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Home bullet Games bullet Looks, Not Brains

Looks, Not Brains by FullAuto Written on 23rd March 2013

What is Tomb Raider good for other than giving idiots reason to make stupid comments about rape? Well, the story's by an actual writer, Rihanna Pratchett. So, there's that. And the game looks really nice, and the audio is excellent. The controls are responsive. But wait. What's this? Oh, Crystal Dynamics, no. What have you done.

The first victim of the game's design is the story. Lara, well-written for a change, is unused to killing, and so reacts with horror when people die, and sadness when she has to kill to eat. This effect is utterly demolished in the first part of the game, when you are let loose with a bow and arrow in an area filled with gambolling deer. You don't need to kill them to survive (there are, in fact, no 'survival' aspects to the gameplay. At all.) but you do get XP. Cue slaughter. And so it goes, as you enter every new area filled with animals, your bowstring twangs so fast it sounds like a strummed guitar, corpses are strewn about, and you farm them. Likewise, killing enemies is de rigeur, and soon you're unlocking finishing moves to kill them ever more viciously, but not before collecting the usual arsenal of weapons to speed up the murder. So, the dark god Narrative Dissonance once again lays waste to all those who do not bother to put in any effort, and any characterisation created by the writing is dissipated. The small forgettable cast of supporting characters is pure background to Lara as she robs sites of historic interest, combats a group of evil killers lead by a nutter, and takes on a supernatural threat. It's like an Uncharted checklist.
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"Joke about periods again, motherfucker, I dare you!"

Take heart though, because Tomb Raider also happens to be one of the most patronising games I've played. It's not sufficient that far too much shows up on your map, or even that you can get everything to show up on your map, or even that you can unlock perks that make absolutely everything show up ever, you also have the Animal Instinct skill that turns the world in monochrome except for things of interest. But wait, there's more. Should you ever manage to come across certain cave entrances, you'll hear a little chime, which signifies that there is a secret tomb nearby. Because everyone who plays this game is a retard, however, Crystal Dynamics thoughtfully included some text that pops up on screen and tells you (or whoever is supervising you can read it to you) “Secret tomb nearby.” This one thing epitomises the design mentality behind the game. You've kept it a secret for a long time, but you really are fucking stupid. Just as thick as shit, and Crystal Dynamics has found you out. Hence button prompts for just about every action, every time. With the difficulty sanded down, any rough edges smoothed away, and any sense of exploration planed flat, Tomb Raider presents you with something inoffensive, glossy, solidly-made, and stolidly unexciting.

The music is fantastic. Coming from Jason Graves who you may know from Dead Space, among others, it's perfectly judged, atmospheric, and varied. Whatever's going on, the music suits it perfectly, and it's usually so well done you don't notice it, it's seamlessly integrated with what's happening on screen. The voice work is of a good standard, albeit Lara is prone to stating the glaringly obvious during gameplay. For the most part, sound effects are high quality, there's even some divergence from how things commonly sound, particularly gunshots, but the bow is a disappointment. And not just in the area of audio.
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"One of us isn't going to survive this, and I'm the protagonist, so fuck you, old man."

Here's a free game design tip: If you're going to make one weapon the mainstay of the protagonist's arsenal, if it's going to be the one they use most, not just as a weapon but also as a tool, if it's going to be the only weapon they have left when they reach the “get captured and lose all the guns you've collected” point (yes, games are still doing this, in 2013), that weapon had better be bloody good fun to use. The bow is not. It lacks audible, physical and visual feedback, it feels light and throwaway, it has a flat trajectory so aiming it is no different than using the guns, and ammunition for it is so plentiful you can just piss away arrows as you like. The game needs something to distinguish it from other third-person shooters (not least Uncharted, from which it steals an awful lot) and the bow could have been it. With a harder vibration upon firing and a deeper, more solid sound upon hitting a target, the bow could have been satisfying to shoot. With an actual curve to the trajectory, it would have taken a measure of skill to use. With a tightly limited amount of arrows, the player would be forced to pick their shots carefully, and retrieve arrows from bodies after every fight. But instead, it's just another weapon.

Lara has a pleasing sense of momentum, akin to acrobatics-heavy titles like Assassin's Creed, in that she has weight but still feels agile, a mass that is quite capable of producing a genuine feeling of movement. What a shame then, that Crystal Dynamics have stolen the Uncharted “press X to win” system of platforming, right down to the colour-highlighted ledges. For certain longer jumps, the game cheats, with Lara's jump falling short and the platform miraculously 'sucking' her the last few feet. It's not even subtly done. Again, you don't need good judgement, skill, or hand-eye co-ordination, you can just head for the edge, jump, and make it. This robs you of satisfaction and the chance to develop your eye for whether a jump is possible or not. Another area of the game where the enjoyment has been sucked out, homogenised, and replaced with a kind of tasteless cardboard substitute.

Combat is Unchartedy too, featuring plenty of cover shooting. It's actually fairly well done, with Lara automatically leaning to take advantage of corners, changing the bow's orientation to avoid catching it on the floor, and the ability to swap the camera from right to left shoulder offers thoughtful versatility. Yet the enemies are only ever present in limited numbers, resulting in either a short succession of stealth kills or a too-brief shootout, or a set-piece firefight where you mow down a lot of them. Stealth isn't really an option even when it should be, thanks to how erratic it is, and there are no non-lethal methods available, making murderisation your only really option to progress. Run and gun isn't possible, so in the bigger areas the fights lose some of the knockabout energy they could have inherited from Uncharted. Without much in the way of melee, the gunfighting combined with dodges and counters is a slightly uncomfortable mix. Don't worry about any timing issues, either, as every time you attempt a counter you get a nice jolt of cinematic slow motion, which makes everything awesome. And insultingly easy.
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Lara didn't appreciate the patriarchy's efforts at inclusive female signage.

The XP system is a painful sore thumb, even setting aside the brutal counters and finishing moves. It encourages you to massacre animals and enemies to buy more perks. Aside from the boring repetition of plundering a boar's arse (sorry), this nullifies exactly the sort of character development the story provides us with. Regular XP is given for progressing through the story. That is, not carrying out specific actions, but merely travelling along the linear path that you have to travel along anyway. It's a little bizarre.

Exploring isn't really a thing either. Your map shows too much, and its ambition of being ommniscient is easily realisable, disposing of any sense of mystery. The environments are roomy, but the game is very linear, so wandering doesn't get you anywhere. The connecting paths between areas are sometimes permanently blocked off by certain story events as you play through them, and this reduces travelling to finding a camp and fast travelling to that area, killing immersion. There are hints of Metroidvania-style gameplay. You come across an ice axe and can use it to climb certain rock faces, opening up new areas. More exploration, right? Well, no, not really, because you only get the ice axe when those particular rock faces appear. There's nothing like the delightful tease of spotting a treasure or area you can't reach, because you don't have the necessary item or ability yet. You think about it, it niggles at you, and no matter how long it takes, you head back there and claim what is rightfully yours as soon as you can! Tomb Raider doesn't bother with this.

There are a lot of collectibles and challenges lying around; diaries, antiques, fakes, fires to light, eggs to steal, totems to destroy, but they're so populous there's no challenge to finding them. The game takes another particularly patronising step when it gives hints that certain items have hidden information, yet this hint only comes up on the items that have it. Again, the game essentially reveals secrets before you have the chance to look for them, robbing you of satisfaction.

As for the puzzles, they're an awful punchline to a poor joke. Basically non-existent, not one will make you stop and think. You'll slow down for a couple of seconds and then resume your dash through the game. They're only present in the 'secret' tombs and at rare points in the story. No head-scratching to be found here. Just how far this area of Tomb Raider has plummeted becomes glaringly clear if you complete all the 'secret' tombs. “Intellectually Superior” says the trophy. Well, quite.
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FFS, put a jacket on woman.

It's a lovely game to look at, certainly, containing diverse environments and architectural styles, wonderful animation, and a slightly down-at-heel aesthetic runs through everything. Ruined temples, deserted villages, eroded WWII fortifications, ship graveyards and shantytowns; Lara gets dirtier and scruffier as she passes through them, her weapons gain cobbled-together upgrades, and the look of the game of vibrant and coherent despite the fact that what it depicts are things falling apart.

On the whole, it's unfortunate that the creators felt they had to make the game so easy. There is no challenge to be found, just another nice-looking fine-sounding third-person shooter. There are no difficulty curves to scale, no mountainous challenges to climb, just a flat generic wasteland with some gentle bumps eroded by a desire to make the game as easy a trudge as possible. It's a shame that a series reboot should be so generic, because I doubt (and will no doubt be proved wrong) that successive games could be more derivative. Lara has been reinvented with a fine origin story, and I can forgive the hints of Mary Sue because the majority of it is so good. What I can't forgive is a game that is a pale imitation of Uncharted, with decayed sections of former Tomb Raiders stitched on.


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