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Tomb Raider: Reboot or Booted?

March 11, 2013

trWell, it would not be hyperbolic of me if I said that the last two months have been both disappointing and satisfying, as in terms of games. Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines was a complete sham and disgrace. I won’t go into this any further since we’ve already commented at length on A:CM. On the other hand, Crystal Dynamic’s reboot of their storied Tomb Raider franchise is a remarkable success, both critically and financially. It has been reported by GamaSutra that the game had earned one million copies sold in a 48-hour period. That figure doesn’t take into account for digitally distributed copies.

To begin with, there are many misconceptions that the Tomb Raider series had fallen from grace since it was first introduced in 1996. Lara Croft used to grace the covers of not only game magazines, but also crossed over to pop culture. There were even two mainstream movies featuring Angelina Jolie that hit the box office. The first flick did surprisingly well while the sequel performed surprisingly poor. Like music superstar, Madonna; you’ve got to keep re-inventing yourself to stay relevant. Re-invent Lara they did, and here’s a bit of back story before I dive into the game.

Crystal Dynamics had retaken the reins from CORE since 2006 and released three games with Tomb Raider: Anniversary/Legend, Tomb Raider: Underworld, and Lara Croft in the Guardian of Light (XBL & PSN). All of these three Crystal Dynamics games reviewed well. However, the studio just couldn’t shake the game playing public’s perception that Tomb Raider isn’t as relevant as she used to be. They had to dispel this perception and now that Square Enix owns Eidos, the decision couldn’t have been more urgent. Either earn your keep, or go find yourself another studio. Thus, the reboot was in order.

There are many things that Crystal Dynamics did well with this game. First, the PC-version of the game was only available via digital distribution from Steam, Origin, etc. in the U.S. Why would I consider this a right move? The answer is simple; piracy prevention. There’s nothing wrong in protecting your IP even if it means pissing people off. It just proves that you’re willing to pull out all the stops to ensure that there will be a future for that franchise is the foreseeable future. Although there are many claiming foul because physical media of this game isn’t available to the PC platform like the Xbox 360 and PS3, this is an example of how prevalent piracy is when it comes to the PC. Look, piracy exists on the console sides too, but not as pervasive as it is on the PC. I’m not trying to stoke the flames of the PC vs. consoles debate, but Square Enix has been proactive about keeping their revenue, unlike Ubisoft’s DRM debacle. The second thing that they hit on the mark was a dedicated community manager. Meagan Marie is a well established games journalist who was the internet face of Game Informer. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s charismatic and an avid cosplayer. She’s easily recognized as a true gamer and serves as a good liaison with the development team. Third, they teamed up with Zach Levi of the television series, Chuck, for added exposure. Amazon was marketing the crap out of Tomb Raider with their thorough ‘The Final Hours’ vidocs and developer interviews, and Levi served as the host. Finally, the NDA was lifted a full week before the game launched. The game is trending well even though it’s an aggregate score. That is a very good thing when a publisher has faith that their game will fare well as opposed to the big c-block that Sega had with A:CM. No news, is bad news when it comes to the games industry. Enough already about the magic behind the curtain. Now onto impressions of the actual game itself.

There is no doubt that countless reviews for Tomb Raider are circulating across the inter webs, but here at The Stranded, we tend to trust our friends more than a review site. Let me say this, guys and girls, you have GOT to play Tomb Raider! Many of us in this community do not have a PS3 and thus, have not had a chance to play the outstanding Uncharted series. To strictly the Xbox owners, Tomb Raider might be the closest that you’ll come to Uncharted in this console generation. In Crystal Dynamics re-imagining of Tomb Raider’s protagonist, Lara Croft, they’ve incorporated many features that Naughty Dog has employed for Nathan Drake’s adventures (Uncharted’s hero). The majority of them are successful while there are a few sprinklings of shortcomings. Gone are the Daisy Dukes-type khaki shorts (at least in this origin game). Instead of hypersexualizing Lara, CD has chosen that less is more (yes, her DD cups are gone, too). The developer wanted gamers to relate to Lara as a ‘real’ person. She takes punishment from enemies, environment, and the feeling of being alone. However, this is a game in the end and character development is handled effectively. That wasn’t meant to sound as a negative. For example, CD wanted to incorporate a persistent food & water requirement system in the initial game build, but decided to lessen the scope of it because it could have inhibited the fun factor. Another case in point is that even though she racks up the kills like her Uncharted counterpart, Nathan Drake; the gamer can always chose between a more stealthy approach or take the direct guns blazing, balls to wall approach.

CD instituted two fundamental systems to upgrade Lara’s survival experience. The first is the ability to upgrade your weapons ala Resident Evil 4 and other games that use that meta-RPG element. This is something new to the series, and a much welcomed addition. In order to upgrade your weapons/gear, the player has to salvage parts which are in crates strewn around the multiple environments. This encourages players to explore their surroundings and venture off the beaten path to see what they can discover. Even though this is a linear game, it’s nowhere near as linear as the Uncharted pieces. As soon as Drake was finished with that set piece, the player couldn’t go back due to invisible walls placed by the Naughty Dog. In a sense, this forced a more cinematic feel to the game. Lara, on the other hand, can fast travel back to previously explored areas to continue to search for collectibles, salvage, and documents that expound on the background of the island that she and her crew mates find themselves stranded on (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler). In a sense, the island is a quasi-open world. In addition, upon completion of the story, players can venture back into previously explored areas similar to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games. Since the weapon/gear system is based on the salvaging system, skills that Lara learns is tied to an experience system which rewards players that explore every rock and crevice. The player earns XP on everything that they do whether it is hunting, foraging for berries and plants, finding salvage crates, dispatching enemies, and of course- raiding tombs. Once again, yet another satisfying addition to the series.

The tombs… The tombs are nowhere near as impressive as the ones in the earlier TR and Uncharted games. This is primarily due to he fact that they are all optional. Tomb exploration is not part of the story driven plot. If I were to compare it to something we can relate to, it’s like eating a huge meal and you need to unleash on the toilet. You expect massive dumpage, but all that comes out is a dingleberry. You’re left with the feeling that this crap is still inside you, but you can’t get it out. That pretty much describes the tombs in this game. Ben Kuchera of PAR stated that the tombs were “laughingly short”, but he failed to realize that UC tombs are a part of the story which requires them to be huge and adventurous like the Indiana Jones flicks. This just seemed like such an epic missed opportunity by CD. Hopefully, they will correct this misfire in the future games of this series.

The graphical fidelity of the game is impressive. Even though games at the end of a console life cycle tend to push the limitations of the machines, it’s a shame that other triple-A games can’t or don’t look like Tomb Raider. The proprietary engine that it is using shows off a lot of bells and whistles in dynamic shadows, water and weather effects, solid physics, particle effects, and specular lighting. The PC-version of the game utilizes AMD’s TressFX for hair physics and tessellations. PAR & Digital Foundry have written about this exciting tech which will undoubtedly be on next gen console games’ checklists of must-have features. Also, the framerate holds up to 30 fps. Tomb Raider is a good looking game. CD took a page from Naughty Dog’s use of vocap actors performing physical roles for their respective character. CD hired the actress, Camilla Luddington, of the True Blood and Californication television shows, respectively. She’s even actually British, so no fake English accent there. Grymm was a bit annoyed that the lip synching didn’t quite match on certain cutscenes, but it wasn’t distracting. The industry has caught onto part of Naughty Dog’s magic, and we’ll be seeing more of this in the upcoming Splinter Cell: Black List game. Yeah, they ditched Michael Ironside in favor of the physicality of the actor. Lara’s movements are believable. As she comes close to objects or walls, she’ll place her hand on it even when she’s moving. Cover incorporation is automatic and intuitive, so there’s no need for a fixed button like Gears of War-type games use. It’s a little bit weird to retrain your muscle memory since practically every action/adventure game utilizes a fixed button for cover.

The multiplayer is like a fart from a senior citizen as you’re behind them walking down a grocery store aisle. It catches you by surprise with your mouth open and everything. Tomb Raider’s multiplayer does just that, but not in a good way as I’ve metaphorically stated. At first, the MP sounds ambitious with the ability to set traps and snares, zip lining through different level changes in maps, objective based modes, and the ability to revive your teammates. However, the reality is that the MP is unbalanced, encourages spawn camping, the netcoding is very laggy, there’s an complete absence of a lobby (when you hit play, it just enters you into whatever game mode has vacancy), the controls are unresponsive at times, and it’s pretty much poorly executed. Apparently, the studio has been keeping this feature a secret for two years. Two years and it’s still feels half baked? It leaves me scratching my head that Square Enix had two studios create two such different products. Eidos Montreal is in charge of the MP, and someone should have spent some significant QA and brainstorming with them. Splitting the game mode features between multiple studios isn’t a new thing, but TR’s multiplayer reminds me of the MP found in the Rockstar games such as Red Dead Redemption, GTA 4, and most recently- Max Payne. It’s just prunes, and you know what prunes make you do. If CD incorporated something akin to Uncharted 2/3’s MP, this would have been Felix the Cat’s Bag ‘o Tricks! People will definitely enjoy the campaign, but they won’t stick around for the lackluster and generic multiplayer. Meanwhile, CD has already announced three more DLC maps in the pipeline for March. Sheesh, this just leaves me shaking my head.

In conclusion, I’m going to reiterate what I stated earlier with great exuberance. You MUST play this game! There are just too many pros versus cons that keep this game from not reaching players’ disc trays. The campaign is supposed to last from 12-15 hours, but my OCD nature has already logged over 18, and I haven’t even gotten to the end game yet. I don’t want it to end! LOL I’ll update this review when I finish the game. While this reboot of Tomb Raider doesn’t necessarily “beat” any of the Uncharted games, it does manage to do many things that Naughty Dog will definitely take note of; I’ve already elaborated on many of those aspects. This does not, however, mean that TR plays second fiddle to UC at all. Each franchise has its own identity. After all, without the Indy flicks and the Tomb Raider series, Uncharted wouldn’t have existed. Now to end this gigantic wall of text, I’m shouting out, “Lara Croft is BACK, in spades!”

  1. March 11, 2013 7:37 pm

    Great write up Blank. I do disagree with one thing though, she does have some tig ol’ bitties in the game πŸ˜‰

    And I always love the metaphors you use, lol. They always crack me up.

    • Blankman permalink
      March 11, 2013 7:38 pm

      Thanks and LOL at the bitties comment! Ok, so they’re C-cups instead of double Ds. πŸ˜‰

  2. March 11, 2013 11:03 pm

    Great review with a lot of background info I wasn’t aware of! I really wished the Uncharted series hadn’t been PS3 exclusive. Even the MP looked to be pretty good. Nice that the new Tomb Raider at least gives us a taste of the high quality SP. I am sure we will end up picking it up some day soonish.

    • Blankman permalink*
      March 11, 2013 11:10 pm

      I hope that you guys do wind up picking up a copy of TR. Remember how I kept going on and on about Dead Space 2? Yep, it’s that kind of enthusiasm all over again with this Tomb Raider game. It’s that good.

      As far as the Uncharted series exclusivity goes, the only games that are worthy of a PS3 console purchase are those by Naughty Dog and perhaps Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. The Killzone and Resistance franchises just didn’t click for me. Something seemed off about those two IPs. Now that Insomniac has gone on to work on their upcoming game, Fuse. I’m even less enthused. It seems like that studio is just enamored with special fire weapons. A gimmick can only get you so far. Total meh.

    • March 12, 2013 6:13 am

      Well written, insightful review. But I’m not sure a digital-only version was meant solely as a means to curb piracy. It can still be pirated.

      OT: I LOVE Crystal Dynamics. I want to see them continue the Legacy of Kane series (and hopefully not reboot that). The story line for those games is incredible, and the gameplay is damn fine. Nice to see CD still alive and kicking.

    • Blankman permalink
      March 12, 2013 11:46 am

      Thanks for the kind remarks, Ty. Since Square Enix has rebooted Tomb Raider, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and released Hitman: Absolution after a six-year hiatus, I really hope that they bring back many of Eidos’ old IPs like The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, as you mentioned. If memory serves me right, wasn’t he the first anti-hero in video games? That franchise along with Thief were outstanding. I believe that they’re already deep into development on the next Thief game.

  3. March 16, 2013 12:31 pm

    They are, as I’m sure you’re aware. I’m not sure if Kane or Raziel were the first anti-heroes in games, but they’re some of the most memorable, particularly Kane as you delve deeper into the series. By the time players get to Defiance, you realize Kane has been doing his job all along. I sincerely hope they continue where they left off as the lore and story is so rich. But it’s been a while and they’d probably want to start fresh. So long as they don’t kill Kane, I’m fine with that. It is called Legacy of Kane after all… πŸ˜‰

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