Tomb Raider

March 28th, 2013

This was really, really good. In ways that video games often are, but also in ways they often aren’t.

I remember the first Tomb Raider coming out in – Wikipedia says 1996, would you believe – with an unprecedented marketing drive, game-changing graphics, and exploration of detailed 3d worlds like never before. Lara Croft became the definitive badass video game heroine for quite some time, I guess. But I think it’s fair to say the franchise lost freshness over many sequels and became … kinda stodgy. Uncharted then picked up the archaeological adventure baton and added snappy gameplay, cheeky characters, and stunning cinematic sequences. With this reboot Tomb Raider has snaffled that baton back, not quite getting Uncharted’s lightness of touch on the characters, but delivering big on drama and thrills, the cinematic sequences and then some, and adding a bit more exploration back into the mix. But, bottom line, it just tells a great story, and delivers a kind of emotional involvement in the action you just don’t get much in video games.

In outline it’s one of them reboot origin story prequel type-o-things we keep getting these days.  With a young and naive Lara shipwrecked with some sidekicks-r-us on a mysterious island that puts one strongly in mind of both the first Uncharted and Lost.  We then follow her progression from crapping her pants archaeology graduate to hard ass survivor as she tackles the sadistic cult that’s grown up on the island, plus older, darker powers, with thrills aplenty along the way.

To quickly cover the basics, gameplay is solid – action pretty good, climbing about and exploring pretty good, enough to find if not too much, puzzles perhaps a little on the straightforward side, but generally the whole thing works nicely with good sound and atmosphere, lots of cracking cinematic sequences and a lot of variety in the movement of the character, making her feel very real.  It’s an object lesson in pacing, with more open, explore-y sequences that reward the grey matter and give some spectacular settings alternating with more scripted, cinematic sections that really get the heart going.  Far Cry 3, say, didn’t seem to be able to marry its plot and its free-form stuff very well, but Tomb raider keeps a narrative coherence, it all feels part of the same story, with cut scenes doing what they need to without intruding. And it keeps on delivering new thrills, new ideas and new content, with plenty of skills to learn and weapons to modify.  There’s a real sense of building up to crescendoes then settling back, then back to crescendoes again. I can’t remember a game that seemed so truly cinematic. Longer than expected, as well, and with a great ending. Interest doesn’t peak early then start to wane as it often can.

There’s a bit of work to do on the secondary characters, I’d say – they pretty much all turned out to be exactly what you thought they’d be from the first moment they appeared, and the dialogue, relationships and voice-acting were nowhere near as free wheeling and appealing as in Uncharted, nor the cut scenes quite so lavish in their lighting and detail, but Lara herself was great.  I mean, she weren’t ugly, and she was extremely attached to that hardest working vest in video games, but she was reassuringly unsexified.  A solid female lead, not played for fan service, at least from where I was sitting.

It was connection with the character where it really shone. Just a great and very cunningly calibrated central narrative, as Lara goes from helpless innocent to hardened survivor. Initially she’s stumbling about coughing, shivering, horrified.  When she first gets her hands on a gun it trembles as she aims.  But steadily her skills and yours improve.  And the stakes feel high.  The action is crunching, visceral, unforgiving.  At times there’s a resident-evil like nastiness and threat about it.  Lara’s hung upside down among corpses, impales herself on spikes escaping, slides down mountains, falls out of wrecked planes, is beaten up, and gets progressively more scratched, torn, battered, bandaged and dirty.  You never fear for Nathan Drake, and though you might be wowed by the cinematics in Uncharted, I don’t know if you’re ever emotionally affected in the way you are by Tomb Raider.  You really find yourself rooting for Lara, and that sense of immersion just ups the ante on everything. When you make a long jump over a dizzying void and she just clings on by her fingertips – you feel it. When she dodges a goon’s machete and rock-axes him in the head – you feel it. When she parachutes down a mountainside and impales herself on a tree because you were too busy watching the landscape swoop past – you feel that too.

And that connection meant nothing in it really came across as cheap or schlocky.  There was a real emotional weight to the violence, a real sense of danger, pain, and impact, that stands very much at odds with the sawdust-chewing action of something like Max Payne 3.  I’ll let someone who speaks from more experience talk on that score.

So in sum, a good game, which isn’t all that rare, but an excellent piece of storytelling, which is. Very promising for the future, not just of Lara Croft, but of video games in general…

Now to Bioshock Infinite…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on March 28th, 2013.

24 comments so far

  • JamesM says:

    Yeah I loved this game as well. The change to Lara is phenomenal. Imagine if A Good Day to Die Hard was the first Die Hard, and then they made Die Hard after that. That’s the kind transformation Lara Croft made as a character here I think. She was real, she was vulnerable, relatable — and she got her arse kicked, even when the body count got ramped up.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    I liked that her arse was kicked, and that she kicked arse, in ways normally reserved for male characters, and not in the ways normally reserved for female characters.

  • JamesM says:

    And she still had a hot arse. Always a good thing.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:


  • Peter says:

    I’veread this review and watched this:
    Still unsure if it’s worth spending my pennies on.

  • MarkRG says:

    Just finished this game myself – I thought it was very good indeed, and as example of the ‘bonding’ between gamer and character. Totally agree re the puzzles, and felt a lot more could have been done to show off the scale of some of the sets, but the only time I mentally deducted a point was the 3rd time she said ‘I can do this’.

    “I hate tombs”…

  • JamesM says:

    Haha. Don’t judge me.

  • Pierre Collinot says:

    And yet Square Enix is disappointed with the sales and might try to push the developpers to make the next game “appeal to a larger public” which most of the time ends up not working sales-wise and antagonizes its fanbase. Tomb Raider was very (maybe a bit too much) cinematic but was weird for several reasons.
    My biggest grief was that “tomb raiding”, which is the name of the bloody game, felt hammered in as an afterthought, as some kind of mini-puzzles, a pause in gameplay as opposed to a core mechanic. They’re pretty much completely optional, and their reward, a huge golden chest filled with “stuff” is inane, you get random points (or/and a weapon upgrade?!) and never see what Lara is picking up (a single item from the entire chest). It feels so out of place that by the end of the game I felt little incentive to raid tombs, which is pretty sad considering the game I’m playing.

  • James says:

    Almost sounds… gritty.

    I had pretty much decided to wait for the Steam sale on this; I might reconsider.

    Bioshock Infinite is something special, I think you will enjoy it.

  • Jamie says:

    Can’t wait to play this, and read your thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. Also, if you ever loved The Legend of Zelda games, from N64 onwards, give Darksiders 2 a shot, I LOVED it and it cost less than a tenner online.

  • Jamie says:

    Ah, just saw that you’ve already given it an Abercrombie ‘ok’ – carry on 🙂

  • Zack says:

    Well said, Joe. I just hope to see a couple of the superfluous “RUN, everything is falling apart beneath your feet!” passages replaced with more wolf cave spookiness. The fact that any human enemies you could hear chattering from the next cave over thwarted the atmosphere the game could achieve at its best.

    And as for her appearance, my god, somebody get her some gloves and long sleeves. It’s a bit cold up there…

  • TheFourthHorseman says:

    Bioshock Infinite is being awesome. If Tomb Raider is a game that feels like it’s truly cinematic, I can’t imagine what you will think of Infinite. Plus in typical Ken Levine style, I hardly expect any of the characters to turn out quite as they appear.

    I played the original Tomb Raider for a bit, but the series never really did it for me. But hey, if the new one is great, maybe once I get that PS3, whenever that is.

  • Tony says:

    Would you ever review/play any MMO’s?
    Not saying World of Warcraft, since that has enough publicity as is.

    Moreso talking about the newer ones that have come out recently, and aren’t doing so great due to a few key flaws (see SW: TOR, which should have been KoTOR 3 in my personal opinion) or it just doesn’t have the attention it deserves (see The Secret World, which is a phenomenally well-made game and brings a new aspect to MMO’s)

    Thoughts if you’re still posting? 🙂

  • Allan says:

    Great review Joe completely agree with what you said. BEst game I have played this year so far. The story and emotional investment was by far its best feature. The movement controls were also very good and I found that Lara would always move how and where I wanted her to which is refreshing.
    I also read that link to Ashelia’s blog. Powerful stuff. There were some dead set wankers in the comments though!

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    My limited experience of MMOs hasn’t been particularly inspiring, if I’m honest. Make friends on the internet? Or have 12 year olds caps lock NOOB! at you for a couple of hours? I just don’t have the time to invest these days.

    Commenters on gaming blogs erode my faith in humanity considerably. And those are the ones that made it past moderation.

  • João says:

    I had much the same feelings about the game as you did with one particular exception. It felt to me as though there were far too many cases of the game taking control away from you in immersion breaking ways. Having to repeat some of the QTEs multiple times and failing AND watching Lara die horribly really annoyed me after a while. That said i did find that when the game let you do your own thing it was extremely enjoyable.

  • bobbby says:

    No Crysis 3 ?

  • Tony says:

    I see your point on why MMOs don’t attract you as a gamer, but the thing is the recent ones I mentioned don’t require you to ever group with another person. Although there is a slight advantage to doing so, and the population of the less-than-popular MMOs isn’t very big so everyone is pretty nice, for the most part.

    SW:TOR is free-to-play so trying it out couldn’t hurt. The Secret World is buy-to-play with no subscription so very understandable if you don’t look into it, although I feel it would suit your tastes.

    Thanks for the reply! Very cool of you 🙂

  • Fatherofuma says:

    Hello Joe,

    I’ve started following your blog recently (with great interest).

    Have you ever played the brilliant Deus-Ex (on PC)? It’s an old game, but the story telling is exceptional.

  • Kostika says:

    I loved Tomb Raider. Did you know it was written by Rhianna Pratchett?

  • Marc says:

    I liked it… but… I think I preferred Underworld for the environmental exploration / climbing / jumping around etc. It was a bit OTT but I liked that.

    For me, this was too action focused. The optional tombs are more what I would expect from the bulk of a tomb raider game but here they were far too brief.

    I would love someone to make a TR game that had little, to no traditional shooting action. Instead let me upgrade my exploration equipment and explore, climb, jump , dive, grab my way around some lovely environments locating tombs and solving environmental puzzles 🙂

  • Peter Davies says:

    This was the first game I felt bothered to 100% in ages. The Indiana Jones-y plot held together well, Lara was a likeable protagonist and the writing team did a great job of marrying what she said at each stage to what I as a player was feeling. All of that happened in the context of solid run, jump and shoot mechanics with a few enjoyable puzzle bits and lovely graphics.

    Enjoy Bioshock Infinite. I played that and TR back to back and after not having touched a AAA game for a while it got me interested in the medium again.

  • Peter says:

    For me this game’s true highlight was its fluid game controls and it’s solid translation into on screen action. It was so satisfying to ‘take control’ (on the PS3). Graphically this really impressed me too and, unusually for me, exploring the different areas to find various items was fun and it rewarded well. However, plot wise this game didn’t capture me at all. The secondary characters were awful – I didn’t care for any of them. This is a very solid game but, for me, it failed to create an emotional engagement or a gripping narrative.

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