Critical Consensus: Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider rises above troubled marketing to fuse together some of today's best games
The last few games in the Tomb Raider franchise marked a crossroads for the series as the game's development shifted hands: the Tomb Raider Trilogy - Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld - had new developer Crystal Dynamics presenting a Lara Croft slightly evolved from her handling by original developer Core Design. Since the original launch of Tomb Raider in 1996, the third-person adventure genre has seen a number of new contenders, including Tomb Raider heir apparent Uncharted and Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed. With the series feeling its age, Crystal Dynamics decided to throw out the rulebook and re-envision Lara Croft for a new generation.
This reboot - simply titled Tomb Raider - shows off a neophyte Lara Croft and tells the tale of how she became the powerful, confident Lara Croft from previous titles. Previews outlined a new, realistic design for Croft, who finds herself stranded on a deserted island, forced to pick up the tricks which we've seen serve her so well. Many have likened the experience to an open-world Uncharted, pitting Lara against a hostile environment, cultists, and even starvation.
Tomb Raider's marketing hit several bumps along the way, with early previews described by some as 'torture porn', what looked to be an attempted rape scene, and a developer who said that players would "want to protect" Croft. Did Crystal Dynamics survive the slings and arrows to deliver a fully-realized Tomb Raider reboot?
According to Tomb Raider's current Metacritic rating of 88 for PlayStation 3 and 86 for Xbox 360, yes it did. (Reviewers have yet to receive review code for the PC version at the time of this writing.)
Lara's emotional journey was handled by writer Rhianna Pratchett and together with voice actress Camilla Luddington, the game carves out a compelling lead character. Unfortunately, with so much focus on Croft, other characters suffer in comparison.
"Over the course of the game we see this intelligent, resourceful young woman become something closer to the Lara Croft we know, fearless in the face of danger. It is a greatly successful origin story, a series reboot that feels both authentic and hugely exciting," wrote IGN's Keza MacDonald, who gave the game a 9.1/10. "Camilla Luddington's performance as Croft is impressively convincing, and throughout this adventure you'll really feel for Lara - she is just not having a good time out there. It is a compelling reading of the character; we see Lara's vulnerability, but she is never disempowered, and never less than totally capable in extreme danger."
"At times, the emphasis on Lara's pain borders on the obsessive, dishing out punishment to a relentless degree."
Jim Sterling, Destructoid.
"The supporting cast is less developed, though. Lara herself is so well-realised that her friends and enemies feel two-dimensional by comparison. Lara is shipwrecked alongside a crew of friends, and her guilt over bringing them along on this expedition provides much of the plot's emotional thrust, but it's difficult to feel as much for them as you do for Lara."
Tomb Raider is not scared to dish out punishment to its main character in service of the story. The 'torture porn' noted by some in the previews is in full swing during the early part of the game.
"In the first two hours alone, Lara Croft is battered, smashed, punched, impaled, practically molested, nearly drowned, scraped, scratched, and thrown. Every time she manages to patch herself up and get cleaned off, you can be sure she'll be covered in mud, blood, and searing wounds within moments -- and she'll scream in anguish at every brutal step," wrote Destructoid's Jim Sterling alongside his 8.5/10 rating. "At times, the emphasis on Lara's pain borders on the obsessive, dishing out punishment to a relentless degree. In the early chapters, this carnival of trauma is almost comical in its overabundance, but once it gets over its initial hump, Tomb Raider settles into a solid story about overcoming terrible odds and finding one's place in the world - a fitting allegory for the series as a whole."
Eurogamer's Ellie Gibson, who gave Tomb Raider an 8 out of 10, has some more pragmatic advice for those with thin walls. "The first hour of play is pretty depressing. It's also embarrassing, unless you have thick walls or neighbours who will regard the noise as adding ambience to the violent pornographic film they're making.
When Lara's not screaming, shrieking, panting or squealing, she's busy getting chased, groped and tied up. When she dies, it's with the kind of orgasmic groan that would make Ben Dover demand another take that's less over-the-top. All this takes place against a background of mutilated bodies and ritual sacrifice. The gory imagery is so prevalent and overblown it soon loses any power to shock or scare."
"Tomb Raider strikes a near-perfect balance between traversal, exploration, and combat, and it does so by letting players set that balance themselves."
Matt Miller, GameInformer.
Once the player passes the early part of the game, Lara begins to come into her own combat-wise. Tomb Raider splits its gameplay between exploration, cover-based gunplay, stealth, numerous quick-time events, and item collection. GameInformer's Matt Miller heaped praise on Tomb Raider's gameplay and gave the game a 9.25 rating.
"Tomb Raider strikes a near-perfect balance between traversal, exploration, and combat, and it does so by letting players set that balance themselves. While the critical path is mostly linear, stages are large and have plenty of options for shaping gameplay. The game does an admirable job supporting quiet melee kills, enemy distraction, and distant bow shots that send opponents silently tumbling from cliffsides. The gunplay is precise, headshots are appropriately rewarded, and mobility is encouraged as you dodge and leap between cover points."
While reviewers seemed to have loved Tomb Raider, many could see that the game had a number of influences from competing games.
"Tomb Raider is arguably one of the best action games in recent memory, but it can't call the lion's share of its accomplishments its own. Yes it borrows heavily from Uncharted, the world design riffs on Zelda, and the cover shooting isn't new, but I think that getting too hung up on its inspiration is to miss the point. This is a thoroughly enjoyable game regardless," said VG247's Dave Cook.
"Games that wear their influences so openly can be off-putting at best, and at worst they can seem like cheap knock-offs of the source material, but Tomb Raider openly borrows, learns, and appropriates scenes and moments from a large number of well-selected pop culture artefacts. Tomb Raider isn't shy about aping some of the sense of scope and the gigantic set pieces from the Uncharted series, but Lara Croft and company put their own stamp on every piece of this diverse pie. Some artists sample, and others create something original and cohesive by using bits and pieces of old material and putting it together in new and interesting ways. Tomb Raider is the latter," added Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera.
If raiding tombs was the whole reason you played Tomb Raider, you may be disappointed. The game contains a few optional tombs, but they're short and easy to conquer. Tombs and puzzles have taken a backseat to the game's combat and exploration.
"Well, it was inevitable that Tomb Raider would find it difficult appeasing both puzzle-loving fans of the original game and COD-addicted action junkies, but in the end Crystal Dynamics doesn't get the balance quite right. The main story takes you through several memorable sepulchres, each with bags of atmosphere. These are places that recall the fiendish nature of the original game's tombs, except draped in sparkling, current gen visuals. The problem is, there's just not enough of them," said CVG's Matt Gillman, giving Tomb Raider a 9/10.
"Are there tombs in Tomb Raider 2013? Yes. They're entirely optional, though, and are mostly hidden, combat-free zones concerned with environmental puzzle-solving. Exploring tombs gives you secrets and rewards-like skill points for upgrades and maps that show where relics and other collectibles are-so it's worth the investment of playing through them. They're also a quiet remove from all the human/animal aggression on the game's main path," wrote Kotaku's Evan Narcisse.
Multiplayer is a new addition to the series, but not a welcome one. Reviewers felt the game would have been better served by skipping it altogether.
"A big part of me wishes that the game started and stopped with the single-player offering, but that's not the case. The multi-player isn't awful, but it feels like a whole different game in everything from the muddy textures of environments to the sloppy feel of the action. The combat feels loose and frantic, and character animation is choppy. Explosions are hard or impossible to detect, and often result in cheap deaths. The interesting idea of platforming during a multiplayer session is hamstrung because it just exposes you to attack. I enjoyed upgrading weapons and unlocking characters, but these systems don't deviate much from expected standards. Other dedicated multiplayer experiences are more worth your time," said Miller from GameInformer.
"It feels like there are two conflicting forces at work here - a story that wants to be told, and a game that wants keep reminding everyone it's a game."
Ellie Gibson, Eurogamer.
"Tomb Raider's multiplayer mode is a strange inverse of the single-player. The latter pulls together many of the best traits of the current generation of game design; the former, many of the worst - specifically shoehorning in multiplayer where it's not needed," wrote Polygon's Phil Kollar, who was on the high side of the reviews with a 9 out of 10. "Tomb Raider provides more mobility than the average online shooter, but that's only enough to make it feel novel, not good."
Though the Tomb Raider deals with forging of Lara Croft into an action-adventure heroine, the game does delve into some narrative dissonance.
"It feels like there are two conflicting forces at work here - a story that wants to be told, and a game that wants keep reminding everyone it's a game," added Eurogamer's Gibson. "The most obvious example of this occurs early on, after Lara performs her first kill. A short cut-scene shows her contemplating the gravity of what it means to take a human life, and realising she has crossed a threshold over which she can never return. The pathos of this moment is somewhat undermined by the fact she spends the next 10 minutes blasting away at everyone like a toddler in a water fight - one who has been promised extra biscuits for headshots."
"Within a couple of hours Lara has overcome her moral qualms to the point where she's blithely hacking enemies to death with a pickaxe, mainly in the head. This kind of excessive violence may be common in video games but it feels incongruous here, alongside a storyline that's trying to be subtle and realistic. Despite the narrative's best efforts, the transition from ordinary innocent to violent murderer happens with about as much thoughtful discourse on conflicting moral complexities as there is in an episode of The Wright Stuff."
Kotaku's Evan Narcisse digs deeper into Tomb Raider's subtext to find a story about what it means to be Lara Croft.
"Even if you know nothing about the earlier controversies that swirled around this game last year, it's impossible to play 2013 Tomb Raider and not breathe in all the subtext in its atmosphere. It's irresistibly ripe for interpretation: a cult of violent, trapped men forming around the myth of a vengeful Sun Goddess and a young, outmatched woman who gets bruised ad infinitum on her Hero's Journey. On its face, Tomb Raider doesn't appear to be about the portrayals of female characters in popular entertainment. But it's certainly ready to be read that way," he writes.
"That layering-like the overall shift in tone-serves to gin up the experience in a counter-intuitive way. It's the kind of feel-bad that feels good. If you miss the old Lara, you're compelled to finish this title to get her closer to the snarky, actualized persona of the PS1 era."
Together, the reviewers paint a picture of a game inspired by some of today's best titles. Crystal Dynamics pulled features from Uncharted, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin's Creed, and more to form Lara Croft's reboot debut. Tomb Raider might not be the most innovative title, but it is a well-crafted start for a new heroine.