I've never really been able to relate to the character of Lara Croft. A stunningly beautiful English toff who has had everything handed to her on a plate and with a skill set that MacGyver would be proud of, as a character she does little to engender a sense of sympathy. That didn't really matter much back in the old days, when she was a collection of low resolution polygons being chased by dinosaurs in a lost valley amongst South American tombs. Back then you may as well have tried to relate to Mario or Sonic as a character.
Of course things are different nowadays. Tomb Raider is a serious, grown up game, full of extremely realistic violence, murder, sacrifice, Big Questions, and emotions. As a result the game falls a little between two stools - it's lost the sense of fun and silliness that made the early games so enjoyable, and traded it in for a serious story, with serious characters and a serious plot (and absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever). The problem is that the story, characters and plot are not that great.
Things are at their most disappointing early on, with some truly awful writing.
"A famous explorer once said that the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are. I'd finally set out to make my mark; to find adventure. But instead, adventure found me.
In our darkest moments... when life flashes before us... we find something; something that keeps us going... something that pushes us."Bleh. That had me cringing from the off. Unfortunately the poor introduction was followed with a series of quick time events (press F now!), small zones with extremely linear pathways, and felt nothing like a Tomb Raider game. The first hour really wasn't a great experience.
Unfortunately many of these flaws continued right through the 12 odd hours of the game. Awful quick time events kept cropping up (mash left and right to escape!), the areas got a little bigger but still had only a single pathway through them (the game is one giant funnel, and not a well disguised one), and whilst the writing improved the game still liked to infodump at regular intervals.
To its credit the game did try some things new. The first time Lara kills an animal, and shortly afterwards kills a person, the game shows her agony and regret. It's slightly undermined by the fact that twenty minutes later she's slaying people left and right like a psychopath and getting achievement rewards for how well she does so (god I hate these kind of achievements, further evidence of the horrible console-ification of modern games).
Combat is generally well handled, but is the least interesting part of the game. A shame then that it makes up the majority of the gameplay. Whilst lip service is paid to stealthy options the game often forces you to face hordes of enemies in a straight up battle, and the opportunities for stealth kills are few and far between. At times the game feels more like a generic 3rd person shooter than a Tomb Raider game. A pretty good 3rd person shooter, but just another example of that over-saturated genre nevertheless.
There are other issues. It seems churlish to complain about the portrayal of women in a game like this, with such an "strong" female protagonist, but at times it's obvious the game was made with young men as the target demographic. The very few women in the game (I haven't come across any female enemies yet) are almost always shown as victims (even Lara), often in very uncomfortable ways, and whilst many of the men are portrayed as elderly, gruff, coarse and suchlike the women are all portrayed, well let's just say differently.
The game tries its hardest to impart a sense of peril, but often its a false sense. One example was when Lara was climbing up a ladder to the top of a windswept radio tower. The wind is howling, a snow blizzard send flurries against our heroine. The music swells. A flock of crows suddenly flies out causing Lara to cower precariously. She gets higher and the wind gets stronger. The camera shows us the precipitous fall. A rung of the ladder is missing! Lara leaps to the next one, but it bends under her weight! She almost falls.
This isn't a cut scene, this is gameplay. Yet all I have to do in order to progress is keep my finger pressed on the forward key. That's it. No skill required and an annoying lack of control (I couldn't for example go back down the ladder). There are many sequences like this in the game, where peril is strongly suggested but you can get past just by pressing the forwards key.
Wow, reading all that back I'm surprised at what a negative review this has been so far! That's because despite all of these many shortcomings I ended up really enjoying the game. There is still plenty to like, and at times the game soars.
First up, the graphics and animations with everything turned up are stellar. The light-mapping on Lara's skin shows up every pore and scratch. The texture layers impart a real sense of grime and hardship as she gets covered in more and more blood and dirt. Great weather and environmental effects add to the atmosphere and the island on which the game is set is stunningly realised. An easily overlooked but very welcome graphical touch was the almost complete absence of a UI when exploring.
Sound design is excellent too, with the howling winds adding especially to the sense of immersion. It helps that the music is generally of a very high quality too, hitting all the right notes without being too overblown.
The best parts of the game are undoubtedly the parts where Lara actually raids tombs. There just aren't enough of these, the average 3rd person combat making up the bulk of the gameplay. Whilst exploring the tombs (which are disappointingly small) and solving the puzzles inside, the game changes and I could see the DNA of the original games starting to shine through at last.
Finally there are some really great sequences in the game. The dizzying parachute descent, the crawling under the sniper-ridden bridge, escaping from collapsing tombs, sliding down a hill as a crashed plane speeds behind, and especially a breath-taking climb up a burning tower - all offer breathtaking excitement and more importantly you feel like you have some control over Lara's destiny.
Despite what I've written there is a hell of a lot to like in Tomb Raider. You can see the developers have tried hard to deliver, but apart from a few special moments it always seems to fall just short of excellence (which still means it's pretty good).
The problem I found was that after playing The Last of Us, which does many of the same things (serious adult story, strong characters, great set pieces, 3rd person combat) Tomb Raider fell short of Naughty Dog's masterpiece in every single way.
So then. I enjoyed my time with Lara a lot. She's has absolutely no subtlety about her though, and she doesn't feel like the Lara of the previous games. Despite being a younger character (the game is a prequel to the other Tomb Raider games) she feels a lot older, and not in a good way.
Tomb Raider is a pretty darn good game. If you can pick it up for £6 like I did (thanks savvygamer.co.uk!) then it's definitely worth playing. But it's not a good Tomb Raider game. It feels like something different. It certainly hasn't haunted me for days after like The Last of Us did.
Still, a pretty darn good game is sometime just what you need. If the inevitable sequel can drastically cut down on the quick time events, introduce some subtlety to the writing, and deliver more of the fun exploration and puzzle solving instead of the run-of-the-mill combat, then just maybe it might achieve that classic status.
More screenshots below.