Lara Croft is one of the few strong female leads in a patriarchal industry that generally doesn't take too well to the concept of making a “kitchen-residing sammich maker” as the protagonist. In reality, that's what the mainstream media—which, I must add, seems to have a complete and utter disconnect with gaming—has convinced most laymen into believing. The fact is, your average PC gamer is in his 30s and more mature than most non-gamers give him credit for. A good percentage of gamers are discerning connoisseurs who simply will not tolerate a mediocre video game just because it has a well-proportioned lady protagonist.
My point is, unlike what most non-gamers believe, Tomb Raider isn't famous solely because of Lara's much-publicised assets. A generation of gamers has grown up genuinely enjoying its phenomenal level design and meticulously-crafted puzzles on a scale that beggars belief even after 16 years. Although I will have a soft spot for the original games with their clunky grid-based level design, the video game industry has evolved much since the first Tomb Raider was released. Despite all its cinematic flair and successful modernisation of the control scheme, Tomb Raider: Legend still didn't have all the new-fangled bells and whistles of contemporary games..
The PC version definitely looks better than the PS3 one
This latest reboot is Square Enix's attempt at getting the same Legend/Underworld developer Crystal Dynamics to start afresh with an origin story that aims to create a well-rounded Lara Croft. One that's less a caricature of a one-liner spewing bulletproof heroine and into a more relatable young survivor that has, over the course of the reboot, forged into the hardened Tomb Raider that we know through the past games. How good is this brand-new Tomb Raider, you ask? Does it end up being too apologetic of the erstwhile Lara Croft's James Bond/Indiana Jones flamboyance and get too emo for its own good?
Fortunately, the answer is a resounding no. The reboot has been penned by Rhianna Pratchett, who also happens to have worked on games such as Mirror's Edge, Prince of Persia (2008 reboot), the Overlord series, and Heavenly Sword—all of which are known for their excellent writing. With Tomb Raider, Rhianna pretty much proves she's her father's daughter by weaving an engaging mythos enriched with the right blend of fantasy, intrigue, horror, and reality, while serving as a great canvas to paint Lara in a whole new light.
We're introduced to a rather green Croft setting sail in pursuit of her maiden adventure—the quest to find the lost city of Yamatai in the dangerous waters of the Dragon's Triangle off the coast of Japan. Needless to say, poop hits the ceiling and she gets shipwrecked bang on the island of Yamatai, which is infested with murderous savages and the remnants of an ancient army protecting the island's secrets and preventing anyone from leaving it. The rest of the game is about Lara's quest to escape the island, and how this baptism by fire shapes her into the gutsy, confident woman portrayed in the past games.
What I like the most about the new Tomb Raider is how brutal it is. While the earlier games shied away from showing blood, the reboot doesn't pull any punches when it comes to portraying the grittiness or naked violence and aggression required by the story. Lara gets beaten, bruised, and impaled on multiple occasions, but the depiction isn't just a gratuitous nod to torture porn. The idea is to show the descent of a rich aristocratic kid, shielded from the dark side of humanity, into a hardened survivor and the cold-blooded killer she must turn into to achieve that. When a franchise as large as this risks cutting down its reach by embracing the Mature rating, it shows that the developers hold creativity in higher regard than anything else.
The narrative is multilayered and incorporates the essence of Tomb Raider by basing the plot around the real-world myth of shamanistic Sun Queen Himiko and her supernatural army of shogun warriors. This is bolstered by incorporating a parallel arc involving several generations of shipwrecked survivors adding that many layers of history, ranging from the Japanese feudal period and the remnants of the Japanese and American strife during World War II to settlement comprising of Russian scavengers who have formed a cult practicing human sacrifice. Although it may seem modern and distant from the traditional Tomb Raider game, it still manages to capture the essence of what a Tomb Raider experience is supposed to be. My only complaint is that while Lara is fleshed out well, the supporting cast members aren't as memorable and only serve as fodder for plot progression.
The reboot may appear to have the scale of an open world game, but it actually uses a clever hub-based level design that branches out into expansive maps that encourage players to scavenge through and return to previously explored areas as and when they please. This is made possible by embracing RPG mechanics replete with skill points and upgradeable skills and gears. Each hub and the zones branching from them have Base and Day Camps that allow Lara to fast travel between areas and assign skill points, as well as upgrade and craft weapons and items.
…and the hunted
Lara's journey from a sheltered rich girl to a tough-as-nails Tomb Raider has been mimicked in the gameplay as well. Uncovering mysteries of the island, hunting animals for food with her bow and arrow, and killing the hostile inhabitants of the island add to her XP, which in turn provides skill points and salvage parts required to learn new tricks and craft/upgrade items to survive the island. These tricks range from those required for hunting, foraging, and traversal to ones that make you a master craftsman/outdoorsman and an efficient killer.
The makeshift axe you fashion out of blade at the beginning of the game gradually transforms into a deadly climbing axe, which is used to traverse to places previously inaccessible and also as a potent melee weapon to cut down enemies. Your improvised bow can be upgraded into a full-blown competition-grade version outfitted with armour piercing, napalm, and explosive-tipped arrows. The game knows how to use this mechanic to make little gameplay tweaks that nip tedium before it sets in. For example, just before you get weary of vertical traversal the developers throw in rope arrows that make getting from point A to B quicker. In addition to fast travel points, you have ziplines as well as a motorised ascender introduced later on that lets you move about even quicker and more effortlessly.
Weapons are fun to wield and range from pistols and submachine guns, to powerful rifles and shotguns—all of which can be upgraded in terms of damage, rate of fire, handling, and stealth, in addition to special attributes unique to each one. The combat is, beyond doubt, the best in the franchise and even rivals the finest third-person offerings thanks to its speed and depth. The contextual cover system is intuitive and makes engaging enemies an effortless affair. After having me worried with its overdependence on Quick Time Events (QTE) in the first 15 minutes, the game quickly manages to strike a balance by employing them only on special occasions and for brutal finisher moves in combat. The idea is to dodge and counter or weaken enemies enough to unleash QTEs that let you stab people in the face with arrows or finish them off in style with your guns.
The graphics look absolutely spectacular on both the PS3 and the PC versions that I tested. Although the art style may not have the flamboyance or amazing texture work evident in Uncharted 3, it captures the dark, foreboding pathos of the accursed island quite well. The PS3 version looks surprisingly sharp and well detailed despite the scope and architectural complexity of some of the larger hubs. The DX11-enhanced PC version however impresses with its considerably improved lighting, shadows, and better texture filtering and normal maps. The frame rates tend to drop almost imperciptibly at times on the PS3 version, but it is commendable how well optimised the graphics engine is, especially in the light of the generous FOV it offers—something that's absolutely crucial for a game that's based on exploration
AMD's proprietary TressFX hair simulation system looks gorgeous in the way it simulates physics and kinematics for multiple strands of hair. The good people at AMD have also made it available for NVIDIA cards. I just hope this will shame NVIDIA enough to make Physx available to AMD hardware as well, as it was accidentally unlocked for AMD cards in a previous NVIDIA driver update. The best part is that all this runs maxed out on my 3.4GHz AMD Phenom II X4 and Radeon HD 6950 (2GB) equipped system at an average of 50 fps, provided I keep tessellation switched off.
The scavengers aren't your only enemies on the island of Yamatai
The particle effects look sublime and make the wind, snow, and low-lying volumetric clouds seem quite realistic. Each level seems different when you return to it later, or when you catch it in the middle of a day/night or dry/wet transition thanks to its competent dynamic weather system. While Uncharted may have better art direction, Tomb Raider easily surpasses it in terms of rendering detail and overall technical competence. What Crystal Dynamics have here is a gem of a graphics engine that's truly capable of capturing the horror and the beauty of the Yamatai island.
The reboot is also one of the few games outside EA published offerings that genuinely impresses with its sound design. The foley work is sublime and is especially evident in the gun sounds. While most games get away with stock gunshot recordings, the same sounds pretty organic in Tomb Raider. You can actually hear the entire mechanical symphony of the firing mechanism (from the jangle of the firing pin and the ejecting brass to the tell-tale clicks of the slide and the bolt-carrier assembly) and not just the sound of the gases escaping the muzzle.
In addition to the bang generated at the muzzle brake, you can even hear the crack of the bullet breaking the sound barrier a split second after the primary explosion. Although I presume Crystal Dynamics hasn't used a procedural system to calculate secondary sound reflections, it's still implemented on a rudimentary basis to show the difference in indoor and outdoor environments. It makes me happy to know that a sound engineer has taken the pains to put a mic against a gun in an anechoic chamber and then bolster it with more foley effects for environmental interactions, and that's why I love this game.
It's also commendable that Tomb Raider's sound engineers have chosen not to compress the dynamic range. Unlike most games out there, this one actually shows you the real difference between the SPL (Sound Pressure Levels) of dialogues and gunshots. It's difficult to put into words how much of a difference this makes to the combat experience. It's a pity that most people do not realise or understand the sort of time, dedication, and effort required to achieve this manner of perfection. Unfortunately, such painstaking attention to detail can only be appreciated by a men of detail, and is often invisible to the majority. But at the end of the day this is what separates a 10 star game from a 9.5 star one.
Puzzles definitely aren't a patch on the earlier games in terms of scale and ingenuity
Having said that, although I love the orchestral themes composed by Jason Graves, I don't care much for the ambient sounds and situational scoring. I realise that the composer went through the trouble of creating a brand new instrument, but the earlier stuff from London Symphony Orchestra and Troels Folmann was much better in my opinion. The multiplayer mode is another disappointment. It's not that it is terrible, but the pacing and nature of the combat isn't conducive to this brand of multiplayer. The upgrades and booby traps are interesting, but some of the survivor versus scavenger modes are lopsided and unbalanced. At the end of the day it just seems tacked on.
Although the lack of large, overbearing puzzles cannot be compensated by the tiny optional tombs tacked on in the reboot, one must come to terms with the fact that the franchise has moved on from its hardcore roots. At the same time, that still doesn't mean it has transformed into an Uncharted clone. There's much gameplay depth to be had, despite incorporating the same manner of bombastic setpieces that every new game must. Tomb Raider, however, pulls this off with more finesse and elegance. The story is engaging and beautifully paced, whereas the combat and exploration elements too raise the game for the franchise. What we have here is a contemporary Tomb Raider that strikes a good balance between fan service and ticking all the boxes required by a modern game.
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