Tomb Raider (2013) -- Minimal Chance of Survival
The original Tomb Raider was one of the defining games of the PlayStation 1. It was a rare game combining a female protagonist, puzzles, platforming, exploring, and action all in one solid package.
However, since the flop that was Tomb Raider: Dark Angel, the series has struggled to regain its throne as the action-adventure king. With other franchises like Uncharted taking up the space it once held, Tomb Raider has gone through two different reboots to attempt to recapture its glory. This second reboot looks in a completely different direction, taking far more influences from Thief, Arkham City, and Dead Space 2. These great inspirations however don't coalesce into anything deeply worth playing.
A Survivor is Conveniently Left Alive
Crystal Dynamics clearly knows what it wants from its game. They want an epic, action packed, harrowing, and deep experience, both mechanically and through storytelling. The problem is that they seem to have no idea how to do this and have instead run in five different directions at once, hoping it would all stick. The only parts that do work solely seem to do so because they already worked elsewhere. It's a macabre Frankenstein of gameplay ideas, simply placing them in without considering how it could it would upset another design decision. Whether it was lack of direction or too many cooks in the kitchen, this game is a veritable mess.
First off, the story. The full court press given tells us that the game is Lara growing from a scared young woman to a survivor. Instead, what we get is a B-movie action-thriller where stock archetype characters exist merely to die in order to further the plot somehow. The fact that not every person dies is astounding, as Lara is constantly having people die for her. Anyone going anywhere with her dies horribly while she always gets away, usually being beaten around by the environment or some brief moments of direct body injuries for shock value. It's all for show, never amounting to anything.
Lara just seems to go from constantly panting "You can do this" to "I'll kill you all you bastards!" at the flip of a coin. There's no discernible moment where things somehow get more intense as the game continually makes itself easier and easier with every upgrade and tool you receive. Every time an even more insane level traversal arrives Lara just passes through with a grenade to blow open a door here and a stab to the eye in a Solarii occultist guy there. She doesn't seem afraid, in fact she wields a tactical assault rifle better than most space marines. If she had experience with military grade weapons and fighting fully armed militant occultists, then it could be excused, but she doesn't. We hear how she worked in a bar, bars don't usually need the arm strength to withstand firing an entire assault rifle clip.
Inherently though, this is still a video game, so some concessions are made. However, the contradiction between the Lara we're told we are playing and the one we actually are is a deep divide until near the end. We're also told the crew is low on any sort of supplies and lost all their tools, yet Lara can craft together a compound bow just by breaking open a few dozen decade old crates on an island constantly drenched by torrential rain. Even the Solarii and their leader Mathias aren't believable. They are stupidly large in number, you easily kill hundreds of men all armed with rifles and climbing gear apparently from the island's sports equipment store. They constantly fail and fall into their own traps or injure each other but have reportedly been on this island for years. Their lack of competence would have killed within a week, which is true considering Lara effectively does that over the course of the game.
The worst element of the game though this is something that is a SPOILER (SO IF YOU DON'T LIKE BEING SPOILED THEN PLEASE SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH); they make a fake climax. No, really, they give you a grenade launcher and a massive stockpile of ammo, have you destroy the Solarii fortress, and then make the plot drag on for at least four more hours. Why? Because mystical mumbo-jumbo that is may be a metaphorical about women and feminism, that was so haphazardly put in that I am still not sure what the point even was. Was it about the dangers of old societal beliefs of the place of women? Was it a defiant act towards some matriarchical concept Lara stands against? Was it about a harsh world of bastardly misogynistic men and whiny emotional men manipulating women; even when said women are in high places of power? We'll probably never know, as it seems to have been intentionally made vague just to make a bunch of discussions start on internet forums. Yay, the Inception style of answering without answer...
Idea Raider: City of Better Games
Well, even if a story is a bust, that doesn't mean a game can't be salvaged by good gameplay, as Red Faction has proven. First, you've got the jump and shimmy from Uncharted. Now this style of platforming comes with some added button presses that attempt to bring depth to what is otherwise just pointing in the right direction and hitting the jump button every so often on a purely linear path. It doesn't really do much though, other than make you die if you don't hit a button quickly enough while clinging to some ledges. The rope arrow is a nice addition taking note from Thief, leaving me a bit disappointed it wasn't introduced sooner and focused on more. Overall, it's still just used to unlock certain paths and speed up backtracking around levels.
Backtracking and exploring from Metroidvania games also makes an appearance, but is now combined with the sheer excessive collecting of the Assassin's Creed games. There are so many collectibles that there is an upgrade for one ability that will not only highlight all collectibles for you to see in your line of sight, but reveals all of them in the area you are presently in, marking them on the mini-map. So instead of exploring the levels, you're just spamming the Arkham City Detective Mode rip-off Survival Instincts until you figure out how to collect the special fruit on a ledge that somehow gives you items to craft better weapons. You can also gain these gun upgrade points from animals as well. It is not explained how you can find parts for a shotgun inside a fruit or a rat.
Combat on the other hand fares better, if more due to resting on the laurels of Dead Space than it's own merits. You carry four fully upgradable guns that you can improve through looting and exploring optional tombs to find specific gun parts (don't ask how an AK-47 is in an ancient tomb, it's once again never given a context or reason). The four gun system in Dead Space was a favorite of mine, and it still works well enough here. You've got your primary weapon (Pistol), your secondary that might not be as immediately easy to use but is more effective once upgraded (Bow), your close range weapon (Shotgun), and the fourth weapon that sort of just sits there until you find the right upgrade to make it super useful (Assault Rifle).
The problem of Lara somehow being extremely proficient with all fire arms from the get go is still present, meaning even without upgrades you will be popping off headshots casually, especially on PC. Instead of making you sluggish or inaccurate at first, it gives you all the perks without any of the needed cons to keep you from becoming instantly overpowered. The only enemies made to compensate for this are bullet sponge enemies and kamikaze enemies that run head first at you to engage in mêlée combat. Melee combat is actually far better balanced, and seems to have had a lot of work put into it considering how infrequently I needed to use it in the game. If earlier sections of the game had focused on mêlée combat and left guns and ammo as rare rewards like in Red Steel 2, the combat might have remained a great deal more challenging than it is.
Puzzles don't fare any better than combat. A few are fairly pragmatic and realistic, especially one involving electric current in a pool of water blocking your path, but most of them are just timed platforming sequences in the various optional tombs. Yes the tombs in Tomb Raider are optional, and just to see how much they really mattered, ignored most of them in an alternate playthrough. The game didn't even seem to notice that I had avoided the tombs and it felt like the content existed in some parallel reality no one in the game cared about.
Must Have Five Levels Work Experience to Apply
This overall lack of consistent design and coherent melding story and gameplay is most bluntly clear with what may actually be my favorite idea the game has on offer. Fire. You start out the game by lighting a torch as your first piece of gear. There are tons of things to burn and several collectibles demand you strategically light your torch between bodies of water to reach them. Even some of the first few puzzles in the game require you properly use the mechanics built into lighting things on fire, and it's surprisingly fun.
Except then the need to be careful with your torch is eliminated less than half way through the game thanks to an upgrade that lets you turn the torch on whenever. Not to long after that, the bow gets fire arrows (later napalm arrows with an upgrade), and the shotgun gets incendiary ammo. If these opened up new avenues of manipulating fire, that would be one thing, but instead they make the torch and the feeling of challenge when using it all but obsolete. It's a perfectly good idea, but it just is left to exist amongst a sea of side activities and gameplay ideas that are merely for the honor of earning experience points.
Crystal Dynamics must love grinding levels in role-playing games, as not only are there two different experience points to earn (Salvage for Weapons and regular Experience Points for Lara's skill tree), but they have skill upgrades to earn more experience from activities. Not just one or two, roughly a third of two skill trees each is nothing but upgrades to earn more experience for more upgrades. Other upgrades serve no purpose, such as an upgrade to speed up traversal and decrease fall damage that had no notable impact at all on the platforming. All meaningful gear you acquire is through the story, save for alternate fire modes for your three guns. Investing in upgrades just gets your stats increased, and it won't always pay off anyway; but you can earn more experience to unlock more stats once you upgrade to earn more experience to get more experience.
With Friends Like These Who Needs Nathan Drake?
The one saving grace I've found is in the feature most told me was absolutely worthless, the competitive multiplayer component. This is the one part of the game that feels like it's all working towards something cohesive, which is not surprising considering it was developed by Eidos while the single player was all Crystal Dynamics. It's not without some notable flaws (the PC control scheme is lacking, the console version is a bit laggy and could use a button layout tweak as well), but at least it feels genuinely entertaining.
Playing a match feels satisfying and the very low bar set for new players is nice. You can gain progress no matter how well you immediately play. If you have a rough start then the game compensates and gives you ironic awards while slipping you enough experience points to get you to the next unlock. It gives you a chance to have the same gear as your opponents without being as skillful as they are, as does the focus on environmental traps and hazards you can use to get kills even if your accuracy is off.
Some levels even have large-scale environmental shifts you can trigger or at least use to your advantage, akin to Battlefield 4's Levelution map shifts; but unlike that title, the changes feel a great deal more drastic thanks to the small-scale five on five and three on three fights the game's maps accommodate. Much like Killlzone: Mercenary, the focus is on tight, cohesive battles while you work as a team to tear down the enemy. Lonewolfing it is possible but not easy, and the limited HUD requires you constantly be observant of your line of sight like in Spec Ops: The Line's multiplayer. I've stealth killed several archers not paying attention and got torn apart during a sandstorm where my enemies were keeping track of our positions.
The traps do seem placed out-of-the-way in some maps, but this is likely to avoid their abuse. When you already have one level where you can blow out three bridges and cause wall panels to turn into ticking time bombs as the electricity goes on the blink, you've got enough controlled chaos in hand. Unfortunately the lag on consoles doesn't help in this chaos, sometimes leaving you fighting the sluggish controls as you try to escape death. The most notable problem on PC was weapon swapping and finding more players in matchmaking (presently the console version is far more active).
The upgrades to your guns also seem drastically more meaningful in multiplayer, although the differing selection of weapons for the asymmetric teams do limit your options at first if you invest mostly in one side. An added scope or alternate mode of fire changes a gun's strengths, and you can focus on both your primary two-handed weapon or secondary pistol as works best for you. On PC, I actually mainly fought with my pistol thanks to a fast trigger finger and better accuracy with it. I've heard and seen the players who reportedly just found it to be an assault rifle spamming affair. Most of those I played with who were like this seemed to ignore most of the unique aspects of the game, so the community's indifference to accepting the multiplayer for its strong points is a problem you should keep in mind. Gather up some friends though, and you'll have a good time.
It's not going to be that traditional Gears or Call of Duty multiplayer, and you shouldn't expect it to. Playing it like any other game will disappoint you because you aren't looking for what the game is trying to give you. It wants to give a fierce survival multiplayer similar to The Last of Us, but with a faster pace and an emphasis on manipulating the environment to your ends instead of mid-battle upgrades through crafting.
This is does not excuse the game for the lag and control issues nor some of the more questionably designed levels. However, the fact I saw players actively ignoring the bright side of what's available just because the multiplayer dared to exist was incredibly petty. If you don't enjoy, you don't have to ever touch it, but if you're going to try it, you should keep an open mind. You'd be surprised what happens when you do, although I doubt you'll find this realization amongst the dissenters. It's a ponderous case, to say the least.
Survival of the Meekest
Tomb Raider is a game you play when you can turn your brain off. If you don't think hard about the gameplay and story, you can at least have a decent time. However, if you start to connect the dots, what you're left with is a string of confusing decisions piled on top of a flimsy story set in a highly inconsistent universe. They could have aimed for it to just be fantastical, they could have aimed for gritty realism, they could have done anything and made a great game out of it. Instead, it stands as completely average with a sum of good ideas, enjoyable multiplayer, lacking online community, and mediocre execution for the single player. Here's hoping Lara's next adventure manages to hit its mark.