Review: Tomb Raider

The 2014 release of Tomb Raider is a gritty reboot of a popular game franchise that has become one of gaming’s biggest icons. Set on the remote Yamatai Island, you take on the role of Lara Croft as she tries to save her friends and escape to safety. Despite the simplistic framing, the story is actually a detailed origin story about Lara’s personal development in the face of danger. I like what they were trying to achieve and think the series was in dire need of a reboot. Unfortunately, I felt the “Hollywood moments” and ludonarrative dissonance were prominent, and my ability to suspend disbelief was constantly challenged. Fortunately, the game also had plenty of positives, so I was able to garner some enjoyment from the experience.

There are currently two versions of Tomb Raider available: the original release, and a Definitive Edition. The Definitive Edition, released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, features vastly improved visuals and a completely remodelled Lara. The core gameplay and story remains unchanged, however, so this will be a joint review covering both versions. Andrew played the Definitive Edition on PlayStation 4, whilst I played the original release on PC.

Had you played the original before trying the Definitive Edition, Andrew? Or did you just jump straight into the latter?

Andrew
I’m quite a cynical person, so when the new round of consoles was announced, I had an itching feeling that maybe, just maybe, Tomb Raider might get an ultra-HD upgrade. Low and behold, one of the first few games on both the PS4 and XBone was a new shiny version of Tomb Raider. And boy, what a great looking game.

For example, there’s a moment later in the game where Lara is climbing a radio tower and the camera moves above her, looking down as the wind blows. Snow hails around and her hair blows everywhere. It’s one of the most jaw droppingly beautiful videogame moments that I’ve experienced and demonstrated the power of the new consoles wonderfully.

In fact, the whole game is full of great looking moments. However, as my wife says about me, just because something’s good looking doesn’t always mean it’s great. I know you had some issues with the gameplay, so I’ll let you begin with that.

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Dave
On the contrary, the gameplay in Tomb Raider was one of the big winners for me! Game areas were relatively open and well designed, with clear objectives and few-to-no frustrating dead ends. I really liked how levels were designed to accommodate differing play styles, too. When engaging enemies, you could use your bow or a silenced pistol for a stealthy approach, or go in “guns blazing” to force them into cover. The feel of combat was surprisingly satisfactory as well. There was a decent range of weapons, each with their own pros and cons, and the enemy AI was intelligent enough to make things interesting without making them impossibly hard. I especially liked how enemy behaviour varied depending on how you were playing. I remember one situation where I was picking off bad guys one by one with the bow until they realised where I was. They rushed me, but I was out of shotgun ammo, so I started dodging and stabbing them with arrows. After a few kills, they all retreated to cover and started alternating fire. This sort of variation helped keep the combat interesting and unpredictable. My only complaint was that, when you “went loud”, every enemy in the area seemed to instantly know exactly where you were! Fire one pistol shot without a silencer and every enemy in the place would be rushing to engage.

When not slaughtering waves of baddies, Lara enjoyed running, jumping, and scaling things. For the most part, this worked really well, however, there were a few instances where the game broke its own rules and allowed Lara to achieve something she normally couldn’t. This didn’t happen often, but was confusing when it did occur, as players use those rules/boundaries to help them ascertain when a jump is clearable or what items can be climbed. Again, the level design played into this really well, with most areas providing a fast route back to your target on navigating a tricky section. The tower Andrew mentioned is a perfect example of this. Unfortunately, Tomb Raider adopts the Uncharted trope, where everything in the world is stupidly fragile. If you’re scaling a crashed plane you should expect it to fall into pieces as you climb – and the same goes for walkways on cliffs, handholds, ladders… everything. When something occasionally breaks as you climb, it makes for a tense moment; when it does it all the time, I find it exasperating and annoying. I also find it disappointing as the scenery in Tomb Raider is so well presented – you don’t need additional incentive to incite anxiety as you balance precariously. Anyway, back to the radio tower. As you scale the tower, it inevitably falls to pieces. At no point does Lara stop to think how she’ll get down when she reaches the top; however, luckily, there is a zipline at the top that provides her a safe route down. It’s a great, basic feature that many others forget, although I still wish the tower hadn’t fallen to bits on the way up. }:[

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Andrew
I think the combat worked wonderfully. As you said, it had a great way of tailoring the levels to your own play style. I like this progression with games lately that have included these sorts of levels – I enjoyed the idea in Dishonored and found it a great, novel take on the FPS genre in Wolfenstein: The New Order, so I was pleased to see something similar here in Tomb Raider.

Going into playing Tomb Raider, I was afraid that it would try and be too much like Uncharted – a series that, of course, takes a lot of its cues from the original Tomb Raider titles – with subpar gun play. Fortunately, that’s not the case here. Shooting feels great and impactful. Finally, for me at least, shooting with a bow feels great. It’s usually a weapon I tend to avoid using in games, simply because of my terrible grasp on physics in games and real life, but here it felt wonderful to use and I would use it as often as I was able. The inclusion of ‘upgrades’ as well is a smart use of environmental elements. You can set enemies or traps on fire by shooting an arrow through a hanging lantern. It’s a small thing, but one I really enjoyed compared to the usual weapon upgrades that games tend to have – the “I’ve found ten mongoose skins, so now I have the ability to have add the much needed mongoose camouflage that makes my aiming better” method of upgrades. It does have silly ‘skill points’ that games like The Last of Us have, where through some magical ability of finding trash in the world, you can upgrade your body to see where people are. That’s a trait I wish would stop being included in games.

As for the world breaking down around you, that didn’t bother me as much as it does in Uncharted. The island that Lara finds herself on is constantly ravaged by storms, so it makes sense that the environment here is fragile and could collapse at any time. The shanty towns and rundown buildings add to the mood of the story. Part of what I love about the tower sequence is that, yes, Lara doesn’t give much thought to how she will get down from the tower because she is going to the top to turn it on for her friends. It’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make if she can’t get down from there, which is great character building through gameplay. I was genuinely intrigued by the story and found her friends, and the characters she fights against, to be interesting – although they are  slightly forgettable at times. What were your thoughts on the story?

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Dave
Overall, the story wasn’t too bad. It was a typical action adventure, complete with all the plot markers you would expect would force Lara’s character to evolve. Aside from Lara, I found the characters extremely predictable and forgettable, yet they drove the story, allowing Lara to develop, so I suppose they served their purpose. As mentioned at the outset, my big issue with the story was the way it was told and the glaring conflicts between the cutscenes and in-game actions. Near the start of the game, Lara makes her first kill and is understandably distraught. Games such as Hotline Miami handle this extremely well, allowing suitable time to pass before violence isrenewed, but for Lara, she almost immediately proceeds to kill waves of bad guys. This continues through the entire game, with the actions of enemies and allies during gameplay directly conflicting with their behaviour during cutscenes. I know this is a common issue in many titles, however, in Tomb Raider it was so jarring I was unable to distance myself from it.

My distaste for Lara’s character was further enforced by the way she was voiced. Before proceeding, I just want to say I thought Camilla Luddington did a fantastic job adding emotion and depth to Lara’s character. My problem with the voice acting was that it was so “breathy”. Lara is always out of breath. Be it at a campfire, in the middle of a chase, or chatting with a friend, she always sounded out of breath. This was particularly noticeable when speaking with other characters. While they talk normally, Lara speaks as if she’s just finished a marathon. As with my “Hollywood moments” and “everything you climb breaking” gripes, I wouldn’t have minded had they been used in moderation. A breathy voice can add significant depth to a character and demonstrate a loss of control during a pressing situation, but when used all the time it loses its impact, especially when Lara is supposed to be gaining confidence as the game progresses.

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Andrew
I found the voice acting great. I don’t recall any overly breathy voice acting though, so I can’t comment on that.

One small complaint I had was that the tombs were essentially optional rather than being part of the story. Most traversing of the environment is done in grand open areas, sadly missing the wonderfully inventive tombs. I loved these parts, but felt that they were too short and easily missed.

Wrapping up, I think this is a great step forward in revising an iconic character. The things that made Lara Croft a sex object are almost entirely gone, and what’s left is a strong female character that women and men can look up to. I do hope that there will be a revival in creating great female characters in a genre that generally focuses on male characters.

This is an enjoyable adventure game that I’m glad got a great reception at release. The upcoming sequel will hopefully build of the successes of the reboot and won’t stay as an XBone exclusive for too long.

Dave
I didn’t mind the tombs being optional, as it added value for those who explored. That said, I agree they were way too short and more like enclosed puzzle areas. I also agree that revising Lara’s character was a good move; however, I don’t feel her revival is necessarily something people should look up to. She has more redeemable qualities than her old version, but she’s still an incredibly unrealistic action hero in a genre populated by other similar characters. I realise you’re referring more to a move towards equality in character design. but, I prefer more deep and realistic characters like those in titles such as Valiant Hearts or To The Moon. This is, of course, a personal preference, as I feel we’re currently swamped with superhuman characters. I find it hard to empathise as their actions are so over-the-top and their reactions are unrealistic… This coming a guy who grew up loving Indiana Jones movies.

In conclusion, I found Tomb Raider to be an above average action adventure game. The mechanics are good and the game looks great, but the overly dramatic story and “big Hollywood moments” really broke the immersion for me, making the game hard to take seriously.

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Good

  • Spectacular visuals
  • Solid combat (Dave)
  • Enjoyable and varied gameplay (Dave)
  • Great update of classic character (Andrew)

Bad

  • Strong ludonarrative dissonance (Dave)
  • Breathy voice acting (Dave)
  • Constant "big events" voided their impact (Dave)
  • Optional tombs not part of main quest (Andrew)
  • Poorly developed villain (Andrew)
7.8

Good

Andrew is a bearded film loving idiot who runs The A & B Film Podcast with his wife as well as talks about games every so often. Sometimes he knows stuff, most of the time he’s an idiot. Dave loves two things in life... video games and his family. He work two jobs; one as an IT manager to provide for his wife, four kids and heavy gaming habit, the other as a video game designer at C117 Games... which is purely for the love of the job.

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