Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: Tomb Raider Reboot

I've never actually played Tomb Raider, so when I saw that it got a 2013 reboot, I decided that the stellar reviews it got and critical acclaim meant it was worth a try. As an engineer, I tend to over-rate engineering achievements, and I have to say, the game engine underlying this version of Tomb Raider is amazing. The graphics are gorgeous, the controls relatively snappy, and the end result is very pretty. If while playing the game you think to yourself, "This looks like a million dollars!", you'd be right, because the budget for Tomb Raider was $100 million. By all accounts, the PC version of the game is the prettiest, especially if you have a strong graphics card to take advantage of it.

What the game designers have chosen to do with the engine is also fairly enjoyable. The game in it's main story line, plays a lot like an Uncharted game. In fact, the first few hours of the game is just as intense as the best of the Uncharted series, with superb writing and great visuals moving the plot along. In fact, the emotional connection the player has with Lara Croft might even be stronger, as she seems more vulnerable than Nathan Drake ever is. And yes, the game passes the Bechdel test, on multiple occasions, not surprising considering that the writer is Rhianna Pratchett.

If the game had continued at this level of intensity through the experience, it would be a better game than any of its competitors. Unfortunately, the game falls apart in the second half of the story. The story isn't to blame. What happened was that the game tries to integrate the experience mechanic of the Batman games, along with the side missions like the optional tombs. If all the side stuff was truly optional, then you could just barrel along and ignore all that, much like the treasure collection in the Uncharted games. Unfortunately, the experience system and weapons upgrade mechanics means that unless you get certain upgrade progressions, the later parts of the game become harder, so you end up scrounging around collecting collectibles for the sake of collectibles.

Now, some of the side missions are fun. The tombs themselves are entertaining puzzles that would take you about 10-15 minutes each. The document discovery stuff is also interesting, since it gives you some back story on the other characters in the game. These pieces fills out the game somewhat, and I have no objection to them. The salvage system, GPS caching, and challenge systems, however, are just silly. They do nothing for the game, forcing you to basically explore the locations thoroughly outside the story, and they dilute the experience severely. Basically, these elements of the game further reinforced for me why the Uncharted games are successful: Naughty Dog studios had the courage to stick to the story that they wanted to tell at the expense of alienating part of the potential audience for their work, while Crystal Dynamics doesn't feel as though they were willing to do so. Ironically, I think eliminating the ancillary systems would have made the overall game quite a bit stronger.

The other thing that broke the flow for me was the way the game let you have a lot of cheap deaths. By this I mean that there are some things that you would never do as a human, but given the limitations of a controller, might result in a death unless the game designers caught it. For instance, if you're standing on a ledge and tip a joystick by accident (or because you're reaching for some other button), Tomb Raider would have Lara fall off the ledge and die. By contrast, every time I've done that in an Uncharted game, Nathan Drake would just grab the edge of the ledge instead, allowing me to recover from an accidental touch. Incidentally, the cheap deaths result in famously gruesome death animations, which are the main reason why I'm not letting my kid touch this game for a while. What's crazy about these death animations is that the one time an NPC dies gruesomely, Lara turns away from the scene. You would think that if you were going for an M rating you might as well do it all the way.

Finally, I wish Crystal Dynamics had spent some of the $100 million budget on giving us a full score for the background music behind the game. There is background music, but it's relatively muted and you only notice it during the cut scenes. It's nothing noteworthy, which made the game feel like it was punching below its weight otherwise. The other place where the game doesn't quite pull it's weight is that Lara Croft is alone all the time. None of the NPCs are helpful outside of the cut scenes, except in a bridge traversal scene, and even then it was obviously scripted. There's essentially no interaction between Lara and the other characters in the game outside of cut scenes.

I just spent several paragraphs complaining about the game. But it was overall, a fun experience and especially in the first half of the game, well written and an intense experience. I'd recommend the game (especially since it has no zombies, unlike some other AAA titles out there), but if you have limited time, try Among Thieves or Arkham Asylum first.
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