Sunday, March 24, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (Xbox 360, 2013)

In an era of gritty reboots, few franchises deserve reimagining more than Tomb Raider.  Series heroine Lara Croft has been the punch line of many jokes since her debut in 1996 on account of her over-sexualization, so a new perspective on the character stands to propel the series back into relevance in today’s market.  And the new Tomb Raider has many of the elements necessary to do just that.

Tomb Raider serves as an origin story of sorts, introducing us to Lara Croft, a young and spunky archaeologist, as she travels with her mentor and their colorful crew in search of the lost Japanese city of Yamatai.  As tends to be the case in this sort of story, the crew ends up shipwrecked on a small island in the Pacific and must then fight for survival as they try to make their way back home.  Along the way, Lara explores ancient ruins and struggles against deranged foes.

The overall presentation is fabulous.  A lot of the narrative is given in collectible documents, coming in the form of letters or journal entries, so it preserves the feeling of isolation while revealing fascinating backstories.  This interesting story is enhanced by beautifully rendered cinematics and a number of gorgeous vistas throughout the game.  The sound quality is similarly high, with engrossing ambient sounds and a few themes that amplify the emotional tension and fear of many of the game’s scenarios.

And it all supports one of the most compelling gaming protagonists in recent history.  Lara is surprisingly well developed, primarily through realistic writing and small details that make her seem like someone you might actually know.  Even though the game doesn’t spend too much time exploring her relationships with the other survivors, the brief interactions you get to observe make the status of those relationships quite clear.  This development culminates in a powerfully emotional adventure, where you can’t help but feel Lara’s fear, grief, and elation as the plot progresses.

The gameplay mechanics are divided pretty evenly between jumping around like a monkey and shooting arrows into people’s faces.  The platforming stuff is great; scaling cliffs, crossing rooftops, and looking for the next handhold are all smoothly integrated into the basic movement controls.  This somewhat acrobatic system combined with the open, beautifully detailed environments gives Tomb Raider a fantastic feeling of exploration.  It’s exciting to search new areas for hidden goodies and see the wonderful world that’s before you, and the intuitive controls make it hugely entertaining.

The combat is surprisingly similar to good third-person shooters.  Over-the-shoulder aiming with several available weapons is a familiar concept for many gamers, and the implementation here is about as good as you could hope for.  Lara’s pretty squishy, though, so she can’t take much abuse; instead, the game incorporates some nice stealth features, too, as you’re usually better off killing enemies silently from a distance than rushing into a firefight.

My only complaint about the gameplay (really the game single-player game in general) is the fact that distractions don’t work very well.  Early in the game, you are told that shooting an arrow into the wall behind an enemy will distract them, allowing you to kill them from behind or sneak past while they’re investigating the sound.  The only time this technique worked for me was immediately after that tutorial; I was never able to distract anyone again.  It’s not a big deal, as distractions are never really necessary, but it was annoying to have it pointed out, only to be unable to make it work later.

But that’s a minor flaw; the overall experience is amazing – great controls, awesome world, and beautiful presentation make Tomb Raider a stellar game.

And if it had stopped there, I’d say that it is an incredible package all around…

In another instance of “unnecessary multiplayer,” Tomb Raider includes competitive online modes that embody just about everything that’s terrible about online gaming in the modern age.  The basic mechanics aren’t anything special, but they’re also not hideous: deathmatches and a couple objective-based team modes pitting shipwreck survivors against island inhabitants put the single-player combat and platforming to reasonably good use.

Like many games these days, the online component of Tomb Raider has multiplayer levels, earned by competing in online matches.  Unlike many games these days, the multiplayer levels in Tomb Raider are almost explicitly rewards for time spent, not measures of skill or success.  You get XP for damn near everything in this game, including dying three times in a round or by being killed by the same enemy five times.  You’ll still progress more quickly if you’re successful, but the game grants an alarming amount of XP for failing miserably.

To make matters worse, higher levels unlock more powerful weapons and perks.  These unlocks, in turn, make it easier to annihilate your enemies, which pose a huge obstacle for new players, especially when combined with experienced players’ familiarity with the trap-laden stages.  The matchmaking system doesn’t help, as you can easily change teams in the lobby, allowing you to stack teams with no problem.  As such, high-level players can easily and repeatedly dominate their low-level opposition.

It all creates a terribly hostile environment for new players.  Of course, if you can push through the oppressive lower levels and gain some familiarity with the battlefields, there’s a fun multiplayer game underneath.  It only really appears if you get into a game full of players on your skill level, and the matchmaking does absolutely nothing to help find such a game.  I find that maybe one in every five matches is really fun, due primarily to the glaring design flaws mentioned above.

As a single player campaign, Tomb Raider is one of the best adventures out there, and I’d say it’s one that every gamer should experience.  As a complete package, though, Tomb Raider falls a little short because the multiplayer is so full of frustrating design choices that it’s not worth exploring unless you’re willing to invest a lot of time.

My Rating: 8/10 – great.

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