Mainstream Review: Tomb Raider

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream review of the week. 

Tomb Raider
Release Date: 05/03/13

Mainstream Review Tomb Raider

If you have any doubts about this latest addition (and total reboot) of the tomb raiding franchise, let me put your mind at ease right off the bat. Don’t. Tomb Rader is Lara Croft’s greatest outing, hands down.

Classic Tomb Raider games are fondly remembered, and somewhat rightfully so, but they pale in comparison to Crystal Dynamics’ latest effort. Lara is now a real character with depth, not just a set of polygons assembled to vaguely resemble a person. Her journey is full of bombastic, fast-paced action, balanced with slow-paced and methodical exploration, which feels natural and satisfying. And, yes, you will probably raid a few tombs.

The journey begins as Lara finds herself aboard the Endeavour, a ship bound for wonder and mystery. The adventure hits the ground running while Lara and her companions are still only warming up. Thus, she and her crew are shipwrecked on an island in a strange area known as the Dragon’s Triangle (akin to the Bermuda Triangle as far as danger and intrigue are concerned). Lara is separated from her crew and must do whatever it takes to survive.

Here starts what developer Crystal Dynamics has been touting as Lara’s transformation from a green, young explorer to a hardened, ruthless and efficient tomb raider. Lara’s journey and character development are a small but important step in the right direction, concerning the portrayal of women in games. Her growth feels natural and real, and she’s displayed with a respect and eventual strength that are uplifting. However, the way in which Lara’s character develops can occasionally stray to the disturbing side, mostly in the opening hours of the game. The extent to which Lara is assaulted early on straddles the line between excessive and sadistic, and sticks a toe across that line once or twice. Thankfully, that’s reigned in after the first couple of hours and never manifests into a real issue.

Structurally, Tomb Raider is a sort of hybrid game, combining an equipment-gated open world with a linear action-adventure. It’s excellently paced and put together, with each area in the world feeling naturally connected to the others, creating a cohesive whole.

The way in which new areas are accessed periodically throughout the adventure is similar to the structure of a Metroid game; as you progress through the story, you’ll gain new equipment that will in turn allow you to access those new locations. Tomb Raider is as much a platformer as anything else, and as such, accessing these areas almost always includes climbing or jumping of some sort, both of which feel very responsive, so that traversal is always fun.

When Lara isn’t busy being battered, bruised or otherwise abused, she’s want to do a bit of extracurricular tomb raiding. Luckily, she ended up stranded on an island consisting of several beginner level tombs to practice her newfound hobby on. Truthfully, there aren’t all that many optional tombs to explore throughout the whole of Lara’s ordeal, but what is there is interesting and fun enough a distraction to be worth the time they’ll take to complete. It is a shame there aren’t more, and that each only takes ten minutes or less to solve. On the upside, many of the story beats also consist of puzzles in places that are essentially tombs by any other name.

One thing that’s never in short supply in Tomb Raider, (unlike the actual tombs) is high-octane, set-piece focused action. Roughly a half-dozen times I found myself running through a building or environment that was either on fire or exploding, and it was, to my surprise, always a blast. During these linear set-piece sections, Lara will often find herself faced with a group of enemies to overcome. She can do so in a variety of ways, be it stealthily with her trusty bow or pickaxe, or running-and-gunning with more traditional firearms. The violence can occasionally be very graphic, both in Lara’s death animations and in the way enemies can be killed, almost unnecessarily so. Lara will often find herself falling down cliffs, into rivers, and onto sharp objects, but it always remains gruesome, largely thanks to highly effect but gut-wrenching sound design.

Indeed, the extreme violence is where Tomb Raider’s biggest issue surfaces. The difference between Lara’s character and demeanour in cut-scenes and her actions during gameplay can be very jarring. She’ll go from scared and disturbed from having had to kill someone for the first time, straight to wiping out a group of assailants. This has come to be known as Ludonarrative Dissonance, in which the player’s actions when controlling the character display a major inconsistency with the narrative aspects of the game determined by the developers. It’s a tough thing to work around, though. The developer is at once tasked with telling the story they want to tell, and providing a game that’s also fun to play. The alternative in this case would have been to scale down the action and most of the killing, for a more slow-paced and gradual transition, but that might not have made for such enjoyable gameplay.

Experiencing Lara Croft’s struggle to survive first-hand has been, admittedly, inspiring. It’s rare to find a game that displays a female character with such respect and strength, as a real subject opposed to an object. It’s refreshing, and makes me hopeful for the continuation and success of this particular franchise reboot. A reboot is normally inducive of an eye-roll, but in this case it’s exactly what the series needed. And while there is a mildly troublesome disconnect between Lara narratively and the violent action in-game, Tomb Raider still succeeds in developing her character in a meaningful way and providing a game that’s a whole lot of fun to play at the same time.

This was written by videogame person Eric Mack. You can read more things he wrote on the Gorilla website.

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