Thursday, December 19, 2013

Games Review: Tomb Raider

OK, I'll start with a confession - I've never been a fan of the Tomb Raider series. In fact, in some ways I think I actively stayed away from it, wary of it after an uninspiring few sessions with one of the early games and the general presentation of Lara Croft - sexy gun-bunny in tight pants Lara - as some sort of example that games weren't all about male characters. I mean, Lara has always come across as a male wish fulfilment character, aimed and marketted at the "boobs and guns" market, she's hardly a sign of any sort of progression in gamings depictions of women. But, many people have spoken of the new Tomb Raider as something different - not just a dreaded reboot of the the series but a genuine new direction in lots of ways, so I picked it up in a Steam Sale to give it a whirl.

So its clear from the get go that the series this owes most to isn't the earlier Tomb Raider games, it's Naughty Dogs' Uncharted series, which given how much Uncharted owes to Tomb Raider, I guess that turn about is fair play. You've got a mix of cover-based shooting, some orienteering sections, cut-scenes interspersed into the game play, and a bunch of Quick Time Event based set-pieces. On top of this there is exp to be earned and spent on new abilites, and weapon upgrades both in the items you find and "scrap" you accumulate. It certainly rewards the squirrel instinct to get into every corner you can!

This is an origin story - don't groan! - so we meet Lara as a fresh faced archaeology student on a research ship, that soon finds itself stranded on a mysterious island populated by crazy cannibal cultists and mystical energies that prevent anyone leaving. Quickly separated, the early running is about survival; with her quickly becoming the games iconic weapon as well as gradually evolving into a handy tool for getting around. The main story and setup really doesn't make a whole host of sense and is largely there just to propel Lara around the island, which I'm fine with as the locations are varied and interesting, and the selling point, story wise, is Lara herself.

This is a very different version of Lara Croft than you're used to seeing. She's young, and vulnerable, and scared, but also determined, and brave and very human. There is a weird bit of dissonance as she gets to be conflicted and hurt after her first couple of kills, before moving onto merrily blasting through waves of bad guys with bonus-exp gathering combo kills as the game wears on, but she remains a really well written, interesting character, who never needs to be rescued, doesn't have a boyfriend she mopes about, or any of that other baggage that female characters tend to get  lumbered with for no good reason. She just gets on with it.

That isn't to say the game itself doesn't have some issues. The Quick Time Events are annoyingly fiddly, as are the number of sections where you slide down something and have to make left-right dodges or get skewered in an unnecessarily long and gruesome death scene. The final boss fight is OK, but from a story point-of-view slightly anticlimactic, although the final-final face off is pretty cool, even for someone cold on the traditional Tomb Raider iconography. But despite this, the shooting and climbing sections are really smoothly handled, the weapon set is well balanced and fun to use, and the game unlocks new exploring tools at a steady pace to keep getting around the environment varied. And like I say, it looks lovely, the game pausing occasionally to give you the sort of film-inspired imagery that makes you want to keep going.

So yeah, I pretty much fell for Lara Croft in the end, and lets hope they can carry on in the same, more grown-up vein.