Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review of Tomb Raider (2013)

 I've written a lot of reviews over the years. I intend to repost some of my favorites.

This is a long review. It has four sections: History, Pros, Cons, Conclusion. Feel free to skip the parts that don't interest you.
Introduction: Some History

Tomb Raider was one of my favorite PSX series. It stood out not only for its female protagonist (unusual for the time) but also for being one of the first truly 3D platformers that also incorporated action and puzzle-solving. For their time, the first two games are the best in the series, while Tomb Raider III and IV are solid games in their own right. After the underwhelming Chronicles and the ill-conceived Angel of Darkness, the series got a sort of soft reboot with Legend, the first game released on a seventh generation console. I say "soft" because the fundamental character of Lara Croft was not changed that much; it was more that the series had been written into a dead end with Croft's "death" in The Last Revelation and the poorly received follow-up on PS2.

Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld are all solid if imperfect entries, but they all suffer from being released right around the end of the sixth console generation. They came out in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively, and were all released on both PS2 and PS3. When a game comes out on multiple console generations, you can generally infer that the game is not really designed to take advantage of the more sophisticated hardware. Such was the case with this Tomb Raider trilogy. All of the games lack the features and content depth you'd expect of a PS3 or 360 game, and graphically all look like HD remixes of PS2 games.

The series needed a facelift after Underworld. That could have come in the form of a sequel, prequel, or another reboot. Crystal Dynamics opted for the latter - redefining both Lara Croft and her game in a number of fundamental ways. The result is an impressive triple A title that succeeds depending on how much you enjoyed the original series. If you know little or nothing about Tomb Raider, you may love this game, as it is well-done for what it is. If like me you are a long time fan of the series, you cannot help but feel disappointed. As this was a relatively successful remake, we can only assume that this is what Tomb Raider is now. We old fans have to move on and get over it.

The next section lists four pros and four cons. Both the cons and pros are listed in order of importance/weight.

Pros: Four Compliments

1. Graphics
As I mentioned above, the earlier "seventh generation" Tomb Raider games are not terribly impressive graphically. Underworld is the only decent-looking game, and even it was far outclassed by games released that same year. TR2013 by contrast is a very attractive game. The character models are very detailed, especially Lara. We can literally see all of the gear she carries along with every modification for each weapon. With maxed settings on PC, the frame rate is pretty consistent, hair and face models are sharp, and the environments are crisp and rich. The island is a visual feast of caves, shanty towns, mountains, and forests. TR2013 is not only the best looking Tomb Raider game, but one of the best looking games of 2013, and remember this is the year we got Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto 5.

2. Combat

Combat has never been a strong point for the series.It has never been a main priority. TR2013 however has a TON of action, and so the developers clearly put a lot of time into refining the combat system. The result is a slick, fast-paced mix of melee and ranged action. It's a lot of fun, and modifying weapons over time is also cool. I appreciated the sheer variety: Sneaking up on enemies and stabbing them with an arrow, throwing dirt at attackers to blind them, spraying crowds with the machine gun and finishing off stragglers with the climbing axe - all of these are fun moments that the game lets you engineer in arena after arena. It's on par with any 3D shooter of the seventh generation.

3. Atmosphere

TR2013 has really good sound design. I love how you hear Lara breathing throughout. You really get the feeling of her struggle - her being out of breath and exhausted from her trials. The ominous little noises you hear in caves are great, as are the sounds of maddened prisoners during one part late in the game. Combined with the fine graphics, the game overall creates a truly bleak, gritty vibe from beginning to end. What's more the game has a ton of cinematic flair. The QTE's allow for some really dramatic moments. Just like with The Last of Us you feel sucked into a Hollywood movie thanks to strong voice acting and cinematography.

4. Content

TR2013 offers enough content to justify its price tag. You have hidden tombs, multiple difficulties, hidden diaries to collect, trophies, and an online multiplayer component. Not all of these are flawlessly executed of course; the multiplayer isn't great, and the hidden areas are all laughably simple and small. Still, I enjoyed scrounging around for salvage and finding random artifacts and journals. It was neat the way you could rotate items and Lara would discover new things about them. These kinds of features would have been great in older Tomb Raider games.
Cons: Four Complaints

1. Genre-Switch

The original Tomb Raider games were 3D platform / puzzle games with some action elements mixed in for fun. TR2013 is a third person shooter. It has about as much platforming / puzzle-solving as Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. That is to say, you have some climbing sections in between shootouts. At root, this is a 3rd person cover shooter in the mold of Gears of War. It aims for the same vibe as Uncharted with some exploration / survival / scavenging thrown in, but as I will describe in another section, those elements aren't terribly deep. This switch, from archeologist exploring ancient ruins, to Rambo in the body of a pretty coed, is my fundamental problem with the game. I wanted to play Tomb Raider, I got Uncharted with boobs.

2. The Difficulty

TR2013 is, to use the Dark Souls community term, beyond casual. It was the easiest game I beat in 2013. Even Saints Row IV was harder, and that whole game is one big parody. TR2013 is billed as the birth of a survivor, but there are hardly any genuine survival mechanics. Ammo is plentiful thanks to all the mobs of dudes to kill. You don't have to worry about eating. Your health regenerates. Stealth is almost never necessary and rarely even possible. Don't worry about puzzles too, since you have a detective mode to highlight solutions for you. You have color-coded platforms anyway - just look for white and you'll immediately know where to go. The more dramatic death-defying moments are all QTE's anyway, and you can just keep retrying them as needed.
Essentially the game holds your hand from start to finish.

I wish these crutches could have been relegated to an easy mode. If you really want a dark, survivor feel, make it so that every single encounter is life or death. Make it so that you have to hunt for food and rest occasionally. Make it so that getting shot disables limbs and demands time and resources to fix. Make it so that there are multiple solutions for getting past enemies - from stealth, to complex platforming, to setting traps, to camouflage, to going Rambo (which should be extremely difficult). Metal Gear Solid 3 did all of this nine years ago. What you have in TR2013 is a dumbed-down shooter with the occasional break for a cutscene or climbing section. If you really want a survival experience, go for Fallout or even I Am Alive for something more contemporary.

3. New Lara

My last two criticisms are the most subjective. I personally preferred the older Lara Croft to this new one. The new Lara (and the whole game frankly) suffer from the Nolan-effect of the last decade - that is, the obsession with gritty, "realistic" remakes. Her personality and appearance are believable. What she does on the island is not. Still, she feels like a more believable character and looks relatable thanks to a breast reduction and a thousand repetitions of the line of "I can do this!" Some people like that. I prefer sexy supermodel James Bond Lara. I prefer the wisecracking and voluptuous Lara, who was more Indiana Jones than girl-next-door. I prefer politically incorrect cheesecake Lara with her fun outfits, tongue-in-cheek narrative and posh supergenius rich girl archeologist gymnast back story. It's the same reason why I like the old Dante over the new in Devil May Cry; he was just more fun.

4. The Story

In broad strokes the plot of TR2013 isn't bad. I lived in Japan for a few years, so I appreciated the WWII history and legend of Himiko. What bothered me was the execution. This is a game aiming for gritty realism with a story that seems to go out of its way to break my suspension of disbelief. As I alluded to in my criticism of the game's difficulty, it really doesn't make sense that an untrained college girl would be capable of gunning down scores of ruthless cultists and mercenaries. She is literally impaled on a metal spike in the first fifteen minutes of the game and later gets caught in a bear trap. We are apparently to believe that tendon lacerations and internal bleeding are injuries one can just walk off without concern. By the seventh time she'd fallen off a collapsing bridge, survived a massive explosion, or miraculously escaped murderous captors, I didn't care anymore. It also doesn't help her tough girl feminist credentials that she survives only because of several men sacrificing themselves for her throughout the story, something old cheesy Lara generally didn't need. The anticlimactic ending following the joke final boss left me feeling that there was no point in ever picking up the game again. All in all, the details of the story undermine the theme and decent plot ideas.
Final Thought
Tomb Raider 2013 exemplifies much of what I dislike about modern video games. The pseudo-realism, the lack of challenge, the focus on 'realistic' as opposed to 'overly sexy' female characters, the "Call of Duty" game flow and body count, the prioritization of "cinematic experiences" over engaging gameplay - all of these issues combined with the fact that the game was fairly successful, really irk me. This is what audiences want now, and developers are strip-mining beloved franchises to give it to them. If it were not called Tomb Raider, this would be a decent game in its own right; At the very least, you have a fun action game with a lot of drama and solid production value. Alas it is called Tomb Raider and I am left only imagining what could have been had developers opted for a true seventh generation globe-trotting adventure instead of another Uncharted clone.

Rest in Peace, Lara. You were too beautiful for this world.