Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Going Back to the Beginning: The Tomb Raider Reboot

History: Work began on this reboot right after the 2008 release of Tomb Raider: Underground. At this time Crystal Dynamics had split into two teams, both of which would work on their own respective Tomb Raider games. The team that did not make the game in question started the spin off Lara Croft series, starting with Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, a download only game released in 2010, with a sequel eventually released late 2014.

The game was officially announced in 2010 with the statement it had been in development for a couple of years. This game would reboot the franchise, taking it in a whole new direction, advising fans to forget everything they know about Tomb Raider. When it was eventually released in 2013 (after a delay, intending to be released in 2012) it really was like nothing before in the franchise. It had many first, including multi-player and the first to get the M rating.
This game experienced a little controversial before release, but mostly due to misunderstanding, or so it seems. Some gameplay footage of Laura being captured by scavengers in the game had a vibe like they were going to rape her. This was mislabeled as the creators never intended to approach that subject in the game, where all they were doing was showing her as a cornered animal in a dire situation she needs to survive. It was an intense and extreme way of showing evolution of character, but was never meant to be an attempted rape scene.
It was released to high praise and big sales, selling over a million copies within two days of release. A sequel was announced in late 2014, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and it will be exclusive to XBox consoles.

Personal History: I dabbled in the older Tomb Raider games back in the late 90's but never got into them. Come to think of it... I don't think I ever completed one from start to finish until this one. The last one I played was one on the Dreamcast. I never played the PS2 sequels or the remake of the original, and of course never played the PS3 game that came before this one. I did have an interest in this new perspective not because I'm a long time fan, but because it looked like it was something different in a franchise that's long since gone stale.

Availability: Released on Playstation 3, XBox 360, and PC initially on disc and digital download. After the game's success it was updated and re-released on Playstation 4 and XBox One as a 'Definitive Edition' which contained all the main features and DLC.

Version I Played: Playstation 3 version with none of the DLC.

Review: I'm not really sure what my real perspective of Tomb Raider is. I've never been a big fan of it per se. As I mentioned in the 'personal history' the newest Tomb Raider game I played before this was back in the late 90's on the Dreamcast (or early 2000's.) And I think the reason is because the franchise never held much interest for me outside of, sadly, the obvious. There was a breif period during the height of Tomb Raider's popularity when Lara Croft became more of a pop culture icon than a video game character and many young boys (including myself, being a young boy at the time) wanted to recognize that if you know what I mean.

Good Lord, how was this ever found attractive?

Outside of that I never got into the game itself. I had a couple for the PC but never got far and I think a big part of that was how the game played. I'm tempted to go back and give it the old college try. Only problem is I think it would be more challenging now since that franchise and it's controls have aged about as well as most games from the 90's.
Then I started to notice the bad reviews coming in for later games and how nothing had really changed. So why bother playing? A shame because looking back the game had more potential but was weighed down by terrible controls and childishly forced sex appeal. Sex appeal that, ironically, was started because the programmers accidentally programmed Lara to become a watermelon smuggler and it stuck. I'm serious, it was by accident.

With a lack of investment in the franchise it may seem surprising I even stuck through the reboot. Well the reason I tried is because the franchise actually went in a different and interesting direction.

Everything was changed for this reboot. EVERYTHING! Pretty much all that stayed was there's a character named Lara Croft who wears a blue tanktop and explores secrets of the world. This includes storytelling changes (especially in tone), changes in controls, mechanics, and best of all changes to Lara herself.
I say changing Lara is the best change because she was the biggest change that needed to happen in this franchise. Now that three Uncharted games have been released, which is basically a modern male version of Tomb Raider, they had to take a different approach. Lara can't be the same girl she used to be and I commend them for that. We actually get someone with the potential to be interesting. And while she changed slightly between the first game and the most recent one before this it wasn't a lot.

Here's a quick, unfair comparison.

While it's an origin story it feels more like growth than anything else. It feels like the character has grown because we see her in a far less Playboy Bunny-esque manner.
While not a completely unsexualized version of Lara I do find this version of her far more attractive. For one she has full pants and that makes her more appealing alone. But also she has this Katiness Everdine feel to her. She's brave, has beauty, but shows her emotions far more realistically than any previous Lara would.
She's also put in a situation that's against her control. To condense it as much as possible, Lara and her expedition crew become trapped and fighting for their lives on a remote island against a bunch of bad dudes. Lara spends most of her time simply trying to survive rather than exploring and kicking ass. Again, a nice change of pace. Makes her feel less like a rich super hero of the tombs and more like a real person.

Story and character aside (for now) I was very happy to see how well the game mechanics were put together... for the most part. Most of the third person action games I've played in recent memory have been multiple Assassin's Creed games so I had to get that out of my mind and get used to Lara's matter of walking, talking, and shooting. Once I got used to it I found the mechanics to be very friendly and smooth. Running from one end of the map to another, climb a wall, shoot a rope arrow to the side of a cliff, slide my way down, jump off the rope and pull out a gun to shoot a bad guy. It all works very well and I'm happy to see this.
This a much needed change to the very, VERY outdated controls that the older games held onto for far too long. While I'm not entirely against tank or tank-like controls, they only work for certain types of games. But the old controls for Tomb Raider were like tank controls but from a specific perspective that didn't even work too well back then, making it super slow. So among any other update and change to this franchise, I like this change the most.

With that excellent control they also give a consistently exciting world to run around in. One thing this world had going for it was there was always something going on. Outside of me doing some tedious side quests to get more material for stronger weapons I always felt a sense of excitement in what's happening and what's happening next.
And I have to say it wasn't the easiest task getting from beginning to end. Many times I found myself very challenged by what's going on, some of which was cheap, but I digress. It was still a very fun experience that forced me to pay attention instead of mindlessly shooting from bad guy to bad guy. Hell, it even incorporated a very basic element of stealth, wherein you can sneak up on a bad guy and choke him.

While a lot of my praises may seem vague and general... that's because there's a lot of good but it's not a terribly unique good. Before I get to the bad stuff would I say the game is worth a play? Hell yes! It's a very fun experience but I wouldn't necessarily say it stands out among the other good and exciting action adventure games outside of the fact the star has something the others don't.
You fill in the blank.

Really I'd say this game has plenty of problems, many of which aren't that terrible, but keep it from being something much better. A shame since a lot of these were simply and/or stylistic mistakes.

The easiest way to describe it is the game is just trying a bit too hard.
The first is the aesthetic. It's dark and gritty which I'm fine with. If anything I like it when a story can be uncut with it's vision. If it gets excessive is a different story, which I don't feel Tomb Raider does too much. But there are some deaths that are a bit more vicious than they needed to be.
Still the dark and gritty reboot is something of a joke these days. Seems like it's happening all over the place with many IP's and not just in the gaming world. So making Tomb Raider dark and violent feels uncreative, like it's jumping on a bandwagon.
Speaking of jumping on the bandwagon it also jumps on the thin morality take that happens in many modern violent games. While I love the idea of morality systems this is a fine example of the story saying "killing is harsh and you only do it when you're forced to," going so far as to have Lara shaking up to the point of her first kill. Then you literally shoot down hundreds of bad guys with multiple weapons with the greatest of ease as if you were trained to do this sort of thing.
Doing it in game is fun, mechanically. But in terms of story and tone it just doesn't feel right and killed some of the immersion for me. Making this a "headphones" game for me. Where I listen to podcasts and other stuff while playing the game because I mostly find it appealing at a more basic level.

I also don't like how it's trying to copycat both the cinematic approach of modern games while also trying to be something open world like Assassin's Creed.
It's an odd mix because you have these set QTE's where you're sliding down a raging river avoiding obstacles or anything else over the top exciting. While cool and tense I don't like this trend. It's incorporating elements of a set piece shooter where so much is happening with little to none of your involvement or interaction. Making it a prettier version of a laserdisc game like Dragon's Lair.
This does not mix well with the supposed open world approach it has because everything is very divided, only easily accessible by doing a quick travel via the bonfires across the map. This, mixed with no contextual reason to collect items or do certain objectives makes it hard to justify doing side quests outside of getting the trophy/achievement for your efforts if that's your sort of thing.
They're a pain to navigate through and give you little incentive to do them.

What I did like that is in a similar realm to these are the actual raids of tombs.
Throughout most of the maps on the island there's a hidden entrance to a tomb wherein you have to solve some sort of puzzle or find the right path to get a treasure. These are short but many are challenging, some involving quick acting. And this was the only section where I felt the award justified the work. You get much bigger prizes going into these side missions than any of the other side missions.

Sadly that's the only side mission that's good and worthwhile. Going in the tradition of the game trying too hard it tries to give you everything you want but in the easiest way possible. Resulting in a big game full of a lot of options but with no real purpose to do them.
Yes you can upgrade weapons but I saw little change. Outside of necessary upgrades like the ability to shoot ropes with your bow and arrow there was little reason to upgrade as far as I could tell. I likely could have beat the game with minimal upgrades outside of what I got from natural progression instead of going around salvaging anything and everything I could, which I did.

Again, does this mean it's worth playing? Does this mean it's bad? No, not a chance. I said it before I'll say it again... this is definitely a fun experience and worth your time. I assure you you'll enjoy it as it is and you may even like elements of it more than I did. I just felt it tried too many things at once instead of focusing on other/better things that could have improved it and not made it inconsistent and unfinished. Otherwise, definitely a blast I enjoyed for what it was. They must have done something right to get me to go through all I did.

I did not play any of the DLC. The main game did not entice me to try.

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