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A Tomb Worth Raiding

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    Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    A Tomb Worth Raiding

    Although gaming has been eating up my free time for the better part of two decades now, there are some iconic series I simply have never gotten around to playing. Tomb Raider is one of the series that seemed to have a new release roughly other week for a while there, and yet I never got around to playing any of the eighteen dozen or so titles that had found their way to PlayStation, Xbox, zoetrope, and whatever other platform the developers could find. I knew the game stared someone named Lara Croft, and that she had weird, enormous extra pointy breasts that would scratch your cornea if you stared at them long enough. Beyond that, I didn’t know much else about the series. She probably raided tombs, if I had to guess. Luckily for me, the series ran into the wall known as ¡°our last six or so games weren’t that great¡± and they decided to reboot the franchise with a brand new origin story for Lara. Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition serves as a great starting point for anyone like me that missed out on the fun for so long. The whole reboot makes it so people new to the series won’t be lost, and long term fans will probably be happy to just get another game. Better yet, it is genuinely fun, and those that have been missing out so far aren’t going to want to miss out on this one.

    Most games like to start you off slow. Introduce you to the characters, the central conflict, those sort of things before really getting into the meat of the story. Not Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider gives you approximately three seconds after booting up the game before drop kicking you in the face and stealing your shoes while you’re trying to get back on your feet. Lara is on a ship for all of ten seconds before it goes full Titanic, fills with water, and sinks with all the determination of a suicidal boulder. Lara and the entire crew of the S.S. Bottom of the Ocean wind up on a mysterious island, which at least is fortunately the very same mysterious island they happened to be looking for. This island has had a nasty habit of eating any ships that are unlucky enough to come near it, sort of like the Bermuda triangle but angrier and filled with weird Russian mercenaries that formed their own cult. Now Lara must try and find a way off the island without becoming a victim of the island, the cultists, or her penchant for falling down and landing on every single sharp object in a one-mile radius.

    The story here is a decent amount of fun, mixing realism with the supernatural and fantastical and doing so in a way that doesn’t seem overly goofy. A lot of games like this will be grounded in reality and then start foaming at the mouth fly off into something supernatural seemingly at random, but Tomb Raider does a good job easing its way into it so it doesn’t feel like they switched writers halfway through. There are hints from the beginning that something is kind of strange on the island, and the game does a good job slowly revealing what is happening and all the little secrets of this mysterious little island as the story unfolds. Overall, this is just a fun adventure tale where it actually feels like Lara is authentic adventurer and not some action hero pretending at it. While this might not be the most original of concepts, as ¡°archeologist/adventurer finds artifact/location that is half historical and half crazy face melting magic¡± is something used far more frequently that ¡°adventurer finds ancient artifact and takes it safely back to a museum so eight graders can gawk at it¡±, this is still a fun execution of that well worn concept.

    The overarching plot is entertaining enough, but what elevates it into something more memorable is the assortment of breath taking, action filled, ¡°OH MY GOSH DID YOU JUST SEE THAT¡± kind of scenes the game likes to throw in your face every once in a while to make sure you’re still breathing. It doesn’t quite reach the levels of something like the Uncharted series, but the cinematography here ranks up there with some of the best on the PS4. Lara will maneuver her way through raging rapids, scamper through burning buildings, and fight her way through a cargo ship that is literally being shot down off the pulleys that is holding it aloft. These scenes are fantastic to observe, and the game actually manages to integrate some gameplay into most of these scenes so you aren’t just watching the action unfold. They are placed almost perfectly throughout the game, giving you time to explore and shoot up an entire army of baddies in between so it never really feels like they’re taking you out of the game. The cinematography is fantastic and pacing of the action is almost perfect, and Tomb Raider is honestly a better experience than most action movies released in theaters.

    Unfortunately for Lara, the game seems to hate her because it takes pleasure in killing her in the most brutal ways possible. She must’ve stolen its lunch or accidentally ran over its dog or something, because I’ve seen sledgehammers with more sympathy for its victims than this game has for Lara. The game can be unflinchingly brutal at times. A lot of time if you die in games like this, oh no, your body ragdolls and falls over and how sad. This game flips off games like that, running over your corpse to dig out its eyes and eat it in front of you just in case you had any misconceptions about what just happened. Lara will take arrows through the throat, have her body smashed against rocks, and even get crushed by a boulder at various points in the game if your reflexes are found lacking. It is another thing that adds to the authenticity of the title, really serving to emphasize just how real the danger is that Lara if facing. There is just something so visceral about seeing a character’s death being so violent like this that makes the adventure even more compelling. All of this adds up over time, to where it feels like Lara is actually in an adventure, and not just pretending to be in a Hollywood reenactment of one like so many other games.

    And there are plenty of opportunities for bad things to happen to Lara. Tomb Raider is an adventure game and there is plenty of adventuring here to take part in. What is interesting about the gamepaly is there doesn’t seem to be one single feature to define it by. Sometimes you’re shooting bad guys, sometimes you’re exploring for collectibles, other times you solving puzzles in tombs, and other times you’re just staring at Lara trying to figure out how she’s still standing when she’s taken more of a beating than most crash test dummies. It dabbles a lot, and some people might think the game feels somewhat unfocused because of it. However, everything the game does it does well, and this lack of a singular focus prevents the game from ever feeling too redundant or played out. Getting tired of shooting? Fine, go wander around and explore for a while. Tired of exploring? Here’s a tomb and a puzzle to solve, have fun. Don’t want to do any of that? Here are a series of explosions and a burning building you need to escape from, if you’re still bored please consult your doctor because you appear to be suffering from some sort of adrenaline disorder. There are so many different ideas here, and what is remarkable is that almost all of them work and work well.

    The biggest chunk of the gameplay is dedicated to exploration. Tomb Raider does an amazing job making this feel like an actual adventure. The entire game takes place on a single island, and over time that island becomes a character in and of itself. It’s worth taking time to explore all its nooks and crannies, because the island has plenty of secrets it’s hiding. Lara has artifacts to find, documents to uncover, and even secret tombs and objectives to locate. It all leads into this feeling that you are actually doing some exploring, and the map design certainly helps in this regard. The environments may not be huge, but they are this almost perfect size that allows for exploration but never makes it feel too overbearing. You aren’t going to get lost in these woods, but you will find all sorts of extra goodies if you set out and look for them. There is plenty of combat here, but unlike the Uncharted series this feels more like an adventure title first and shooter second. None of these little goodies are necessary and you can skip right by every single one if you want, but if you do you’re going to miss out on a big chunk of then fun.

    The collectibles are divided up into several different categories. There are journals laying around everywhere that gives more insight into the history of the island or the people you encounter, because everyone knows that if there is one thing you do when stuck on a magic murder island, it is extensively document your innermost thoughts and feelings. These are always nice as they add new wrinkles to the characters or the backstory of the island, and it is worth tracking them all down just to get a full appreciation of the story. Then there are artifacts which add a little more context to the kinds of people that have been getting stuck on the island and give Lara a chance to show off her archeologist chops. Lara actually comments on artifacts as she finds them, giving you interesting backstory about each of these archeological finds. It actually helps round her out better as a character compared to someone very similar in Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. He might make some stupid quip, but Lara actually seems like a real budding archeologist. The writing for her is much better, so she actually feels like she knows what she’s doing out there instead of just playing at it.

    Then there are the GPS caches, which are the hardest to find and far and away the most pointless. I collected every single one and out side of one extra note and satiating my rabid completionist tendencies, I’m not entirely sure what purpose they were supposed to serve. Additionally, each level also tends to have a unique set of collectibles. You may need to burn a certain number of flags, destroy a certain number of mines, or defile a certain number of graves because Lara just can’t be happy unless she desecrating a cemetery. These are also the only things that don’t show up on the map after finding the area’s treasure map, meaning they are often more difficult to find than the other goodies in a level. I don’t know how long I spent tracking every last thing down, but the very solid level designs never made it feel like a chore. It gives you a lot to do and a reason to explore, and the levels are almost perfectly designed to this sort of scavenger hunt. The treasure map and a skill Lara learns later on that detects items when items are nearby does make these things a little too easy to track down, and the rewards you get for finding everything in the game can be fairly marginal. Still, overall the collectibles are very well designed and fit very well with the theme and style of the game.

    Beyond the collectibles themselves, most of the larger areas have a secret tomb that Lara can dig around for more goodies. The tombs usually have some puzzle to solve in order to get to the rewards, and the puzzles are actually fairly decent in comparison to other similar titles. We’re not talking about Professor Layton levels of puzzle design, obviously, but then again maybe I should be happy each treasure isn’t locked by a sliding block puzzle because I’ve seen all the sliding blocks I can handle in my entire life. Still, there are a decent number here where you actually have to sit around and think for a moment, and one or two I was genuinely impressed by. It’s a good level of puzzle difficulty for the game, and adds another facet of gameplay to further diversify the action. The rewards are usually worth it too, giving you both material to upgrade your weapons and a treasure map to help find some of the other goodies.

    And, of course, on top of the exploration, puzzle solving, and trinket gathering, there are plenty of enemies with nice, big, oblivious heads to put bullets in. Things are perhaps a bit more minimalistic in comparison to most other modern shooters, and while most games will give you a ton of guns and let you figure out what you want to shoot with, Tomb Raider provides you with a more meager four. It makes sense within the context of the game, and honestly I probably would’ve been confused if the deserted island we’re trapped on also had its own armory. It was a former military base at one point back in World War II, so we are equipped with just the basics. There is a shotgun, machine gun, handgun, and bow and arrow if you want to get very basic with things. On top of that there are portions where stealth takes precedence and Lara needs to sneak around, picking off enemies with close range melee attacks or using the silent bow and arrow to snipe enemies to avoid getting caught. Of course, you can drink a can of pure adrenaline and run in with an airhorn and your favorite gun and just start shooting things if that is more your style, and there aren’t any segments here where stealth is absolutely required.

    While the shooting and combat is somewhat basic overall, the execution here is excellent and the enemy encounters are very well designed. The game is great at mixing up the pacing and making each encounter feel slightly different than the one before it. One might put you in close quarters with enemies closing in on you, making the shotgun the weapon of choice for optimal blasting, while another might have enemies ziplining in from above while you fire away at them with your machine gun. Stealth segments are fairly well executed as well, with enemies courageously turning their back towards you and loudly proclaiming how much they like their necks unbroken. It can muddle the message sometimes, and the first time Lara kills an enemy she has a mild panic attack and it’s a pretty cool moment. Then she mows through another three hundred in the next ten minutes or so, drinking up their blood as she goes along, and you start to wonder if Lara might have been a budding serial killer all along. That minor quibble aside though, the combat here is great, featuring solid mechanics, well crafted encounters, and plenty of adrenaline pumping action.

    It’s also possible to upgrade Lara or any of her weapons as you go from na?ve, starry eyed adventurer to person that can shoot an arrow through a person’s eye at 200 ft. Weapons are upgraded through little scraps of stuff you find all throughout the island. Enemy bodies can be looted for them, various boxes positioned all over the place carry them, and you get a big chunk whenever you complete a tomb. The weapon upgrade system is fairly basic but it works well enough and does a nice job motivating you to pick up all the little goodies that are all over the place. Similarly, Lara gets experience that can be used to upgrade certain skills and make her a better adventurer and murderer. You get experience for¡­well, everything basically. Kill and enemy, find a thing, or sometimes you get a boost seemingly at random. I didn’t always know why I was getting experience, and the game takes the rich divorced parent approach to things by just showering you with experience whenever you smile at them. You can cash the experience in to gain extra skills, like close combat executions or the ability to see any of the collectibles when they’re nearby, and there is a nice ramp up as Lara learns more skills. A good chunk are fairly useless, but there are enough here that upgrading Lara or her weapons feels fairly rewarding.

    While by and large I thoroughly enjoyed Tomb Raider, there are a couple of notable issues. The first of which is that the AI in the game isn’t fantastic. I’m not saying it is bad, as there were times where it was putting up a fight for sure, but there were other times it just threw a bucket over its head and ran neck first towards my bullets. At one part I was getting pinned down and was hiding around the corner to recover health. Then, one by one, about seven soldiers slowly walked around the corner so I could blast them with my shotgun. You would think after the first five or so, maybe the sixth or seventh guy would think twice before climbing over the massive pile of bodies to see what was hiding around the corner, but no, maybe those last five shotguns blasts they heard were all coincidence. There are other times where they seem a bit slow on the draw, pausing and staring at you for a couple of seconds in case you didn’t have a good aim at their head already, and even on the hardest difficulty I found myself wishing for more of a challenge at times. Again, this isn’t even a major complaint, and it was more something ¡°pretty good¡± that the game still could’ve done better.

    Additionally, they could not have assembled a more boring supporting cast if they tried. I really liked Lara, and the main villain here is a fun enough foe, but everyone else could’ve been replaced with volleyballs with faces drawn on them and I would’ve felt the same level of emotional connection. There comes a point where the game starts getting an itchy trigger figure and it becomes a question of who else on the ship that arrived with Lara is going to be able to leave in something other than a body bag, and I found myself rooting for ¡°none of the above¡±. They simply aren’t given enough time to develop, which by itself is fine because this is Lara’s story clearly and the focus is rightly on her. Still, when the game tries to pull on our heartstrings by making something bad happen to them, it falls flat because they didn’t spend anytime characterizing them as anything other than ¡°disposable sacrificial lamb #3¡±. The story is still good, and Lara is a great protagonist, but it would’ve been better if she wasn’t dragging around a cast of old socks filled with Ambien.

    One final area of disappointment is the multiplayer. Again, it isn’t that it is bad because it is certainly playable and I had a decent time with it for a couple of weeks. It just feels sort of like the cookie-cuter multiplayer that comes with a lot of these sorts of games, and doesn’t really stand out as something most people are going to commit to long term. It comes with all the predictable modes that are always in multiplayer shooters. Team death match, free for all, capture the territory, and go out and bring things from one place to another. They’re all here. And they’re ¡°fine¡±. But that’s all they are. The single player campaign is beautifully designed with great environments and creative and very fun and all those good things. There is this originality and uniqueness to it that permeates the entire game. And then you get to the multiplayer and it feels like the cookie cutter formula we’ve all seen in dozens of other adventure games and it is just a little disappointing.

    There are some positive elements to the multiplayer. The maps are fairly well designed, doing a good job emphasizing direct combat or sneaky sniping, so any playstyle can fit just about any map. Levels are multi-tiered typically, with ropes tied to various points allowing for a quick descent. Once you get a hang of the maps, you can usually get a good feel for what are good spots to go to and which are best avoided, and overall the maps here are fairly solid if a bit small. Teams are divided up between the heroes and the crazy island cultists, leading to some interesting differences between the teams. They each have access to their own different group of weapons, all of which can be upgraded with certain perks as you level up. The slight differences make things interesting and give each team a unique playstyle. For example, the Solarii have access to rope ascenders that allow them to quickly move up ropes and fake ammo kits that explode when people get close. Conversely, the heroes have a grenade launcher and Lara Croft. It does seem like the Solarii have an overall advantage here, but the solid mechanics, decent levels, and interesting differences between the teams leads to some solid fun in short doses.

    Unfortunately, there are too many issues that jump up and get in the way of the fun. First of all, the servers are all apparently powered by hamsters in wheels, and I think about half of them died whenever I tried to play a game. About half the time I’d get kicked between rounds, which is particularly frustrating because you always get a nice big bunch of XP just for finishing the full match. Other times people would glitch out and stop taking damage, and one time I saw someone get stuck in the floor. It isn’t even like a lot of people are playing the game at the moment, and apparently the twenty or so people trying to play a game were too much for the servers here. There is a weird balance here where the online portion is mostly dead and still doesn’t work right, and I’d hate to see what happened when this was at the height of its popularity because I’m pretty sure I would’ve been able to see the severs explode from my house.

    Also, matchmaking is kind of a mess, in so much that they seem to determine teams by just throwing all the best people on one side and giving the rest of the players the middle finger and a blindfold. After I found my groove, I routinely found myself on teams where we absolutely buried the opponents, and the multiplayer just isn’t fun when they can’t make the two sides even. They also have a bad habit of spawning the team in the same location every single time, meaning that once one team gets the upper hand they can pin them down in the starting location and just let things really get out of hand. Thus, while the core system here is fairly good and I could’ve seen myself having some fun with it, it is fairly unoriginal and filled with enough minor issues to make things a slog to get through. I would up playing just long enough to get the multiplayer trophies, and there is a good chance I would have quit long before that if I wasn’t such a completionist.

    Again, it is hard for me to compare this title to past entrants in the series as I never played them, but I still feel like I can feel justified in saying this is probably the best one. It is just such a solid experience from top to bottom that it is hard for me to imagine any of the older titles being substantially better than this. The gameplay is exhilarating and varied, the combat is slick and enjoyable, the atmosphere is amazing and oppressive all at the same time. There is very little to criticize here, and what the game does poorly is so minor that it is barely worth mentioning. I do not know for sure what happened to the series for it to need a reboot, but Tomb Raider is about a perfect a reboot as one can hope for. Tomb Raider is one of the most complete adventure titles I’ve ever played, and comes thoroughly recommended both long time fans and newcomers alike. A game this good actually makes me want to go back and check some of the earlier titles in the series, because if they are half as good as this I have really been missing out on something great.

    Tomb of Tutankhamum (THE GOOD):
    +The story is a fun mix of brutal realism and supernatural elements that are blended together nicely
    +Some excellent scripted sequences with amazing action
    +Great emphasis on exploration that works very well
    +Really well designed areas makes digging around for all the extra goodies actually enjoyable
    +Really impressive mix of gameplay elements that all work very well on their own, and combine for something truly memorable
    +Tombs actually employ some halfway decent puzzles
    +Shooting and upgrading mechanics are both well implemented in the gameplay
    +Very nice diversity in combat making most encounters feel different from each other

    Tomb of That One Guy That Invented The Toaster Strudel (THE BAD):
    -The A.I. can be kind of dumb at times, seemingly pausing specifically to give you a big ol’ target of their head even at the highest difficulty
    -Egregiously bad cast of characters where just about everyone besides Lara and the main villain could be replaced with balloons with faces drawn on them and no one would notice
    -Utterly forgettable multiplayer that very much feels like it was tacked on
    -Servers are a complete mess and you’ll get randomly kicked out roughly half of the time

    Al Capone’s Vault (THE UGLY): ¡°I hate tombs,¡± Lara exclaims as she wanders into one. A little obvious, don’t you think, Tomb Raider? I half expected Lara to wink at the camera and the laugh track to start up. It would be like if in the newest Mario game, Mario said he hated stomping Goombas or if in the newest Call of Duty that the main character said they hated racist 12 year olds shrieking at people online. You best get to liking tombs, Lara. I have the feeling you’re going to be raiding some for basically all of your digital life.

    THE VERDICT: 8.75/10.00

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