Thursday, 24 April 2014

Tomb Raider 2013

It was when Lara Croft shot a would-be rapist through the mouth that I knew Tomb Raider was going to be different. It’s not often that a single moment in a video game forces you to sit back, pause, and think about what just happened. That moment, less than an hour into Square Enix’s reboot of the franchise, was one of them.
It was symptomatic of a game with maturity, realism, and polish. That moment, amongst others peppered throughout the title, was clear evidence that Tomb Raider was to be a sophisticated and engaging experience.
Tomb Raider centres on the actions of Lara Croft, a young archaeologist searching for the lost kingdom of Yamati. Gone is the crass porn-star portrayal of the middle nineties, and instead gamers are
presented with a powerful and emotionally complex character that adds real depth to the Tomb Raider story.
Lara, along with a well balanced mix of characters whose stories are carefully developed throughout the game, begins her journey aboard the ship Endurance, searching for Yamati off the coast of Japan. The ship is attacked by a mysterious and ferocious storm, and Lara finds herself stranded on a savage and violent island.
The game is presented as a playable movie, and is clearly influenced by the climb, shoot, solve mechanic of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. This is a style that we have become familiar with but thankfully Tomb Raider has resisted the urge to copy it slavishly. Instead, Square Enix have introduced simple RPG skills and upgradeable items, deepening and improving the the title’s cinematic experience.
And what an experience it is. Free from the annoying constraints of actual people and real explosions, the developers at Crystal Dynamics have created an action romp that would put even Michael Bay to
shame. Tomb Raider is a hell of a ride, and its filmic feel is incredibly well developed throughout the entire gameplay experience — a feat of aligned game design that is rare to see, and even rarer to see mastered.
What immediately sets Tomb Raider aside from its more asinine peers is the way it forces you to connect with Lara. Gone is the busty bombshell of its heyday, and instead Crystal Dynamic have created a female lead that is presented with real humanity. To call Tomb Raider an example of feminist gaming might be stretch — too often Lara still needs to rely on the guidance and protection of the men around her, and the main narrative is still based around the tired trope of a damsel in distress (this time, Lara’s friend, Samantha), but it's certainly better than most.
Lara’s characterisation is excellent. Little things — the way she clutches her abdomen throughout the entire game after being gored in the first 10 minutes; the shrieks of genuine fear she makes when leaping towards a cliff face — force home both her fragility, and her resilience. It's powerful stuff and
is a real credit to Rhianna Pratchett’s writing. While Tomb Raider’s dialogue was a bit grating at times, the threat of the Sun Queen, the pacing of the story, and the narrative set-up around the Solarii and the curse of Yamati is well done.

And for a gamer like me that has become increasingly depressed by developers refusing to treat female characters like human beings, the game’s mature portrayal of Lara was a welcome relief. How Crystal Dynamics managed it, I’ll never know. As the credits montage at the end of the game proves, almost the entire production team were exclusively male. With that in mind, Noah Hughes and Cory Barlog can be proud of keeping Lara’s characterisation firmly on course.
They can also be proud of the game mechanic. While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it — Uncharted fans will be instantly familiar with the “find yourself in a large area and kill everything
inside it” combat experience — it is well paced, satisfying, and polished.
It is also extraordinarily violent. How Lara responds to this is a little strange. Her first run in with death is as harrowing as we’d expect it to be, but fairly soon she is putting arrows through the necks of unsuspecting Solarii, throwing sand in her victims eyes and burying climbing axes in knees and shoulders. It’s brutal stuff, but after the first 30 minutes she stops batting an eyelid. In fact, at the end of the game Lara can be heard hurling abuse at her prey as she executes them. From wallflower to shinigami is quite the transformation to play through.
But Lara transforms in other ways, too. Alongside the excellent cinematic gameplay (complete with vertigo inducing climbing sections, breathtaking vistas, and varied map design), Crystal Dynamics have introduced a simple skill tree system, and the ability for Lara to upgrade her weapons by finding special parts and collecting metal salvage.

These grinding mechanics are not new, but combined they add an extra imperative to the Tomb Raider experience. Skill points are unlocked through XP, which is gained by hunting animals in the island’s forest or by killing enemies in novel ways, and salvage is collected from boxes of scrap hidden throughout the game’s many playable areas. Unlocking new abilities and objects gives Lara the ability
to do more things, opening up parts of the game that were originally off limits.
One of the only criticisms to be made here is the rather poor menu design on the PC. Sometimes menus would freeze, or would “flip” around on themselves, presenting an unclickable mirror image that you couldn’t exit from, forcing a restart. However, with that gripe out of the way, the ingame items and experience systems are easy to use and intuitive.
In addition to hunting rabbits and collecting cogs, Lara can search for hidden ancient objects or, heaven forbid, raid tombs — which are placed throughout the island and which require a good amount of thoughtful puzzle solving to complete.
It is this second aspect to Tomb Raider that pushes it from a polished cinematic into a worthwhile and engaging gaming experience. By combining Tomb Raider with Batman: Arkham Asylum Crystal
Dynamics have created something that is worth the price on the box. Although it does mean that after a while, the game’s need to allow enough room for its second half creates a slightly unreal experience at the expense of its more serious cinematic partner. As a consequence, there are parts of the gameplay that look over designed or ill-placed. Important objects are simply too obvious, explosive red barrels included.

This may have been a conscious decision to support making console play easier, but it's unnecessary for the PC. Or it could have been simple hand holding by level designers. Either way, it's doubtful Crystal Dynamics expected us to believe that the Solarii had an insatiable fetish for wood, rope, and criss-crossing zip lines.
Square Enix’s Tomb Raider is easily one of 2013’s early standout titles. It’s an experience that every gamer should try to lay their hands on. There is enough direct action for the hard core shooter fan (made easier with the keyboard and mouse), enough scrambling, climbing, and tumbling for the adventure inclined, and enough meaty story and juicy characterisation for gamers craving emotion with their explosions. It's a top-shelf title, and an excellent game.
But above all, Tomb Raider is a mature experience featuring a young, strong woman who - armed with grit, determination, and intelligence - rescues not only her friends but herself as well. Surely there’s a lesson in that for the rest of us.

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