Feel free to either watch the review below or read it, the old-fashioned way. I like to cater to all tastes.
I’ve long been a fan of the Tomb Raider series. In fact, the original Tomb Raider game was the first 3d game I played and the first game I bought for my PS One, back in the day. I’ll confess straight off, however, that I wasn’t a fan of the last game. I found it less Tomb Raider and more mindlessly shooting down as many armed mobs as possible. While there is still, in places, that sort of feel in this new instalment, it does at least partially get back to the core of the Tomb Raider gameplay of exploration, acrobatics and puzzle solving.
Right from the opening, high up on a Siberian mountain, this game has more of the Lara versus the environment flavour to it. Lara has to battle her way up a deadly wall of ice with an impressive display of climbing prowess. The camera angle can be awkward at times which can momentarily plunge you into a feeling of Lara versus the camera, as it locks you into a 3/4 view when you’re trying to make a jump, but thankfully those are few and far between, and let’s face it, the original had those problems, too (although, that’s one piece of nostalgia I could do without). There’s also some reintroduction of actual puzzle solving in the main game rather than only in the optional challenge tombs, even if they are a little on the simple side. Although, most of it does just involve getting from point A to point B using whatever tools and abilities you have at your disposal.
As with the last game, the best parts are locked away in the optional content, the challenge tombs, which is a real shame. I still believe that if they want to make a Tomb Raider game, then actual tomb raiding should be the central focus. Yeah, I know, call me a traditionalist. I like to judge the balance of gameplay in Tomb Raider games on how many times I die as a result of the environment, i.e. falling to my death, caught in traps, drowned, crushed and any other grisly death not directly caused by the hand of man, against deaths in combat. In the original Tomb Raider about 90% of my deaths were environmental with the rest combat related, though in that game that meant more animal foes than human, which I think feels more in keeping with the raiding of long lost tombs/ ruins reclaimed by nature. I just can’t understand the developer’s obsession with flooding these new games with human foes.
In my mind, the real allure of the original Tomb Raider games was the sense of history and isolation. The feeling that you were exploring long forgotten tombs/ settlements abandoned for centuries. There was a real sense of pioneering discovery. But in these last two games it’s, wow an ancient ruin lost to time, oh wait, no, there’s a soviet base and a communications array and armed modern foes already crawling all over it. It’s completely lost the magic of the originals. Now, true, the original games had sections set in modern military camps, but those were, generally, in completely different locations to the tombs and ruins which Lara was left to explore unhindered. I can still remember back in Tomb Raider 2 when I reached the oil rig level and found myself up against human foes. I liked it. It felt like a novelty after all the solitary exploration, but in these recent Tomb Raider games, it’s the exploration that feels like the novelty, and that’s just not right.
I also think the developers need to seriously look at their obsession with setting the game in, pretty much, just one large location. Globetrotting was part of fun in the original series. The first game visited four locations around the world, Tomb Raider 2 five and Tomb Raider Legend wins with a massive seven different locations. In balance, we have Tomb Raider 2013 one location and The Rise of the Tomb Raider with two. Is there any wonder as to why, exploration wise, it feels like a bit of an anti-climax to the veteran players?
Graphics wise the game is stunning. Ancient ruins and decomposed corpses have certainly never looked so good, but overall the environments just don’t have that sense of grandeur that the original games had. I just keep thinking back to those area’s like St Francis’ Folly, in which it took an age just to fall to your death, let alone traverse the area and solve all the puzzles; or the Cistern with its epic levels of water management, and let’s not forget the deadly crocodiles. Yes, the graphics are fancier and scaling the mountain, right at the beginning, felt pretty epic but from there on everything seemed to close back in and scale down. Yes there’s some lovely vistas out across the valley and the mountains, but I’d like to see architecture on a grander scale, like the originals. Give me some real tombs to raid!
That said, there are a lot of improvements in other areas. The combat system has a lot more depth in this game than the original series. It takes a lot more skill than just holding down the shoot button and jumping backwards and forwards, as was my preferred combat method in the originals. In this game you can stealth, shoot or bomb your way through, and I can’t deny that killing enemies one by one with headshots from my bow is a lot of fun. I love the new language learning system, whereby you raise your skills by examining plaques and inscriptions, which allowed me to connect with Lara’s archaeologist side more strongly than in any other game. I also like the talent specialisation system which allows you to customise Lara’s abilities to match your preferred style of play. I also love the fact that completing the optional tombs awards you with yet more abilities, rather than just a useless, if rather pretty, lump of treasure.
The storyline in this game is certainly stronger than the last one and, on the whole, less predictable, but I can’t help feeling that the exploration and tomb raiding aspect of the game is being hindered by the storyline. The character animation is great. It’s a joy to watch Lara slip agilely through narrow gaps, wade through waist high water and vault over walls. Her movements all look and feel fluid and very life like. Real effort has clearly been put into the motion capture which is greatly appreciated.
Overall, despite my complaints, this is a solid game and at least you can’t accuse it of being a carbon copy of the games that came before it. If I’ve given it a hard time, then that’s out of true love of the Tomb Raider franchise. The revamping of the combat system, I do like, and it does make the game fun to play. It really is a great game in terms of visuals, storyline and gameplay, I just don’t feel that this is a Tomb Raider game. Tomb Raider needs to re-embrace what made it special, colossal ruins, myth, magic and ancient traps/ puzzles.
The fact is that if I want to run around and shoot men with guns or blow them up with grenades, I’ll play Metal Gear Solid 5. If I want to hide in bushes and stab any enemies that walk close enough or dive on people and assassinate them, then I’ll play Assassins Creed. And if I want to explore long lost ruins and rediscover lost history and mythical artefacts then I’ll play Tomb Raider Underworld. Sorry, but it’s the truth. This game is a great mash up of all the games listed above, but is just that, a mash up, which while it works well enough as a game as part of an established franchise, it seems not only to fail to play to its strengths but seems to have lost sight of what those strengths even are, and it’s something that really tears me apart inside.
I love the Tomb Raider games. I love what they used to be and what they could be, if the developer actually managed to take the best aspects of both past and current games and merge them into a true, current generation Tomb Raider game. And this instalment has given me more rather than less hope that this may one day be achieved, but we’re not quite there yet. Maybe next time.