Here’s lookin at you, kid.
Yes, Tomb Raider has been a bit stale for a long while and yes there hasn’t been a good iteration for very long time for the franchise. Guardian of Light was probably the only notable step in the right direction, but took the gameplay in a different direction from the traditional Tomb Raider games of the past. The big problem is that corridor crawling adventure games were clunky for the longest time and there was a big gap in the genre since the 3d era began. Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, even Mario and Zelda games made big advances in the 3d era, but of these early predecessors Tomb Raider holds up the least. Mario and Zelda prided themselves on fluid controls which made playing these games, even today, very enjoyable. The primitive interpretations of how players should be able to move translated well to the format that gamers are used to nowadays. Resident Evil controls like a 1920s era tank sold at discount from the crazy soviet from down the block. Turn in place, run forward. Turn in place some more, run forward. Fast mobility wasn’t a priority, and actually worked towards the games theming. Resident Evil is meant to be a survival horror game, so having fluid mobility takes away from the fear of the game. The awkwardness when controlling Jill or Chris adds to the panic when you’re trying to get away from the Zombie or Crimson making its way to eat some face. Tomb Raider controls in a similar fashion, with some more mobility than Resident Evil, but still extremely clunky by today’s standards, but since Tomb Raider isn’t a Survival Horror game, it makes the game all the more frustrating when revisiting the game with present eyes.
The older games are part platformer, part third person shooter, part puzzle adventure game. What makes platformers enjoyable are the fact that movement and accuracy are tightly coupled because when they are not, when running and jumping aren’t easy to do, when the movements you’re trying to make and the movements that come out are so vastly different, then it leads to quick and painful frustration. You’re trying to move your arm to pick up your coffee, but have so little ability to control yourself that your arm swings knocking over the cup, the computer monitor, and a stack of old magazines while half of your body swings into the table in front of you as you try and compensate for your lack of control. (Life after a stroke must suck, I’d imagine. That might sound a bit insensitive, but this is the only real frame of reference that I’d have about the matter, before someone blows my statement out of proportion. Christ, defending myself to imaginary assumptions during stream of conscious writing…) But a lack of control makes it such a less enjoyable endeavor to play a game, especially after being introduced to games that create controls that are surgically precise. This is partly why other games that tried to make the leap to 3d didn’t turn out well, e.g. Castlevania 64. This isn’t to say that Tomb Raider didn’t do a good job at the time. It brought a strong willed female character to mascot a new console franchise and led to a few staples for the console alongside Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. Crash and Spyro were able to survive the PS1 era thanks to their fluidity, but the various imprecisions of each, as well as the lack of persistence and innovation through console generations led to the lack of staying power for each franchise.
Because of the clunkiness of the controls of previous Tomb Raiders, it led to a problem in post PS1-era games where slow-style adventure games weren’t cutting it anymore in the mainstream market so the franchise needed to start getting its tank controls to be a bit more responsive. Thanks to the Analog Stick added to the Dualshock controller, it game developers a better understanding of easier 3d movement. It wasn’t until 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend where franchise started to pick up again, but the game really only just started to perfect the movement. After this, 2008s Tomb Raider: Underworld took a dip again with poorly done camera and controls among other gameplay issues, like simplified puzzles and weak combat overall. I don’t think it was until this 2013 reboot of the franchise that she’s finally got a grip on her own movements.
What a long lead up to the review right? So her movements are fluid, the combat feels solid, and the puzzles aren’t necessarily the most simplified there is, granted there are only a small handful of puzzles throughout the game which is somewhat disappointing. This is partly because it had a model of mimicking its controls from many other modern successful contemporaries. Resident Evil made this jump in Resident Evil 4 where movement and fighting was an easy transition and combat was intuitive while still maintaining the environmental pressures of the game. But it also had a helping hand from the Uncharted franchise that took the reins during the PS3 era for the best action-adventure game and story around. Sharing their love for set-pieces, lots of mid-climb butt-clenchers and chase sequences to get the heart pounding along with a story about personal growth wrapped in an adventure with paranormal explanations for strange phenomena make the games a good time to be had by all.
But there are still PLENTY of problems with the game that they still could have learned from its contemporaries.
The pacing of the game is just plain bad. The original franchise was built as an adventure game with action elements, focusing on exploration and puzzle solving. As our ability to create and test more intricate puzzles requiring players to have more precise timing, the diversity in puzzles should’ve also increased. But there was a clear lack of effort in this department. The game had all of a half dozen tombs with puzzles included and while some of them required both finesse and wit, others were rudimentary “find the stuff you can climb, set on fire, or throw” which was very few and easy to find since games nowadays love to add a sixth-sense ability in their games, the hawk-eye, why I’m better than anyone else in my world, detective mode in the game. You stand there and get to see EVERYTHING that you can manipulate and since there isn’t much to manipulate, you get a fairly straight-forward understanding on any puzzle you come across, whether it’s because you don’t know where to go, how to get there, or things you can play with to make this possible.
I’m really against the whole “sixth-sense” ability that adventure games have been adding nowadays. It tends to come from an inability to make routes obvious without suspending the reality of the world, so why not give us an “intuition” on where to go, right? Mario can get away with having solid colors designing the path on where to go because it’s set in a more cartoon-y world. Legend of Zelda is a more serious game, but still portrayed in a “painted” or “story-book” style to where routes are still easily discernable to never be completely frustrating to navigate. But because we’re essentially in a restricted sandbox with limited forms of mobility, there needs to be some way to let the player navigate more easily without giving them something completely outside the reality of the game. The only good thing I can attest to Tomb Raider’s implementation of this is that you can’t just leave it on and wander about the world the entire time but can only use it when standing in place, giving the illusion that you’re actually just really good at surveying the land. This works two fold since the player still gets to marvel at all of the wonderfully illustrated panoramics and textures littered throughout the scenes and environments instead of gazing at a black and white landscape with popped out yellow telling the player all of the right places to go and taking all of the exploration out of the game.
The other issue with the way that they handled the puzzles in the game was that they were only found in the optional tombs. Well, that’s not true. There were a few puzzles that were part of the main storyline, but the more skillfully rewarding puzzles were only found in the optional tombs, I found. These puzzles were the ones that felt like you were an explorer, a treasure hunter, and not just someone that’s trying to get off of an island with people trying to kill you and your friends. Having these puzzles be part of the main campaign instead of possible happenstances would definitely leave a better impression with players because the people that play these parts with have more of a unity from their shared experiences, shared pain and shared perseverance of the trials instead of the fragmented experience that each player might or might not have had.
On the other hand, one could argue that the shared experience comes from the people that tried to get the most out of the game, exploring every corridor they come across, but also spending the extra hours to find where all of these extra corridors are. The reward for the player’s persistence is the enjoyment in finding and conquering these extra puzzles.
Contrived Plot Pacing
But there’s a small aside from mentioning the people that Lara is trying to help get off of this paranormal island. There’s a large enough group of them to where plenty of people can die off in order to progress Lara’s character, but it all just seems so contrived. The two father figures who were friends of the late father of Lara, sacrificing themselves to save their spiritual daughter, severing all direct knowledge to Lara’s past and her father’s explorations, but also having another person who had feelings for Lara forced to sacrifice himself with so many explosions that Michael Bay’s camera perked up just hearing about it. I can understand that losing the father figure causes Lara to have to grow as a self-guided leader in order to defend herself and defend the lives of her friends, and the other would-be love-interest dying causing a drift in the group for all of one scene but just how schitzcho can the group be?
We see the group find Lara passed out, everyone is getting along fine aside from the fact that everyone else on the ship might be dead, but who cares they weren’t friends of ours? We see their people captured and slaughtered by the inhabitants of the island but no one’s mad at Lara. Her friends get captured and Lara goes in to save them and they greet you with grins and open arms as their savior. But the second the father-figure dies, “welp ol’ Lara is clearly the problem here.” Lover-boy dies, “welp I can’t trust her no more.” Another person that is clearly a self-serving antagonizer, whom Lara warned us about, comes back and steals a friend away and now all is well again. “We’ll follow her into the depths of hell and back.” No, not completely apropos to the story one bit.
Maybe if there was more of a progression from emotions than Love-to-Hate in just three easy steps I might be able to get behind it more, but the way everyone behaves is just a bit too unrealistic in order to get Lara the way that they wanted. It’s like someone took plot points and made a script based solely on the plot points. First off, we need the group to have a reason to love and trust Lara since we haven’t seen them for a good ten hours of gameplay. Next, find some reason for her to grow as a leader, so the main leader has to die and people don’t trust her yet. Now we need to show that she’s a terrible leader and no-one should trust her yet. Oh, but now we need people to trust her again. And the storyboard people sit there and make the four scenes that create this picture, but nothing very little ancillary story to tie them together. They pat themselves on the back, job well done, call it a day and grab a beer and admire the work they did. Ok, that’s a bit unfair because I know writing a story for a 10+ hour game isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, a story which needs to be cohesive, easy to pick up from when the player is possibly just going to explore for an hour or so, character development that shines a light of depth towards the major characters of the game, but a lot of this just wasn’t exactly groundbreaking nor unique in any right. I don’t mean to shit completely on the story-writers because they did do good job on some parts, but the holes in the writing are just so much more obvious when you have what feels like an hour or so worth of dialogue and character development in a game that takes 10+ hours to play.
Combat for the game felt very lackluster as well, like many games of this genre do. With little variety in enemy types and behavior, it creates plateaus (turning into dips) in tension when you already know how people will behave. The game did do a few things well, with enemies popping out at different locations from time to time as reinforcements, coupled with semi-diverse layouts for shoot-outs to occur, it made for difficulties to arise when you think that you have the game all figured out. I will also agree that it lends to the realism of the game. If the enemy baddies are all part of the same gang, why wouldn’t they all be similarly geared except for the lieutenants and the other higher-ranking people of the group? The problem is that there aren’t many ways to remedy the need to increase the difficulty in combat except for making unexpected things happen or by sending increasingly larger wave after wave of your own men until the kill limit is reached and the player-bot is shut off. You need to keep raising the expectations of the player’s ability in order for the player to not get bored with the combat, right? But there are only so many ways you can layout the room, have enemies pop out from an un-expected location or have them behind a kill-shield while the player searches for a “clever” way to get around them. Or you just let the enemies become better bullet-sponges requiring the need for better precision, upgraded weaponry or more bullets making it harder to kill them, but this is so unbelievably lazy and uninspiring that except for cases where it can be argued as an artificial wall to warn the player that “this place needs you to be more badass before proceeding.”
The game already teases the whole supernatural aspect for the game, but only delivers this at last two scenes. With enemies finally changing from goons with guns and moltovs to Ronin who aren’t afraid of taking a bullet to the face letting them charge at you, slashing away with their Katana, swinging their Battle-Axes or firing their arrows at you, finally giving a refreshing change to the combat system. But this only lasts for a scene; a rather hectic scene, but short-lived non-the-less. And the last final boss being the Oni made for a good test of reaction and skill boss, but ultimately made the lack of diversity more apparent and seemed more like these “supernatural” enemies took backseat in development, creation and implementation. It would have been refreshing to have some lowly versions of these enemies appear earlier in the game, to give a different perspective to the conflicts occurring, maybe to test out different skills of the player, or to give a different learning scenario for the player to become familiar with different enemy behaviors and battle tactics, i.e. AI.
This approach would’ve also helped out the game’s “boss battles” if you could call them that. The only real boss battles that I can remember are the fight on the ship against the armored Samoan and the Oni at the very end of the game. Only two scenes where the player is tested heavily in hand-to-hand finesse combined with quick-aim precision. Otherwise fights tended to become more and more hectic in diverse shooting playgrounds, which was the big takeaway from the experience. If the supernatural was embraced early on, there could’ve at least been more instances of “boss battles” giving a better sense of checkpoint and accomplishment for the player. Again, this could be argued with the “realism” aspect, but this is a game about the supernatural phenomena coupled with ancient civilization mythology so there can at least be more instances of the unknown occurring while holding our suspension of disbelief. Even Uncharted had you fighting superhuman lycan-ish in the first game giving you more thrills and suspense for about a third of the game instead of just the last half hour of the game.
I will give the game a few credits though for incorporating different states of health in fighting either by taking your weapons away after becoming accustomed to encounters with them or causing Lara to be in poor health making her agility and close-combat worthless. It at least caused the player to remember to approach encounters more methodically, like a real survivalist should do, like someone who is extraordinarily outnumbered should do.
The game does a lot of things right, in both recreating what predecessors have done but also in expanding and reinterpreting what they have done in order to try and make it their own instead of copying the success of the genre’s contemporaries. But the game still has a lot to work on in the way it approaches some of these philosophies such as its story and character development, its variety in combat and its use of “puzzles” in game. Trying to keep what made the Tomb Raider franchise its own thing instead of being reimagined as a clone of others. Keeping a distinct voice for itself while singing the verses of other songs, or maybe even composing its own song that sounds nothing like the rest. Unique, original, but with knowledge of the struggles that those before them came across and overcame.