Tomb Raider reboots Lara Croft’s adventure with a clean slate meant not only to modernize the character, but also the gameplay elements of the series. The reboot does this by taking on the form of a modern, triple-A cinematic action game, successfully providing the series with its most fluid and satisfying combat mechanics to date, but faltering in its attempts to provide an element of exploration and adventure to the experience. It's a game that might often underwhelm while also filling you with glee every time you shoot an arrow from that oh so sweet bow.  

Yes, the price we pay for the new direction of Lara Croft is her signature dual-wielded handguns have being replaced with the elegance of a bow and arrow. The bow represents a lot of the best elements about Tomb Raider’s combat scheme. Firstly, it is complimented with an organic context-based cover scheme, as opposed to the one-button sticky cover system found in most cover shooters. This gives Lara’s movement a dynamic feeling because she can lean and peak naturally from multiple angles near waist-high cover. The context-based cover also makes it easier for Lara to move from cover to run-and-gun action. 

Another way the game compliments the bow is through upgrades that provides the weapons with a sense of progression. You can get new skills, such as the ability to scavenge for more ammo and supplies (to get weapon upgrades quicker), or improve her precision with a specific weapon. Weapon upgrades range from improving firing rate, accuracy, and fire power, to adding in secondary fire, like incendiary shells for a shotgun.

These upgrades do a fantastic job of conveying the idea that Lara, as a character, is changing. Her timid bow shots in the early portions will give way to the precise shots of a marksman. It gives the player the feeling that they are improving with her over the course of the game.

These improvements truly shine during shoot-outs that actively take advantage of the abilities you have gained over the course of the game. One such instance is a forest level where you are being hunted by armed foes. With an improved bow, improved survival instincts (think detective vision in Batman), and swifter melee kills, I was able to engage with a predator-oriented play style.

Stalking my prey. Hunting them down one by one. Quietly and methodically working from foe to foe as I pick them apart with one arrow after another, never leaving the comfortable dark clout of the shadows and only hustling to scavenge ammo from my fallen victims. The few times an enemy got to one of my victims before I did? A happy coincidence that yielded me a free kill.

It’s a gratifying sequence not only for its free-form nature that celebrates a player's wits, but because it showcased the one-woman wrecking crew I had transformed Lara Croft into.

Conversely, the plot does an atrocious job with Lara’s character progression. Tomb Raider brings us a Lara Croft who is but a young explorer who, with her crew, gets shipwrecked by a violent storm on a mysterious island. On this mysterious island, she deals with unnatural inclement weather, violent men, and the supernatural hokum you would associate with a Tomb Raider plot line.

It’s completely ridiculous in premise and tone, and should have been that way in terms of intent. The game makes one too many attempts at trying to be serious about presenting Lara as an evolving character. Largely, it’s done through a silly plot line revolving around the supernatural nature of the island, and through character deaths that are ultimately meaningless to the audience. None of the multicultural supporting cast members are developed enough for the audience to be invested in them, and one prominent supporting character is nothing more than a plot device.

Where the game’s plot really falters, though, is Lara’s character arc itself. During gameplay, the player is engaged via the mechanics in her evolution, but the cinematic storytelling leaves you unsatisfied because Lara is a two-dimensional character in the way she behaves. Everything she does is reactionary, a product of her being forced into a situation to either roll over and die, or behave a certain way. Essentially, everything about her character arc is forced by the plot, as opposed to something that comes off naturally.

Lara’s character arc is also poorly engineered because of the inconsistencies in how she is conveyed. For instance, during gameplay, the character becomes increasingly violent, even entering the realm of a psychopath happily enjoying killing one foe after another in some parts, via in-game dialogue. However, the plot line wants to continue to paint her as sympathetic when she’s anything but that. It’s disconnected, and thus, isn’t able to justify any one of Lara’s character swings with anything other than 'because the plot said so.'

The game also stumbles any time it wants to present a crescendo for its game mechanics. Any attempt at creating a memorable moment or high point is usually done in the mind-numbing manner that modern triple-A action games have become dependent on: bombastic and explosive scenarios with busy backgrounds that do nothing more than dull the senses.

The player during these sequences? Usually doing nothing more than pushing the analogue stick forward or performing a quick time event. Instead of being an active member of the action, you become sidelined as a passive viewer. Late-game platforming sequences present an environment meant to feel treacherous and dangerous, but the actual gameplay is the same casual navigation you were doing when the game was calm as could be. They are dull sequences that are far too busy trying to look exciting rather than actually being exciting to play.

These segments are tedious affairs compared to the sequences earlier in the game that provided emergent gameplay scenarios. The final area is nothing more than scripted shooting galleries and a throw down with a big baddy. You spend most of your time running around, dodging his attacks, and shooting him in the back. It’s a simple, spiritless, spongy enemy that isn’t all that interesting to fight.

Other elements of the game are a mixed bag. For instance, the game does have some fresh ideas in adding exploration elements to this combat-centric take on Tomb Raider. The island is meant to be an open-world environment, segregated via its campfire-based fast travel system, which provides the illusion that you are in one large area, as opposed to a level-by-level jaunt across the world like in previous games. This 'item-gates' specific parts of the map so the player can come back later with the correct equipment.

There are even secret tombs in the environment that the player can find. Unfortunately, the tombs themselves are executed poorly from a design perspective. While they provide a worthy reward for the combat, they aren’t that appealing to play because they're all filled with a single, remedial physics puzzle that puts the answer directly in front of the player. They're unsatisfying both for their brevity and lack of challenge. Even if the decision was to sacrifice challenge for the sake of pacing, the game could have had more intricate puzzle designs in the tombs themselves. As they stand, they are dull diversions that are a tertiary activity at best. The concept of secret tombs? Yes please, but the execution is underwhelming.

That’s just the kind of reboot Tomb Raider is, though. It’s shown us a new, mechanically sound direction for Tomb Raider with possibilities so intriguing, I’d argue that if the sequel was able to expand on the elements in this game, and combine a richer exploration element with the already fluid combat, we would have a truly special action-adventure game on our hands.

As it stands, it’s worthy of a spin if only to see the new direction for Tomb Raider. It’s not consistent, as even when you’re having fun picking people apart with that sweet combat bow, there's a string attached. Either the game gets bogged down by some mind-numbing set piece, or you find yourself in a tomb that’s over before you even think about being engrossed. 

Final Score: 6/10

 

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#2 Beacon_of_Truth 2014-08-06 08:17
The usual contrived issues video game writers struggle with in the realm of video games. You must move the pace of the game forward, but are trying to keep a consistent narrative going. One of those usually loses.
#1 Phil_Fogg 2014-08-06 07:55
What did you think of the Gilligan's Island moments where you are in abject isolation, then you mash with your buds, then go back to abject isolation.

I just could never treat the story seriously.

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