“Tomb Raider” (2013) is a reboot of the Tomb Raider series we all know and love developed by Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics. It starts off with Lara on a ship called the Endurance in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai inside the Dragon’s Triangle. Upon approach, rough weather causes the Endurance to crash and, as everyone scrambles to the nearest shore, Lara is kidnapped. From here on out, Lara must face off against a harsh environment with even harsher inhabitants in order to save her friends and escape the island. (So there you go: “Tomb Raider” is really “Lara Croft: Survivor.”)
Gameplay, for the most part, is excellent. You explore the island, pick up and use several different weapons ranging from a bow to a WWII submachine gun, use Experience Points (XP) to unlock skill set levels, and use salvage to buy skill sets for the Survivor skill set (bonus XP, salvage, and ammo), Hunter skill set (increased weapons handling and ammo capacity), and Brawler skill set (fighting techniques). Many of the classic gameplay staples of the Tomb Raider series are here, with a few changes thrown in to keep things interesting. The climbing is still done in old Tomb Raider style, with the addition of a climbing axe thrown in to scale rocky surfaces, and you still have to jump while climbing in traditional Tomb Raider fashion. Health is regained automatically over time and damage to Lara is shown through the screen gradually fading to white with blood spots occupying the edge of the screen—impressive to see, given this game’s scheme of using a dull color palette whenever there is no explosion to be had anywhere.
The only major negative experience I have had with the gameplay is in dealing with weapons handling. Whenever an enemy or prey is nearby and you get Lara to draw her weapon, she’ll automatically target the nearest one. However environmental objects (such as gasoline barrels) can also be automatically targeted, so when facing a wave of enemies in an area where these environmental objects are also present, it can be extremely difficult to position the camera angle to have the automatic targeting system (ATS) register your intended mark (and most of the time it won’t). Another slight problem with the ATS I’ve had is that, if you shoot before Lara has targeted her prey or enemy, the ATS will fail to register and your shot will be wild.
The game’s main focuses are hunting animals for XP; collecting salvage; puzzle solving, mainly when dealing with the tombs (which are optional—way to look up the definition of the game’s name, Square Enix!); and the ongoing story. You rarely find yourself in the same location twice and the story progression flows naturally. Missions include sneaking and fighting your way to broadcast an SOS through a radio tower, rescuing your companions, and single-handedly dealing with a supernatural army, all while uncovering and putting a stop to the sinister activity of the island’s inhabitants.
Side quests (a great source for XP) are scattered about the entire island and mainly deal with destroying various objects—in one area you’ll need to destroy 10 totems by shooting at them, in another you’ll need to light 10 Buddha statues with your torch, while another area will require you to burn 5 banners or find 5 cairns. Collecting objects (such as relics, journals, GPS caches, mushrooms, etc.) is another large part of the side quest section and the relics and journals provide additional back stories and mysteries. All side quests blend in with their respective environments and most are discovered through interactive notifications.
The overall playing experience balances between exploration, stealth, and third person shooter. The transition between each aspect is smooth, driven by the natural story and gameplay. Exploration includes not only the aforementioned side quests but raiding tombs as well. Successful completion of each tomb will result in many (but not all) of the side quest items appearing on the in-game map. For those areas that are without a tomb, a treasure map can be found somewhere in the location.
This game is also equipped with a multiplayer option. This section has its own playable areas (called maps for some reason) and characters where you can play as either the Endurance survivors or the Solarii (the main antagonists of the game). If you play as the survivors, your main objectives are to either capture radio transmitters to send for help, gather medical supplies in order to aid the injured, or simply kill the Solarii. If you play as the Solarii, your only objective is to keep the Endurance survivors from obtaining their goals.
Multiplayer uses five playable areas—three that you have already visited in the game (the monastery, beach, and chasm) and two additional areas that give further detail into the island’s history called The Shrine and Underground. The Shrine is a temple on top of the mountains while the Underground is a submarine below the island. By completing the objectives of each playable area you are able to earn XP and collect salvage. The XP is used to unlock characters for purchase and allows you to equip skills while salvage is used to buy new characters and weapons upgrades. Unfortunately, I have never delved into the multiplayer experience so I am unable to detail what the gameplay is like. However, previous reviewers have claimed that the mutiplayer feels tacked on.
However, as good as this game is, it is far from perfect. There are many aspects, both large and small, that could use some definite improvement. The Quick Time Events are back with a vengeance. Just like with the previous games, you have to die enough times to remember the button order because you are not given enough time to look down at the controller to find the necessary button to press it. Even worse, the interactive cut scenes (ICS) rob you of your control. Many of these cut scenes are woven into the gameplay and therefore you have no indication that they are cut scenes. The game will go into ICS mode without your knowledge, you will only find out that you are in one when you attempt to perform an action and nothing happens, and when the ICS is over Lara will just stand there because the game fails to indicate it has given you permission to play again—and she will die in most cases due to environmental hazards! Worse still, there are several times where the game shifts back and forth between gameplay and ICS several times in one minute, causing you to question when, exactly, you’re back in control.
Another problem this game has is the text it displays when interacting with the upgrade system or reviewing collected items. The words on the screen are too small, requiring much squinting and some guess work as to what is written in. With the documents in the game, this isn’t so bad since the authors narrate their respective pieces, but with the upgrade system, this is unacceptable since you cannot see the details of each potential purchase in order to decide what to buy. The only compensation for this is that the respective item’s text momentarily enlarges as you pass over it; several passes are needed to fully read the descriptions, however.
Survivor Instincts is a feature that allows all objects of interest (such as side quest items, tombs, or destination points) in the immediate area to become highlighted at the touch of a button. The problem with this feature is that it turns off automatically when you start moving (as opposed to you hitting the button again to turn it off when you’re done), which is a real pain when you’re expressly looking for collectibles or the destination point.
When collectibles are added to the in-game map they remain there…even if you have already retrieved them. If you want to prevent countless minutes of needless backtracking, make sure you only select the highlighted ones (which are a dull neon green color) as your custom waypoints. And the worst part is, although you can mark a collectable on the map to make it a destination point, there are no directional indicators in the game screen to tell you how to get there; you have to keep flipping back and forth between the map and the game to make sure you are going in the right direction. Or you can turn on Survival Instincts to find the waypoint. And then turn it on again and again because you moved.
Many of the weapons upgrades seem to have no value. Most of them deal with either handling or accuracy, however the novice player will not notice a real difference. Reflecting upon game familiarity, on the other hand, these upgrades are barely perceptible and only show a remarkable improvement to gameplay once every upgrade has been acquired.
There are many instances where you will need to light an object on fire, whether it be a torch, net, rope post, or flag. To perform this action, you must hold the action button down instead of just pressing it. I have not discovered a good reason for this, as you are never near anything that would cause a confusion in the game’s interactivity.
Lara is often treated like a scared girl in order to, as the game’s creators say, “make her more relatable.” However, this serves only to indulge one of the more overused stereotypes relating to female characters in video games—that of the vulnerable woman. Even as a nine-year-old girl in “Tomb Raider: Legend” Lara has always been portrayed as a strong character, so reducing her persona to that of a whimpering child makes no sense to me. If game developers really think that making a character fragile is necessary to make them more relatable, let them try to approach Duke Nukem from this angle!
Lara has the ability to jump from location to location both during gameplay and free roam. If you perform a location jump during gameplay, you can only return to areas you have already visited while free roam allows you to jump to all locations. The biggest flaw of the transportation system, though, is that you cannot simply pull up the in-game map and select a destination—you must painstakingly make your way to a campsite in order to engage in Fast Travel. What is worse, not just any campsite will do: you can only use base camps (day camps do not count) as part of the Fast Travel system.
All in all, I would definitely say this is a must have game. Not only does the gameplay feel akin to other Tomb Raider games in the past (though sadly the classic Lara Croft swan dive move does not make an appearance here), the story is very satisfying and shows how the current incarnation of Lara Croft progresses to become the woman we have all come to love. Despite the negatives, I consider this game to be practically flawless in its execution and I would highly recommend owning it once the complete edition is released.
Tomb Raider is available on Xbox, Playstation and Windows. The Definite Edition is available on Xbox One and Playstation 4 from the 31st of January 2014.