Tomb Raider 2013 Review

16 03 2013

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Introduction:

I have to start off by saying that this should have been the game I’d been waiting on and following since it was announced. However, I had the misfortune of making Aliens: Colonial Marines the game I had been following and anxiously waiting for since 2007. Much to my chagrin we all know how that game turned out, but I digress on that point. What I’m getting at is Tomb Raider, for me, more than lived up to the hype it built up before release.

Lastly, before I get started, let it also be known that I did play the “old school” Tomb Raider games, but I wasn’t exactly a diehard fan, so I think my opinion should be fairly un-biased in approaching this game. (At least I’ll pretend that it is ☺)

For those of you that have not played the game, or are mostly oblivious to what this game is about, basically Crystal Dynamics decided to do a reboot on the Lara Croft franchise. Which in my opinion was a solid move as the franchise was in desperate need of the revival.

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Setup:

So if you’re a classic Tomb Raider player, you’re probably used to playing a female avatar in short shorts, skimpy top, ridiculously large bosom, and dual wielding pistols while vanquishing bandits with physics defying aerial maneuvers. While that approach worked in the 90’s, nowadays, the trend in AAA games tends to be hyperrealism. Basically, Crystal Dynamics took this idea, and really ran with it. They realized they needed a more “human” Lara Croft than in previous renditions of the game. So how do they accomplish this? They do a prequel of course! What better way to attempt actual character development with this heroine than going to a time when she’s young, innocent, and not the badass Tomb Raiding diva we were used too.

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More than that, they needed to make Lara Croft relatable to audiences. As previously stated, the classic formula of having a cliché hero/heroine just “blowing shit up” doesn’t cut it much anymore, it’s typically far less engaging to audiences, as they want something real, like I’ve already said, something relatable.

Initial Impressions:

The first hour in the game is spent going from quick time event to quick time event while Lara is literally brutalized and beaten relentlessly, and if you’re not on the ball, killed in some pretty viscerally nail biting ways. Fortunately, the extreme linear nature of the first hour does not persist for the rest of the game. The first hour is really about establishing one thing, Lara is alone, hurt, cold, starving, in a foreign place, and most importantly, she’s incredibly afraid for her life.

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This is an important fact because the rest of the game you’ll watch as Lara goes through a transformation of an innocent archeology graduate to a steadfast heroine, who is not squeamish in the least in dispatching her enemies.

Some critic argue that the transition from Lara being unwilling to take lives to when she no longer has a problem with it happens a little too quickly. While I do agree, it happens rather quickly, based on the severity of their situation in the story, it doesn’t feel too awkward or unnatural. Especially after you see some of the scenes she goes through, you probably won’t have a problem with her willingness to take human life so readily.

If you are familiar with the classical “Hero” cycle with story arcs, you’ll find a lot of checkmarks and parallels with Lara Crofts story.

Environment:

After the first hour of play, the game really opens up. For the most part, the game still follows a linear design, however, within specific areas you’re free to find tombs (which are puzzles without enemies), salvage materials in the area, hunt for food, or you can keep plowing along the main story quest. With the salvaging, there’s a nice meta experience as you constantly acquire and upgrade your gear, it adds a nice progression system to the game.

Getting back to the environment, to date, it’s one of the most breathtaking games that I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying. Keep in mind, I played it on PC but I’m told it looks very beautiful on console as well. I found myself just periodically stopping and panning the camera so I could enjoy the visuals of the island. I think out of the entire play through, which took me about 12-13 hours, there was only one or two areas that didn’t look absolutely stunning.

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The environment also does a really good job of hiding the overall linear aspect of the game. It FEELS like a sandbox type game, even though it truly isn’t. One way it accomplishes this is by the “campsite system”. Once you’ve discovered a campsite location, you can travel to it from any other campsite. This allows you to go back and explore tombs, or large areas that you might have blasted through.

Speaking of the tombs, they are pretty satisfying, and some of the puzzles are pretty creative. Overall, I think they could have made some of them more difficult, but they were creative and interesting enough that it more than made up for it. From a design perspective, the Tombs are a very creative way of incorporating “negative space” into the pacing of your game. “Negative space” is time in the game where designers give you a cool down from excitement, usually that equates to time in games when there aren’t enemies trying to kill you. They do this because they want to bring your excitement (chemicals in your brain) down to a lower level, so you don’t get fatigued on an engagement level. However, I’m going off on a tangent so I digress. Basically, the tombs allow for a nice break from the action! (See, much more simple lol…)

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Core Gameplay Mechanics (Combat, platforming, etc.):

So let’s get on to some of the core mechanics in the game. Naturally, first and foremost Tomb Raider is a platformer. You’ll do all sorts of climbing, jumping, falling, zip lining, running, dodging, and overall manipulating your environment to attain some goal or objective.

What is also unique about this Tomb Raider is that they incorporated a fair amount of combat into the game. I think they did a pretty good job balancing combat with platforming elements however. When you enter into a space where enemies are present, Lara will automatically go into a crouched combat mode. You can choose to hide in the environment and silently assassinate your enemies with a silent arrow, or you can close with them and engage with guns and a climbing pick axe.

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The thing I was most impressed with was the fact that some areas require you to manipulate objects, then jump off them, or use them in some way while they are still in motion to achieve your goal. This sounds like a “well no shit it’s a platformer”, but if you know anything about game development, setting up collision volumes and the proper physics properties on objects within the game is a tremendous amount of work. Needless to say, they pulled it off pretty damn well.

UI:

To be honest, there really isn’t much of a user interface in this Tomb Raider game, which is a good thing. You have your classic non-diegetic ammo HUD counter, and when you enter Lara’s “instinct” mode, you’ll see specific objects light up in a tac-com type UI. For Lara’s health, they use the classic meta-physical system of blood splatters and your screen changing colors to represent how close to death you are. There’s no health bar, and Lara’s health will slowly recharge over time. You’ll also get audio and visual cues from Lara that she’s been damaged. Overall, there are as few as possible UI elements within the game that you actually see.

Overall this is great as you spend more time looking at your character and the beautiful environment she’s running around in.

Stability:

Like I said earlier, a solid play through with about 80% completion of everything in the game took me about 13 hours…. and the game didn’t crash once! Granted, if you have an Nvidia card, there are supposedly some issues with on that hardware setup. Or you can play on console and probably not experience any crashing either. I highly recommend you play it on PC if you have a rig that can run it on at least high graphics settings, especially as you can turn on the Tress RX function and see how it looks when every single strand of hair is animated. Sometimes, it gets all out of wack and you see some wonky animations, but overall it looks amazing.

I run a fairly decent high-end machine, and I still had to turn some of the graphics from their highest setting, so the game has a very high potential if you’re an enthusiast and like buying $600 video cards every six months. Either way, the game is absolutely gorgeous.

Complaints:

I only have a couple of comments here. One is that the quick time events do not transfer very well to PC. Half the time you don’t know which button you’re supposed to be mashing, and the hit detection for the keyboard during quick time events just sucks all around. Most people I know just had an xbox 360 controller plugged into their PC, and grabbed it real quick for the quick time events. They are doable, and you actually get used to their brokenness, but easily the biggest drawback to play the game on PC. Fortunately, after the first hour of play, there aren’t very many quick time events, so it’s only a minor inconvenience.

Lastly, the only other complaint is that there are certain parts of the game where Lara doesn’t react how you’d think she’d react, there’s a few character dialogue sequences that feel….. fake. Fortunately, there are less than a handful of them, and the overall character development and dialogue are so well done that it doesn’t break the engagement of the game or story. Considering how many sequences they had to draw up, act out, animate, and what not I’d say that it’s pretty damn well executed. Especially considering that it’s not a Call of Duty 4 hour campaign, even rushing through, I still sunk about 13 hours in, so you definitely get your money’s worth.

Summary:

Overall, I think Crystal Dynamics knocked it out of the park with this game. I feel they did a good job of doing a solid heroine hero cycle as I felt a connection with the character I was playing, and not only through pathos, but in triumph in overcoming obstacles and watching the character change after life altering events. I thoroughly enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, and I think the new Lara Croft is an engaging, realistic, and relatable female character for audiences to connect with. If you haven’t given this game a look, I highly suggest you check it out, as you won’t be disappointed.

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Feel free to comment here with your thoughts!

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4 responses

17 03 2013
7adrummer

I have another friend who also had the misfortune of following Aliens: CM and he tried to defend that game for a while; in the end he ended up admitting that he was just mad to have wasted almost a year so closely following it, haha. Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of good stuff on Tomb Raider, but your review was the most in-depth I’ve seen. I may just have to get it now.

17 03 2013
Randen Dunlap

Thanks! I tried to write something that was somewhat all inclusive, but spoiler free at the same time. I especially wanted to keep it spoiler free from the main narrative as there’s some pretty good plot twists in the story.

Yes, Aliens: Colonial Marines is an incredible let down, but what can you do, just move on to games that deserve your $$ and time! Tomb Raider isn’t perfect, there are a few places that will make you grind your teeth for sure, but I haven’t played a game since The Witcher 2 that was as engaging and compelling for me. I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed with your purchase.

25 12 2013
projectedrealities

Thank you very much for your following my movie-review blog and for this excellent review. God bless, and merry Christmas. =)

25 12 2013
Randen Dunlap

Thanks, you as well!

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