Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix, 2013)

If you're a regular visitor to this site, and you've been by lately, then you may have noticed that there have been some problems. I accidentally erased all of the images on the blog. As you can imagine, videogame reviews without screenshots aren't nearly as much fun. Needless to say, I was pretty upset, and even considered just pulling all of the reviews down and starting over from scratch. Luckily, I was able to restore most of them from a web cache, so the amount of time spent painstakingly rebuilding the review pics wasn't nearly as overwhelming as it could have been.

Starting over from scratch is never fun, but sometimes it's what must be done. Sometimes something wears out or breaks, sometimes something loses compatibility with current technology, or sometimes something simply goes out of style. In the case of videogames, sometimes a game series simply loses relevance as sequels and storylines stray too far from the original theme, and the characters can no longer be related to by new players. In these cases, trying to steer the series back on course might not be enough, and it's simply time to start over. This is exactly what Crystal Dynamics did when they rebooted Tomb Raider.

Way back in my Uncharted review, I mentioned how the original 1996 Tomb Raider came out in a time when 3rd party 3D platform adventures simply weren't really a thing. Tomb Raider set the groundwork for later games such as Super Mario 64 and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that would eventually lead to 3D platforming becoming a common sight. As the years went by, the franchise flourished, even leading to a couple of big screen adaptations, but as the sequels kept coming, the stories had to keep outdoing earlier releases, until it eventually got a little too out there for new players to relate to. It was time to take a different approach.

Despite the naming confusion, Tomb Raider is not a remake of the original game, 2007's Tomb Raider: Anniversary took care of that. No, this is a prequel. This is the story of how Lara became the globetrotting adventure seeker we all know. This means that the game starts off with a much different Lara Croft than I expected. She's not confident, she's not bold, she's not out to save the world and defeat her enemies in the pursuit of ancient treasures. She's simply scared. She's a weak fragile creature thrust into an unfortunate situation and she's doing her best to survive, and save her friends if she can.

As would be expected, this creates a much darker story than the franchise had seen in the past. Even 2008's Tomb Raider: Underworld, my personal favorite of the series, with it's intentionally darker feel still feels like a light hearted romp compared to this game. Because Lara is presented as weak and inexperienced, the danger is more emotional, and this emotional fear is much more infectious than the more comic book style threats of earlier releases.

Another effect of Lara's novice status is her lack of starter items. I'm used to a well equipped and always prepared Lara Croft starting her mission with at least her twin pistols and a few electronic gizmos. This time you're forced to piece together whatever you can find as you make your way to safety. One of the early weapons is a primitive bow and arrow that is actually a lot of fun to use. Throughout the game, better weapons are acquired and upgraded, but archery remains a strong part of your combat technique throughout. Hopefully this trend will continue in the series.

I've spent most of this review explaining what makes this game so different from previous Tomb Raider titles, but I don't want to scare off fans of the earlier games. It's true that at the beginning of the game, it truly feels like a different franchise, but a funny thing happens the longer you play it. As with most modern action games, new skills and powerups are unlocked throughout your adventure, and the play style starts to shift as new techniques are utilized to deal with more challenging situations. There was a steady subtle shift in the gameplay style during this game. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I distinctly remember somewhere towards the end of the game realizing how much it felt like a Tomb Raider game. They managed to pull it off so brilliantly that it simply snuck up on me. I was climbing walls, jumping, flipping, and solving mind boggling puzzles in a way that by then felt so much more real than similar puzzles ever did in previous games.

Now that they've managed to turn this scared fragile girl into the powerful and capable Lara Croft we all know, where will they go next? Will the stories start to merge into the styles of the existing world? Will they forge this into an entirely new spin-off timeline as happened with the new Star Trek movies? It's still anybody's guess right now, but hopefully the series will continue to be successful for years to come and we'll get to know this new world Crystal Dynamics has created even more.

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