glitch (which is sure to be fixed) it’s a welcome extra that confirms Tomb Raider as one of the games of the year.


Best Bits

- Perfect blend of action and exploration
- Beautiful to look at, even the nasty bits
- A great relaunch for an enduring heroine.
- Surprisingly good multiplayer
Worst Bits

- No swimming, diving or vehicles.
- The girl needs more tombs, puzzles and outfits!
- Multiplayer ranking glitch.


by: Diddly

Copyright © Gamecell 2013