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SummaryRepresents its time, for good and for bad
The GoodThe new Tomb Raider was marketed as a "re-boot" of the legendary franchise. Frankly, I never cared too much for its countless installments, but the first game was a masterpiece I had some great times with. For some reason I trusted the hype and went into playing it as a believer in a brighter future and a radical overhaul that would invigorate the series.
I spent a few days with the game and it exhausted me to no end. I have thousands of mixed feelings towards it. Many of them are negative, and most of them are quite strong. I found myself thinking about the game while not playing it, re-thinking all my preferences in games, coming back to play and getting overcome by conflicting emotions. Let's first focus on the good, because there is plenty of it.
Hands down, the new Tomb Raider is one of the most intensely atmospheric and visually absorbing games I've ever seen. The initial impact is very strong. The beginning already contains some of the best the game has to offer: you are being guided through several dark, almost disturbing scenes, fully identifying yourself with the helpless, terrified protagonist. You fight for your life, you desperately use whatever is handy to get out, and then you emerge into a desolate, hostile environment, where you are told to rely on your instincts if you want to survive. This was undeniably the best game beginning I've witnessed in a very long time.
Tomb Raider manages to convey emotions throughout. They don't always mesh well with the gameplay, and much of the drama is not very convincing; but the presentation of the main character is done with heart. Lara is no longer the cold, indifferent gun-wielding game protagonist with super-human endurance we used to control before. The "new" Lara also abides video game conventions by surviving what would have certainly killed any other human being, but this survival is presented to us in a very poignant, captivating way. We feel the pain, we feel the suffering, and we also feel the pride and the determination that turns a fragile young woman into a formidably strong person.
Tomb Raider looks great. The game immediately lures you in with ravishing vistas that take your breath away. It is also probably the best-animated game to date. The animations are incredibly smooth and life-like, making controlling Lara an absolute joy. Environments are very busy and filled with objects and details. There is so much happening at the screen at every moment that it quickly becomes overwhelming. Sometimes you'll want to go through yet another section of the game just to stay a bit more with Lara and enjoy her impeccably executed leaps through abandoned structures.
Tomb Raider is intensely cinematic. Mass Effect, Mafia II - you will forget them once you come face to face with this game. Attempts to merge movies and video games have been around for a very long time, often resulting in problematic, ambiguous products. Very different games such as Phantasmagoria and Metal Gear Solid failed in the same aspect: integrating cutscenes and gameplay. Tomb Raider is the most perfect example of the opposite. It is almost completely seamless. Many scenes are presented as a mixture of cutscenes and gameplay, and often you'll be unable to tell the difference. It is truly a "playable movie" in the sense that the presentation is persistently dramatic, yet you are given control of the main character most of the time. Whether you like this game design philosophy or not, it is impossible to deny that the new Tomb Raider takes it to new heights.
One of the game's main attractions are its setpieces. Once you've seen some of them you won't be able to forget them for a long time. Near the end of the game you might feel over-satiated and almost wish there were fewer of them, but this over-abundance doesn't change the fact many of them are absolutely spectacular. Some of these scenes genuinely make you shout your favorite expletive and just stare in disbelief. The first encounter with hostile humans; the fall into a destroyed plane with the floor cracking under Lara's feet; Lara falls down. tumbling and grasping at every object on her way; Lara climbs a seemingly endlessly tall tower with amazing views opening to her. This is the kind of stuff I wanted to share with everyone because it was simply so cool. I thought nothing could impress me after having played so many games, but those setpieces became engraved in my memory.
I've never played the Uncharted games Tomb Raider was supposedly influenced by, so maybe the whole concept of collapsing levels has been done before, but I couldn't imagine how any game could top Tomb Raider at that. Stuff is falling down and getting spectacularly destroyed all the time as you explore the decrepit villages of the island. Tomb Raider is a very dynamic game, and while some may dismiss all these happenings as a cheap way to immerse the player, I must say I wanted to go back and play through those levels again.
But don't think that the new Tomb Raider is one of those "interactive movies" with diminished gameplay consisting only of scripted explosions. No, there is still much to do here, and while the gameplay is certainly not overly original, it is quite good in certain aspects. To be more specific, Tomb Raider is a very good third-person shooter. Yes, it is much more of a shooter than a platformer, which is a good thing because most of my opinions concerning its platforming can only be found in the following "Bad" section. The shooting sections, however, work very well. A particular mention goes to the excellent balance between weapons. You won't dismiss your bow just because you've found a rifle, and you'll find yourself switching between weapons to suit your tactics most of the time. Confronting enemies can get quite challenging even on normal difficulty, but it's always possible; you are not forced to resort to stealth but often it makes things more satisfying. Weapons feel fairly realistic and firefights are very graphic and intense. Even regenerating health and automatic crouching didn't subtract from the enjoyment of fighting enemies in this game.
Tomb Raider is never dull. Locations are beautiful and varied, and you'll want to re-visit the dark forest, the icy mountain peaks, the ominous temple, and ship wreck, and most other places. Yes, the game often felt artificially linear, but there are still fairly expansive areas with stuff to find and collect everywhere. Sometimes I felt there were too many challenges and collectibles, but you can ignore them if you want. Like most modern games, Tomb Raider has light role-playing elements, which frankly seem like a bit of an afterthought but certainly do not harm the game. Some of the artifacts and diary excerpts are interesting and fun to collect. What I particularly liked is the implementation of fully optional tombs, which are pretty much the only locations with real puzzle-solving in the game. That's right: there are still tombs in the new Tomb Raider, and while they were way too small for my tastes, they offered some nice environmental puzzles that faintly reminded me of the franchise's origins.
The story could have been better, but the setting itself is fascinating, and the introduction of supernatural elements is by far more convincing than in most games of this type. Tomb Raider games have always liberally mixed mythological mumbo-jumbo into its modern-day setting, but only this iteration of the series actually cares for its story enough to serve it to us in a gradual and credible way. In the end, the story is just another recycled tale of a stereotypical bad guy resurrecting a deity, but the way it is presented makes us look at it from the point of view of ordinary people, not some kind of superheroes that take it for granted. And while some of the supporting cast gets way too little stage time, a few of the characters actually come close to make us like them, and there are scenes in the game that are truly emotional.
The BadThe new Tomb Raider tries really hard to be the next blockbuster in the world of video games. Production values are soaring and the developer took cues from many modern games, obviously intending to put it all into one ultimate hit. The result, however, is not always satisfying. The game doesn't excel in genre-merging and confines itself too often to overly scripted gameplay amidst irritating hand-holding.
Tomb Raider is much more of a shooter than it is a platformer, though it does try to incorporate platforming into its gameplay. One can argue that being a bad platformer betrays the legacy of the series, but let's first assume that the new Tomb Raider was not supposed to follow the classic formula. Taken simply as a stand-alone 3D platformer, Tomb Raider is below average. It is streamlined and automatized to the point of preventing the player from having any kind of meaningful control. Most of the time you don't even need to think: you will get where you are supposed to get simply because the game is tailored to the needs of players unfamiliar with platforming. There is no skill involved in the platforming sections: they consist simply of jumping and climbing where the developers send you. There is little trying, experimenting, or overcoming challenges: it's too easy, making even the most spectacular setpieces less exciting.
Some of the game's environments are unabashedly artificial, with objects clearly serving purely gameplay-related purposes. Many levels are full of conveniently placed ziplines, craggy walls, and other junk that is there only because the designers wanted to hold your hand and smoothly guide you through it. You don't need to figure out anything: everything has been already done for you. It is in line with the alarming tendency of modern games to cater way too much to the player, to be as casual as possible without regards to the damage done to credibility and involvement.
Survival game? There couldn't have been a bigger deception. After the short initial stretch Lara will dispatch of hundreds of enemies with basically unlimited supplies of ammo. After the first scripted dear-killing event you won't need to hunt ever again. There is no hunger meter or anything like that, so all you can do is kill animals for the game's omnipresent experience points. Everything is there in over-abundance because the developers wanted the player to suffer no inconvenience whatsoever, thus removing the joy from overcoming difficulties on your own, figuring out on your own how to deal with the game.
For a reason I cannot fathom almost every modern game needs to have quick-time events. I thought that ever since they were abused by Fahrenheit the developers would actually realize that, even though they were fun in Shenmue II, they should be seen as what they are, a gimmick, rather than being elevated to a primary gameplay element. Instead of boss battles and challenging scripted events Tomb Raider makes yet another sacrifice to modern conventions with those QTEs. And don't let me get started on the "survival instinct" option, which highlights all important objects on the screen.
Tomb Raider was probably not supposed to be an open-world game. But for some reason it has many elements that would actually greatly benefit from free-roaming. Collecting stuff is much more fun when you know you can go anywhere to look for it, and it's the only case when such abundance of things scattered around makes sense. Far Cry 3, for example, was a big playground where all this optional collecting was integrated into unlimited exploration. Tomb Raider is, on the contrary, a linear game at heart, and its linearity is often ill-disguised. The island looks like a beautiful place you'd just love to freely run around in, but you'll never be able to. There are optional areas, but they are always well within the confines of a larger one, and they can be easily accessed. The terrain is disappointingly misleading: you'll long for free acrobatics and dangerous jumps, but the game will never let you do that. Try to think outside of the box and the game will instant-kill you. Many times I jumped at cliffs that looked way less dangerous than a series of crazy contraptions Lara just overcame without any problem, but I was punished right away for my desire to do what I wanted. Even though the game takes place on an island, water is almost completely inaccessible, and Lara never swims.
There is also an obvious discrepancy in style here, discrepancy between the seemingly mature story of the game and its unapologetically "videogame-ish" nature. Actually, the story itself is not very good, with a cliche villain devoid of any charisma or personality, a rather underdeveloped character cast, and ill-placed plot "twists" you saw coming from the very beginning. But Tomb Raider games were never about the story anyway. The problem here is that this game tries to present itself as a mature experience, an insight into Lara's character, but it tries to add depth to the character without supporting it by anything gameplay-related. Lara is supposed to be an intellectual who has never held a weapon in her hands. The first scenes describe with graphical poignancy how hard it was for her to kill a deer and a few moments later a human being. Yet afterwards she literally goes on a rampage. Nothing survives in her way, and she kills by far more humans than she ever did in all the previous games combined. Looks like sometimes over-ambitious storytelling can damage a game's image more than an unpretentious plot without any character development if the gameplay fails to match it.