Lara Croft is back. Sort of. In her latest escapade, given the minimalist title “Tomb Raider”, Crystal Dynamics basically throw away everything you might associate with the series, from the overly complex 3-dimensional mazes, to the lead character’s improbably-proportioned boobs. This isn’t a sequel to Underworld, or even a remake along the lines of Anniversary. We’re back to basics, with new gameplay, and a new origin story for protagonist Lara Croft, whom we meet fresh out of college with a burning desire to see the world and a passion for ancient civilisations.
Lara and her sea-faring companions soon find themselves washed up on a mysterious island in the Sea of Japan, filled with unreasonably hostile inhabitants, as well as bucket-loads of archaeological artefacts inexplicably scattered around. The plot begins with a search for a little more gravitas than we’re accustomed to from previous games in the series, but doesn’t quite hit the mark, quickly devolving into inane babbling and ancient mysticism. Still, this is a Tomb Raider game, so I don’t suppose many people play it for the story and I give them credit for at least making the effort. With this being a Tomb Raider game though, the focus is squarely (and rightly) on Miss Croft, who quickly goes from zero to hero(ine), jumping from precarious ledge to precarious ledge with no concern for her own safety.
Purportedly, the developers wanted to give the player the feeling of being Lara’s protector, that in this outing she’s more vulnerable than she is sexy, and in some regards this works. She’s perpetually injured, spending a decent chunk of the game clutching one wound or another (with a sizeable portion of the dialogue track dedicated to Lara’s cries, moans, howls and shrieks, to the point where I wondered if my neighbours would be assuming I was watching porn), but any degree of innocence she might have had melts away the moment you get her to start slaughtering guards with wild abandon, and very early in the game she gets the ability to kill someone by smashing a pickaxe into their skull with a single button-press, as if she’s such a hardened killer this is as easy for her to do as it is to clamber onto a ledge.
This disconnect between what happens in cut-scenes and what happens whilst you’re in control is easy enough to wave aside though, but that’s not the only thing that is at odds with her supposed vulnerability. There’s a quote from TV show Spaced that springs to mind:
Brian: What are you playing?
Tim: Tomb Raider 3.
Brian: She’s drowning.
Brian: Is that the point of the game?
Tim: It depends what mood you’re in really.
It seems that the designers made Tomb Raider partly about getting Lara out of a series of sticky situations, and partly about watching her succumb to them. She can get stabbed, strangled, crushed, impaled, mauled; meet her end via any of a number of different deaths, most of which are from failing (or depending on your mood, neglecting) to complete a quick-time event. These are not simple fade-to-black deaths, they are each brutal, violent ends, and I’m unsure as to what sort of reaction they are intended to elicit.
So yes, the narrative subtext that the action hangs on seems to have been intended for an entirely different game. But the thing is, if you simply overlook the completely incongruous nature of it all, you’ll find what’s actually an astonishingly decent game waiting for you.
The beginning is a little underwhelming. I suppose the designers felt a little pressure to ease people into the game, and so loaded up the first hour or so almost exclusively with quick-time events. Fortunately, these quickly give way to some actual gameplay, with the QTEs becoming less frequent and even enjoyable later on as they at least tie into the basic control scheme.
The game is broken up into QTE-laden on-rails sequences and bigger open areas where you can advance the narrative, explore the area for anything of interest, or simply pick a direction, see what you can jump onto, and see where it takes you. As an added bonus, you can “fast travel” between each of these areas from one of the numerous camp site locations dotted about.
The pacing of the game is exactly right, a good balance of freeform exploration and big action set-pieces. When you’re not slap-bang in the middle of a scripted sequence, there’s usually a big area to explore, searching for collectibles and other bonuses. It’s not unlike the Assassin’s Creed or Arkham series’ in this regard, but somehow it feels less overwhelming and more fun. I suspect the reason for this is that the controls are so well implemented.
Lara’s has been gifted with the ability to jump long distances, typically further than the majority of gaps she’ll need to cross. Even if you somehow miss a jump (I think I may have fallen short a few times, but I don’t recall ever over-shooting a gap), Lara will at least try to hang on with one hand, giving you the opportunity to respond to a QTE to rescue her. But that’s not all.
Move Lara towards a narrow gap, and she’ll turn, sidling through it. Move her towards a low opening and she’ll crouch automatically in anticipation. It’s very, very smooth. In a review of the game that I read last year (for the Windows version), the reviewer claimed that one of the things thing they didn’t like about the game was that they’d be pressing a button and not realise they weren’t actually controlling Lara. But that’s actually one of the things I enjoy about it, that the action feels so natural (there are other, subtler things like her raising a torch when in water, or holding walls for support), you just don’t notice the segues into the cutscenes. You get all of the bombast of an action movie, with the immersion of a video game.
This is all complemented by some of the best level design I’ve experienced in any game. For the first time in a Tomb Raider game, it’s always, if not obvious, then clearly sign-posted as to where to go next, even in the larger areas that have multiple paths. There’s a “survival instinct” mode which highlights everything interactive in view and adds an objective marker for good measure if you’re ever lost or stuck, and this actually starts to feel like a hint system more than anything else, so I actively avoided using it. Even without this mode, everything Lara can grab onto is usually smeared in white paint, and other points of interaction, which unlock steadily over the course of the game, are usually very obvious. They end up looking both natural and yet distinctive, which are words I’d never have used to describe the platforms in a previous Tomb Raider game. As if that wasn’t enough, the camera angles will also clue you into where to go next whenever you’re hanging off the side of something (which is often).
As a result, the game doesn’t fire the same neurons as your typical platformer. I enjoyed running and leaping, ziplining and scaling walls in Tomb Raider more than I ever have in any game I can think of, and even writing this makes me appreciate that Tomb Raider purists will likely hate it for all the reasons I liked it. Presumably they’ll also hate the titular tombs, which are both tiny (typically a single room with a single puzzle to solve) and optional. Looking back over the game now, I do feel that it could have provided at least a little more challenge on the platforming side, at least for the optional bits (and this is coming from someone who abhors platforms), but it’s certainly better than the sense of dread I experienced in the massive, at times confusing, tombs of games past.
There’s combat too, and lots of it. Lara, to the dismay of anyone following the plot laid out in the cutscenes, quickly becomes a one-woman-murder-machine, using an assortment of weapons to appease her new-found psychosis. There’s a rudimentary cover system, whereby Lara will duck behind something if and when it’s appropriate, and the game actually allows you to be quite stealthy, sneaking up on unaware enemies or silently dispatching them with bow and arrow. Having (somewhat uncharacteristically) found a stealthy approach to be extremely enjoyable, it quickly became clear to me that many of the levels seem to have been designed specifically for people to take down enemies without ever being alerted, although the game doesn’t actually acknowledge that you’ve done this, and doesn’t really cue you as to whether or not you’re about to be spotted like say Deus Ex does. It says a lot that I would eagerly reload checkpoints just to attempt to make it through an area unnoticed rather than resorting to frontal assaults (which I should add, are also enjoyable in their own right).
There’s a steady flow of XP earned from pretty much every action you take, be it reaching objective markers, killing enemies or looting dead animals. XP is used to unlock numerous passive abilities for Lara (at camp sites), ranging from things like evasion techniques to revealing secret items on the map. Then there’s “salvage”, used to perform each of the many upgrades available to each weapon, and acquired by looting corpses and the abundant crates littered across the island (some of which even require a bit of craftiness to obtain). Again, it’s a testament to the game’s design that at no point did cracking open a salvage crate feel like a chore.
It still doesn’t seem like I’ve heaped enough praise on this game as I think it deserves. Had it been released late last year, it would have beaten BioShock: Infinite to be my game of the year. As it stands, Tomb Raider will probably be my game of the year for 2014, and if it isn’t, we’re in store for something truly outstanding.
Performance & Quality
Oh god, the scenery is stunning, the vistas are breathtaking; for all its ruinous, crumbling architecture, this island is full of beauty. As if in recognition of this, the interface is completely minimalist. There’s a little bit of GUI dedicated to showing you how much ammunition you have left when appropriate, but other than that it’s all third-person glory. Oh, well, there’s also the endless notifications about XP acquired, but you quickly tune those out. The sound design is strong, the music superb (it’s usually a good sign when you can buy the soundtrack for a game on iTunes). There are audio logs for most of the collectible items, which is a nice touch.
The port is as good as you could hope for. With our GTX670-equipped Mac Pro we maxed out the settings, ran the built-in benchmark (yes, this is the first Mac game I can recall with a built-in benchmark) and got an average frame rate of 51 FPS. That’s directly comparable to running the Windows version on the same hardware. We experienced a few moments of slow down, notably when entering a new area, as well as an occasion where the game hung upon returning to the main menu, necessitating a force-quit. Given the shoddy state the Windows version was in at release, the Mac version is an unbridled success. Indeed, the only (minor) flaw with it is that any saves from the Windows version aren’t compatible with the Mac version.
This is the game you want on your Mac, if for no other reason than to have on hand the next time someone asks you incredulously if you can play “real” games on that thing.