Tomb Raider: teaching an old girl new tricks
This talks about some of aspects of the new Tomb Raider game in detail but it doesn’t spoil any of the story. At least, I don’t think it does: what I think isn’t a spoiler, someone might think is. If you don’t want know about things in the game, then perhaps wait till you’ve finished the game before you read this. Just a thought.
Perhaps the most shocking moments, for me, in the re-booted Tomb Raider were Lara Croft’s deaths.
They are deadly and gruesome, each one seemingly more horrific than the last.
The very first time Lara Croft died while I was playing through Crystal Dynamics’ origin story of the famed English adventurer (who is a much more realistic and naturally proportioned than the original large bosumed one) I was shocked.
Croft had to escape a collapsing underground cave and as she runs through a gap in the rock, a rough hand form a pursuer grabs one of her ankles, trying to pull her back.
A quick time event is activated but if you get a “waggle the stick/keys left and right then press the right button” sequence wrong she’s crushed by a giant bolder, her left hand stretched out towards the camera, twitching as the life drains from her now crushed body. The screen is drained of colour and the last checkpoint is reloaded.
In another death, while Lara is parachuting through a thick forest, tall trees needing to be avoided, clipping too many outstretched branches results in our young adventurer being impaled on a spiky branch, the wood piercing her chest. In another death sequence, Croft is impaled through the throat by a steel spike. This is a much more violent, much more graphically jarring Tomb Raider.
This is a Tomb Raider for today’s gamer, too: gritty, realistic and unflinchingly violent that sort of feels like a cross between Uncharted and Lost, the TV show. I didn’t like Lost but I liked Uncharted, so I’m OK with that comparisons.
When we first meet young Lara Croft she is on-board the research vessel Endurance, excited about the adventure ahead and what she will find, but shortly after the ship that she and her companions are on snaps in half in a violent storm, and they’re shipwrecked on the mysterious Yamatai island in the infamous Dragon’s Triangle, she’s a scared, lonely young girl – barely in her 20s – forced to fight for her life and rescue her friends, captured by violent mercenaries led by a deranged man called Mathias.
It’s the game’s opening moments that you find that this is a more vulnerable, more innocent Lara Croft than the one we’ve been used to. In an attempt to weather the storm, she starts a fire under a rocky overhand, and in an effort to keep warm, pulls her knees up to her chest, desperate to heat the chill running through her bones. She looks scared, vulnerable and out of her depth. It’s a Lara Croft the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
The first death at her hands comes moments after she is forced to fight for her life with a mercenary, shooting him dead after a struggle with a loaded pistol.
It’s at this point that any chance of a passive Lara Croft trotting through to the end of the game is ancient history and it’s a case of kill or be killed as she searches for her friends and a way to get of the island, a place shrouded in Japanese mythology and the supernatural. As the game progresses, and her abilities increase, she’s able to silently kill enemies by choking them with her bow, dropping them to the ground quietly.
Tomb Raider initially arms Croft with a meagre but still formidable arsenal: a bow and arrow (scavenged from a dead body), a pistol (taken from the mercenary she shot) and a rudimentary climbing axe (found embedded in an animal carcass in an underground bunker). A neat thing is that all the weapons can be upgraded, using skill points and salvaged weapons parts, recovered from dead bodies and small crates littering around the island, so soon enough her meagre weapons are quite powerful, especially the bow which I favoured quite a bit.
For me part, the reason this Tomb Raider is so good is the strength of its exploration. Yes, there’s the obligatory on-screen objective marker activated at the push of a button, triggering Croft’s Survival Instinct mode (her form of Batman’s detective vision), but there is so much to explore that it’s easy to put the main objective aside and search for relics, lost diaries and other interesting items. Explore as much as you can. I recommend you do.
As far as tomb raiding goes, hardcore fans will be disappointed as the actual tomb stalking takes a back seat in this Tomb Raider – exploring tombs and crypts is now entirely optional – but it’s worth deviating and investigating tombs when you stumble across them. The puzzles in these tombs aren’t as taxing as those of old but they’ll do.
Sometimes, though, the game wrests control from the player to maintain its cinematic presentation, such as automatically crouching to get under an object or will initiate a cut scene mid-action, and that will annoy some gamers. Last year, when I first played the opening sequence to the game at Tomb Raider demo at last year’s EB Game Expo
in Sydney I did fear that the game might be too reliant on cut scenes and cinematic sequences, and there are plenty, but such treatment didn’t seem to detract from the game play. Other times, the game will hold your hand by highlighting what objects can be climbed (wooden walls are splattered by white paint), but it didn’t worry me. And, as if in a nod to traditional gaming conventions, orange barrels that can explode are here in abundance, especially in tightly compacted environments. When will bad guys learn?
I felt that the Quick Time Events were overused at times during the combat, especially to take down larger, heavily armoured enemies, and it does make me question whether we really need QTEs anymore.
Personally, I found the re-booted Tomb Raider a shot in the arm for the series, and it was pleasing seeing a Lara Croft that is more grounded in reality than previous incarnations. It’s also amazing to think that this Tomb Raider is from the same console generation that also bought us Tomb Raider Legend: The differences between the two games are stark, not only graphically.
I found Tomb Raider a lot of fun and it shows that there is still life in the old girl yet.