Crystal Dynamics really missed the point with this game. It seems like the creative team started the project with one creative vision to make a “lost on an island adventure story”, and then early on, they all got fired and replaced with people who were instructed by corporate overlords to make “Uncharted with a girl” and the final product turned into a mindless shooter.
The only things you'll be "surviving" for most of this game is bullets and explosions.
The game is called "Tomb Raider”, but the bulk of the game is an action shooter instead of exploring tombs.
The tagline on the back of the box says “A survivor is born”, and the first objective in the game is to find a bow and kill a deer for dinner, but then you don’t ever have to hunt or treat wounds or take refuge from the elements or do any other “survival” things.
A sheer majority of the game is shooting hordes of enemies in tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight after tedious gunfight. Maybe over the course of the game, you’ll stumble across a tomb or two. But if you do, it’s just a 15-minute detour while you solve a single environmental/platforming puzzle in order to collect an arbitrary and useless reward. The rest of your time will be spent running around the levels that you just cleared of bad guys and collecting random items.
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Lara Croft is shipwrecked on a possessed island full of cultists that want to murder or maybe rape her.
Where did all these guys come from?!
The centerpiece of the game’s plot is a crazy cult that lives on the island. These cultists are your primary enemy throughout most of the game. In every area you visit, you will have to shoot your way through wave after wave of cultists. Hundreds of them. Maybe even a thousand. I don’t know because I didn’t see a game statistics screen that told me how long I’d played or how many enemies I’d killed.
All these people were shipwrecked on the island? And none of them had the sense of conscience to stand up the cult leader, Mathias? I know they kill dissenters (and apparently women), but it’s hard to believe that this many douchebags could get shipwrecked on the same island! And why are they all American? This is an island off the coast of Japan. You’d think most of them would be Japanese. Whatever. Suspension of disbelief fading rapidly.
Oh, and out of curiosity, how did a game with such heavy implications of impending rape get away without a "suggestive themes" or "sexual situations" tag from the ESRB?
The sociopath within
Lara at least has an interesting skill progression system. Lara has to learn how to make melee attacks! That’s right: the ability to make a simple melee attack is an unlockable ability. In the meantime, you'll have to make due with a dodge move that throws dirt in enemies' eyes. There’s a slight sense that Lara is actually making due with raw instinct early on and learning useful combative skills as the game progresses. Or at least there would be, if she didn’t do everything with pinpoint accuracy and perfection as soon as she "learns" it. She has no trouble handling a bow and arrow, and she picks up a gun early on and is immediately a crack shot despite having [one] nervous breakdown after the first time she kills someone. She's clearly not a trained killer or marksman (maybe she's practiced with a bow, but not against live targets). She pulverizes enemies so efficiently that I couldn’t help but feel like she was a closet sociopath who had finally been let out to have fun on the unsuspecting citizens of the island.
The developers tried really hard to make you want to use the bow. It's more accurate, stealthy, and more damaging than the guns. Plus, you can light the tip on fire to make things explode!
I quickly lost the sense of desperate survivalism that is supposed to be the carrying force for all of the game’s action. The game just throws so much at Lara so quickly, and she handles it all so effectively right out of the gate that I just don’t buy her character arc.
Things fall apart
In fact, the arc was almost reversed. As the game progresses, and enemies start to wear armor and start up their hidden dynamite factory, the game’s controls really start to fall apart.
The controls just aren't as reliable as they should be, and they don't get more comfortable as the game progresses and Lara supposedly gets better at fighting and shooting. The controls are actually manageable and enjoyable in the first half of the game, when enemies are weak an attacking in pairs or trios. The lack of direct attacks creates a sense of frenetic panic whenever enemies get close, and every now and then, Lara does feel like a naive girl surviving by the skin of her teeth on untrained instinct. That feeling doesn't last long though, as you realize that she just single-handedly killed a bus-load of experienced, armed thugs.
Later in the game, when one guy is lobbing bombs at you while two others are shooting and two more are rushing you with machetes, the controls really start to become a problem. There’s a dodge button, but it doesn’t always work and Lara’s movements are chaotic and unpredictable. She might dodge towards the enemy; she might dodge away. She bounces around so much that it’s easy to lose track of where she is in relation to the enemies, and it’s hard to get her to go exactly where you want her to. The camera does not lock onto enemies, and there’s no on screen indicator that an enemy is attacking, so you have to constantly compete with the necessity to babysit the camera and mash the dodge button.
Counters (which have to be unlocked) are situational and only work half the time. I lost track of how many times I dodged an enemy attack and then pressed the “attack” button, but instead of triggering one of the counters, Lara just flails her handaxe wildly and gets shot in the back.
The dodge move is unreliable, and counters are even less dependable. It's manageable for the first half of the game, but when enemies start lobbing dynamite at you and then rushing, it becomes a big problem.
Dodging and countering is your only effective strategy against being rushed. There’s no effective or reliable short-range and crowd-clearing mechanics. So when a firebomb forces you out of cover (often at the same time the enemies rush you because apparently they all have a death wish), you’re screwed. Lara can’t shoot from the hip. She never acquires hand grenades, and the grenade launcher that you do acquire late in the game is horribly inaccurate at long range and will damage or kill Lara if used at close range. The shotgun is only effective at point blank range, but if you use it that close, then its spread is moot, and it can’t hit multiple targets. So if you can't stealth your way through a area (most areas won't allow you to) you're stuck fighting every enemy one-on-one and hoping you don't get shot or stabbed in the back in the meantime.
There’s no run or crouch commands. Instead, Lara “automatically” takes cover when enemies are near, but taking cover doesn’t necessarily protect her from gunfire. It also doesn't protect her from the enemies with an infinite supply of firebombs and/or dynamite. The auto-cover mechanic also turns Lara into a “bad guy sensor”. Since she crouches whenever enemies are near, it eliminates any possibility of a surprise for the player and allows the player to proceed with zero caution.
All these moves that you spent your hard-earned XP on quickly become obsolete as more powerful enemies become immune to them. Enemies become resistant to gunfire, headshots, and even grenades to the face, turning encounters that should be quick and simple into grinding attrition matches, and if you mistimed that one dodge and counter, then you get killed.
Oh, and there are no tutorials for any of the advanced combat controls. It might just be that all the advanced moves are brilliant, but I was just never able to figure out how to use them because the game never gave me an opportunity to play around with the moves or teach me how to use them.
And what’s with the horrible quicktime events? It took me forever to figure out the timing for them because the game insists on doing them slightly differently than every other game with quicktime events. You know what would have been better than having “different” quicktime events? Having no quicktime events and letting the player actually play the game!
The developers took an almost sick pleasure in animating special cutscenes of brutal deaths for Lara. I had to sit through this one more times than I'd care to admit.
All the challenge in the game comes from fighting against its inconsistent and unreliable controls. I got stuck having to repeat many combat encounters in the second half of the game and ended up having to pass most of them through trial-and-error. It would have been a whole different story if the controls had actually improved over the course of the game. If Lara's accuracy improved, her movements became more precise, and her attacks became more brutal over the course of the game, it would have really helped sell the idea that she was learning and developing. Instead, weapon accuracy seems perfect from the start, and the poor movement mechanics never seemed to improve.
And after all that hard work of pulverizing wave after wave of armored bad guys trying to rape Lara with sticks of dynamite, it’s a little hard to suspend my disbelief when a cutscene allows two dumbass grunts to effortlessly disarm and overpower her. And this is the core problem with these “spectacle action games”: the action scenes are so over-the-top that they become universally bland and unexciting. Things which should be tense and exhilarating are just “ho hum” and par for the course. But then the character ends up incapacitated from a threat that (comparatively) should be trivial, and it’s hard not to call “bull shit”.
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Side content should have been the focus of the game’s design
Tomb Raider had the potential to be a very fresh experience. It could have been a game about exploring a mystical island to uncover its secrets while surviving the elements. A game about discovering the courage to explore intellectual curiosities while facing a life-threatening situation. About putting yourself in the shoes of someone to whom the pursuit of knowledge is more important that comfort or safety. And maybe there could be a few gunfights with savage cultists or mythical creatures to add some excitement.
If Tomb Raider had expanded a little more on this...
and focused a little less of these...
...then I would have enjoyed it a lot more, and it could have separated itself a little bit more from the other “spectacle-action” games on the market.
Instead, all the interesting survival and adventure elements of the premise get relegated to the side (if they’re present at all). There are some hidden tombs scattered around the island for you to explore. I came across a handful of them during my playthrough, but I’m not sure how many there are in total. Each tomb has a hidden entrance that’s actually pretty easy to find because Lara’s spider-senses will cause the game to give a text and audio clue that a hidden tomb is nearby and will probably just mark it on your map for you. So finding the tomb entrances requires virtually no work or mental exertion on the player’s part – phew, for a moment, I thought this game might actually make me think!
The tomb itself is usually just a cave tunnel that leads to a room containing a platforming puzzle that leads to a treasure chest containing experience points and salvage. The puzzles are usually just simple box-pushing or level-and-pulley manipulation puzzles built by the cultists (for some reason) inside ancient Japanese temples. They lack any thematic appeal and make the themed puzzles of the Uncharted games look like integral calculus by comparison!
Can’t even rip off Uncharted competently
And this is where Uncharted really shines when compared to Tomb Raider. Uncharted did a really good job of balancing the gunfights against equal amounts of platforming and puzzle-solving; and it set itself in multiple, exotic locations (such as forests, exotic cities, castles, tombs) that were visually interesting and varied. Tomb Raider is almost exclusively made up of gunfights that take place in forests and caves and World War II bunkers. Uncharted required that the player solve puzzles and perform platforming in order to proceed and they felt like legitimate obstacles that needed to be overcome and for which you felt accomplished when you completed them. In Tomb Raider, the puzzle-solving and platforming are almost entirely optional, so they feel like a waste of time. They're so unrewarding on their own right that the designers had to give the player experience and upgrade points for completing them, just so that you wouldn't feel like you're wasting your time.
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Tomb Raider drags on. I would have liked it if it ended sooner, but it wore out its welcome about 6 hours before completion and then just dragged me along kicking and screaming through even more mindless gunfights until every little nagging problem is burnt into my mind. If the designers had done a better job of balancing the gunplay with the exploration, platforming, and puzzle-solving, then maybe it wouldn’t have felt so boring and repetitive. I tried going out of my way to explore and find all the tombs and relics so that I wouldn’t get bored to death of gunfights, but the complete lack of creativity just made those activities completely unsatisfying.
What’s worse, I had figured out what’s going on with the story less than halfway through the game thanks to the memos I had collected, but Lara didn’t put all the pieces together in her head until the very end. It only added to the sense that the game was dragging because the story felt like it was approaching its natural conclusion, but it was only halfway through!
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Oh, and if you play the game on the PC, then you'll be treated to some fancy new hair physics! Left image is real-time, in-game screen.
It's probably not the part of Lara's anatomy that many ... um ... "fans" were hoping would get real-time physics simulation, but then again, at least this is something innovative.