Saturday, 9 March 2013

(Review) Tomb Raider 2013 - Review (Xbox 360/PS3)

Please Note That While Great Care Has Been Taken To Ensure There Are No Spoilers In This Review, If You Are VERY Uptight About The Information You Know About a Game Before Playing it, Then Please Read With Caution. 

Tomb Raider used to be the landmark for video games, however enter the new generation and Lara Croft has taken a bit of a beating from rivals and, in a way, herself. Crystal Dynamics didn't exactly up their game after receiving tough competition from the likes of Uncharted and it resulted in the series losing its crown at the top of the action/adventure platforming genre.

Tomb Raider is back, however, with a brand new title. It is different this time though. This new entry in the series dumbs down the boobs and ups the emotion as it tackles Lara's past and how she transitioned from novice gunfighter and mediocre climber to the badass legend she is today.

The entire story of Tomb Raider takes place on one single island in the mysterious Dragons Triangle, that Lara and her companions aboard the ship the Endurance are left stranded on due to a severe storm. It soon becomes apparent that the island isn't inhabited by the friendliest folk, though. after Lara is brutally knocked out and dragged into an underground chamber. This beginning part of the game was actually shown at E3 so if you've watched that footage you'll know pretty much exactly how the game opens.

A fair amount of cuts and bruises and a good few quick time events later and Lara is finally ready to explore the island in more detail. The game really tries to drill home just how vulnerable and inexperienced she is by making her struggle with even the most basic platforming moves, like crossing a log/branch or shimmying around a ledge. It works, though, and it makes you feel for her on a far more emotional level. 

Even killing an animal for food is something Lara is upset about doing and when it comes to her first human kill in the game it is also a pretty emotional experience. That said, shortly after eliminating this man she goes about killing plenty of other bad guys and animals without a second thought or even a slight hesitation. She does note that it was surprising how easy it was to kill the first guy, but that doesn't truly explain how she is so OK with setting people on fire with flaming arrows or killing innocent chickens.

I didn't find this bothered me a whole lot though. In truth, I was far too wrapped up with the story and the action and puzzles to really take notice of her short transition from normal girl to killing machine. Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 went through the same change and although his experience with violence was more documented through his own thoughts; if you analyse it, it still wasn't realistic. But it just doesn't matter and the effect it has on the story is minimal. Sure you'll notice it, but there are bigger things to worry about and really focus on for this to be an actual issue.

Although the story is often thrilling and intriguing and doesn't leave out any of the craziness that has come to be expected from Tomb Raider, it does have a fairly poor selection of side characters. I was more interested in the people who had written these old notes scattered about the island that talked about their experiences with the 'Fire Queen Yamatai' than the other people with whom Lara was stranded. The game tries to pull you into them by giving you a couple of videos to watch that were made while on the ship, as well as some of their own notes relating how they feel and what they are thinking, but they are just too predicable and generic to be even remotely interesting. Aside from Roth and maybe Sam; they're just boring, boring people.

They are pretty useless too. All they seem to do is get captured and die and they rely on Lara for absolutely everything. In the end, when Lara tells them to stay put and leave it to her, it is probably because they are too useless to actually do anything and would just get in the way.
The journey Lara has to make is still incredible, though. Traveling around the island is an awesome experience and at times I felt like I was playing Indiana Jones after it all got a bit 'Temple of Doom-ey'.
That said, it wouldn't be as great if it weren't for the enjoyment gained from just playing the game itself. And that is where, obviously, gameplay comes in.

There are four main parts of gameplay here; platforming, puzzle solving, gunplay and quick time events/scripted cinematic set pieces. 

The platforming works really, really well. In fact, I enjoyed it slightly more than Uncharted's platforming as there was more risk here. Lara can fall to her doom pretty easily if you hit the wrong button or time a jump wrong. There is a great balance between difficulty and enjoyment here. In fact, I'd be inclined to say it is perfectly executed. There are different ways to climb and tools to help you reach your goal too. 

Tomb Raider has always had an emphasis on puzzle solving, however there is both a pro and con here. First of all the puzzles are really enjoyable and great to play. The con - or rather 'cons' - is that they are too easy and there are not enough. There are no big, expansive challenges and often they can be solved in a few simple moves. Hitting LB/L1 will also highlight on screen what can be or needs to be used to complete any tasks.
This is a real shame because puzzles have always been a key part of Tomb Raider games and I would've enjoyed not only more challenging puzzles but just more to actually complete.

The series never really had the best gunplay or action parts in all honesty, however this new entry changes that. Action in the game is really good. Lara starts off with just a bow, however even though this weapon/tool is applied at the very beginning of the game, you'll still be using it at the very end. Three other weapon slots are available too, however you have no choice about what weapons are placed here. As you progress through the story you will find a pistol, assault rifle and shotgun. These are automatically placed in the corresponding weapon slots and cannot be swapped out. As you level up your guns they will change into other, more powerful, weapons. This eliminates any need or ability to pick up new guns and all you have to worry about is fuelling them with ammo.

This is a pretty good thing as it lets you focus more on the platforming, puzzle solving and story without worrying too much about the gunplay too. 

Using these in combat itself is good fun. The entire third-person shooter element of the game is very well handled and enjoyable. When encountering enemies, Lara instantly begins moving stealthily so as to allow the option of taking out the bad guys without raising the alarm. What's more, the cover system is great. Instead of having a button dedicated to locking into cover, Lara automatically crouches behind objects. It is really fluid, smooth and works extremely well. It is one of the best cover systems I've used to be honest and there is never any confusion or getting caught behind a wall or something.

The final part of the gameplay is the cinematic set pieces and the quick time events. First of all, the use of quick time events is OK. I've seen people complain about it, but I myself didn't have much of an issue here because, for the most part, they are pretty enjoyable and not very difficult. On the other hand, having to tap X/SQUARE continuously every-time I wanted to open a door was annoying as hell.

The set pieces often come in the form of sliding down a slope or jumping across collapsing buildings. These are OK, and mostly fun and even thrilling, but maybe used in too much abundance.

As you play through the game you will have the opportunity to loot bodies, animals, crates and other things as a means of gaining ammo and salvage and also XP (XP can also be gained by completing other tasks too). Doing this levels up Lara and her gear. In turn this allows you to upgrade various aspects of Lara's game using skill points as well as improving upon her weapons using salvage points. This can be done while at a campfire 'rest' spot. 

Unfortunately the 'perk' system doesn't work very well at all. It is extremely shallow and there are no real abilities that will shine as actually being useful, except for the ones that allow you to carry extra ammo. In the end I just began spending my skill points on random things I couldn't care less about just so I could upgrade everything and gain the achievements/trophies for it.

On the other hand; upgrading weapons is pretty useful and far deeper. You can increase ammo capacity, damage and accuracy; add a silencer, change ammo types and more. This is something worth using.

Also at these campfires you can fast travel. The island it an open place that can be explored and you can travel to previously discovered areas and explore them further. 
The map isn't completely open, though. This isn't Far Cry 3 where you can just walk across the island to the other side in a *mostly* straight line. You can walk around the island here, but you must follow the set paths. You can't run off into the wilderness but instead must abide by the games rules and stick to the playing space they give you. It is quite like the Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City) but, arguably, even more regulated than those.

The map is broken down into areas and each can be gone back to and investigated in order to find collectables or hidden tombs. 
Hidden tombs are exclusively puzzle-based areas that can be completed by solving a few challenges. Mostly they are pretty easy however they are also one of my favourite parts of the entire game. They are great fun to play through and are very reminiscent of some of the puzzles found in older Tomb Raider games.

There is a ton of collectables to be found and a lot of the achievements/trophies in the game are dedicated to finding these hidden treasures.

It was pretty fun exploring the island at the end of the game, but there wasn't quite enough to discover or complete, so I found myself a bit bored with it after not too long. 

Before I get on with the other part of my review, where I note some less favourable aspects of the Tomb Raider, let me say that this is an absolutely gorgeous looking game. Facial and body animations, environments, the weather effects - it looks amazing. 

Now, while this game is easily the best game I've played this year and without doubt qualifies for a high score, it isn't perfect. Sure I've noted some issues during the review but there are a couple of underlying problems I have with it that need explaining separately.

First of all the game is restrictive. Although this will sound contradictory, it is just too restrictive for a game that allows you to freely explore areas. It is hard to explain but a good example is what I noticed when playing a set piece. At one stage in the game, after Lara is being shot at and chased by the enemy, it goes cinematic and it is up to you to jump across the collapsing shacks. As you jump over a good few of them you reach the final shack with nothing that follows it. In other words; it's a dead end. I didn't know where to go and with time running out I just jumped forward. I landed on the poorly detailed ground 20 or so feet below and instantly died. 

That is a brilliant example of how the game is very restricting and scripted. It doesn't really ever feel that free, despite allowing you to explore all these areas. The game world is well animated and is aware of itself, but outside the game world there is just nothingness. When I jumped off that shack and landed on the ground that wasn't part of the accessible game world, I just died. If you take a minute to look at the world outside of the places you can go and explore you notice that all there is, is a blobby nothingness. Just like in Call of Duty online, the map itself is well detailed, but the area outside the map is a non-detailed or existent blur. 

In Tomb Raider, this restrictiveness is really noticeable because it is supposed to be of a more open and free nature. But when completing those set pieces or just going down a set route, there is only one way to complete it and if you go away from that you are punished. 
When I was on that final shack I took a moment to look at my surroundings. All there was was a wasteland of desert full of nothing. Would I ever explore there? No, because that was not part of the game world, but instead just it's base.

While the above isn't a big issue, it is part of slightly bigger problem.
In the beginning Lara must hunt a deer to eat. After this short part of the game you can hunt freely but for no reason except to gain XP and salvage. Things like this, when coupled together, make it feel very... pointless.

What is the point of hunting if Lara doesn't need to eat anymore or doesn't use their skins for anything? And while in the beginning the game makes it look more like it's a survival game about wandering through forests completing puzzles and defending yourself from wolfs, it all becomes very scripted, linear and regulated later on.

Quite like with the skill point system, there is a lack of depth and freedom here that makes the game feel fairly confused. 

The balance between action and puzzle solving is not a great one either. Sure, the pacing is mostly excellent, but the gunplay feels a lot more frequent and noticeable than it should be. This might be because of the easy puzzle pieces that barely challenge your mind so it is never long before you progress onto the next shootout. Or it might be that there is just too much shooting and not enough of the brain related stuff. At times I felt like I was playing an outright TPS and not a platformer. 

The games biggest con is the fact it doesn't feel certain about what is. Is it a heavily scripted and linear action/adventure game? Or is it a more open and free puzzle platformer with some 'RPG' features like leveling up and hunting? It doesn't have anywhere near enough depth in the area of hunting and skill points or feature enough puzzle solving to, in my opinion, be the latter of the above two, yet it never fully commits to all the action and violence to be the prior. 

Despite all that, I know one thing is for certain: Tomb Raider is a fun game. Without analysing its aims and goals, how much it relates to the older games or how much it tests your mind, and instead just playing it as it is with no questions asked, then it is clear that this is a brilliantly enjoyable and awesome game. It has a great story and is extremely fun to play, and while it certainly has some underlying issues, it is a game I would definitely recommend.
Just be wary of the bugs and glitches of which there are plenty. Indeed; freezing cutscenes, disappearing and not loading environments and frozen wildlife happen all too often.

Before I end this review, let me just cover, quickly, the 'tacked' on multiplayer mode it sports.
The online isn't exactly special, offering little different from other games in this area, although it was pretty fun. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed climbing around the maps and shooting enemies and while it won't last long and will no doubt be deserted in a month or so, it is a pretty good, although not totally unique, experience. 

Overall there is no doubt that it is an incredible, albeit not perfect, game. Lara Croft is definitely back.

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