Tomb Raider Review: The endless appeal of Lara Croft
The ‘Tomb Raider’ series has seen many renditions of Lara Croft since her debut in 1996. Though each version generally carried the same aloof, attractive and darring theme for Lara, the new reboot is the first time that Lara Croft has been developed into a leading-woman.
Everything about Lara has been stripped down and rebuilt, including almost all of the steadfast characteristics of the Lara Croft you may remember. In the game players will assume the role of Lara once again, only this time during her very first adventure. Marooned on an unforgiving island, the theme of the game is survival and a test of one woman’s perseverance against all odds. What players will see throughout the course of the game is the making-of Lara Croft. Players are shown the pieces that were missing in every Tomb Raider title released before this installment, and Lara Croft is finally explained. It’s an origin story but unlike other origin stories that are released so long after the character has been introduced, this one is new, exciting and harrowing.
The game doesn’t begin with any sort of traditional Tomb Raider opening sequence. The story begins as a movie. Crystal Dynamics slowly introduces traditional gameplay after it sets the theme, tone and characters of the new game. To do this Crystal Dynamics walks the player through a large opening cinematic riddled with quick-time events. All of this is done extremely well however. This gigantic opening sequence is only the preface, the true game lies just ahead.
Right away I couldn’t help but focus on Lara’s human counterpart, Camilla Luddington, who is best known for her work on many popular television series like ‘True Blood’ and ‘Californiacation’. Luddington does an amazing job with Lara, never over-the-top, never overshadows the character with her own personality, she was a perfect fit. Just as quickly as I was introduced to Lara Croft, Luddington began to blend into the background and only Lara remained in each scene.
Tomb Raider has always seemed like the James Bond of the female video-game protagonists. I always felt like everyone loves James Bond, some of the movies were terrible, some of the choices fell flat, but we always wanted to see more movies. Then came along Daniel Craig and we fell in love with the series all over again. That’s what happens with Tomb Raider but interactive and glorious.
Tomb Raider is also one of the most mature titles I have played in a long time. I do not mean mature as in violent, not that it isn’t violent, but I am referring to the game’s proper use of character development and realism. Young Lara doesn’t shoot at people, kill wolves and climb tombs for a living yet. The first time that Lara has to defend herself with a gun is an extremely important scene, and one that Crystal Dynamics didn’t take lightly. It was wonderfully done but it only fades away as the game progresses. That’s the trouble with games and guns, once you introduce killing enemies into a video game, soon you’re killing dozens. This isn’t Crystal Dynamics fault by any means, but the day someone finds out how to make killing someone in self-defense the 23rd time, as equally as hard as the first time, they will have created the very best video-game in history.
One of the more favorable game-mechanics in the title was Lara’s skill system and upgrade mechanic. This made playing as Lara much more personal. I wasn’t forced to just play as Lara, but this time around I felt that I was creating my own version of Lara Croft. It was incredibly satisfying and it completed something that I always felt was missing from Tomb Raider titles, a sense of control over my idea of Lara Croft.
In the see-saw structure of survival and open-combat, survival ends up losing the fight. Eventually Lara isn’t ‘surviving’ as much as she is dominating. This isn’t the first game to have the pendulum-shift during gameplay but the survival aspect was done so well that I wish it would have lasted longer. It was gratifying and challenging and that is rare in a game, so rare that when it is done well, I never want it to end.
Players are limited to a small amount of weapons but the variations in combat-style offer a much wider array of tactical-choices for the player. There’s the stealth, guerrilla-style combat of the bow or the blatant stand-offs with a shotgun or a pistol. Melee attacks are a nice addition and offer a few ways to mix up the combat for players that are able to get close to their opponents. The game isn’t all combat, the developers didn’t forget about the exploration either. With a younger Lara comes an amazing ability to maneuver through the darken caves and treacherous cliff-sides that dot the island. The archipelago landscape that was chosen for the location of the game was a terrific choice. Squeezing through narrow crevices or scaling a rockface is constantly wrought with danger. Exploration is an intense and stressful endeavor and was one of my favorite aspects of the game.
[quote_right]The story is so key to the experience that I’m glad that it’s mostly not avoidable. You of course may feel otherwise…[/quote_right]Although the backbone of the game is the survival of the island, the ‘tomb’ portion of the game still is a great piece, albeit a separate one. It makes sense, you can’t have a story based on surviving a horrific experience and still have a character that will walk confidently into a darkened room of death. To balance this out, the tombs are part of the exploration. A system that rewards Lara for entering the tombs, thereby giving her a genuine motivation for her exploration inside the caves or crypts. The puzzels are wonderfully done, not just challenging but also exciting to uncover. Each puzzle has its own small moment, a perfect instance when everything comes together. The reward for solving a puzzle is actually beneficial and not just a means to get an achievement or a trophy from the game.
The story is so key to the experience that I’m glad that it’s mostly not avoidable. You of course may feel otherwise but you do have to complete the story before the the map opens itself up for collection purposes. The pacing of the game would have been ruined if free exploration was allowed from the beginning of the game and the payoff to revisit locations and meticulously scour the landscape is a reward, not just a gimmick.
[quote_left]I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Tomb Raider ends up being the best title released in 2013.[/quote_left]Multiplayer is not the game’s focus and for everyone that says multiplayer is usually just tacted-on to a game as a marketing selling point, this time you are right. There really isn’t anything to say about the multiplayer portion of the game. It’s very traditional and even the unique game-modes can’t make up for the lack of innovation or design. The multiplayer portion of the game is completely shadowed by the single-player experience and re-exploring the island for collectables was far more fun than playing the multiplayer. I wouldn’t call that a real factor in rating this game. Multiplayer is an addition, a bonus to the single-player content and was never a large selling point in the Tomb Raider reboot marketing. I don’t think anyone planned on buying Tomb Raider for the multiplayer.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Tomb Raider ends up being the best title released in 2013. The game was amazingly crafted (croft-ed?) and stands alone with a well-balanced story-arch filled with pivotal moments for the player and Lara Croft. It’s a moving story and one that fills so many gaps for the beloved action-hero. It’s the perfect beginning for a new series and one that any Tomb Raider fan should enjoy.
PC Impressions by Tony Hsieh
The first thing I should mention about my time with the PC version of Tomb Raider is that it caused a bunch of graphic glitches at first. This is because Nvidia (I run a GTX 660) received the game late and was unable to optimize the drivers for the game’s release. As a result, the game was not able to perform well on my PC that’s pretty much able to run most new games on high to max settings…especially with the much lauded TressFX on. With TressFX (more on this later), the game was unplayable.
Luckily, Nvidia provided a an apology, a quick fix, and the game now sees up to a 60% performance boost that makes it possible to play on my rig with some pretty respectable settings, even with TressFX on.
So what is TressFX? I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, and honestly, other than the typical increase in graphical fidelity that PC gamers have come to expect, it’s the single most noticeable difference between the PC and console versions. TressFX is an AMD developed hair physics system that basically makes for some of the most realistic hair seen in a game to date. Typically the hair I’ve seen looks like the Magic Shell syrup dripped over a head model. Years and years of wrestling games have proved to me that realistic hair just might never happen. In this case, AMD smashed my expectations.
My computer config is as follows;
– Intel Core i7 9203.21 GHz
– Nvidia GTX 660 2GB
– 18 GB RAM
– Windows 8
Not the most powerful rig on the planet, I must say. However, with that setup I was able to run Tomb Raider on:
– 1920×1080 60hz
– Vsync: double buffer
– Anisotropic 2x
– AA: FXAA
– Textures: Ultra
– TressFX on
– Shadows: Normal
– Shadow resolution: Normal
– Detail: Ultra
– Reflections: Normal
– Depth: Normal
– SSAO: Normal
– Post Processing: Off
– Tessellation: On
– High Precision: On
That’s pretty respectable. I also have a Xbox 360 copy of Tomb Raider, and the difference is very noticeable, even with these settings. I ran the in-game benchmark and also ran one with EVGA’s Precision X, and with both I was able to average between 45-50 FPS with the above settings, which is much more than playable. With some of the fancier effects turned off, I could easily top 60 FPS and still run an extremely good looking game. At the very least with everything set to Normal and TressFX off, I had a version of the game that looked identical to the console version…not too shabby at all.
It’s clear that the PC version of Tomb Raider is optimized for AMD GPUs, especially considering the issues that Nvidia had with getting their GPUs optimized in time, but they both work wonderfully now and this is easily the definitive version, given that you happen to have a PC that can handle the load.