maanantai 3. kesäkuuta 2013

REVIEW - Tomb Raider | Xbox 360 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure
RELEASED: March 5, 2013
DEVELOPER(S): Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal, Nixxes Software (PC)
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix

After finally laying Skyrim to rest for a while, I wanted to take this chance to look at the most recent release in another ultra-popular franchise I've never fully appreciated - actually, one that I've perceived the most overrated franchise in one of my favourite genres. Released in 1996, Tomb Raider may have revolutionized the 3D action-adventure genre, but from where I stand, it was always more about the lead character Lara Croft, her measurements, and how great it was to have a game with an outstanding feminine lead; she was a role model for geek girls and a wet dream for geek boys. The game really was never that special in my honest opinion. Even when everyone else was going on and on about Tomb Raider III, I actually preferred Crystal Dynamics' "side project" Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver - kind of a similar game, but much better and way underrated in its own time. Well, Tomb Raider games basically sold themselves and the franchise kept on growing. I actually fell from the wagon a long time ago; I wouldn't have a clue as to how many of these games there were if it wasn't for some Internet database to keep me informed of how Tomb Raider: Underworld and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light fit in. The decision to reboot the series was made by Crystal Dynamics five years ago. I once said that if Tomb Raider was ever completely rebooted, I might give it another shot, especially if they toned down on Lara's overtly sexual being. Crystal Dynamics did just that, and had many years to hype the game to hell and back, and back again, in an endless cycle that would inevitably net in a few unbelievers in addition to long-time fans. I expected to see a fairly good game after all that hype, but I dared not expect to see perhaps the best nearly brand new third-person action game I've played in a while, not to mention the best game Square Enix has published in over a decade.


Camilla Luddington : Lara Croft
Robin Atkin Downes : Conrad Roth / Axis Scientist / Prisoner / Solarii
Cooper Thornton : Dr. James Whitman
Robert Craighead : Father Mathias
Arden Cho : Samantha Nishimura / Stephanie / Sun Queen
Andy Hoff : Alex Weiss / Crewman
Earl Baylon : Jonah Maiava
Tanya Alexander : Joslin Reyes
James Walsh : Angus Grimaldi
Vladimir Kulich : Nikolai / Solarii

Is it just me or is anyone else thinking Kate
from Lost?
Lara Croft is a young, inexperienced archaeologist out on her first expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai off the east coast of Japan. When a terrible storm tears her team's ship in half, Lara finds herself stranded on a desert island, separated from her teammates. To make things worse, the island's home to an insane cult linked to the mysterious, unearthly power that seems to violently intervene with any attempts to leave the island or even contact the outside world.

Let's take it from the top once more. I was 12 when the original Tomb Raider came out, and all my friends who had a PlayStation - no Saturns in my immediate vicinity - had a copy. Nearly all of 'em loved the game, but whenever they talked about it, they talked about Lara Croft and how visually pleasing it was to look at that bundle of polygons at the time, not how the game actually was or what the plot was like; they didn't perceive it as much more than Indiana Jones with tits. Well yes, we were 12-year old BOYS, but Lara Croft's promotion as the world's sexiest action hero was purely intentional from the developers', not to mention the publishers' side, and I felt her popularity completely overshadowed the art of gameplay. To rest my case, I tried the game, and I found it not only immensely boring, but uncomfortable to play as well. I skipped the second game altogether, and played through the tutorial sequence and a couple of levels in the third one, just to once again brand the game boring and uncomfortable, and even repetitive this time around; there really wasn't anything fundamentally different about games one and three from my point of view. By far the only difference I spotted immediately was the smoothed out shape of Lara's breasts, which I had always conceived as the most important part(s) of Tomb Raider. Not much to go on, I think.

Those anxiously waiting to plug an atomic bomb up my ass right now, read on - I think you'll like this next bit. Around this time last year, I really began considering the purchase of the whole new Tomb Raider once it came out, after watching a few promotional videos on the 'Tube for the hell of it. It seemed that everything that was ever wrong about this series was fixed, and the promotional art was simply gorgeous - all the way to the "younger, inexperienced, sensitive" new character model of Lara Croft. Yeah, sure, she was cute - not to mention bloody and dirty - but not the boob-tastic, dual-wielding superwoman with an otherworldly level of charisma. Instead, an innocent, smart but extremely naive, and athletic girl next door, caught in the worst situation of her easy-going aristocratic life. Descriptions of semi-open world gameplay, realistic physics, visceral violence, and solid storyline development gave off that maybe, just maybe, Crystal Dynamics was planning to make a real GAME this time. Then, I turned to the old games - my ex-girlfriend was always a huge fan of Tomb Raider, and she wasn't that stunned by all information that had leaked about the reboot so far. Somewhat inspired by her rants of old vs. new, I took on the first Tomb Raider game once more. Long story short: the graphics are very dated, which removes Lara's importance, and thus, the core of the game's original attraction. I still dislike it. I recognize the good ideas, I recognize the immense influence on better games of the sort which were to come, but really, it was never that good in itself. Remember what I said about you liking this? I just said that to make you feel a little bit more comfortable. Now you can whip out the a-bomb if you want. Or, you could just read what I have to say about THIS game - but remember, dealing with the old series is now done. I am going to treat Tomb Raider '13 as a completely new game, a new beginning. 'Cause that's what it is in my view - actually, it's so good that I easily tend to forget it's part of an existing franchise, not to mention one I've never liked.

Hello? I'm a young girl, all alone. Dirty,
wounded. Not too hard to look at, either. Anyone?
Crazy natives? Cult priests? Other perverts?
Tomb Raider is like a Lost spin-off, and anyone who liked that show and has a good mind for 3D action will most definitely get a whole flurry of kicks out of it. Let's see, there's a mysterious desert island, and our team of protagonists gets stranded there due to a freak accident. There's a mysterious, unnatural power surrounding the island, disabling and destroying all approaching vehicles, with its source hidden somewhere in its heart. There's a faction of previous inhabitants at work on the island, who seem to worship this power, but at the same time, they seem to fight it by different means - either way, becoming an opposing force to Lara and her crew. Yeah, it's so much like Lost. But unlike Lost with its whole group of stellar characters and constantly confusing storyline development, Tomb Raider is a simple story which mainly focuses on the character development, incredible survival and coming of age of one single character - Lara Croft.

Instead of carrying two heavy pistols like a boss right off the bat and gunning down everything and anything in her way without a moment's hesitation, celebrating a well-placed headshot with a charming punchline, this "earlier" incarnation of history's most popular video game heroine is barely comfortable with a gun - let alone killing someone. She's scared shitless for most of the game's duration, of everything and everyone, and she has good reason to, as she is forced, time and time again, to test her limits with death-defying climbs to which there is no choice if she wants to get herself and her team off Yamatai. On top, she has to deal with hundreds of cult members all alone, with minimal resources, starting with basic self defense and a flimsy makeshift hunting bow. She has to navigate ancient ruins with full, terrifying knowledge that the floor could crumble down beneath her feet at any minute, sending her to who knows what sort of grisly death. Oh, the deaths are grisly, I can tell you that much. I'm a little disappointed with how soft many of the potentially grisliest death animations actually are, but if they looked just the way I wanted them to, the game would most probably be rated X - so watching Lara crushed by a rock straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or parachuting straight into a huge, sharp tree branch, shivering in pain and desperation before drawing her last breath, or simply falling down a huge chasm and hitting a rock on the way down with a sharp sound effect to cap the deal, will have to do. And everything else that won't necessarily lead to her death... oh, believe me, you'll feel sorry for her, for all the shit she has to go through. Think of Solid Snake's mishaps in Metal Gear Solid 4, and you'll get the picture. ...Did I just compare Tomb Raider to Metal Gear? A younger version of me is scolding me right now. But it's very true - this Lara Croft is my kind of girl, and her violent and somewhat tragic character development is a treat to watch, play and experience. Camilla Luddington's (Californication) cute voice doesn't exactly make her hard on the ears, either.

There's a lot of effort put into the full-3D level design, but otherwise, Tomb Raider really isn't the finest-looking game around. It doesn't look a whole lot better than games that came out four or five years ago.  NPC models look nice enough, though, and our heroine is quite fine in the core sense of the word. The score by Jason Graves of Dead Space fame is a very functional mix of the intense and the adventureous; none too standout stuff, functional nonetheless.

The level design's pretty awesome.
Well, then. Let's put this into perspective: we have an action-adventure game, filled with epic firefights, simple controls, and a little bit of treasure hunting on the side, with a charismatic lead character, climbing to some insane heights and surviving impossible odds time and time again. Doesn't take a genius to figure out an obvious point of comparison - a little series of games called Uncharted, the last of which is Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. A game some consider to be the ultimate game in one of my favourite new franchises of the last decade. And I seriously think Tomb Raider's better than that particular game. I think it's worse to disappoint towards the end than have a slow start - that's what Uncharted 3 did in my opinion, in every context, while Tomb Raider's the other way around. It might take a few hours to grab you by the crotch, but when it does, it keeps you 'til the end.

Let's keep riding this track... when Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the first game, came out in 2007, it was a refreshing throwback to the times when controls were simple and every button on a controller that had more than two action buttons did not need to do anything, nor were there seemingly endless combinations of buttons doing something else. You just moved, climbed, and shot everyone in sight. Six years later, we've grown accustomed to slow but sure developments in the traditional action-adventure control scheme and gameplay concept that were kind of reset with Drake's Fortune. That might be one of the reasons why Tomb Raider might not stick on you on the first try - it's so simple, it's like another reset and we don't need one anymore. Then you'll realize how fun it is to move, climb and shoot everyone in sight once again. Not once will you have to deal with boring shit like Nate's hike through the desert in Uncharted 3, or some hallucination segment which has become somewhat of a predictable standard in any sort of story-driven game nowadays, and was present in Uncharted 3 as well. Tomb Raider's just a pure, exciting, action-packed journey from the beginning to the end, and as cinematic and chocked full with script as it might be, it never takes a dive or comes to such a sudden stop. You control much of the game's tempo, not the other way around. As long as it lasts to hammer the game to 100% - which isn't too long, I'm afraid - you'll have fun. The combat, both melee and long-ranged combat, is incredibly satisfying and visceral (a little more about that later), navigation gets quicker and more comfortable with each new weapon and gadget you acquire, and there are no tedious criteria standing between you and the 100% mark, like hunting down a hundred rats or something as retarded and typical as that. Just a fair amount of simple collectables, which you can hunt down on the go or wait 'til you've finished the story and fast travel to almost any place that holds missing stuff. What's best, you won't need to try your luck - every location that has stuff has got a checklist for that stuff, easily accessible via the fast travel menu. If you have a treasure map for that location, or a certain upgrade in stock, you can find almost everything by just using those as guides to your GPS. Sounds a bit too easy, and it is a bit too easy, but not everything is in plain sight.

First off, the hidden tombs to raid. There are a few of these hidden in the darkest corners of Yamatai, and they're obviously influenced by the hidden tombs in Assassin's Creed; considering how simple they are, specifically Assassin's Creed III. They're not very puzzling nor are they too lengthy, but they're fun to scavenge nonetheless to have a small break from the main path every once in a while. Then, the level-specific challenges, which require you to go on a search for level-specific items and mostly destroy them, such as distinct lanterns or cult effigies - for these items, you get no guidance from the game, which makes them the most exciting and rewarding collectables in my view. Relics are familiar to anyone who's played Uncharted. In addition, there are GPS caches, finding all of which results in a couple of cryptic messages perhaps laying down the foundations for a sequel, and interesting diaries left behind by several NPC's and unseen characters somehow related to the cult. I personally didn't spend too much time on any of these - except for the tombs - during the game, I went for most of it after I was done with the story mode, and I think there's just the right overall amount of collectables, and the ability to fast travel, to keep you from getting bored; I had fun. Especially since you can't miss anything, and the game spawns a few enemies for you to kill in areas you've already completed. Now let me tell you about that.

In this game, "stealth kill" means strangling
a dude using a bow. Clever girl...
Lara begins as a trained, but inexperienced combatant - she goes through hell in the later parts of this here trip, but in the start of the game, she's not prepared for any of it. She doesn't carry a weapon of any kind, and gets nauseated from just seeing a dead body, not to mention one she's produced herself. It actually takes a while for her to acquire just a makeshift hunting bow, which might seem pathetic against swarms of enemies armed to the teeth, but once you get the hang of using it and especially once you upgrade it, it's fucking deadly. You can upgrade your skills in three different categories at any camp, and build basic upgrades for your weapons, but to completely remodel a weapon (and fast travel), you need a more secure camp. There's usually one in each level. Upgrading guns, weapons and gear is one thing, but upgrading your own skills is another.

Stealth kills by strangling and very basic melee is unlocked from the beginning, but once Lara gets the hang of combat in the vein of up, close and personal, you can unleash all sorts of mayhem on enemies without breaking a sweat, including but certainly not limited to, tackling them and blowing their faces off with a shotgun blast. My favourite of these upgrades has got to be a counterattack where Lara sticks an arrow in one's knee (making them "Former Adventurers" like the Achievement says, hilarious since I'm fresh off Skyrim) and smacks 'em in the face with a rock. Survivor upgrades give you access to better general movement, and more and better salvage, while both the Hunter and Brawler upgrades work together to make you a better fighter from both ranges. It's all ridiculously simple considering the day and age, but none the less neat.

I'm pretty sure that's a, um... no, I'm positive
that's a burning plane. Duck and cover.
Many hardcore players will find Tomb Raider's worst flaw in its easy level of difficulty, something which I consider reasonable for a change, just because it doesn't have those tedious rat-hunting escapades to annoy, or anything of the sort. It's not any easier or harder to beat than any game of this generation, but it's extremely easy to complete to the 100% hilt, thanks to the cartography upgrade - once again, if you take it, and find all the treasure maps to boot, the level-specific challenges are the only collectables you've got to find all by yourself to make the 100% grade. Since navigation within the levels is limited after you've beaten the game, it won't be all that hard - shouldn't take you more than a day. After that, there's really nothing to do but to start all over if you're interested enough. Or go and make your own conclusions of the much-criticized multiplayer. As per usual, especially since this is the Xbox version of the game, I have nothing to say about that subject.

I've beaten around the bush for days whether to publish this review as it is, but then I thought: as popular as this franchise is, I've never hesitated to state my opinions. Yeah, I might be a bigot when it comes to old-school Tomb Raider - I might be totally wrong about it. The first game might've been great. But, I didn't like it, it's as simple as that, and I never saw any changes for the better. I still don't, but I like this one. Once again, other people might have their own opinions on whether it's any good or not, and that's fine. Tomb Raider might not turn out the game of the year considering everything that's still coming up, but it sure is Square Enix's best investment in years. (And guess what? They were disappointed in it. What the fuck is going on in that company, I wonder.)

+ The "new-old-new" Lara Croft is dashing; great character development, downtoned sexuality, and fantastic moves
+ Incredibly satisfying, visceral combat
+ Cool collectables, and a simple yet neat upgrade system
+ The developers kept an open mind for change, and good influence from games that were originally influenced by the original Tomb Raider (and turned out so much better)
+ Great, albeit a bit confusing level design - you'll get the hang of it
+ Constant cinematic, yet interactive surprises, and gnarly deaths expecting around every corner

- The graphics are not quite what I would expect from such a long-developed 2013 game
- A violent game, sure, but not quite as graphic as it was made out to be
- A little too easy to hack to the absolute hilt

< 8.9 >

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