Video Game Review: Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action-Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Release Date: March 5, 2013

One of my biggest pet peeves in gaming is when a game scatters dozens, sometimes hundreds, of collectibles throughout the environment in an effort to boost replay value. The Grand Theft Auto series, in particular, is notorious for this, but this is a common practice in open world games. I usually don’t bother to go back through and find these random trinkets, but I made an exception for this year’s Tomb Raider reboot.

You see, in Tomb Raider, it’s actually *fun* to explore the world it presents. A novel concept, right?

In this reboot, a young Lara Croft and a team of archaelogists/adventurers have embarked on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, an island off the coast of Japan. Little is known about the island, other than that it causes death and destruction for those who near it. Sure enough, upon arriving to the area, the crew’s ship crashes in the midst of a violent storm, and the group becomes stranded on the island.

As one might guess, it turns out that they aren’t alone on Yamatai. A violent cult of “Sun Queen” worshippers inhabits the island, and they don’t take kindly to visitors. As Lara navigates through the island in an attempt to find a way off of it, the cult members are there nearly every step of the way. They are a huge problem at first — especially since young Lara has never encountered such violence at this point of her life — but by the end, they become nothing more than mere nuisances.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The evolution of Lara Croft from an ambitious archaeology graduate to cold-blooded adventurer is marvelous, and quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest reasons to play this game. Not only is her transition to a hardened explorer believable, she also looks anatomically correct for once. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job developing Miss Croft, humanizing her while showing the immense suffering she receives along the way.

The other major player in the game is the island of Yamatai itself. This is a gorgeous island full of wild life (including boars, wolves and rabbits, all of which can be hunted), and there is so much of it ready to be explored. The island is incredibly well-designed, as anyone with a sense of adventure will surely be curious enough to climb the various ledges in hopes of seeing where they lead. While the story is a fairly straight-forward affair, there are plenty of opportunities to traverse the wide-open world in order to find relics, documents and other historical items scattered about. Hell, I found myself visiting every nook and cranny of the island just for the beautiful views they might provide. Seriously, this is one gorgeous-looking game, easily one of the best from this console generation.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

As this is a tale of survival, much of the gameplay revolves around Lara doing what she needs to do to survive and get off the island. A convenient XP system allows her to “level up” by killing enemies, hunting animals and finding treasure. These experience points are in turn used to improve her current capabilities, such as adding a rope gadget to her bow, or adding extra ammunition for her guns. What’s great about this feature is that every improvement is shown on screen. If you add the rope gadget, for example, it will appear on top of the bow and remain visible while harnessed on Lara’s backside. This attention to detail is very impressive, and it only adds to the sense of realism within her character.

Also on the island are a handful of optional tombs that can be explored, and each one presents an interesting little puzzle. Some of them are real head-scratchers, but the reward at the end is always worth the trouble. Each tomb has its own chest full of goodies to help Lara, often including treasure maps that show locations of collectibles in the area.

Miss Croft also has the unique ability to use her “survival instinct” — with the quick press of a button, the environment turns gray, and any items of interest are highlighted in yellow. This is similar to Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham games or the Eagle Eye vision in Assassin’s Creed, and it comes in handy quite often. At times, it perhaps makes things too easy, but it can be avoided altogether for those who want a bigger challenge.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The single player campaign lasts anywhere from 10-15 hours, and it plays out much like an Indiana Jones movie. There are several big adventure scenes that will leave you breathless, but at the same time, there’s nothing “new” here in terms of storytelling or action setpieces. If you have played any of the Uncharted games, you will know what to expect, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tomb Raider also features a multiplayer mode, but it is merely tacked-on and mostly irrelevant. The online features were dead on arrival, as the community has dwindled rapidly, making it difficult to find matches less than a month after its release. I played online for a couple hours, enough to get a feel for the three different modes, but it did not leave a lasting impression. This has always been a series to play for the single player campaign, and this reboot is no different.

While it’s still quite early, Tomb Raider stands as one of this year’s biggest gaming highlights so far. As far as adventure games go, this is one of the better ones, and it also happens to be a technical marvel. This series received a much-needed breath of fresh air with this reboot, and I’m curious to see where Lara Croft goes next.

8.5/10

Full Game Trials: Red Faction: Guerrilla and Tomb Raider Underworld

One of my favorite perks for being a Playstation Plus member is the access to a good-sized library of full game trials. While Sony mostly puts older titles out there, there have been several that I missed out on over the years. I thought it would be fun to take a look at two older games and see what I think of them in their first hour of gameplay.

Red Faction: Guerrilla
Red Faction: Guerrilla (available on PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
I have been interested in this third person adventure game for a while now, so I was happy that Playstation Plus added it to their full game trial collection. Its story is pretty generic — your brother is part of a rebel faction, he gets killed, you join their forces — but it’s enjoyable enough fighting for what you feel is the right cause.

I had a blast destroying the game’s environment, which is actually a huge part of the gameplay. The initial weapon of choice, a sledgehammer, is great for bashing everything to bits. Got a pipe in the way? Smash it up and move along. Throwing grenades onto enemy buildings, detonating and watching the structures crumble is a lot of fun. Campaign missions are fairly basic, but I had fun causing mayhem regardless.

Would I keep playing? Yeah, I think I would. The in-game destruction physics are great, and I dug the game’s Mars-like setting. I’ll keep an eye out for it in the bargain bin.

Tomb Raider: Underworld
Tomb Raider: Underworld (available on PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
I haven’t played a Tomb Raider game in years, and I didn’t particularly like them back then. I thought it would be interesting to see if the games have improved at all over the years.

Underworld throws you right into the action, providing a tutorial as you push forward through a burning building. Right off the bat I noticed issues with the controls. Something feels off with them, and the camera has a tendency to swing around involuntarily. After being transported to a boat, I found it quite comical that Lara Croft (the main character, as usual) couldn’t actually do anything on board. When I tried to get to the steering wheel, she put her hands up and pushed back as if she hit an invisible wall. Right.

The gameplay consists of platforming and exploration, neither of which are executed very well. The platforming is a bit sloppy, and it caused me to plummet to my death several times in a short span. The exploration isn’t particularly enthralling either since the game’s graphics aren’t anything special. An early enemy — the kraken — looked cool, but the game certainly shows its age. Also, how the hell can Lara pick up so many pieces of treasure and stuff them in her backpack? Ridiculous.

Would I keep playing? No. It’s hard to go back to a mediocre platformer after playing through the Uncharted games, both of which do everything so much better. It’s probably time for Ms. Croft to hang up her boots.