Tomb Raider came out a full two moths ago, but after finishing my $25 Steam copy I still want to throw up not really a review, but more of a lamentation at what the game ended up becoming. Generally, I just don’t like how they turned Tomb Raider into another daggum shooter.
I’ll admit right here that I didn’t start playing Tomb Raider games until the 2006 Tomb Raider: Legend, which itself was sort of a half-reboot. Maybe the classic games were something else, but for me Tomb Raider had been a reliable source of honest console adventure gaming — actual environmental puzzle-solving that required me to explore and use my brain, in a time when that sort of thing was getting too rare. Today those kinds of games have gotten even rarer, and the first few hours of the 2013 Tomb Raider only compounded the situation in my eyes by evoking pretty much every freaking popular trope in shooter game design today.
I get the reasoning behind the reboot. The character Lara Croft was still stuck with her 90’s bombastic persona and needed something more believable (that’s the one thing I can appreciate they did here), and people complained about how terrible the shooting controls were in recent games. I just think the gameplay in the end result almost completely fails to stand out in any way.
Chest-high walls? Check. Quick-Time Events? Check. Experience points for killing enemies? Check. Crafting system? Check. The game even has “challenges.” Okay so they actually figured out how to write a lot of those mechanics into the story. That still doesn’t help make the game feel any less typical. Tomb Raider is an attempt at an open-world Uncharted game.
And really, the “open-world” aspect of what I describe here is pretty much optional. The main game is mostly running from shootout to shootout. The fact that the tomb raiding — the titular activity of the game, is pushed off to the periphery, is the most troubling thing for me. Each new optional puzzle I discovered became a breath of fresh air, and I finished the game with 100 percent completion just to try to squeeze every bit of what Tomb Raider used to be out of the reboot.
Even the puzzles I did find were pretty easy. Anything else you have the option to find scattered about the game pretty much just amounts to a checklist to fill a percentage counter and earn some extra crafting components. Most everything just felt strewn about on a map.
Now this is probably just my own fantasy land thinking, but when I first heard of the prospect of an open-world Tomb Raider game, my initial thought was of some kid of mature-themed Zelda clone, or at least a good Metroidvania. I was hoping for a game that asked me to explore a mysterious world, slowly discovering obstacles and eventually discovering ways over those obstacles — an intricate world woven together by level design that asked you to investigate it the way an archeologist like Lara would a tomb. What I feel like I got was a bunch of waypoints on a map with a lot of shooting. Oh you get different tools that allow you to access more of the game world, but you’re still just waypointed to all of those, never encouraged to really explore for yourself outside of extra collectibles.
I had similar complaints against the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune back in 2007. I expected an action adventure game with a good mix of platforming, puzzles, and shooting, but what I got was a shooter with trace amounts of the other two elements. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of my top PS3 games partly because it brought back some good adventure game design but also because of impeccable shooting set pieces. The latter is another area where I feel Tomb Raider just reaches for something out of its grasp.
Firstly when it comes to set pieces I guess I should talk about the quick-time events which litter the game. People have their own opinions about QTEs. I generally don’t like them because they don’t feel like real gameplay. I would really prefer not to have any sequences that restrict my control over the character.
Maybe most people have gotten used to games where your character frequently has to walk slowly because they’re in a corridor of chest-deep water, or receiving a call, or being forced to look at something off in the distance. I for one feel taken out of the game whenever QTEs or things like this occur. I understand the attempt to create interactive events that feel intense, but I think the majority of games today that do this are evoking each other’s mistakes.
If you look at the best games that build themselves on scripted set pieces, they rarely if ever actually try to limit, change, or control what buttons the player can press. Games like Call of Duty 4, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, and Uncharted 2 pretty much always allow players full range of control, even during each game’s elaborate, incredibly scripted set pieces. They mostly try to control the environment around players and not the players themselves. That may ultimately limit what you can display, but it’s working within the boundaries of the medium of games, which I think is ultimately more effective than trying to emulate cinema.
Tomb Raider actually does have a handful of moments that follow this advice, like the airplane crash sequence or the fortress bridge collapse. They stuck out because I experienced those scenes with the exact same controls I used to play the rest of the game. If scenes like those replaced all the QTEs and forced-slow-movement sections, I feel like Tomb Raider’s scripted set pieces would’ve hit a lot harder. I guess that’s all just preference though, since I’ve heard almost no one else complain about this sort of thing (except QTEs).
As I noted above, the one thing I can appreciate about this game is what it did with Lara Croft’s character. Yes there’s still the “ludonarrative dissonance” of seeing her kill men by the dozens practically moments after freaking out about being forced to shoot one guy. Despite though, I honestly do think Tomb Raider managed some actual good character development through its cut scenes and journal entries. It’s really all too rare that game storylines, especially those of today’s mainstream games, display one of the most basic components of storytelling — a character who by the end is different from what they were at the beginning. The fact that Tomb Raider even does this already makes it above average, which is pretty sad for the AAA action game market.
Having that core component to rebooting Lara Croft however didn’t require the game to basically be a poor man’s Uncharted with collectible extras thrown all over a sandbox. When I see the inclusion of virtually every popular game design element that get’s thrown into every shooter these days (not to mention the multiplayer, which I didn’t touch), I see desperate compromises to get the game to sell copies.
Did that attempt to sell copies actually work? Not really. Tomb Raider sold something like three and a half million copies in a month, which should be excellent for that franchise, but still wasn’t enough. They had to turn Tomb Raider into another cover-based shooter in order to get it to sell more copies, and that still didn’t make it profitable. The worst part is that I don’t think game publishers are learning any lessons from this at all.