Published on March 9th, 2013 | by James Kulas
Mash F To Not Die: Tomb Raider
Being exclusively PC gamers, it feels like we’re forever gauging the quality of a port. While non-believers enquire about how many back-flips are theoretically possible or the megatonnage of the pyrotechnics, we find ourselves at the back of a musky conference hall asking a reluctant developer if the keys will be rebindable. In most cases we begrudgingly settle for a handful of graphical options and adjustable field of view, but not today my downtrodden brethren, today we have dynamically rendered hair.
A few months ago I took it upon myself to loot the ancient burial chambers of Tomb Raiders ‘Legend’ and ‘Anniversary’. I was surprised in equal parts by how enjoyable leaping about in hotpants remains, but more importantly, by how well the cerebral puzzling holds up today. It’s with that in mind I gather my equipment, and set out for the summit of Crystal Dynamics’ cinematic re-imagining.
Coming away from the heavily scripted tutorial at Eurogamer last year, my biggest concern was exactly how much control we’d be afforded. Creating a cinematic experience always sacrifices interactivity for spectacle, it’s just the nature of the choice. And so, for much of the campaign we’re careering down mountainsides and leaping toward helicopters in slow motion, walking the line between film and game.
We pick up the crew of the Endurance on an expedition to discover Yamatai, an ancient Japanese island-kingdom ruled by a fearsome shaman Queen. Amongst them, the young Ms. Croft vies for authority against the thoroughly obnoxious celebrity archaeologist, Dr. James Whitman. Voices are raised, things are said, and an almighty storm tears the ship in two.
After an enjoyable but prescriptive introduction it does open up somewhat, although like a father teaching his child to ride a bike, it’s never happy about letting go. Most of us can agree quick time events are at best inoffensive, and at worst utterly infuriating. Tomb Raider makes them as manageable as possible by setting expectations early on and sticking to them, so by the time you’re zip-lining about in cutscenes you’ll expect the prompts.
In what I can only assume is a response to the limited number of controller buttons, games have apparently begun making decisions on my behalf. Far Cry insisted it knew when I required illumination, and Tomb Raider takes this several steps further by dictating when I can walk, run, or sneak. To its credit, this is often handled pretty seamlessly, but I certainly would have appreciated the option to remove the training wheels and play the big boy’s version. Handling everything so impressively in-engine does mean transitions can be difficult to spot, and while I love the contextual interface elements which leave the screen entirely clutter-free, they don’t help that particular issue. At times it feels like an arm-wrestle for control, as the camera insists I look up at the scenery like it’s afraid I’ll miss something.
Having compared some 360 and PS3 footage, I’m feeling rather smug about my anisotropic filtering and tesselation gubbins. In real terms the difference is jarring, and it’s heartening to see a developer willing to take advantage of the hardware. Unfortunately, this “TressFX” malarkey was designed for AMD cards, so while I was able to crank everything else to eleven, enabling Lara’s “going out hair” brought my GTX 580 to it’s knees. Even with that stuff disabled the game’s a gorgeous spectacle in motion, with the added bonus that her barnet doesn’t defy gravity after each camera shift. From the specifically tailored PC options to impressive object physics, the attention to detail is admirable. Tabbing out or invoking the Steam overlay will halt the action at any time, and everything is skippable should you desire. So when my dog inevitably gets stuck behind a door and I’m forced to intervene, it’s not such a pain in the arse.
AI is generally solid too, enemies attempt to flank where possible, and scream their intentions when not. Ranged blokes will throw or shoot stuff depending how they feel, and take cover behind the abundance of chest high walls. Melee is more stimulating but often stifled by the rather cramped arenas, meaning I backed myself into a corner and ended up a Lara flavoured kebab more than once. Heavily armoured enemies offer the most challenging engagements, but are quite easily countered once you have access to the more powerful bells and whistles. For me puzzle solving exploration has always been the essence of Tomb Raiding, but with credit to Crystal Dynamics, combat certainly isn’t the chore it used to be. Stealthily eliminating guards with my bow from a treetop vantage point was a particular highlight.
Optional tombs are dotted around the landscape at regular intervals, and like Far Cry’s radio towers, conquering the puzzle will not only make you feel a bit clever, but also reveal secret artefacts on the map. Discovering one yields a curiously upbeat Antiques Roadshow style appraisal from Ms. Croft’s seemingly encyclopaedic intellect, and a decent chunk of experience. While they are a pleasant distraction, a solitary physics puzzle merely whets the appetite without ever providing a satisfying meal.
And that’s by far the most frustrating thing about this game, the tools are present to fulfil my every desire. Effortlessly beautiful in full flow, but too often obscured behind a bullying narrative. That’s not to say the story is bad, but actively discouraging hunting for collectables in favour of aiding the next helpless comrade actually compromises its own narrative. Fortunately, revisiting previous areas is fairly painless via a fast travel system, and therein lies a tantalizing glimpse of the series’ roots. It’s a strange conflict considering how journals flesh out various threads, offering insight from multiple perspectives throughout history.
Which brings me to the RPG elements every game must now contractually include. It’s worth noting that choices make very little difference in the long term, I was able to purchase every skill and upgrade every weapon. A few do have an impact, like blinding an assailant with a fist-full of dirt, or the ability to execute a devastating post-dodge counterattack, but there’s never enough depth to feel specialised. The much touted hunting and gathering plays a surprisingly minor role; since food isn’t required to survive, my only reward for murdering helpless woodland creatures was an insignificant amount of experience, and a stomach full of guilt.
Witnessing our heroine’s ceaseless punishment I couldn’t help but empathise, slamming into the ground never loses its impact and the brutal death sequences will shock all but the most jaded horror veteran. The toll visible both in Lara’s physical state as she struggles forward, and the obvious remorse in her expression. Taking a life is always regrettable, never reaching a point where conflict is anything but a last resort. By the end she’s able to scale cliffs, craft zip-lines, and blast walls with confidence. This transition from innocence to independence is delivered with impressive nuance, ensuring the final payoff is sufficiently weighty. And despite some questionable stereotypes the cast contributes positively, with the exception of our antagonist Mathias, who often comes across as a morally bankrupt comic-book villain rather than a believable victim of circumstance.
In the end, my 100% play-through took roughly sixteen hours, which felt about right. And while I absolutely enjoyed myself, there’s a palpable conflict just beneath the surface between allowing the player freedom, and guiding them through an essentially linear narrative. Tombs are an inventive way to offer more traditional gameplay, but are never more than a glimpse of possibility. Opting for mouse and keyboard was a decision I never regretted; controls are crisp and responsive, and leaping for a ledge is significantly more forgiving than previous incarnations, meaning your traversal is wonderfully fluid when uninterrupted. Assuming control of such an agile protagonist is a welcome departure from reality, just the other day I failed to circumnavigate an innocuous door handle resulting in a handsome bruise in an area unsuitable for photography.
“A survivor is born” sets the stage for the inevitable sequel, and with the expiration of current console limitations I’m hopeful Crystal Dynamics will have the confidence to let the gameplay speak for itself next time around. The fact that I bothered to scour each area obsessively to extract every possible second is a significant complement, collectables rarely capture my interest enough to bother. Overall, Tomb Raider is a worthy and extremely polished addition to the series. If you like the originals there’s enough here to recommend, providing you can tolerate being led by the nose a bit too often.