Monday, March 11, 2013

REVIEW - Tomb Raider.

Tomb Raider is the triumphant rebirth of a franchise which hasn't been interesting or relevant in over a decade.  Once upon a time (1996), the name meant a top-of-the-line, revolutionary gaming experience.  Five years later?  Not so much - and never again, since.

It's been the same-old, same-old ever since.

Considering its developer, the game's quality is shocking, but here we are.  This is a product of a wide-eyed earnestness - a late-game hail-Mary, one last shot at the big league.  A final, Herculean effort to show the world that Crystal Dynamics (who began working on Tomb Raider ten years after Core Design began the series) and Lara Croft - once the very face of gaming, and then a symbol for lowest-common-denominator appeal - are still a worthy part of the gaming pantheon.

How did CD do it?  Perhaps the game's impressive graphics are merely the result of a heck of a lot of elbow grease, but its design is light years ahead of Lara's last outing in Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008).

It cribs liberally from countless other games, but it's a thievery one can respect and encourage.  This is theft in the vein of Darksiders, in which several great ideas from other developers are massaged and riffed on to wonderful effect.  Some examples:

A thick, heavy atmosphere that's almost uniformly bleak.  A richly drawn, interconnected world of lush natural beauty. Camp fires that serve as bases and save points which you can fast-travel between.

Hunt enemies and animals with a seriously satisfying bow (or other weapons) to earn XP rewards and upgrade your gear and abilities across three skill trees, becoming exponentially more powerful over the course of the game.  Explore the island and learn its terrible secrets.

A story-driven experience with comfortable, elegant third-person shooting and a dedication to spectacular presentation.

Anyone can rip off other developers, of course - that's not hard - but taking an ingredient here, a bit of seasoning there - getting it all to work correctly - and combining it into something with heart and spirit...

...well, that takes artistry, doesn't it?  That takes a thoughtful approach to your game and  its purpose - an insight into where your game's pleasures lie, without the misleading lies of ego - and Tomb Raider consists of everything mentioned above, layered on and within the franchise's classic trinity of play; exploration, puzzle solving and combat.

The only place things didn't quite work out is in the narrative presentation, but at least the plot is half-decent. While I'm thrilled that Lara is no longer, basically, a cartoon character, the dialogue is often terrible and does not meet the same high standards of the rest of the production.
"I'd finally set out to make my mark.  To find adventure.  But instead... adventure found me."
Ugh.  Just typing that made my skin crawl.

One often gets the sense that Crystal Dynamics wrote themselves into a corner with their initial "a survivor is born" announcement, and were so married to the concept and the story points they felt it demanded that they became more interested in adhering to that template than organically exploring Lara's origins.

The fact that the facial animations are kinda' iffy doesn't much help (in that regard, they fell well short of their target), but at the very least Crystal Dynamics were quite wise to keep the details of Tomb Raider's fascinating island and its history under wraps during the lead-up to the game's release.  It's a pleasure to feel a genuine sense of awe, mystery and discovery as one uncovers the island's secrets, and something of a gift that so little of it was spoiled by pre-launch media.

Aside from possessing a keen eye for necessities in a time of crisis, Lara herself comes across as kinda' dull.   Or at least a little stupid, as she'll often come to the shocking understanding of a plot point hours after the player figured it out.  While she makes a less-than-impressive impression during cutscenes, Lara's presence within gameplay presents her as the supernaturally determined, essentially unstoppable love child of Katniss Everdeen and John McClain.

Lara gets the holy shit beat out of her over the course of her adventure - going from a nice clean tank top and cargo pants to a bloody, filthy ensemble that's been ripped to high heaven, her chest, face and shoulders crisscrossed with the scars of her many scrapes and cuts - which doubles up on the player's attachment to her and involvement in her adventure.  She's also a sensible and practical young woman who you seriously do not want to mess with when she's got a bow in her hands.

She's The Action Hero. This is a girl who'll deliver an explosive arrow to the ammo dump behind you, burn off your best friend's face with a napalm arrow and put a broadhead between your eyes before she crouches in the dirt to examine a piece of ancient trash.

"This seventeenth century chamber pot would have only been used by aristocracy," she'll cheerfully point out,  before diligently giving it a once over and pronouncing it genuine.

Your enemies, meanwhile, refer to you respectfully as "Outsider" before finally learning to regard Lara with a wise and healthy amount of sheer terror.  Direct quote:

"She's got a grenade launcher, run!"

"That's right!  Run, you bastards!  I'm coming for you all!"

Combat is beautifully and viscerally presented (shades of The Last of Us, actually), with a small variety of satisfying tactics at your disposal, very rewarding third-person shooting, dramatic camera work and great animations.  Additionally, the game achieves a totally different vibe from Uncharted via its complete lack of winking smart aleck quips - there's no irony, here - just desperate times and desperate measures.

Aside from the hiccups with the storytelling, Tomb Raider is a remarkably attractive game from stem to stern.  The environments, in particular, win the day here due to a lovely degree of variety, great detail work, artistic vision and what is perhaps best described as technical mastery.

Lara's animations are also a highlight.  While not as smooth as one familiar with Uncharted would prefer, they are at least very expressive, detailing Lara's capability, desperation and character to excellent effect.

They're no Naughty Dog, but Tomb Raider's production values place the game very near the top of the class, alongside developers like Rockstar, Ubisoft Montreal and Sucker Punch.  It's a quantum leap for the developer.

All of these niceties are just that - nice.  They're good to have, but they're not what makes the game - and Tomb Raider, at its core, is the same game it's always been.  It's still platforming, puzzle solving and combat - but here, finally, Crystal Dynamics have brought every facet of the game in line with current triple-A standards.

The platforming, one must point out, is way more fun than Uncharted's, and I adore this game's locomotion mechanics  They're rock-solid and nicely smooth, allowing the player confidence and thrills as they fling themselves across bottomless chasms and dangle from rafters.  Not only used to deeply pleasurable effect in Tomb Raider's delightful open-world sections, the platforming is front-and-center for the entire game, both in combat and puzzle solving.

Besting Uncharted in this one regard really comes to the forefront in some of the other areas Tomb Raider apes Naughty Dog's gem.  The "Climb the Tower" objective in the Fortress Tower level, for example, gives every Uncharted escape sequence a sharp smack in the face, with how zippy the gameplay remains despite the spectacular, heavily scripted firestorm that rages around Lara as she desperately scrambles along burning beams and launches herself across insane leaps of faith.

Elsewhere, Crystal Dynamics have reigned themselves in where puzzles are concerned.  Once a bit of a headache that would often stall their games dead, the challenge of their puzzles has been smoothed and playtested and considered to the point where they are just challenging enough - but never too much.

Crystal Dynamics hadn't produced a video game that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the business in over a decade.  I certainly had zero faith in the developer, and - given their past work - I can't imagine why they did, either. But one must never forget the importance of being earnest.

"We hope you have enjoyed playing Tomb Raider. 
We have worked our hardest to bring you the best game we could possibly make.  
Thank you for taking the time to complete our game,"

is what scrolls up on the screen before the credits roll, at the end of their latest effort.  Most games used to end with such humble bows from the developers, but here, in CD's case, it feels particularly earnest. The entire game feels earnest, one should say.  Like what could have been the swan song of an old singer who's still got something to say.  Something to prove.

Well, Crystal Dynamics - I never knew you had it in you, given the way you spent most of the last decade beating the shit out of a dead horse with D-cups, but - your best is pret-ty fucking good

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