Girl on Fire: The Tomb Raider Review

I have a problem: Tomb Raider is an incredibly difficult game to review. An appraisal of Crystal Dynamic’s recent reboot to the classic adventure series depends so much upon what you expect. There are so many preconceptions and perspectives to take into account; how does one produce an objective, helpful review? And how on Earth do you put a number to that?

I mean, look at the die-hard Tomb Raider fans. A lot of them aren’t impressed. They’re not convinced of the tonal shift of the story and graphics, nor the change in emphasis in gameplay, nor the lack of dress-up options. It seems to me that a lot of these complaints come from a very narrow definition of what Tomb Raider is (or should be). And yet, they’re quite valid because core fans feel disenfranchised, even left behind, by a story they once totally bought into.

Or look at the gaming press, or ‘core’ gamers like myself. We’re desperate for innovation, for change, for new experiences. All the preview talk has focused on Lara’s character, the tough survival aspect, the sheer brutality of the experience. When you compare the game against what seemed to be promised in the original vision, it comes up disappointingly short. Sure, the dark spirit and strong character are there – but Tomb Raider is so compromised by an obsessive need to be modern that sometimes it looks like just another third-person shooter.

I reckon the secret to both a helpful review and enjoyable experience is to take the game on its own merits. Forget everything you know about games and Lara Croft, drop those preconceptions and just play the damn thing. If you can do that, Tomb Raider turns out to be a solid, highly enjoyable third person shooter, with a strong story and outstanding sense of character.

Tomb Raider’s greatest success is Lara herself (even if she is still overly sexualised). The whole game is geared towards telling her story, to watching her transformation from a normal (well, normal-ish) human being into a hard-nosed survivor. The script and voice acting are both compelling, while Lara’s embodiment in the world (ie, her presence, animation and movement) is convincing. Listening to Lara try to gee herself up, to stoke her self-belief; or watching her tender, convincing relationship with her best friend, are effective and moving ways to build the character. I mean, she really feels like a person, not just a puppet, and that’s a great achievement. It’s not perfect – the transition from victim to killer is a little too swift – but it still tells one of the best character-driven stories in gaming history.

You don’t realise quite how much you’ve come to care for Lara until she dies. Tomb Raider is not a difficult game (at least if you have some experience of free-shooters), so deaths are infrequent. But when you do bite it, a grisly death animation is triggered: from cracking your head on the rocks, to being impaled by a triumphant guard. They’re shocking, stomach-turning sequences – so well realised that you feel genuine guilt for leading Lara to such a nasty end (or at least, I did). It’s a small detail, but turns out to be one of the master strokes of the game’s design, making Lara feel more human than ever before.

The big frustration is that while Tomb Raider gets a lot of things right, it also makes a lot of bad decisions. The design is undercut by an obsessive, even fetishistic, streak. Take its a scatter-shot feature-list, which takes a greedy swipe at every modern trend from the last twenty years of gaming. Cover systems, collectibles, multiplayer team deathmatch, levelling-up of core skills and abilities, quick-time events, on-rail sections, highly-visible achievements. It all comes at a near-fatal cost of immersion. It’s strange that an experience which tries so hard to be convincing, immersive and absorbing is so gamey. Nothing undermines the poignancy of Lara’s first kill like a pop-up which appears after the second, screaming “Headshot! +10xp” and hi-fiving your epic awesomeness.

That obsessive spirit runs deeper, affecting the level progression and overall story. There’s something very sadistic about the constant battering Lara receives. The game makes the most of any excuse to stab, punch, tumble, crack, split, shatter Lara. These bruising encounters quickly start to lose credibility, turning from wince-worthy sequences to comical ballets of pain. It’s in danger of devolving into torture-porn.

Then there’s fire. Oh, man, Crystal Dynamics LOVES fire. Within a minute of playing the game, you’ll already have set Lara alight. Whenever there’s a puzzle to solve, your first instinct is to find something to burn and just see what falls out. Whenever you enter a building, you just know it’s going to be up in flames within the hour. Major weapon upgrades tend to involve a pyrotechnic addition: burning arrows, grenade-launcher attachments, incendiary rounds. Apparently when Crystal Dynamics asked “How do we make this better?”, “Where do we go from here?” and “Do we think there’s enough fire?”, their favourite answer was “Let’s add more fire”.

There are other problems with mar a generally enjoyable experience. Enemy and animal AI is absolutely terrible, which really hurts the immersion and challenge of the experience. The kleptomaniac Cornucopia of collectibles completely side-tracks the plot – Lara’s desperate quest to send out a distress signal forgotten in the search of that last collectible book, the hunt for a little more salvage, the sight of another animal to hunt. It’s all so unfocused, so hard to ignore; a constant stream of distractions which don’t materially improve the game at all, but merely serve to pad it out. There are too many quick-time events, too many on-rails chases, too many shoot-outs.

Technically, Tomb Raider is superb on the PC. It’s atmospheric and full of beautiful, rich environments which retain a striking, consistent style. Inevitably, given the pyromaniac predisposition of the development team, the fire looks great. I’m running on old budget hardware – three-core 2ghz CPU (don’t ask), silent Radeon 7750, 4GB RAM – but the game plays smoothly even at high resolution. I understand there were lots of problems with Nvidia graphics cards at launch, but I believe those have since been resolved.

Everyone has something different to say about Tomb Raider. Maybe we didn’t get the reboot we were hoping for, or maybe we didn’t want a reboot in the first place. But it’s here – and everyone seems to agree that as a third-person shooter, Tomb Raider is really good fun. It’s easy to think that the game could have been better if it had stayed true to its original vision – but we’ve only got the game we’ve been given. At least, if you look at it objectively, it’s hard to deny that we’ve been given a very good game indeed.

Verdict: 8/10

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