Tomb Raider has been on my mind since this happened, and now it’s here I’m glad that none of the worries expressed by sensationalist media were substantiated by any too-risque design decisions from Crystal Dynamics. The media circus sounding Tomb Raider almost made the title sound like some sort of feminist rant, or, alternatively, as The Sun so eloquently put it: “a rape ordeal in a video game hell.” 2013′s Tomb Raider isn’t really any of those things, but what it seemingly tries to be it just about falls short of.

It’s not really an origins story since it really only focuses on one aspect of Lara’s life: pre and post murder, and it’s not really an adventure game so much as an action shooter. What was advertised as a substantial look at the way in which Lara Croft’s character changes through hardship, becomes a sort of formulaic series of moans and groans, until such point as she decides killing basically-everyone-ever-in-front-of-her-ever is now the way forward. There isn’t much emphasis on clumsiness to finesse, so much as being okay with shooting people in the face.

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 At her most vulnerable, Lara turns to her friends for strength.

Tomb Raider is a beautiful, well polished game. There’s no real doubt about that. The inclusion of TressFX is a controversial positive, since it gives the already wonderfully emotive and well animated Croft a further sense of fluidity and animation. TressFX is a new technology for… well… hair, and whether that’s something you care about is entirely up to you. Personally, fluidity is entirely useful given the way in which Lara interacts with the environment throughout the entire game. Bruised, battered, bloodied, Crystal Dynamics have done a wonderful job at evoking a sense of danger and fatigue, and this new technology helps to retain the players focus on this. Some people will find TressFX distracting, since it has a tendency to do its own thing, but it’s one of 2013′s new features that beckon in the next generation.

When I say polished I suppose I mean potentially, since Nvidia gamers are facing constant crashes at the moment. It’s difficult to really know who to blame for this, but Crystal Dynamics to the best of my knowledge haven’t made a statement on it, although you can download the beta drivers for the title here. That issue aside – and the fact that there is no FOV where it really seems necessary – the team have gone above and beyond in bringing a pleasing port to PC gamers, even if the foliage does look a little terrible. The shadowing, ambient effects, and level design are all superb, and levels look thick and full, with junk, rocks, and other objects littering the vast open spaces.

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You’ll be doing a surprising amount of shooting.

It became apparent quite quickly that whilst the ancient settings of prior Tomb Raider games still remain, there’s much more emphasis on combat-filler rather than platforming-filler. For around the first 10% of the game, enemies are spaced out strategically in a way that introduces the combat narrative to us through Lara’s inexperience. Killing people is tricky, and there’s an element of stealth that the player, empathetic to Lara, will try hard not to break. Starting without any weapons, Lara’s first task is getting her wits about her, learning to traverse the rocky terrain.

Lara, along with her friends who became stranded with her when their ship, the Endurance, was struck by lightening leaving them on an island in the Pacific, has to scrape together whatever supplies and survival tools she can in order to try to meet up with her friends. The problem is, the island is already inhabited. It sounds a little like LOST, because it is a little like LOST. In fact, it’s quite a lot like LOST. Lara and co cannot leave the island because the island will not let them. If they try to escape on a boat, they’ll die, so Lara has to figure out a way to get the island to permit their leaving. Without giving too much away, those trapped on the island of the not-so-friendly but not rapey persuasion are also trapped, but slightly mad.

The story quickly becomes a matter of us vs ‘the other’, which gives narrative opportunities for Lara to explore, and eventually overcome, victimization. There are two enemies: people (not necessarily human), and the terrain.

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You can almost read “Conner woz ere” on the tree.

Lara’s weapons are also suited to the narrative. She’s limited to four guns, which you’ll retain for the whole game, which are upgradable to a point where around 8 parts of the weapon can be changed, but also to a total over-haul of the weapon. For the bow, this means you go from a make-shift simple bow to something more traditional, to modern bows later in the game. This is all achieved through scavenging for parts which can be used to buy upgrades at camps, or finding weapon parts which, if you collect 3 of them, will totally over-haul your weapon. This turns the WWII sub-machine gun into an AK-47, but there’s no real way to know where these parts are. I came across them mostly due to pot luck because I’m notoriously lazy when it comes to scavenging, but I believe upgrades are partially staggered with your progression.

As well as upgrading your guns, you can upgrade your Lara, through a series of uninspired tiered upgrades from different trait categories, improving scavenging, combat competency, survivability, etc,. Upgrading Lara feels a little as though Crystal Dynamics are just ticking check-boxes with features, and it’s not the only feature that feels this way. You get around 1 upgrade point perhaps every 30 minutes of playing, and for the most part they don’t wholly affect game-play. I found the combat ones most effective, since you can unlock the ability to dodge-counter-attack which comes in incredibly useful during the latter part of the game where 328923 mental zombie Samurai with shields are constantly trying to murder you.

2013-03-06_00016Speaking of tacked on features, there’s also the ability to fast travel which I used a total of zero times. I feel as though free-roaming is a publishers necessary vice at this point in the generation cycle, and whilst I suppose it’s useful for people who want to explore everything 100%, it doesn’t serve a purpose for those wanting to enjoy the story. It’s a nice extra feature ruined by what I feel to be half-assed free-roaming. I can explain why.

Many of the mechanics in this Tomb Raider installment seem very gamey - and although “gamey” seems like an idiot term to use for a game, it’s actually a term we use to describe something very deliberate: when a mechanic either breaks immersion, or feels too much of a cliche. For instance, the way in which Lara picks up extra arrows is by pressing X on one of the many, many, many full quivers laced around the entire map. At first I thought it was a bug, but the whole game world is coated in quivers. Secondly, many of the larger sections are split up into different signifiers – if you will – that intuitively tell you what you’ll need to do in order to get to a certain area. These include posts adjacent to something you can attach a rope to, in order to zip-line; sometimes they’re bright white plaster walls, or, oddly, bits of wood with rope tied around it, meaning you can attach rope and yank it off. The world in no way felt real, and more like the open world segments of Assassin’s Creed 3. This on its own isn’t a crime.

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Arrow to the knee is instakill. Nicely done.

A beautiful shooting gallery, my point about the dynamic is about to reach its conclusion. The aforementioned introductory 10% quickly devolves into waves of enemies – something I hate in every game, since everyone knows it’s just filler. You’ll quickly work out that if you step down that ledge or walk through that gap, some generic NPC will shout something vaguely threatening and waves of enemies will block your way until you’ve sat through it and cleared them. This happens far too much, and it’s actually inexcusable in my opinion. It’s lazy. I felt as though Lara Croft, once done with her first victim, had learned all that she’d learn from 2013′s Tomb Raider, and the game quickly devolved into a beautifully rendered shooting gallery.

Enemies constantly throw dynamite at you to keep you moving, and whilst this does invoke a sense of urgency, it gets tiresome over, and over again. The environments, too, become monotonous and bland around the middle of the game, where there’s a lot of back-tracking for the sake of… spacing out the game? As Lara gains new equipment, she can traverse more of the areas she’s already explored, unlocking more items and moving further in the story. The not-so-eclectic mix of platforming and cover-based third person shooting made Tomb Raider feel dangerously close to a poor mans Uncharted, which I’m sure is a direction Crystal Dynamics wanted to steer the franchise towards.

2013-03-05_00055The settings themselves, before monotony sunk in, are gorgeous and vibrant. This time, it’s an ancient Japanese culture forgotten by time. You find yourself orienteering through every kind of weather, jumping from ships, and falling from planes. You’ll try to get through rapid water without impaling Lara on sticks, and you’ll rush through a valley through the trees with nothing but a parachute to protect you. In places, Tomb Raider is action packed, and on paper, there couldn’t have been a better choice of location for the story.

Although there was so much emphasis on the growth of Lara Croft as a character, it pains me to admit that I didn’t see much of it evident in the game from start to finish. At first, Croft was weak, whiny, and in places her voice acting over-produced. This was something of a constant throughout the game, until around the 70% mark when she suddenly snapped. Suddenly, Lara Croft was furious, vengeful, and out for blood. I’m not a psychologist, but I don’t think that’s much of a growth in character. To go from such a severe fright and insecurity into blind rage seemed a little flippant, and there was never a calm cool or pivotal moment where Lara just… grew. Whilst we can empathize with the friends she lost, and the boundaries she overcame, she basically remained a child that I as the gamer felt charged with protecting. Her character felt quite juxtaposed against her actions, and whilst you can weave up a 100 reasons as to why that might be, I can’t help but think there’s something risible about her shooting thousands of enemies in a linear shooting gallery, and then just having a quiet little moan about it in a cut-scene. You just killed 200 people!

Your hand is held for the entire experience, and whilst the HUDless aesthetic increases immersion, it also made me feel as though I was playing a movie. If you’ve to make a jump, your Lara is steered towards it. When a cut-scene ends, Lara is pointing towards where she needs to go. I even noticed a few times where I clearly should have missed a jump, but Lara seems to just float towards the ledge anyway. Crystal Dynamics are holding our hands, and this is certainly one that perpetuates the impression that games developers think their customers are absolute morons.

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Every scenario is fit for watercolour

Fans of the original who really want some tomb raiding can enjoy ‘optional tombs’ to explore, but don’t expect an endless exploratory adventure with tricky-to-work-out puzzles and stimulating platforming, because there isn’t any. That aspect of the game has been watered down, or stream-lined, in lieu of a much more action oriented experience. Tomb Raider is thus a very competent third person shooter, but it’s just a third person shooter, whereas before the franchise was so much more. The opening and ending portions of the game far surpass the middle, where monotony sinks in and shameless filler is employed, and combat becomes quite tiresome quite quickly. Crystal Dynamics didn’t quite hit the mark as much as they’d hoped with depth of character, and whilst everything is charmingly written, I never over-came the sensation that I was playing a far-too-easy Uncharted meets Assassin’s Creed mash-up, with too many features designed merely to check boxes, and an overwhelming sense of “I’ve been here before…”

That said, Tomb Raider is a good game, and a competent title. It has good level design, beautiful visuals, and great, intuitive controls with animations to match. The problem is the stale dynamic, shallow story (which doesn’t explore Lara Croft’s life out-side her immediate situation at all), and generic combat. Tomb Raider seems to have been altered to finally fit within a genre, allowing for no surprises. You’ll know exactly where to go, what to do, how to do it, and why – with great ease. It’s a solid third person shooter with merely a pinch of the depth I had anticipated, and that’s a shame. Tomb Raider might be breathtakingly beautiful, but at this age she’s painfully vapid.

Note: multiplayer will be covered in our video review.