Coming of age
“Sacrifice is a choice you make, loss is a choice made for you.” This is a lesson Lara is taught by her mentor Roth during her newest adventure. It’s a fitting phrase for both Lara and the developers behind the new Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics had to sacrifice what Tomb Raider used to mean in order to reboot the franchise; and it is better off because of it.
When it comes down to the bare essentials, Tomb Raider is all about learning. With each new territory, Lara needs to discover a new talent or tool in order to pass the new challenges. This sounds pretty basic in terms of game design, but Crystal Dynamics uses Lara’s coming of age tale in order to make it fresh. When Lara first uses a bow, instead of being forced into a tutorial, you hear Lara remembering what Roth had taught her about hunting. Every upgrade and new skill is a physical manifestation of Lara learning and growing. At the beginning of the game, Lara is a very clean, naive archaeologist; by the end she has become a cold, badass adventurer.
While undergoing her first archaeology expedition Lara and the crew of the Endurance have found themselves shipwrecked near the Dragon’s Triangle, somewhere south of Japan. It just so happens that the island is also occupied by others who have been stranded for years, and all of them are out to capture or kill Lara and her fellow crewmates. What begins as a tale of survival eventually turns into a mystical tale worthy of Indiana Jones.
Once again the evolution into mysticism is supported by Lara’s coming of age. In the beginning she only believes in logic, and the dialogue takes many opportunities to show this. After a while Lara begins to think that there is something beyond logic that is keeping all these people stranded on the island. Not only is it a physical struggle for our heroine, but also a mental one.
What sells the experience of Tomb Raider is Lara herself. Lara’s body and movement tell a better story than the dialogue. Through most of the game Lara is alone, and instead of talking to herself like most video game characters do, she only does so during critical story scenes. The rest of the time you won’t need words to understand how Lara is feeling. You will know by her body language. She will limp after a long fall, lose the ability to jump because of a wound, and stumble while looking for cover. Lara’s body language adds a level of humanity thus making the story more believable.
For those of you who are worried that Tomb Raider is just one long linear quick-time event, you have no need. While the first hour of the game is pretty straightforward in an effort to set up the story and characters’ motives, the game opens up once Lara encounters other survivors who are trying to kill her, and she is forced to fight back.
When Tomb Raider’s combat system becomes available, it’s worth the wait. The cover system is fluid; meaning you don’t have to prompt Lara to take cover, she does it automatically. All the weapons feel powerful, especially the bow. I found that the bow was always my default weapon, while the firearms – pistol, rifle, and shotgun – are only there when things get messy. The combat is also empowering. Most firefights give the impression that Lara’s enemies have the upperhand, and that every victory is barely won. This feeling of empowerment is fueled by the moving music composed by Jason Graves. The score does an amazing job of setting the tone for every situation Lara finds herself in, whether she is outnumbered ten to one, or discovering an ancient relic.
The quick time events in Tomb Raider are wonderfully done, and aren’t intrusive. They only occur when it makes sense. A great example is the beginning of the game when Lara is crawling out of a collapsing cave. By smashing both triggers simultaneously you control Lara’s progress towards the exit. It makes sense, and there is a satisfying correlation between what you are doing with the controller with what Lara is doing on screen.
There is also a fair amount of exploration in Tomb Raider. In between key story set-pieces Lara can go off and discover hidden tombs and look for collectables such as GPS caches and hidden relics. There are also unique challenges for each territory of the island. Exploring the island can help Lara acquire experience points and material to upgrade her gear, which can either be accomplished during the story or after it is completed. However, it did feel inappropriate to be searching hidden tombs while Lara’s friends were suffering somewhere on the island.
It has become fashionable for games to implement a multiplayer portion in order to add more value to the overall package, and this is exactly what has happened with Tomb Raider. The multiplayer portion isn’t bad, but it doesn’t live up to what the single player experience accomplished. The combat doesn’t translate well, and the characters don’t move as well as Lara does in single player. In order for a multiplayer to succeed it needs to be addictive in order for players to keep playing day after day, and Tomb Raider just doesn’t have that.
If you are worried that the inclusion of multiplayer has tainted the experience of the single player you don’t need to be. You could play Tomb Raider without ever knowing the multiplayer existed, and you would still feel you got your money’s worth.
Tomb Raider is nearly flawless. The only thing that falters is its message. The theme of Tomb Raider, “A survivor is born,” is hard to believe if you played through the story. Lara doesn’t become a survivor, but more of a killer. Sure, Crystal Dynamics did an amazing job to show how traumatizing killing someone for the first time is. But after Lara’s first kill she goes all over the island dropping bodies, and it appears to have no effect on her. Lara doesn’t survive her enemies: she isn’t gathering firewood or constantly hunting and gathering food. Lara is fighting for her life, and she becomes very, very good at it. So good that it feels more appropriate to give the tagline, “A killer is born”.
Tomb Raider is a gem. It’s one of the best flowing games of this generation. Combat sequences always lasted the right amount of time, and so did the major platforming sections. There was always something to do, whether it was experiencing the narrative, platforming, exploring, or fighting off enemies. But what really makes Tomb Raider shine is Lara herself. You will feel bad for her as you witness all the pain she encounters, and cheer when she overcomes her trials. Lara is broken down and brought back up in what could be called the best coming of age video game ever made.
Tested on 360