Almost everybody knows Lara Croft, even those people that don’t really play games. At least they have heard that name before, probably through the movies with Angelina Jolie. In 2013 Square Enix rebooted the whole series and created a game that is so immersive beyond just the exploring of dungeons and ruins. It depicts how the Lara Croft of old, the tough archeologist, came to be. I know the old games, I played a few, but they never really hooked me. If it had not been for a promo code that came with an AMD video card I probably wouldn’t even own Tomb Raider.
But I do. In fact, since it came out about two years ago. That’s when I bought that graphics card. But ever since, this game rotted in my Steam library. What a shame that was. But it was also some sort of win because as of today I had no trouble cranking up the graphics settings to full ultra maximum (violence) and enjoy stunning visuals without any hiccup.
But that’s not the reason I’m writing this. Just like Dragon Age Origins, this game impressed me quite a bit with its gameplay. It has some flaws, of course – which game doesn’t – but compared to the whole work of art that’s on display here, they are so minor and, in some way, actually contribute to the tension and excitement.
This game consists of equal parts exploration, action and story. It wouldn’t be a worthy Tomb Raider game if there weren’t any tombs to raid and puzzles to solve. But not only are there tombs but also hidden artifacts scattered across the maps that, upon finding, reveal a bit of background on the story or historical facts about the island where it all takes place. The more you find the more pieces of the story puzzle you have to dread what is happening. And it is quite a mystery.
In short, there’s an ancient spirit of the so-called Sun Queen of Yamatai that was once betrayed and since then rages storms and causes planes to drop and ships to sink that come near the island or want to leave it. One survivor that got stranded on the island 30 years ago built himself a following, a damn sadistic and violent cult, to worship the queen, waiting for the right sacrifice to transfer the spirit from the old and decayed body into a new host. Unless that is done or the old body destroyed no one is allowed to leave.
Lara and her crew are actually looking for this island, not knowing the danger they are going to face. As a result, their ship is caught in one such raging storm and they unwillingly crash on the shores of Yamatai. This is where it starts. Lara is separated from her friends and has to learn how to survive. For one, being alone in the wilderness and second because of the crazy cult that kidnaps one of the crew members, an American-Japanese girl, that is a far descendant of the Sun Queen.
Now the quest for survival of Lara and her friends begins. You explore a lot of regions and almost all of them are continuously linked together. It is not an open-world environment but you don’t jump from map to map once a level has been completed. It really feels like a cohesive adventure. But to me the exploration is just a relief to the intense moments the game provides. There’s action aplenty, maybe too much if you compare it with all its predecessors, but it is cleverly intermingled with the adventure and the story elements.
But it is not just a simple shooter or a game where you are sneaking around all the time. You see Lara grow her character from the first moment she has to gut a deer for food, the dread and disgust in her eyes and voice of what she has to do, until the very end, where she confidently touts her enemies that they’ll never be able stop her. This game develops Lara’s character from a brilliant, young archeologist to a tough fighter that is not afraid to venture forth and face whatever there is, no matter how dangerous. But she’s not a ruthless killing machine either. She’s a human being that really cares for her friends and is deeply wounded and in pain when they die. What she does and what she becomes is because of what she has to do to get them all of the island safely. It is an emotional rollercoaster. All those moments are presented through in-game cut scenes, the journals you find and Lara’s thoughts, reflecting at a camp or reacting to the situation when you see not so normal things.
At the very beginning I have talked about flaws in the game and how they might actually not be flaws at all. This game is littered with quick time events. Some are triggered at a certain point in the level and some are based on Lara’s combat skills and how you use them. There are numerous moments that include button mashing and then pressing another button at the right moment to successfully get out of the situation. For example, Lara often has to wrestle free of a foes grip and this is where you torture the left and right buttons in quick succession. At a certain point you are required to hit another one, but at exactly the right moment. Sounds easy enough, but apart from mashing left and right the finisher button varies quite a bit. And, it’s not only about pressing at the right moment, sometimes you have to mash it. And – I’m not done yet – you have to be quick to spot which button it is and what to do. And, at least it felt to me that way, if there is timing involved I think it changed from time to time. As a gamer this drives me nuts. I hate it when I can’t rely on muscle memory to be successful. But, after the fact, I think this is what makes these moments so thrilling.
Another thing that was a bit frustrating at times was the camera. Mostly you play Lara from above her head in 3rd person. Every now and then though, the camera changes to a very cinematic angle. That looks cool and all but it also obscures the view. In about, let’s say, 80% you immediately figure out where to go but sometimes, only sometimes, there is so much going on (like everything around you is falling apart or you find yourself in the middle of a fierce snow storm) that will make it hard to find the next ledge to grab or the next wall to ram your climbing axe into. But this also adds to the experience. This game is very intense and thrilling. Being under fire from turrets while the buildings around you burn and crash? Having some ancient guards of the Sun Queen charge at you because you plan on walking into her temple and release her soul? It’s all in there. And even more. How about sliding down a hill while parts of a crashed plane are coming right behind you? This is where the quick time events and camera angles shine. They pull you right into the action.
And, as is the case with any extreme situation a group of people is thrown into, there’s also a social tension. Some of the survivors of the expedition die and that puts a strain on the relations among them. There’s a sneaky bastard only acting in his personal interest. How they interact with each other is very well depicted and really believable. There’s nothing that makes you want to slap your hands on your head. And this all comes to life with in-game graphics (no pre-rendered video) and extremely good voice acting. This is also true for all the diaries and notes you find. Luckily the devs decided to not only present them as text but also have them narrated by different people, depending on whose notes they are. This is awesome work. This is really the reason I prefer the original localization. Some German translations are actually very good, like the Batman Arkham XYZ series, but some are just mediocre, like Dragon Age Origins, or even plain bad, like Assassin’s Creed 1.
Oh, have I already mentioned that the developers designed a very, very attractive model? I mean, what would Tomb Raider be without a good looking Lara Croft? Only that in this game Lara is made to be a person as well, not just a cool (and smart, granted) chick with a very obvious visual quality.
Since I have vacation, these have been a very fun four days. It’s nice to actually plow through a game in one piece instead of several months. If you haven’t bought it already: do it!