Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Survivor is Born (Tomb Raider Review)

I grew up around Lara Croft, but I didn't grow up with Lara Croft, if that makes sense. While everyone was oogling over one of video game's first female protagonists during her debut on the Playstation, I was busy being loyal to Nintendo and a certain well-known plumber.

That being said, over the past few years, I've made it a point to see what all the hoopla is about. My first Tomb Raider game was Legend on my PS2, and then Anniversary on the same system. Legend's level layout, gameplay, and story was decent, and I especially loved the character costumes you could unlock for Lara in her mansion. Anniversary was good, but because it was a remake of one of the original Tomb Raider games, it didn't seem to bring anything new to the table that I hadn't already seen in Legend.

A few months ago, my brother began prodding me to grab a copy of the latest Tomb Raider incarnation. During the holidays, I managed to spot it at Target for only $15 brand new, but I still wasn't convinced it was a game that I wanted to add to my ever-expanding list of 2014 titles for my Xbox 360. Then, just before Christmas, I stumbled across a $10 price tag for a brand new copy of the game at I grabbed it, and I have to put this decision in the top ten best decisions I've made in my life.

Tomb Raider is Crystal Dynamic's reboot of the Lara Croft character. The story places Lara at the very
beginning of her tomb-raiding adventures, when she's a mere adventurer on the ship Endurance. The passengers aboard Endurance venture into the Dragon's Triangle to search for the lost kingdom of Yamatai. And as most video game stories go, this is where everything hits the fan. A storm wipes out the boat, and Lara and her team are tossed on an island full of cult members, mercenaries, and strange supernatural happenings. A man named Mathias is attempting to resurrect the Sun Queen, and Lara is pulled by fate to put a stop to it before he tosses the island into utter annihilation.

But unlike most video games (at least the ones I've played) the story that takes Lara from innocent, timid, inexperienced young girl to brutal, assertive, seasoned woman is one of the best and most believable that I've ever played through. What makes the story more believable is the decision by the game designers to tone down Lara's sexuality and focus more on her character. While Lara was a video game sex icon in earlier years because of her well-endowed pixels, this incarnation of Tomb Raider forms a much more serious character.

Throughout the game, Lara's friends are being abducted and killed, she's being kidnapped and nearly-molested, and through the whole experience, you cringe at the various damage Lara takes - gunshot, fractures, scrapes, falls, etc. Her character is fragile, and you feel that fragility when you play as her during most of the first half of the game. She is a victim, she is afraid, and she is scrambling to find anything she can get her hands on to survive her next encounter with any and all who would try to harm her. The game itself is gritty, with dark themes surrounding a cult and its bloodthirsty followers, lending to the game's realism and edgy tone.

What I love most about this game is that Lara's story isn't one about revenge. The people close to her get killed off or abducted, and Lara herself is beaten, shot, cut, and other things. But this isn't a story about her going on a vendetta. It's a story about her trying to do the right thing and surviving to that point. Her origin story is about turning her from victim to survivor, and a survivor who goes on to become one of video gaming's most endearing and well-known adventurers. And you truly feel that survivor theme shaping her character as you progress through the game. The writers did such a wonderful job with her story, and the game designers did an equally impressive job building a game to show off that story.

As far as gameplay elements go, Tomb Raider does exceedingly well. Throughout the game, you collect salvage from enemies and crates and can use that salvage to upgrade your weapons, and a simplistic skill-tree turns Lara from a trembling flower into a brutal opponent. For completionists, which I am, there is much in this game to appease your obsession to find every little trinket that a game has to offer. Treasure maps, GPS caches, journals telling the backstory of the island, and of course artifacts litter each section of the game. There are also ancient tombs you will stumble across, each of which offers up a satisfying puzzle to solve for even more treasure. Along with all the goodies you can grab, there are also unique challenges such as find five of this item or destroy three of that item. And you'll eventually grab a skill that allows you to see treasures and then have them marked on your map. Fast travel between camps allows you to go back to previous locations and scramble to grab everything. The system is set up to make it convenient but not overly easy to reach 100% game completion.

This game easily fits into my top five favorite games of all time. The game didn't take me too long to complete, but the experience itself more than makes up for the lack of a fifty-hour runthrough I'm used to with games like Skyrim. I will be making it a point to go back and play the game all the way through again sometime in the near future, just because I loved the experience so much.

Tomb Raider also has multiplayer, but I haven't dived into that too much yet, and I probably never will. The only negative thing I have to say about this game is that 15 of the possible 50 achievements are multiplayer based, making them an agonizing task for those of us who don't like multiplayer but want to gain all achievements in our Xbox 360 game. 

Photos - Square Enix

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