Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider consumed a few days of my life, and now I am going to tell you about it.  I’m not sure that it really needs any kind of promotion, but I still feel like talking about it.  I paid 13 dollars for it and I feel guilty for not paying more (although apparently they didn’t even bother to count digital distributions when they calculated whether the game was a success or not, so, welp).  It took me just over 20 hours to 100% the game, but that includes all the time I spent running around aimlessly and trying to jump on/off things just to see if I could, and obsessively reloading because I fucked up a stealth kill and wanted to try again.

If you’re not familiar with it, the new Tomb Raider is an origin story of sorts.  It’s Lara’s first big expedition, and it shows how she goes from being a starry eyed archaeologist to the gun slinging swashbuckling adventurer that we know from earlier games/movies.  The story is good, but it’s nothing extraordinary either.  It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect if you went to a Tomb Raider movie.  In fact, this game is pretty much literally like playing a Tomb Raider movie, complete with shit exploding everywhere.  The “twists” in the plot were so obvious that I didn’t realize they were twists until the characters started going “Holy shit I know what’s going on!”, and they perpetually annoyed me with bad decisions at critical moments where I wasn’t allowed to control them.  Let me present you with a scenario:  You are crouching behind a rock with plenty of weapons and an arrow nocked, having successfully entered the room unseen.  In front of you is a large gathering of bad guys, including one guy in ornamental garb who is giving a grand speech to everyone.  You, for some reason, decide to come charging out from behind your rock and fire your arrow before the dozens of men in the room grab you.  Who did you shoot?  The guy in fancy clothing who was almost certainly the leader, or some random guy in the room?  Guess which one Lara shoots.  Grrrr.  I must say though, I would have been pretty impressed if screaming “NO!  LEAVE HER ALONE YOU BASTARDS!” into a radio resulted in the bad guys (who are in a location completely unknown to Lara) going “Oh, okay.” and then the credits rolled.

In particular I really enjoyed Lara’s transformation, which is good since that was kind of the focal point behind the writing, so it means they nailed it.  Lara spends the entire game having bad shit happen to her (seriously, you think you are having a bad day?  Well…) and she slowly goes from a trembling innocent girl who fumbles with a pistol and cries afterwards, to a hardened killer who doesn’t give a shit anymore.  At one point, I noticed the quicktime prompts during a scene had changed from “Press F to defend yourself” to “Press F to kill.”  Bra-fucking-vo. There have been a lot of complaints about just how brutal the game is, but I feel like it was dead on.  If you want to show someone being stripped and rebuilt psychologically, you can’t do it with nerf guns.

Give the character animation team an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy… whatever they want (perhaps some job security? -.-).  All of the graphics were incredible but Lara’s animations were insane.  She was so expressive, and there was such attention to detail in all the little movements she did.  You physically feel exhausted watching her grunt and strain to climb things, or wade through deep water.  When you walked near a surface, she’d put her hand out to steady herself.  If she fell in shallow water she would shake the droplets off her hands (although given the variety of fluids she is immersed in during the course of the game, you’d think she’d welcome some water to wash her hands in).  I was in the middle of a boss battle and ducked behind a box in the water and got completely distracted by the way Lara crouched, peeked around the box, and cradled her gun in a way that kept it ready but also out of the water.  I’m not sure what they studied while planning the character animations but everything she did was so ridiculously human that I have to commend them.

The game ran so well on my old ass computer that it actually makes me angry that other games don’t run well.  How on earth did they create vast, beautiful environments that zone seamlessly (The level design is to die for.  Or… die in.  You can see as far as the eye can see, cross zone, whatever), and yet it runs this well?  My computer is 5 years old, has a dying motherboard, and has chronic heat issues because the fan on the graphics card is going.  This is the first game I didn’t turn off SSAO for (usually it adds a lot of heat and I barely notice the difference anyway) but my temperatures were about 30 degrees less than most other games.  How.  What is this witchcraft?!?  I did experience two crashes:  The first was a black screen just sort of randomly.  The game was still running because I had been creeping toward some bad guys at the time and I could still hear them talking, and if I made movements I could hear Lara moving, but I couldn’t see shit.  All I had to do was reload a checkpoint and the game came back though.  Thankfully the game checkpoints every 20 steps so even compulsive quick-savers like me can be happy.  The second crash happened twice, in the same area, so either that area was rough or my computer was having a bad day.  The game just froze on me.  I managed to mash alt-tab and ctrl-alt-delete enough to see my mouse cursor moving so I knew windows was running, but I couldn’t get back to desktop.  The first time I just did a hard reboot.  The second time my frantic mashing finally got the task bar to open and I was able to get back to the desktop from there to close the window.  That time it even gave me the “Tomb Raider has stopped working” dialogue, so it was a proper crash.  Too bad it forgot the whole “to desktop” part.  Those two hiccups aside, the game ran amazingly well.

As far as gameplay – I already mentioned that it’s like playing a movie.  The action sequences are quick and tense.  Despite the pace of things, I never felt like it was overwhelming.  I know everyone hates quicktime events now because hating them is the cool thing to do, but I think they were used fairly well throughout the game.  There were a few places where it was like “Mash THIS button.  Now mash THIS button” and I was like “Really…” because it seemed a little excessive, but usually I felt like the events helped immerse me in the action.  That said, the game probably would have been just as great without them, and they really didn’t change anything in their respective sequences.  You either hit the button, or you die and start over.  That’s literally all the quicktime gets you – a way to view more kinds of potential deaths for Lara.  The “on rails” action sequences were well done too I thought.  These sequences are always Lara running from exploding shit and they’re all crazy and cinematic, but despite the frantic action all around you, they still managed to make it obvious where to go and what to do.  There were two exceptions I can think of… one is the river, and if you watched Conan O’Brien’s “game review”, you’ll probably remember it.  I had no fucking idea where that god damn branch was but I kept hitting it anyway.  I got past it by luck more than anything.  The second was a sequence where Lara was jumping from houses on a cliffside as they collapsed underneath her.  I died there several times because I could NOT figure out where to go off the last house.  It turned out there’s actually a climbable wall section there that I had overlooked… I only saw it when I stood on a roof and used Survival Instincts to make it glow since I figured I was going to die anyway, so I may as well stop and see if it gives me a hint.  Fortunately, dying in the game is largely painless (not for Lara!) since it drops you back at the beginning of the sequence, probably no more than 30 seconds out.

Probably the worst thing about the game is the camera, which is somewhat misleading because I was actually still very impressed with the camera.  I already mentioned a lot of the bad in The Bobbing Rant, and it DID get better once I got out of the intro areas (once Lara warms up and stops shivering the camera stopped jittering all over the place.  I guess the camera felt the need to explain to me that Lara was cold, because it just wasn’t fucking obvious enough), but it remained an issue throughout the game.  Fortunately this game is extremely good so I was willing to put up with a god awful headache for ~20 hours of my life, and also I spent a lot of time standing still and inspecting the environment for collectables, which made the camera sit still and gave me some time to recover.  It was the worst when I went back to previously cleared areas to clean up the 100% achievements, and I spent a lot of time simply running around with no enemies or salvage to stop for.  When Lara is just running the camera goes into full out sea-sickness mode and it’s really painful.  When you’re just playing through the campaign though, you stop and force the camera to stop with you.
Having said all that… if you played the original Tomb Raiders, or like… any 3D platformers ever… you know that the camera is the absolute bane of your existence in those sorts of games.  Aside from its attempts to make me vomit, the camera in the new Tomb Raider is really well done.  It always picks a great angle, it maximizes the action, it never seems to mislead you in where you’re supposed to go, and it never wanders off to stare at a wall while you’re in the middle of a precise jump.  If it weren’t for the boggling decision to make it bobble and shake all the fucking time, I would commend the camera crew almost as highly as the animation crew.  Unfortunately, I cannot forgive them for that moment of completely fucking shitty judgement.

Combat was okay too.  I had it on easy (AKA: pussy mode) because I don’t really play these games for the combat, so the faster I can cut a swathe through a crowd of bad guys the better.  I love the bow.  I hope Lara holsters the dual pistols and always has a bow as her primary from now on.  I’m totally biased though because I think more games should include archery. (Incidentally, I also think more games should include female protagonists… and I find it interesting that we just had the big kerfluffle over female protagonists in Bioshock Infinite and Remember Me, and here is Tomb Raider showing a female protagonist being awesome and also popular and also having the everloving shit beaten out of her, which kind of invalidates most of the arguments made… but… this paragraph is supposed to be about combat soooo).  Like usual, I spent the majority of the game creeping around trying to stealth-shot bad guys and avoid alarms.  There is no real advantage to doing that (it prevents the mad scramble of guys running around and shooting at you, which also means you can’t just kill a bunch of guys and get a ton of salvage…) but as a veteran of the Thief series, I feel compelled.  The worst moment of the game was when I stealth-cleared an entire courtyard, then fucked up on the last guy and alerted him, then reloaded the checkpoint only to find it had auto-saved the area in a state of alert :( noooo.  Boss battles were, eennh.  I’m not a fan of boss battles really… but they weren’t too bad and some had some clever mechanics.  The ones near the end started getting far more difficult simply because of the amount of enemies and the amount of exploding shit thrown at you.  When I spend the entire game sneaking up and thinning the ranks, I find it difficult to deal with being dumped into a crowd.  Still nowhere near as bad as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though.  God, why.

The best part of the game is the collectables.  There are lots of things to complete.  Each area has relics, which are cool because Lara gives you an archaeology analysis of it, some backstory, and then on a lot of the pieces you can manipulate the model and examine parts of it to get further info.  They’re just fluff for the game but there’s something really satisfying in finding a relic and having Lara go “Wow this is a rare relic from [some time period, whatever] I’ve never seen one of these before!!!! Oh wait, it says Made in China.  It’s a fake.”  The documents add backstory to the game and are really good for enriching the plot.  I probably looked forward to finding them more than reaching the next cutscene.  Each area also has treasure maps (which reveal the locations of the above), and optional tombs which each contain a simple puzzle and also reveal the locations of the collectables once solved.  The optional tombs were all pretty easy and short, and not frustrating… nothing like the nighmares you encounter in the Assassin’s Creed series where it’s like hours of finnicky little jumps and each time you fuck up you have to start over.  The worst optional tombs had some timed puzzles, but they all give you plenty of leeway.  In fact, I probably failed more because I worried about it and went too fast than I did because I didn’t react quickly enough.
You also have skill points to buy, which you get through exp, which can be gained through some optional activities like murdering the shit out of innocent deer and rabbits.  You can’t just grind the exp either because there’s a limit to the amount you get in each zone, but completing collectable sets also gives you a ton so you should have plenty of time unless you rush.  You also collect salvage to upgrade your weapons, and occasionally you find a piece of a gun which can later be combined to make a bigger better gun.  It gives you incentive to collect everything and be thorough.

I would venture to say the collectables were too easy.  I always approached each area meticulously, and I’d have a treasure map or tomb uncovering all the locations before I got hardly anywhere.  It took a little bit of the satisfaction out of finding the things, although I suppose I also appreciated not having to tab out for walkthroughs to find “that one thing I missed and now I can’t remember which ones I already got so I have to check everything”.  Each area also has challenges, and while they show up using Survival Instincts, they do NOT appear on your map.  So at least those offer a bit more of a challenge.  Some of them were decently tricky, too.  They glow while using Survival Instincts, but some of them are tucked around corners, or up above you in a place you wouldn’t normally look unless you were searching, or cleverly placed within the range of guns but just out of the range of Survival Instincts, so you can see it, but it won’t glow… so if you’re blindly running around expecting instincts to highlight everything for you, you’re just fucked.

This game was really good.  Really really good.  It was way too short, and I kind of wish there had been some more difficult challenges and tombs just so there was more reasons to spend time with it, but it was an amazing 20 hours or so and everyone should probably buy it so that maybe they will make more of them, or even remake some of the older Tomb Raider stories in this style.  Unfortunately they seem to think the game was a failure, so… fingers crossed I guess -.-

About tagracat
I am not a professional, I don't get paid to review shit, I am just opinionated and I seem to have some sort of disorder that results in spewing my opinions onto the internet. I enjoy writing long-winded posts about things and sometimes I like to pretend people want to read them, so a blog seemed an appropriate place to stuff it. But mostly I just like writing about things.

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