Tomb Raider 2013
Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Square-Enix Montréal
Published by Square-Enix
Directed by Cory Balog, Noah Hughes
Written by Rhianna Pratchett
Music by Jason Graves
Starring Camilla Luddington, Robin Atkin Downes, Arden Cho, Robert Craighead
Crystal Dynamics had their work cut out for them with this new interpretation of the Tomb Raider IP. How do you write a story with a much-loved character? How much can you change said character without pissing off long-time fans of the series? Was it a good decision to make Lara more humane and identifiable? Least Worst Option takes a look at Tomb Raider 2013. Here’s how we see it.
Story (and how it isn’t very good)
For this new installment Crystal Dynamics have chosen for an origin story. Lara herself (at least in broad strokes) is still identical to the character of old. She’s still a promising young archeologist (an archeology graduate here, actually). She has the informed attributes of being smart and resourceful – and she’s obviously still an English young woman from an aristocratic, affluent background.
The story begins as Lara and her friends are on an expedition, funded by the Nishimura family, in the Devil’s Triangle off the coast of Japan. Her group consists of the troubled Dr. James Whitman, survivalist/mentor Conrad Roth, Lara’s friend Samantha Nishimura, techie/resident nerd Alex Weiss, jolly black technician Jonah Maiava and his snarky, eternally cynical girlfriend Joslin Reyes.
After some basic characterizations and exposition their ship is caught in a sudden storm, leading to a terrible shipwreck. The crew is scattered, Lara washes up the shore of an unknown island. She must now face her fears, become a survivor and rescue her friends. With the elements, a shadowy cult and a terrible secret that is hidden on the island, Lara has no other choice but to fight, for she has to become the Tomb Raider.
It’s commendable that the Endurance (Lara’s ship) was named after an actual historical shipwreck. The historical Endurance was that of 1912 led by Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ship was crushed by ice and sank in the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica. If Crystal Dynamics wanted to replicate Naughty Dog’s (and Uncharted) with their formula of fiction based upon real life historical facets, they have succeeded with flying colors.
One of the things you’ll instantly notice about this new iteration of Tomb Raider is how utterly action-oriented it is. With the runaway success of series as Gears Of War and military shooters, this change in gameplay was somewhat expected. Nevertheless this new focus on gunplay is still jarring – and it sits uncomfortable next to the much loved old titles which were more about discovery and exploration.
XP, skill trees and weapon upgrades
Adding an element of RPG to the game is the acquisition of XP (experience) points. You get these points by killing wildlife, finding objects and taking down enemies. These XP points can be exchanged at base camps for new skills and upgrades for your arsenal.
The skill trees exist in three categories: survivalist, hunter and brawler – each consisting of unique moves relevant to the skill chosen. How you built Lara’s skill trees is entirely up to the player’s preference. Although it goes without saying that choosing a healthy middle ground between all three is preferable.
Another neat thing is that you can find raw materials in crates scattered around the locations of the island and of the bodies of the slain. These materials appear to be useless at first, but once you get your hands on your first firearm, it rapidly becomes clear how vital it is to collect any and every crate you can find. The crates aren’t especially hard to find, nor will you need creative problem-solving skills to reach them.
The upgrades are specific to each weapon, but in general terms they are typical of the style game this is. Weapons can be upgraded with scopes, silencers, better grip, etc. It is fairly par for the course for the average action game. While it is hardly a novelty, it does add indirectly to Lara’s growing strength as a gun-toting survivalist.
What is telling is that none of these three skill trees have any relation to Croft’s background and profession as an archeologist. Nowhere do they help her uncover buried secrets, translate ancient texts or help her get a better understanding of the culture she’s currently exploring. Far from it. Lara is an angry adolescent here that is prone to throwing temper tantrums. Instead of collecting, studying and preserving the ancient artefacts she uncovers from the culture she encounters while on the island, she'll collect a few tidbits - but destroy the majority. Not so much of an archeology student or even a mercenary treasure hunter, this one. Sigh…
One of the more questionable additions is the Survival Instinct. This is exactly the type of thing you expect it is. It is a cosmetic feature that is almost identical to Batman: Arkham series Detective Mode or Hitman: Absolution’s much hated Instinct. Survival Instinct, like its direct forebears, will highlight objects, exits and points of interest in the environment. In case you remain stationary during one of the puzzles, or don’t solve it immediately, Lara will give a hint by way of dialogue. Unsubtle? Yeah. Needed? Maybe. This feature might be useful to the novice or young players – but anyone over the age of 18, or experienced in games of the ‘90s will never have use of it.
Discovery & exploration
The old Tomb Raider titles were puzzle games first with the occasional action section in between platforming (traversal) and escaping creative death-traps. With this 2013 episode discovery and exploration are still very much present, although you’d be hardpressed to not notice how much of a throwaway side-activity it has become. The tombs can be found by what the game calls “going off the main path” and while it isn’t exactly false, it isn’t really true either. Thanks to clear visual – and musical cues (not to mention the many messages that litter the screen) the player is instantly encouraged to explore a certain section he/she’s currently in. More often than not, it takes not a lot of deduction to find these tombs. Most of the times you’ll find an alcove or crevice conveniently located somewhere near, and sometimes on, the path the game has currently sent you in. Exploration is not exploration, but merely running an errand. Discovery is reduced to ticking off points of a figurative grocery list.
Actual tomb raiding is optional
There is still tomb raiding in this new Tomb Raider, actually. Perhaps not as much as long-time fans would want, but it is still present. The real kicker is, once again, how much these sections have been reduced to over-simplified one-room affairs, mostly preceded by a narrow tunnel, filled by various old relics or desiccated human remains. Many of the tombs are just one, single room… with an object or simple platform puzzle. Since most of these puzzles are piss-poor (as in, too easy to solve) the act of tomb raiding isn’t such an act of discovery, or a reward for intense exploration. No, it offers up a pause of silence. A breather in between all the gunfire and violence you have endured, or are currently enduring. It is a full-blown cover-shooter with tacked on, secondary exploration elements, not the other way around.
You’d imagine that with the game being called Tomb Raider, that said raiding of tombs would have been much more integral to the plot. The game doesn’t go out of its way to push tomb raiding on the player, which is puzzling – because isn’t that what we’re here for? This lack of emphasis on actual tomb raiding and more Uncharted-like setpieces will probably rub long-time players the wrong way – and can you blame them? Oh yeah, and when you find the treasure chest at the end of every tomb, you don’t to see what Lara actually took with her. This “Tomb Raider” is more concerned with shooting galleries than it is with treasure hunting… Why exactly are we here again?
Why is everything so easy?
During the quieter sections of the game you’ll engage in puzzles of various kind. They are mostly environmental whenever they are not traversal. It’s really that simple. Whether you’re trapped in a sunken ship, or trying to escape a collapsed building after having fought waves of enemy AI – the puzzles are almost too easy. On my first playthrough I was able finish almost every single puzzle without so much as using the dreaded Survival Instinct. Older players, as in those who grew up on point-and-click adventures in the ‘80s and ‘90s, will have no problem whatsoever in solving these puzzles. The solution to these puzzles is mostly a question of how can the player manipulate the environment (or the objects therein) to their advantage. It’s really that simple. That’s all and everything there is to it. A missed opportunity, sadly.
Tomb Raider (the franchise) was known for a lot of things. One of these things was the death-defying platforming sections. Part of the puzzling came from figuring out ways to scale the environment. Jumps needed to be timed well, or certain death awaited. This new iteration still has that, albeit in a much more watered down, audience friendly form.
There are lots of small things that will rub older players the wrong way. You can’t fall off ledges (unless you jump). So no matter how hard you push Lara towards the edge of a platform – the game will automatically stop at the edge, no matter what. When grabbing flagpoles to swing from one platform to another Lara will automatically make the jump herself, the player can just sit back and watch the action. Lara will automatically duck in cover whenever there’s an object to hide behind, or when enemies are in the vicinity. It’s all so very “me-too” and vanilla.
She’s a psycho-killer with puppy-dog eyes
Towards the end of the game the ludo-narrative dissonance becomes more and more like an open sore. The more skills and powerful weapons you acquire, the more bloodthirsty, unhinged and veritably insane Lara appears to become. Where she first cried ‘you don’t have to do this!’, you’ll hear her screaming ‘I’m coming for you all!’ towards the tall end of the game. Definitely, Lara has changed from the beginning in comparison to the conclusion of the story – but her changes are merely cosmetic, as a person she has hardly changed at all. It’s all a fairly pointless exercise in banality.
One of the most iconic moments happens at the very end of the game. When Lara is forced to dig it out with the Big Bad in a desperate bid for survival. Through some off-the-cuff thinking and witty resourcefulness she, at long last, acquires her dual pistols and is able to rescue her friend, herself and the island from complete and utter decimation. It is a fitting conclusion to a somewhat bland and repetitive experience. Adding insult to injury is just how anticlimactic the game’s conclusion is. Yeah, you kill the Big Bad in a worthwhile extended fight sequence. The final fight itself however is over before you know it. The conclusion to Tomb Raider is as sketchy as its beginning. Nobody seems to have learned anything from the harrowing experience they went through. Sigh.
One of the biggest complaints that can be leveled at this game is the narrative dissonance. During the cutscenes it is explained time and time again that Lara prefers to diffuse situations non-violently. In the beginning of the game she’s shown being remorseful after killing a deer because she’s hungry after days of not eating. She almost gets a tear in her eye for the needless bloodshed she was forced to partake in.
In one of her earlier encounters with the scavengers that populate the island, Lara is attacked and forced to fight back. After a brief struggle (with some unfortunate implications, mostly due to bad writing) Lara claims her first human casualty. Once again she’s shown to be remorseful, on the verge of throwing up and actively disgusted that she had to kill another human being in such savage and brutal fashion. Never mind that two minutes later you’re putting bullets in dozens of henchmen and Lara doesn’t seem to bat an eyelash to all the carnage and destruction she’s inflicting.
With such a good built-up you’d expect that the gameplay would actually accommodate Lara’s growth as a person and further help enforce it as part of her character arc. Not so. From the moment you kill the deer, to the instance that you kill your first assailant Lara in the gameplay is at odds with the Lara of the narrative. There’s no interval between Lara being innocent and Lara the puppy-eyed mass murderer. It’s quite jarring and baffling that Crystal Dynamics decided to not hold on longer to the protagonist's established pathos and frailty. What should have been a (predictable, but still) worthy character arc is reduced to an easily-forgotten footnote.
It’s also baffling in its handling and general ineptitude to see how dense and obtuse Lara is for most of the game’s duration. While the player has put together the clues rather early on, miss Croft seems not able to connect the dots, despite mounting evidence and a trail of burned, shot, stabbed and mutilated cadavers. This weakens and further erodes her already shaky characterization to a considerable degree, making her “wits” and “resourcefulness” nothing but informed attributes.
It’s hard to say exactly who is to blame for this particular debacle. It would be a good guess to file complaints to Crystal Dynamics. After all writer Rhianna Pratchett was only tasked to create a story for the in-game cinematics and cutscenes. Her story is internally consistent for the most part. It’s the odd design choices and lazy reliance on cover-based shooter mechanics that make Tomb Raider the flawed, technically sound and visually breathtaking but ultimately empty exercise it is.
There is no depth, and the characterizations are lazy
The story of the Yamatani and the survivors of the Endurance is what possibly could have set this game apart from the competition at least a little. The backstories for the characters and the central narrative is fleshed out to a reasonable degree, and can be considered functional – but it is also entirely lazy in design and execution.
Information is relayed through audio logs and diary entries, instead of being fully integrated in conversation trees and in-game character interactions. Why use a more appropriate narrative device when you can just record an audio log or create a diary entry and be done with it? It is very hard to take these characters serious when everything is done so surreptitiously, lazy and backhanded. Not only is it deeply lazy and regressive game design, it is insulting and patronizing to the player.
Overall, this is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful Tomb Raider to date. The environments are lush and crafted with an amazing level of detail. The animations are fluid and natural. The voice acting, especially from novice Camilla Luddington and veteran Robin Atkin Downes, is excellent for the majority of the game – and down right fantastic in any of the key scenes. The rest of the cast (and villains) fare less well, going from tolerably mediocre to B-movie levels of hackdom.
Other aspects aren’t done quite so well. Most of these characters don’t seem to blink, either naturally or when firing guns and so on. Ever. More work was obviously put in Lara’s boob jiggle physics than urgent and more important matters like running streams of water, moving tree branches or the burning animation whenever you set an object or person on fire. There’s also hardly a notable difference between Lara’s attire when she’s in a body of water or when she’s standing out in the burning sunlight. Why care about different textures for dry and wet clothes when you can shake cleavage at the player? Sigh.
One of the more annoying features of this game is that it is trying way too hard to be gritty and realistic. The color scheme is nothing short of depressing, consisting mostly of the usual tones of grey, brown and rusty orange. Lara is nearly constantly in pain, moaning or being terrorized, physically and mentally. It isn’t very inspiring, while being absolutely breathtaking from a visual point of view.
Another criticism is the over-reliance on QTEs at key points in the game. It is very much a heavily scripted, on-rails sort of experience. In that sense it is almost arcade-like. While it is certainly the most cinematic of the franchise, it also has that annoying tendency to pander its audience. We know Lara is an athletic and well-endowed young lady, there was really no need for Crystal Dynamics to constantly accentuate that with shots of Croft’s bottom and chest. It’s puerile and childish. We aren’t 12 anymore!
Long-time fans will still recognize that this is still Lara Croft and Tomb Raider in many ways. Yet it’s hard to deny that much of the focus has changed to a more modern audience with shorter attention spans and limited analytical powers. The player is constantly bombarded with musical and visual stimuli, and numerous on-screen indicators. The explosion - and gunfire ratio is simply mind-boggling considering the IP and its original objective.
In short, there are lots of things to like here – but like any modern game the developers insist on treating its audience like mouth-breathing, Neanderthal tools. That’s a shame, because the basis for a much stronger game was here. Tomb Raider is just scratching the surface of what could have been. This game does Lara’s legacy justice, but could have been so much more deep and engrossing. A decent game, but selling this under the Tomb Raider banner was something of a stretch.
Hopefully we’ll see a sequel to this reboot that fully capitalizes on the franchise cachet and hallmark elements.