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Review Tomb Raider: Lessons in survival

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Let’s face it. Survival is a dirty, aggressive and well, lonely business. It’s all about you. So when I got my hands on a copy of Tomb Raider I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly did not expect to be eaten up by a pack of four wolves after some badly placed arrows.

A reboot of Tomb Raider left me wondering a few things. First and most obviously, would it be good? Second, would it be different to the previous releases? The game’s been out for quite some time now, so if you’ve been checking up the videos and screenshots littered around the internet, you’ll see the stark visual differences from its predecessors immediately. I’m going to settle something first-off. This is a different game to any other Tomb Raider you have ever played. Colours are more vivid, jungles are looming and dense and caves are menacing places where hidden terrors await you. I wouldn’t call it realistic but it’s definitely cinematic and entertaining in all its aspects. Square Enix succeeded brilliantly with the use of colour, sound and environmental effects. Voice acting is also quite effective, with even the tricky Scottish accent easy to understand.

The world in which Lara has to survive in is violent, filled with all sorts of gory details like bodies decaying, bones lying around and blood pooling in all sorts of places.

A new kind of Tomb Raider

The first impressions of Lara are different, too. She looks functional (and attractive, of course), with her walkie talkie strapped to her belt, bow and arrow held neatly over her shoulder and axe kept close at hand (in case a pesky door or contraption needs to be forced). Lara’s 3D model is extremely detailed and vivid. Her flowing hair and bloodied clothing add to the impression that Lara is meant to be a survivor. The game begins with Lara (as expected) being naive and lacking confidence. Very soon, however, she grows thick skin and becomes stronger, faster and much more confident in her abilities. The change isn’t just in personality. It also happens in her appearance with more scars appearing on her body. Her expression also becomes harder.This is all fitting with the game as it becomes more and more difficult as it progresses.

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Gameplay: platformer, shooter and brawler

Now – every now and again a game comes along that takes all of the best elements that made other great games what they were, and improves on almost every aspect of them. This is one of them. Tomb Raider is not just an adventure game, it’s a platformer, shooter and brawler in one package.

There are also role playing elements included where you improve on Lara in three different areas. Add some interesting physics and movement puzzles into this, and you have a game that actually achieves the kind of integrated gameplay that many titles set out to do but never actually execute well in totality.

First is the adventurer herself who gains new skills such as gaining better salvaging abilities, allowing greater modifications of weapons or simply revealing maps if exploration is something that you want to pursue.

Second are the brawler upgrades which allow Lara to perform various close combat manoeuvres to defend herself better (or offend in some very brutal cases) in the midst of combat.

Third are weapon skills where Lara learns new execution moves. The upgrade choices are straightforward and allow you to develop Lara to go along with your own play style. Weapons are also upgradeable. Lara is first given a basic bow and arrow. This is followed by a pistol, assault rifle and shotgun. Each upgrade changes the animated model of the respective weapon. This gives each weapon a DIY personalised look that adds to the better functionality. Also, as you progress into the game Lara gains new models replacing older pieces of equipment, such as a WWII assault rifle changing into a battered AK-47. Weapons also gain multiple ammo types and add-ons – like your bow gaining explosive and napalm arrows later on.Like with your skill set, how you choose your loadout upgrades largely depends on your play style.

The harmony between sound and landscape

The voice acting is clear and well-acted. Each environment’s set of background sounds adds to the atmosphere of the game, matching the stark contrasts of the different environments. Animals chatter in the background, larger levels have sound spaces that match the visuals. Tighter environments have equally claustrophobic audio stages to contrast the game’s larger designs. Wolves growl in the jungle ominously, never revealing truly where they are until ready for attack. Gunshots echo all around while sounds of bullet impacts shattering cover piece by piece are played out, adding a sense that sound was something that was paid attention considerably during development. Lara and her friends’ voices are clearly played out and understood easily. 

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Graphics: displaying a world filled with contrasts

Graphics were also given a great deal of attention.  I played the game on an Xbox 360. I don’t doubt that the PC version looks even better than the console counterparts. The use of colour in Tomb Raider is relative to the scene being played out. Each level has its own unique set of colours – bloody rivers rage with red and orange, with darker tones to add depth to the violence and dementia of the scene.

While on the other hand, icy mountains have a mix of dark brown with blue and white of the ice and snow on the mountain peaks showcasing the sterility of high altitudes. Texturing, like with most Xbox 360 games is of relatively high quality, but due to the specifications of the console the visuals have had to be turned down somewhat for the sake of performance. There were moments where the visual loss was very apparent, one such moment was on the last few levels where the quality of ice textures was lessened. This took away a little from the immersion for me.Overall however, Tomb Raider kept its visual quality up enough for me not to think about the visual loss incurred by lesser hardware needed compromise.

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Good Bloody Mess

The game’s graphics are also biased toward the violent. Every level has some kind of bloodiness. Whether Lara is traversing bloody underground rivers, or fighting off hordes of manic cultists. Want to see a thick tree branch stick itself into Lara’s neck? Done. Just don’t control her properly down fast flowing rapids. Want to crack Lara’s skull against a rock in the sea? Sure. All it takes is a misstep around some shipwrecks. The tendency toward violence is so great here that just about anything in the immediate game world could kill Lara.

In the beginning of the game it’s easy to get eaten by a pack of three or four wolves. Gunplay is intuitive and accessible with an easy control scheme. Hold the right trigger in to aim, fire with your left – and depending on whether you’re using a gun or bow you fire. The bow has rope arrows, which is activated by the right bumper button. Ammo types can be selected by the D-Pad. There is a single melee attack button that allows you to perform multiple functions depending on context. One situation is during a stealth attack. The Y (by default) button icon is shown above an opponent’s head. Dodging is also possible while aiming with the B button (default B for dodge movements). All this adds up to very intuitive and enjoyable play.

One thing I must to give credit to Crystal Dynamics for is the smooth cover system Tomb Raider makes use of. You don’t have to tap a button to jump into cover. Very simply, move close to a cover object and Lara will duck automatically. This also happens when opponents are near as Lara will skulk to produce less noise. She can also vault over cover if the need arises. Change of direction in Lara’s movement is also easily done, such as when an opponent attacks from behind. Just a turn in the opposite direction, combined with a melee attack or dodge can save Lara from dying an unnecessary death by flank.

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Exploration

Exploration – this is an aspect of the game that is fairly easy to complete. There are hidden artifacts, GPS caches and tombs to find. All of which are unique. If you’re the completionist type this is something that you’ll definitely want to capitalise on. Lara is also a capable free runner. This makes for quick flowing movements through areas that would not normally be easy to go through. The control system is partly to thank for here. Much of the flow of Tomb Raider makes use of quick time events as a vehicle to push Lara out of touch situations like escaping an attack by an undead samurai army, or recovering from falling off a busted bridge.

For most part these were fun and highly unexpected however, some slower sections turned down the pace of progression unnecessarily. Quicktime events are also used for when Lara is in a jam in combat.

Outsmarted by AI

The opponent AI is also something worthy of mention here, it is generally really smart. Lara will be flanked, she will be taken by surprise from behind and at times will be shot at with alarming precision if small mistakes are made. Lara will also be unexpectedly stormed by two or more enemies. There were situations however where bottle-necking was enough to dispatch around seven armoured guards with assault rifles with a simple bow and arrow.

Enemies also make use of various classes. Hand-to-hand fighters will charge at you while archers back off and take aim as you fight off their hordes. There are some dim-witted moments where for example an archer would choose to run into you as opposed to backing off into cover, or perhaps use guerrilla tactics. This does take away somewhat from the experience.

Other bells and whistles

Tomb Raider also has a feature called Instincts where aspects such as problem solving, target visibility and environmental cues are highlighted. This is a useful feature when visibility is low and enemies are tricky to spot, but makes the game much easier than it needs to be. Most physics puzzles are solved simply by observing the environment. Your aiming reticule also indicates where enemies are by turning red. Also, explosive barrels litter the environments and are very easy to spot.

Make no mistake – this is no survival game. This is a hardcore action game. If you exclude the quicktime events, platforming and physics puzzles you have a tactical shooter that stands up with the likes of Gears of War. The cover system proves that you don’t need a button to move around intuitively. Arrows fired into opponents’ heads send bodies flying back with massive force. Guns feel like they have power, and a simple little pistol has enough stopping power to slow down some of the tougher armoured enemies Lara will face.

I must admit that other portions of Tomb Raider do add to the experience but take away from the immersion of the intense combat. I have no doubt that Square Enix has plans to improve on these for the next game (and you bet there will be one after the success of this reboot).

Some minor issues

Yes. There are a few. There are glitches that prevent you from moving onto the next segment of the game. My suggestion is to use another save slot every now and then, so that if you need to redo the previous section so you can go through correctly. Bodies disappear quickly after you’ve rummaged for what you need from them, and this takes away from the sense of immersion in the game world.

Lara tends to become too powerful too quickly. You’ll find that even with the tougher opposition dispatching of your enemies is a matter of cleanup and not survival. Some slower sections of the game tend to frustrate rather than improve the flow of the game. Also, non-player characters are virtually two-dimensional and seem unnecessary in the face of the brilliance of the solo experience.

I would also go as far as wanting some more specialisation options in leveling up. It’s too easy to become a master in almost everything in a single playthrough.

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Closing thoughts

After all the nitpicking the question that needs to be asked is: Is this game worth your money? Yes. There are not many games that make you want to keep playing with various different types of gameplay. There are not many games that will provide you with this kind of visceral and vicious combat. And most importantly: There is no other game that I have played that has allowed me such wonderful use of a bow and arrow, guns, melee combat and exploration combined with free running. This is an important game. You should buy it and play it in every way you can. It’s that good. Bring on the sequel please!

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