Review by plasmabeam

"More than just "Uncharted with a chick""

Let's get one thing out of the way: It's impossible for me to discuss Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider 2013 reboot (TR13) without comparing it to the Uncharted series. TR13 offers plenty of third-person shooting, treasure hunting, climbing, and other Uncharted staples. But that's not a bad thing. And TR13 is not a clone. Got it? Great. With that taken care of, I'll say that until E3 2012 the Tomb Raider franchise never interested me. While the early games in the franchise received favorable reviews and sparked the PS1's game library, I never bothered to play them. Lara's character design had a lot to do with it—I figured if the games were good, they wouldn't have to star some floozy with two Ion Cannons tucked under her tanktop. On top of that, a couple of my buddies admitted the gameplay wasn't as hot as the chick on the box. So I took a pass. But as for the 2013 reboot? Glad I didn't. It turns out TR13 is a phenomenal experience—every bit as gritty and sexy as the cover girl this time around.

TR13 begins at sea with Lara Croft and her crew of photographers and archaeologists searching out a mystical island called Yamatai somewhere south of Japan. After Lara convinces the crew to sail toward an island, a storm ravages their boat and leaves them stranded. Lara awakes hanging upside-down inside a cave decorated with bones and corpses. The adventure begins with you helping her shake loose and escape this cave-like prison by means of puzzle-solving, high-stakes jumping, and button-timed cinematic sequences. And that's just the intro.

I won't spoil much beyond the fact that Lara escapes the cave and reconvenes with the members of her party, which includes her sister and several longtime colleagues. While Lara herself develops into a compelling character, I can't say the same for her supporting cast, which is largely forgettable. This wouldn't be a big deal if the cast were merely there to push the story along, but almost every member gets involved in a highly dramatic moment at some point. Unfortunately, these dramatic segments fall flat due to the lack of screen time and development the characters get.

Aside from the misfires with the supporting cast, TR13's storyline unfolds with frequent suspense and slick pacing. Ultimately, Lara's quest ends up as a battle between herself and the island. And Gillian's Island this is not—Lara discovers through cinematic scenes and collectible documents that this island hosts a dark history, desperate survivors, and supernatural powers beyond her imagination. Escape won't be easy.

The wild, supernatural plotline is fitting for TR13, which makes no stringent efforts toward realism. Lara routinely survives three-story falls and lethal wounds in both the gameplay segments and cutscenes. She makes jumps that should require a jetpack, then climbs mountain walls and broken bridges with divine skill and endless stamina. The absurdity doesn't stop there, but it's hard to complain when TR13's over-the-top gameplay sequences are downright engrossing.

TR13 thrives off the slick third-person gunplay and intuitive climbing puzzles that catapulted Uncharted to critical and commercial success. Lara will take cover behind walls and rubble, popping out and shooting with a variety of weapons ranging from bows to handguns to grenade launchers. She'll scamper from cover as enemies try to flush her out with grenades. She'll lure in sword-wielding enemies for button-timed dodges and finishing blows. She'll shoot enemies off zip-lines and drag others off ledges with special rope arrows. Her arsenal of skills and weapons lend to gameplay that challenges players to experiment with new strategies as situations and environments change.

While the combat isn't groundbreaking, TR13 adds nuances that keep the gameplay fresh without compromising the intensity or satisfaction. For instance, early on Lara receives the bow which serves as a stealth weapon. Upon spotting two or more enemies, she can fire an arrow at a nearby wall for distraction, then pick them off one-by-one. Although the emphasis on stealth deteriorates as her weapon stockpile increases, the sheer accuracy and power of the bow keep it relevant till the credits fall. Later upgrades such as terrain-scorching napalm arrows enable strategies that the bang-bang of the guns can't muster.

TR13's combat is not pure gunplay; despite her catalog model frame, Lara engages in close-quarters action with her athleticism and pickaxe. As Lara levels up her combat skills (you gain experience from collecting treasure, completing objectives, and killing enemies), she learns new melee attacks and dodge techniques. Some are as simple as tapping a button to swing the axe, while others require button combos or patient timing. For instance, Lara can throw sand in an enemy's face to leave him vulnerable or stab him with an arrow for a one-hit kill. It adds nice variety to an area that could've been lazily handled with a punch button.

One area where TR13 separates itself from Uncharted is its emphasis on exploration. Uncharted throws gamers through scene after scene, with little freedom to explore or backtrack. TR13 pushes forward with its own string of breakneck story sequences, but Crystal Dynamics paces the action with environments that beg to be explored. You'll climb rock walls, build makeshift zip lines, and burn wooden debris as you snag optional collectibles. Treasure and documents lie scattered everywhere in this game, from atop high-standing cliffs to beneath ruined buildings. What makes all this scavenging accessible is Lara's Batman-inspired hint system called “Survival Instincts.” Tap L2 and the screen will turn grey and highlight treasure or other interactive materials. Thankfully, the Survival interface kicks off as soon as Lara moves a few steps—it remains a handy tool rather than an crutch-like lens to view the entire game through (a gripe I had with the Batman: Arkham games).

As the game's title suggests, Lara will plunder through a handful of optional tombs on her journey. Think of tombs as Zelda-style trial-and-error puzzles. I won't spoil the methods of solving them, but they typically involve utilizing a room's contents to reach a high ledge. One involves navigating Lara across a flooded room that happens to be electrified by a severed cable hanging from the ceiling. You'll have to use your wits to solve each tomb's mystery and nab its treasure.

I mentioned that TR13 offers an expansive world to explore, and the high-def visuals do it justice. The meticulous, atmospheric locales tower over Lara and her companions, but what really conveys a sense of place is the finer points: dirt that accumulates on Lara as she takes cover; the way the camera zooms as she crawls through tight spaces; her torch pouring drops of flame; sun gleaming off rock walls as she climbs them; and debris tumbling along with Lara during landslide segments. Details are everywhere. My only complaint falls upon the characters' occasionally stiff and apathetic facial expressions.

While TR13's musical score is a little less than memorable, it fits the tone of the desolate island with low-key pieces that kick into higher gears when the action juices up. The sound effects pop and sizzle against the soundtrack, and the voice acting is varied and impressive with a winning mix of British and American voices. My only issue with sound came as the result of a recurring glitch that left enemies repeating battle quotes. Sometimes I'd kill a few baddies then hear one of their battle quotes like “She only a girl!” repeat over and over. This would continue until I restarted from my last checkpoint—thankfully there are numerous checkpoints.

One last thing to cover is multiplayer, and if this part of the review feels tacked-on, then it reflects my feelings toward TR13's multiplayer. Six months after the release, the servers are all but barren, and I could only manage to boot-up some basic quick matches in Team Deathmatch. The multiplayer isn't terrible by any means (there are incentives to keep playing, such as leveling up and unlocking weapons/characters), but the levels sit open and bland, with areas that cater to campers and rarely attract true action. There are also level gimmicks like lightning rods that basically serve as proximity mines—if you touch one, it'll zap any enemies who approach it unless they shoot it beforehand. These types of gimmicks tend to tear the focus away from the core take-cover-and-shoot mechanics, which are of course the game's prime draw. If you're looking for an engrossing online experience, look elsewhere.

To recap, Tomb Raider is a stellar entry into what will likely become a trilogy or sub-series. Crystal Dynamics drank liberally from Uncharted's fountain while developing the core gameplay, and the distinctive TR nuances of stealth and exploration keep this game from feeling hackish—it is by no means “Uncharted with a chick.” Despite the weak and forgettable supporting cast, the story proves intriguing thanks to Lara's character development and the mystery swirling around the island of Yamatai. I can't speak as someone who has played prior entries in the Tomb Raider franchise, but as a gamer who enjoys slash-paced action and exploration, I would highly recommend TR13 based on its riveting single-player campaign. If online multiplayer is vital to you, dock a point off my review score, as you won't find a buzzing community or brilliant level design here. But as far as the single-player experience goes, it's a twenty-hour journey that keeps firing away with brutal action, inviting environments, and puzzles of the climbing and thinking varieties.

+ Excellent combat system, climbing segments, tomb puzzles
+ Supernatural world with great sense of place and history
+ Lara's character development
+ Stunning, detailed character models and environments
+ Numerous collectibles, weapon upgrades, skills

- Supporting cast doesn't get enough screen time to make a dramatic impact
- Glitchy moments with enemy battle dialogue
- Passable online multiplayer

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/20/13

Game Release: Tomb Raider (US, 03/05/13)

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