Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tomb Raider 2013 (Review)

The name Lara Croft is certainly one most gamers are familiar with, even if they haven’t even touched a Tomb Raider game in their lives. Believe it or not, it has been almost 17 years since we were first introduced to the English archaeologist who eventually grew to become probably the most iconic female character of the industry. And even though, in the long run of Tomb Raider games, there have been both hits and misses, Lara’s name alone was more than enough to draw attention to a title.

When the series eventually hit a stale point, Crystal Dynamics tried to give the franchise a makeover, but somehow the more recent Tomb Raider games never seemed to have the impact of the earlier ones.  When a reboot of the series was announced, opinions were unsurprisingly conflicting; the series seemed to be in need of some drastic changes – especially with the more recent ‘Uncharted’ games stealing Lady Croft’s spotlight – but effectively re-creating a beloved character after so many years is certainly no easy task.

When we first encountered Lara she had already become the dynamic adventuress we came to love. Initially, we didn’t know much about the character besides her love for ancient artifacts, her acrobatic skills, and her being rich enough to afford a gargantuan mansion and a butler who didn’t mind receiving the occasional friendly fire, or being locked in the freezer every once in a while. It wasn’t until The Last Revelation that we got to see teenage Lara (in all her pigtail glory) making her first steps as an archaeologist in Cambodia. This time around, Crystal Dynamics chose to make the entire Tomb Raider game an origin story, taking Lara back to her roots and giving her a detailed background. Fortunately for everyone, this proved to be a very wise decision.

Lara is a young archaeologist in training, just experiencing her first adventure as a part of a team that has set sail on the Endurance, hoping to discover the lost Japanese nation of Yamatai. Besides our main protagonist, the team includes Conrad Roth, a good friend of the Croft family and apparent mentor to Lara, the self-absorbed star archaeologist Dr. Whitman, and Lara’s college friend Samantha. The game begins throwing you right into the action, showing the ship getting caught in the middle of a terrible storm and ending up being split in half.

Just moments after she manages to reach the land, Lara is knocked unconscious by an unknown attacker. When she wakes up, she is hanging upside down in a mysterious cave decorated with skulls and candles. Lara’s escape from the cave acts as a tutorial, cleverly showing the player the games’ basic controls. Initially, our heroine faces one hardship after another; she appears to be lost, frightened, cold, and generally overwhelmed by what’s happening around her. However, if you feared that the new Lara Croft would be somehow weaker than her former self, you need not to worry, as her strong nature and survivor’s instincts are present from the first moment we meet her.

Soon after escaping the cave, Lara finds Samantha who is accompanied by a stranger named Mathias. Before we get to find out more about what’s going on, Lara’s exhaustion forces her to fall asleep, and when she wakes up both Mathias and Samantha are nowhere to be found. Eventually, she manages to find the rest of her group but they soon discover that they are not alone on the island, and that the strangers surrounding them are certainly not friendly.

 The infamous assault scene that caused quite the controversy takes part early in the game, and thankfully, it is not what most feared it would be. As Lara and the others are attacked by the strangers and she tries to escape, she is discovered and we are led to a quick time event which lasts only a few moments. Depending on the player’s actions either Lara or her attacker ends up dead. This incident proves to be somewhat important as it is the first time that our heroine is forced to kill a person in order to save her life.

The game’s story may follow a familiar path but it’s very well written and works quite well in creating Lara’s backstory. Writer Rhianna Pratchett, who has also worked on Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword, has managed to craft a plot that is worthy of the Tomb Raider mythos, making Lara a multifaceted and believable character.  Camilla Luddington does a great job in channeling Lara Croft, and succeeds in showing the emotional changes that the character goes through as the game progresses. On top of that, composer Jason Graves has created a soundtrack that feels tailor-made for a Tomb Raider title, which also greatly enhances the terrifying atmosphere of the island.

Besides the main protagonist, the game’s mechanisms have also received a significant makeover. When we get control of Lara the first item we acquire is a torch which she can ignite using the numerous fire sources found around the island. The torch comes in handy quite a lot, mainly to light up dark areas and of course to set things on fire. The first weapon that we get to use - and also the game’s trademark weapon replacing Lara’s old double pistols - is the bow, which feels really easy to handle, and is also quite useful, especially during the first stages of the game. One of the more noticeable improvements that have been made to gameplay, is the switching of the camera to a behind-the-shoulder view whenever Lara shoots, which actually manages to solve many of the shooting problems that the previous titles had.

As Lara can now hide and stealthily attack her enemies from a distance, there are various ways of getting rid of them that you can implement. The bow becomes especially useful during situations that Lara is greatly outnumbered, as for example you can hit a nearby wall with an arrow and cause a distraction, giving you a strategic advantage.  In addition, one of Lara’s special skills is her ‘survival instinct’, which can be activated by hitting the corresponding button, turning the entire area grey and highlighting objects of interest or nearby enemies. When Lara is facing a puzzle, hitting the ‘survival instinct’ button will also make her give you some hints on how to proceed. The game also features a number of quick time events, which may not be as frequent as some have dreaded, but they all more or less follow the same pattern. During these QTEs Lara is usually attacked by an enemy or a wild animal, then the player is required to hit the correct buttons in time to help her flee, unless of course you want to see our heroine die a violent and gruesome death. It’s true that some of the QTEs may seem unnecessary, but they never actually take away from the overall excellent gameplay experience.

The new Tomb Raider installment does not stray far from its usual course when it comes to the environments. Lara finds herself in the middle of wilderness and in order to survive she must once again climb, jump long distances and solve area-based puzzles. The game is linear at its core, nevertheless each area that we visit is quite large and there’s naturally much exploration to do. Once again Lara’s ‘survival instinct’ comes in handy, as if you get lost, triggering the ability makes a small compass sign appear, showing you where you are supposed to be headed. Apart from the compulsory actions that Lara must make, there are many optional puzzles and hidden areas to discover. In true Tomb Raider nature, there are also numerous collectibles to find, varying from ancient artifacts to character journals, which provide many extra details about the story.

One of the most important additions is the ability to build Lara’s skills and upgrade her equipment. This newly introduced feature may seem strange to some, but it remains simple enough to not be distracting, and it the end it proves to be quite efficient. The campfires that we find throughout the game serve as checkpoints and also allow Lara to use her skill points and salvaged parts that she can retrieve from crates, dead enemies, and even animals, in order to acquire new skills and upgrade her  weapons and equipment. Moreover, by stopping by a campfire you can hear Lara narrate parts from her own journal, which is a smart way of introducing to the player the character’s inner thoughts.

It is worth noting that each unlocked campfire allows you to fast travel to other camps and re-visit previous areas whenever you want, in order to further explore, or to search for collectibles that you might have missed.  On the plus side, the upgrade system together with the story allow you to first-hand experience Lara’s evolution as she acquires more skills. Initially you don’t have to pay much attention to the abilities you unlock, but as the game progresses and things become a bit more difficult, upgrading recklessly might actually cost you.

In addition to the excellent gameplay, Crystal Dynamics has succeeded in making Tomb Raider look simply outstanding. The numerous island locations look incredible to say the least, and the weather effects, from rain to lighting and thunder, increase the overall feeling of danger, constantly reminding us that Lara is alone in a hostile environment. The areas are cleverly designed, in a way that often gives you the illusion of being lost in a vast place. The characters’ facial expressions, especially Lara’s, are diverse and show a great range of emotions from fear to despair and anger.

 What is unique about the PC version of the game is the presence of the tressfx technology, which basically allows a character’s hair to look more realistic than ever. Enabling tressfx makes a quite noticeable difference, giving Lara a clearly more realistic hairstyle. Nevertheless, as it is a relatively new technology it still has some way to go. Lara’s hair sometimes looks like it is defying gravity, especially during fast actions or while she is jumping; still the technology is admittedly impressive. Take notice that enabling tressfx might greatly lower your FPS performance if your GPU is not up to the task, but since Lara’s normal hair looks pretty fine too, it shouldn't make much of a difference, and it most certainly does not make the game any less attractive.

Following the example of most recent games, Tomb Raider also features a multiplayer mode. While it’s not anything to write home about, it works without any issues and it’s admittedly quite fun to play. You get a selection of characters from two teams, Lara’s crew of survivors or the island’s scavengers. As it’s usually the case, the more you play the more characters, upgrades and ammo you get to unlock.

The game allows you to pick a quick match and get immediately thrown into the action. You can also make a choice between the ‘Rescue’ mode where the survivors must recover medical equipment and the scavengers must finish them off with a melee attack, the ‘Team Deathmatch’ where the teams compete with each other for a higher score, the ‘Cry for Help’ mode where the survivor team must activate radio transmitters while the scavengers steal their batteries, and the ‘Free for All’ where you just run around killing as many opponents as you can.

There’s a satisfying number of multiplayer maps, and most probably more will become available pretty soon. Each map is rather large, allowing you to hide and safely spot opponents, setting traps and luring others into them, and also to flee from danger and hide. Though the multiplayer mode is perhaps the weaker part of the entire game, it is by no means bad. It offers an enjoyable experience and completely stays out of the single player’s way, so there is practically no reason for it not to exist.

After playing the new Tomb Raider, it becomes evident that this reboot was exactly what the franchise needed, especially since everything seems to have been done correctly. Crystal Dynamics has definitely treated their character with respect, giving Lara a detailed background and an origin story that leaves you wanting for more. The plot is fairly interesting, the new Lara is a strong, complex and yet believable character and the island locations are simply breathtaking. Additionally, many of the things that seemed problematic in the previous games have been eliminated or changed for the better. It is probably safe to say that this is the game that Tomb Raider fans have been yearning for, and it was absolutely worth the wait.

Overall: 93/100

Originally written for New Game Network
Tomb Raider 2013 (Review)

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