I have hundreds of games in my Steam catalog and on my shelves that have been unplayed. My Backlog. I’m trying to get through those games one by one, and then write a short review for my friends to tell them whether it’s worth playing. I am not a writer by trade. This is just me, telling my friends about a game.
I shouldn’t wait two months to write about a game after I finish it, but I did with Tomb Raider so I will endeavour to do my best to write about it despite the mechanics starting to become a little fuzzy.
I haven’t played a Tomb Raider game in a long time. I have the more recent ones on my shelf (Legend, Underworld) on loan from my mother, but I haven’t taken the time to experience them. The Tomb Raider games I played and remember are the first few–the really old ones. So, when I compare this game to what I expect from a Tomb Raider game, that is the comparison I am making. This is not a Tomb Raider game. As an oversimplification, I would describe this as Uncharted: Lara Croft. The reimagining of Tomb Raider took many many cues from the Uncharted series, and now there is more in common with the two then there are differences.
And I don’t like Uncharted. I feel like there is too much story. While I do appreciate a game with a good narrative, all too often the narrative is at the expense of the gameplay. In Tomb Raider this manifests in a couple of ways. Like cutscenes. The cutscenes are impressive and a good story is nice, but many long cutscenes detract from the action. I often find myself putting down the controller to watch the cutscene. I don’t ever want to put down the controller. If I wanted to sit back and watch a movie, I would watch a movie. I do applaud Crystal Dynamics for making a compelling story with good voice acting and high production value, but at the end of the day I don’t feel video games are the right medium for this much storytelling.
I think they realize they are spending too much time telling the story and not involving the player, because all too often the dramatic sequences will try to engage the player in a very rudimentary way. For example, Lara and Uncharted both have segments where the main character is running on a collapsing platform and making jumps to continue on the path. Meanwhile the terrain is collapsing (or burning or whatever) spectacularly around them. Even though this is a sequence of gameplay, the gameplay is very rudimentary and not interesting at all. You basically hold down one direction and occasionally press a second button. Failure is very unlikely, but if it does occur it’s no problem because you are instantly reset to just before you failed. I liken this kind of challenge to both old 8-bit style gameplay (like battletoads, where the whole game is just dodging out of the way of obstacle) and quick time events (where you just have to press a button in the window of it appearing, even though technically no button prompt appears on screen). Neither of those are good mechanics, and neither should be present in a modern game. But the desire for cinematic events is so overriding that they have to do things this way.
The whole game isn’t cinematic quick-time events though. There is a decent third-person action game. I liked this part more than the Uncharted equivalent. I felt like the environments were larger and gave more tactical options. Uncharted often feels like you are fighting in hallways of varying design, you always on one side and the enemy on another. Tomb Raider lets you move around a bit more and come through windows and what not.
That said, it’s not Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider is an action platformer that has you shooting your unlimited ammo dual desert eagles while backflipping and leaping side-to-side to avoid the bites of predators. This game, is a cover-based shooter where you pop and fire, then duck back to reload. You run out of ammo, you use grenades. It’s Uncharted. That’s not bad though. The combat is one of the more fun aspects of both games and it’s just a different style from the classic Tomb Raider experience. That is ok.
The stealth aspect of combat warrants discussion as well. There is one, but it’s not really compatible with all encounters. Sometimes the people will be laid out in such a way that stealth is impossible. And when you trigger even a single guard, an alarm sounds instantly and additional guards pour out of cracks in the walls. There are times when stealthing can be appropriate but I found that going in guns blazing was all that was necessary most of the time. I feel like they made intentional decisions to push you away from stealth. I remember I spent 10 minutes clearing out about a dozen guys from an area with stealth and then the last two guys were facing each other. So I went loud to kill them, killing them both within about 2 seconds of each other. This caused a dozen additional guards to come storming out of nowhere. I’m not sure who raised the alarm in that situation… it couldn’t have been either of the dead guys. In any case, it taught me to not waste time on stealth because you’ll likely just have to fight a bunch of extra guys anyway.
The best part of the game and the most tomb-raider-esque part were the optional areas. There are about a half dozen secret tombs where you have to complete a physics-based puzzle to get a reward. These are usually quite simple: for example, burn something to cause a weight to fall onto a lever raising a platform so you can get to the chest. They could have done so much more with these, nesting them or creating long chains of puzzles that led to a large reward. But instead they are just one-off puzzles and completely optional. It’s a shame, because puzzles were core to the experience of Tomb Raider and now it’s basically just about platforming and cover-based shooting.
There’s also a levelling system to the game where you gain experience and unlock new skills, and it fits with the narrative of Lara evolving into a killing machine. That said, all the skills were bland–gain more experience, resist more damage, hold more ammo–that they weren’t anything really to celebrate. Usually I let a few skill points stack up before remembering to spend them–and even once I had spent them I didn’t really feel like I felt I bought anything I needed.
All in all, I felt Tomb Raider was a quality game–in the same way Uncharted is a quality game. High production values, and engaging narrative. But they spend too much time on the story for my taste, and that makes the game annoying to slog through at times. Game developers need to remember that videogames are an interactive medium and that the method of interaction is important. Tomb Raider isn’t a game you can play twice, because it doesn’t do anything memorable in the mechanics department. It’s all about the narrative, and the game is tacked on to get you through it. Like Uncharted, I’d probably recommend you just watch a stitched-together video of events than play Tomb Raider yourself. But if you do choose to play it yourself, I think you’ll enjoy it and then put it away forever.
And if you do play it, tell me how Lara can fall onto her back from like 20 feet in the air a couple dozen times across a two day spawn and still be able to walk around and climb the sides of mountains?
p.s. All collectibles are a waste of time.