Tomb Raider (2013)

Posted: March 22, 2013 in Gaming
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The tagline reads Tomb Raider: A Survivor is Born, though quite how Lara Croft survives this one-woman production of Saw is another matter entirely. After being half-drowned, punched unconscious, strung upside down, set on fire, and falling twenty feet to the ground only to land kidney-first on a rusty spike of rebar, we’ve officially entered the first five minutes of the game. And, for poor, beleaguered Lara, it only goes downhill from there. Thankfully the same can’t be said of the game itself, which succeeds in being one of the most enjoyable Tomb Raiding experiences since Lara first welcomed us to her home in 1996.

Taking more than a few nods from Christopher Nolan’s zeitgeist-inspiring reboot of the Batman franchise, this game could just as easily have been titled Lara Begins. Tomb Raider, 2013 does away with all previously established history of the character and introduces us instead to a 21-year-old Lara Croft, fresh out of university and promptly shipwrecked in the Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan. Luckily for Ms Croft and her team of fellow survivors, the island just so happens to be the site of their intended destination; the lost kingdom of Yamatai. Somewhat less fortunately, it’s also home to a crazed group of cultists who worship the legendary sun queen Himiko and whose hospitality leaves a lot to be desired.

The journey is tightly-scripted, but this linearity is a small price to pay for the strength of the narrative. We feel for – and with – Lara every step of the way: her guilt for leading the crew on this ill-fated voyage; the crushing remorse she feels upon taking a human life (short-lived as it might be before the game demands a kill count to rival Ted Bundy); and the ultimate breaking and remaking of this young woman that sets her on the path to becoming a reimagining of the iconic adventurer who shaped the face of gaming. Jason Graves’ soundtrack compliments this transformation beautifully; varyingly haunting, despairing and triumphant as the action demands. It’s also effected visually via Lara’s on-screen appearance, and – given the litany of tortures that befall her over the course of the 15-hour game – it’s a nice touch to see that Lara is composed of about 80% blood, dirt and scars by the time the credits roll.

“You can do this, Lara. After all, you’re a Croft.”
“I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.”
“Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet.”

The supporting cast is rather less nuanced, but their relationships with Lara are an important factor in informing her motivations throughout. On the research team: her substitute father figure, Roth (alas, it seems the senior Mr. Croft is ill-fated no matter which universe his daughter inhabits), her best friend Sam(antha – who, plot point, traces her bloodline back to Queen Himiko), self-serving lead archaeologist, Whitman (for whom the discovery of Yamatai will make or break his waning career) and a small host of others. Scottish helmsman, Angus “Grim” Grimaldi (who, with a knife pressed to his throat, replies, “That’s nothing, pal: I grew up in Glasgow!”) was a personal highlight. Save their leader, the Solarii cultists are a little more faceless, but the game does a wonderful job of background dialogue, and more than once I found myself perching Lara behind a wall so that I could sit and listen to their conversations. As a whole, the cast is a little archetypal in nature and there are no great surprises in their individual plotlines (remember when Master Miller in MGS turned out to be Liquid Snake? Why can’t we see more of that in games?), but they’re effective as foils to Lara, and ultimately we care because she cares.

Sadly for them, their journey to Yamatai isn’t a guaranteed round trip. From the local inhabitants, to the native wildlife, to the very island itself, there’s very little in the game that isn’t out to kill you; and this real, visceral sense of danger is one of its greatest strengths. Lara has faced off against more than her share of endangered species and mythological beings in the past, but rarely have her exploits felt as life-threatening as they do here. The game doesn’t market itself as survival horror, but survival is definitely the name of the game and it is frequently horrifying. Case in point: the first thirty minutes of Tomb Raider are scarier than anything in the PS3 incarnations of Resident Evil. There are also enough heart-stopping moments involving near-plummets off bridges, cliffs and radio towers to ensure that you’ll leave the experience with a healthy dose of acrophobia. The latter half of the game is more action-oriented (mimetic, perhaps, of Lara casting off her own fears), but the immediate danger of her situation is palpable throughout.

In order to survive the environment, Lara has a limited but eminently-upgradable arsenal at her disposal, starting with the bow and arrow she retrieves from one of the island’s previous, and rather less fortunate, visitors. This also allows her to begin her genocide of the local fauna, whose bloodied carcasses she can rummage through for experience points and “salvage”. With the exception of the wolves, however, the animals are usually content to give Lara a wide berth, and the hunting mechanic never becomes as intrusive or crippling as, for instance, Snake Eater, where you’d suddenly find yourself unable to fight your way out of an ambush because the protagonist skipped breakfast. (Indeed, after your first kill, it becomes entirely optional, and one wonders if it was originally meant to serve a larger purpose.) Lara is able to cash in her exp and salvage at the game’s many base camps, though how she’s able to fashion rifle parts out of a slaughtered chicken is sadly never explained. She also accrues skill points which can be used to upgrade her abilities as a Survivor, a Hunter and a Brawler, allowing for a great deal of customisability within Ms Croft herself.

The story takes place across a massive and beautifully-realised canvas, encompassing mountain temples and villages, hollowed out military installations, a dilapidated shanty town, and a beach littered with the wrecks of a veritable armada. Weather conditions, too, are rendered gorgeously, with the screen fogging up and getting wet as the elements dictate. Base camps also serve as fast travel points, allowing Lara to backtrack and thoroughly explore previously visited sections of the island once she’s acquired the necessary skills or equipment. Each area has a plethora of documents, relics and challenges hidden across its terrain, and ensuring that their acquisition doesn’t devolve into a hollow Easter Egg hunt, the books and diaries serve to flesh out the history of the island and that of Lara’s companions and antagonists. (Spoiler: there’s at least one secret lovechild among the crew.) Earning her keep as an archaeologist, Lara also provides a short but informative description of each relic she acquires (and rotating them will occasionally reveal amusing details like a Made in China sticker on the base of a Jade Ox).

Interestingly, actual tombs are few and far between; and – a bold choice on the part of the developers – almost entirely optional. They primarily take the form of giant puzzle rooms, which provide a welcome distraction from the frequent gunfights that pepper the adventure. None are so difficult that they’ll have you reaching for a walkthrough, but they are brain-teasing enough that you’ll feel you deserve a healthy pat on the back once you’ve found the solution. More often than not, however, Lara will be fighting her way out of any given situation. Thankfully, combat in Tomb Raider is a great deal more enjoyable than it has been in the past, and a number of situations allow you to take the infinitely satisfying stealth route – either by taking your enemies out with a swift arrow to the skull, or sneaking up behind them for a brutal but deadly strangulation. Indeed, but for the trophies which require you take make a certain amount of kills with each of the four weapons, I would happily have stuck with the bow throughout. The presence of these trophies is also, narratively speaking, a little jarring: we’re expected to believe that the death of one man is enough to render Lara momentarily apoplectic, but our success in the game is contingent upon her not only becoming a survivor but also the most prolific serial killer the world has ever seen.

The game is not without other such flaws, though the list is admittedly short in comparison to its merits. A few too many scenes are littered with forced interactivity via QTEs when a simple cut scene would have sufficed and allowed us to take in the action without mashing the controller. Tapping L2 will also initiate Lara’s spider sense (or “Survival Instincts”), causing the screen to fade to black and white and highlight any notable objects in her field of vision. Granted, this can be useful for some of the more onerous challenges like finding ten tiny mushrooms strewn throughout a forest, but it’s rather at odds with the realism the reboot is trying to achieve. It’s also emblematic of a lot of modern games’ fear to be genuinely difficult, and – by extension – the need to hold the player’s hand at all times.

On the subject of realism, it bothered me that the game seemingly commits to a more grounded telling of Lara’s origin story in its first half – right before it makes a sharp u-turn into the realm of actual fantasy leading up to the conclusion. I for one would have welcomed a solid, scientific explanation for the events on the island, though whether it was the writer’s inability to come up with one or it was always their original intention for Lara to re-enter the world of living mythology we’ll probably never know

My biggest and perhaps most controversial complaint given the degree of praise it’s received elsewhere is the voice work of Camilla Luddington as our British ingénue. Or is she Australian? Miscellaneously transatlantic? Evidently, even she can’t decide, because Lara takes us on a world tour of accents, oftentimes within a single sentence. It’s particularly bothersome because Luddington’s acting is some of the best we’ve seen – no small feat given that the script calls for a far greater range than is generally exhibited by the stoic Ms. Croft. Tragically, I was rarely able to concentrate long enough to enjoy it because I spent so much of the time distracted by the great continental drift of her dialect. The Lost Kingdom of Yamatai might have been found by the game’s conclusion, but Lara’s accent is still in uncharted waters.

A fault I lay at the developers’ feet rather than the actress’ is, however, her pronunciation of Japanese – particularly problematic with a game set in Japan. With the exception of Whitman, not one member of the research team can pronounce Queen Himiko’s name correctly; and this in spite of the years they’ve spent studying her and the fact that Sam is actually of Japanese descent. (For the record, there is no schwa in the Japanese language.) Her declaration that a relic comes from the Ee-do (rather than Eh-do) period is also a little jarring, and – moreover – somewhat unbelievable given her presumed expertise on the subject. Similarly, it’s a great source of frustration that it takes Lara the entire game to connect the dots between her friend’s abduction and the mysterious ritual she finds out about a few short hours into her ordeal that requires a young, female sacrifice. I would make allowances for suspension of disbelief, but even the sight of the aforementioned friend tied to a pyre isn’t enough for her to make the synaptic leap, by which stage she’s exhibiting Katie Holmes-level blindness.

As a final complaint, the entire multiplayer mode is a tacked-on, tedious mess that was patently included for the sole purpose of stretching out the game’s longevity. It is, however, entirely optional unless you’re an avid collector of trophies. Just to warn you: “Shopaholic” will require you to invest a minimum of about 40 hours in this mode. It’s currently the only thing standing between me and a platinum, but the sheer unenjoyability of the multiplayer has proved enough to defeat even my most ardent obsessive completism. The mode’s sole redeeming quality is that it very marginally fleshes out hitherto unknown characters, such as providing a name and face for Steph – whose shining moment in the main game is her cameo as a strung-up corpse in the opening sequence.

Thankfully, the game can fall back on the strength of its main solo campaign, which is easily my favourite Tomb Raider in years, and probably the most fun I’ve had with any game so far in 2013. It’s not perfect, but the few flaws that are present are more than redeemed by an involving storyline carried by the emotional depth of its heroine, and a survival adventure that tests her to the limits of human endurance. Even if the same can’t be said of the storyline, the latest incarnation of Lara is thoroughly believable throughout, and her transformation from helpless student to hardened survivor is paid off in one gloriously iconic moment in the game’s finale where we learn that she is, indeed, that kind of Croft.

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Comments
  1. Heather says:

    Does anyone know if there is any reason why this game wouldn’t play past the intro scene other than a faulty disc? My X-Box 360 plays all my other games with no problem. I know this is a random question but I rented it from a Redbox and it wouldn’t play so I reported it as unplayable. After about two and a half weeks I rented it again thinking that they pulled the first disc I rented but the game did the same thing. Now, I’m not sure if it’s my X-box or if Redbox never took the unplayable disc out of the kiosk.

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