Tomb Raider PC Review: A Real Hero is Reborn
Tomb Raider nails this arc in Lara, to the point where I connected with her more than many — perhaps most — other heroes in games. She has a true progression as a character; it’s true that she goes through her first kill rather quickly, nearly retching for a second before moving on to start killing droves of enemies (I’ll not spoil what their deal is except to say that there are a lot of them, but paced well and presented in a lot of interestingly disparate scenarios), but we still get a sense of who she is. Lara starts the game by trying to reason with her attackers, and moves on to screaming triumphantly at them as they flee from her toward the end. An early sequence in which players must carefully sneak into a dark cave that serves as a wolf den is thick with danger, but by the end of the game, a pack of wolves is little to fear. Crystal Dynamics perfectly captures each of these challenges in moment-to-moment play such that there’s never a time when you feel like you’re more than a match for your enemies. Each challenge is perfectly suited to Lara at that moment, and they all feel like they add something to her abilities as a character.
The gameplay itself is smooth and crazily fun. There are elements of stealth, exploration and cover-based combat mixed throughout, but Crystal Dynamics does a great job with systems that other games better-known for them flounder to execute. The trick is that Tomb Raider knows what you’re doing, and through Lara, adjusts your gameplay. When there are enemies nearby as Lara is sneaking up on them, she drops into a crouch and automatically takes cover behind objects. When the danger passes, she’s up and ready to explore. The game knows when stealth is necessary and when you’re going to be climbing up rock walls and compensates perfectly. You don’t have to worry about throwing down combat rolls when you mean to stick to a wall because Crystal Dynamics has thrown that crap away, keeping every moment incredibly fluid. Every battle feels intuitive, every dodge feels harrowing, and most every execution kill feels well-earned.
While playing through Tomb Raider really was a great deal of fun, it’s not quite a perfect experience. Perhaps the biggest black mark against the game in general is that it’s too easy, especially when it comes to things like puzzles. Whenever Lara runs up against a puzzle, it’s usually a clever bit of level design that’s fun to look at and better to execute — but it’s over in a hurry. There are several “secret” tombs you can find and explore, and each amounts to a single room and a puzzle with a solution that’s usually pretty easily divined. Even through the course of the main adventure, it’s rare, if ever, that a puzzle really challenges. Combat does the job a little better, but if you spend the time searching through the game to find extra salvage and earn experience points, you’ll usually find that while you’re never overpowered for a scenario, you’re not precisely at a disadvantage, either.
Collectibles, too, feel like they take up way too much of Tomb Raider’s headspace. The game is absolutely brimming with crap you can pick up, and often it gives little back to the overall game experience. Lara can find journal entries that fill in backstory from a number of different characters, plus antiquities that add nothing to the story except to give Lara a chance to sound super-intelligent (which works for her, though), and GPS caches that do almost nothing until you collect a pretty large number of them, eventually rewarding you with some additional journal entries. The journals are at least interesting as you uncover more about the island, but the number of items around to collect would be an overwhelming and irritating contrivance if not for the character progression system. At least there’s a reward for all that crap you pick up.
That reward is the large number of improvements you can make to Lara and her equipment. Finding random parts for your weapons allows you to improve their capabilities, and gathering “salvage” can be applied to upgrades like fire arrows, lower recoil on your machine gun, and so forth. By the end, you’ll be carrying a veritable arsenal of military grade murder implements, made even better as Lara unlocks skills that suggest she’s becoming more proficient with them. By far the best are the stealth kill abilities that turn Lara from hunted into hunter, but all the improvements feel like you are earning the ability to be better at Tomb Raider, not to make it easier. The upgrades add new strategies and possibilities for the most part, although a few stray toward making Lara a little too awesome in a combat scenario.
It works because Crystal Dynamics never quite turns Lara into a superhero. There’s a ridiculous amount of violence in Tomb Raider, most of it executed against Lara. She gets her ass kicked more than John McClane ever did, but it works — in fact, it’s almost refreshing — because every time Lara bounces off the side of a mountain or takes a chunk of rebar to the abdomen, it reminds us that she’s human, mortal, fallible and not somehow a magical messiah of video game ass-kickery. She succeeds through pure force of will; she earns her ability to survive, fight, and triumph. And more game developers could take a lesson from her characterization.