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Charting Lara's Past, Present & Future

The more I play Tomb Raider, the more I notice two things: Where it can be perfected, and how it's a nearly perfect homage to the original game. Admittedly still early in my play through, at a little over 15% complete, I think it's a pretty safe bet to predict that the inevitable sequel could very well be the best game in the series.

Too early? Consider that developer Crystal Dynamics not only has improved upon the license in key areas, but Lara Croft can now hit the ground running in the next installment having presumably dispelled with the origin story. Think of the first sequel in nearly any superhero series, though let's hope she doesn't lose her newfound vulnerability and relatability.

Here I'll continue using my screenshots and analysis to demonstrate how this version can provide a bridge between its predecessors and its successors, and in the meantime how it appears to be an excellent addition to the action adventure genre. (Spoiler alert, though I reveal little plot and not much more that hasn't been reported extensively already.)

Lara's transformative moment, when she first kills an assailant, is a powerful sequence that demonstrates the extent to which she was pushed to do the unimaginable. Her travails till now have shown the toll taken on this young explorer, culminating in this scene of great person trial.

It typifies this new vulnerable, real Lara, effectively separating her from the iconic legend she had become. The scene also is indicative of the new approach adopted by Crystal Dynamics, focusing more on character development and story than on action set pieces alone. And it successfully invests each player in Lara's journey.

The challenge is in maintaining this more fragile personae going forward and, indeed, others have pointed out a certain disconnect at times with the more lethal Lara that exists beyond this point. However, that path is not impossible to judge by series like Uncharted, wherein Nathan Drake never ceases to be a flawed common man doing uncommon things.

A dedicated guard, he'd never let the cliff out of his sight.

As lethal as Lara becomes, the gameplay can sometimes hold her back. In one sequence (above), Lara crouches behind one of the only sources of nearby cover before attempting to silently take out her foes. The problem, as exists sometimes in shooter games, is that an invisible barrier surrounds the object.

Instead of quickly taking out her oblivious quarry, the arrows hit air and fall to the ground. This arouses the guards' suspicion, and they soon notice the threat and nearly kill Lara. It's not an uncommon fault with games, but it still takes one out of the game and can result in a cheap death. Thankfully, most encounters thus far are fun and problem free.

Adding insult to injury, Lara behaved like he wasn't even there.

The aftermath of this assault (above) also demonstrates some poor collision detection issues with corpses in general. When Lara isn't kicking them around while walking a la Gears of War, she passes right through them. Again, it's not uncommon to the medium, but more care would improve immersion. Happily, it's less an issue with objects or the environment.

Such technical snafus are joined by a peculiar graphics glitch seen now and then, particularly in plants that disappear once you've salvaged them but sometimes in inanimate objects (such as the stone surface above, center). There is a kind of lattice patchwork, or pixelated veneer, that flashes across some textures.

In my limited play through so far, these still are relatively minor issues with the possible exception of the one gameplay problem related to invisible barriers. A little more polish certainly would have benefitted the game but its absence does not detract from the overall impression of a well conceived and executed action adventure title.

Guns eventually do appear as available weapons and in fact encompass a standard range of firearm options. That said, these are not your grandma Lara's handguns. Forget default pistols with infinite ammo; these weapons are upgradeable and reliant on found bullets, another feature that can help make Ms. Croft more fragile -- and human.

Salvaging is a form of loot grinding that adds a welcome role playing element to character development. So Lara is not only more relatable as a figure with real emotion, mental struggles and physical limitations, but players become more invested in her the more time they spend customizing her character according to their gameplay preferences.

All this helps make Lara more accessible than before. To that end, I don't know if one can max out her character's attributes by game's end, but if not than it would be nice to carryover one's unique character to subsequent releases as with Mass Effect's Commander Shepherd.

Indeed, impactful choices also would help craft a personally meaningful character. I have not heard of or experienced opportunities in the game for electing one dialog or gameplay path over another, but in my experience such divergent alternatives can only enrich the journey.

My memory of the original game involved the joy of discovery. Finding long-forgotten subterranean or otherwise hidden and expansive ruins scratched that adventure itch. The old and sometimes ancient towns or ruins among this island's landscape can be awe-inspiring, but early on, at least, they can have a lived in and sometimes derivative feel.

The wolves are real QTEs.

Wild animals were an ever present danger in the original Tomb Raider games and this reboot is no exception. Though I haven't encountered any ubiquitous bears or tigers yet (let alone dinosaurs!), wolves are a nettlesome predator. Fighting them is a panicked thrill that can lead to a gruesome end if not adept enough.

Indeed my reaction falls into one of two camps: A spray and pray arrow barrage or calm and collected target selection. The latter was in reaction to the failure of the former but, regretably, often results in the same ignominious death. I then settled on a third approach: Run away, fire from a distance, dodge, run, fire, dodge, repeat.

Must be a Motel 6 (they DID leave the light on).

Ziplines provide one means of movement and, frankly, a welcome one when traversing areas with multiple elevations. Despite the familiarity of some settings, they all benefit not only from a creative art design but also from crafty level design that demands deft platforming skills to explore.

If Lara had to hear how he threw the winning touchdown one more time ...

Lara is not the only three dimensional character as some others also benefit from depth, and their interactions together as depicted in cutscenes, found notes and radio communications have an air of authenticity. Believable dialog and voice acting help, establishing a hopeful trend for future installments.

Just like climbing the health club rock wall.

The game gradually builds upon Lara's navigation skills as she periodically takes advantage of new abilities or tools. The climbing axe, for instance, opens up previously inaccessible areas whether at higher elevations or behind closed doors. Of course such tools have the ability to open up gameplay considerably and therefore are much appreciated.

A wise archeologist, Lara still couldn't discern stalagmites from stalactites.

Lara discovers Wayne's World.

Exploring tombs has been the bread and butter of the series, especially in earlier titles of the franchise. They therefore were often expansive, elaborate settings with clever and compelling design. While exploration has slowly moved outdoors, tombs are still a linchpin common to every entry.

In this reboot, I have encountered maybe three tombs after more than 15% completion. Each is enjoyable in their own right, however, I assume such areas will increase in size and complexity the further I explore the island. For now, they are fairly linear and short, more reminiscent of the kinds of ruins in Far Cry 3 than traditional Tomb Raider sites.

What is likewise noteworthy is how each location has been taken over by the island's inhabitants, either with construction or other signs of their presence. This fact might be a reasonable expectation, however, it can detract from the joy of discovering a previously unknown, long-abandoned location.

In a contemplative mood, Lara reconsiders her chosen profession.

The exterior settings themselves are an admittedly impressive mix of small and large areas, exteriors and interiors, and various elevations. They are well balanced areas that take full advantage of Lara's platforming skills and, at least in the beginning, provide a quality alternative to traditional tomb exploration.

Who doesn't know the magic word? Lara wondered.

Heads, I win.

There's no shortage of combat though Crystal Dynamics does a good job balancing the game's pacing between exploration and action. Likewise, melee or ranged options are fairly well balanced, especially when the former employs the climbing axe, for fights that can be taut and entertaining. Dodges and shoves prove worthwhile defensive moves.

Along those lines, it's gratifying to see a variety of foes, even this early in the game, that use a variety of tactics, whether relying on ranged attacks or charging for brutal melee assaults. I'd also recently encountered a heavier class foe, who uses a shield. In general the AI is pretty standard, moving between cover and using grenades to flush Lara out.

Speaking of Lara, her character can take cover, emerging briefly to fire at foes. Targeting is precise and all weapons to this point handle well. It's also easy to switch weapons on the fly by using the directional keypad (on the PS3). The bow and arrow proves reliable in ranged attacks that can silently take out numerous foes; the axe is its brutal close quarters counterpart.

All this of course represents a marked improvement over Lara's past cartwheeling ways. Gone are her acrobatic skillset and infinite ammo pistols in place of more realistic options when confronting the various threats on the island. Though she benefits from now-standard health regeneration, her actions are rooted more in real world considerations than fantasy.

Even the best explorers forget where they left their keys.

Movement in the game is fluid, alternating between player controlled action and scripted sequences whether experiencing dramatic moments or passing obstacles in Lara's path. Also, navigation through the environment gradually deepens as new options for exploration are periodically introduced.

Though she knew better, Lara hoped a taco truck would soon appear.

Environments not only impress from a design perspective, even if sometimes reminiscent of settings in other games, but inspire with their array of platforming opportunities. Indeed, level design practically begged for the ability to shoot rope across otherwise impassable areas, and eventually Lara attains this ability.

Such gameplay offers a welcome and too rare feature, expanding upon Lara's growing platforming skillset. Considering the depth of her moves, whether exploring or engaged in combat, and the ability to upgrade them as seen fit, Crystal Dynamics has wisely made Lara more three dimensional and placed a degree of her development in the hands of gamers.

Why waste a good climbing axe when a fist sends the same message?

Necessity is the mother of invention and Lara no doubt is compelled to become a formidable warrior, though her newfound ability to cut a swath through scores of hardened foes does stretch credulity as others have suggested. Still, the narrative does provide a context for such an evolution and her victories can be hard fought.

To this point, Lara could only shove foes away. The addition of the climbing axe made melee combat a viable option. However, dodge is still an important feature as foes can interrupt Lara's attacks and strike back. But successive blows will stun enemies long enough for a finishing move. More options such as parry will help deepen this alternative.

I'm hopeful later tombs will be more elaborate in layout and design, carrying on the series' considerable legacy in this regard. Up till now they have been creative and well detailed if short and linear. The simple Hall of Ascension puzzle (above) even gave me fits with its exacting timing, though I know more challenging ones follow.

They weren't kidding about leaving the mattress tag on.

How nice of them to leave the welcome mat out.

I knew from trailers and other media that some interesting elements would be incorporated into the game, but still was gratified at their appearance and implementation to this point. Indeed, the surreal settings and fantasy motifs cleverly pay homage to the original game(s), which likewise invoked the potential for otherworldly consequences linked to lost artifacts.

That said, the suggested context for these elements is a well worn concept and can come across as merely derivative if mishandled. However, the backstory as revealed in found documents is well written and narrated, and the story in general is a compelling treatment that succeeds in fostering and so far maintaining interest.

Nevermind that exploring these elements in the game world is an entertaining journey in its own right and suggestive of the survival horror genre. Indeed, I decided to throw caution to the wind and follow a foe instead of continue in the opposite direction (second image in the series above). Lara was predictably squished.

I didn't say, "Simon says ...!"

Even when exploring, Lara is not immune to attack. Foes inhabit most areas, so vigilance is necessary. And as in the case with heavier enemies like shielded foes, lighter enemies remain part of the mix so adjusting one's strategy on the fly is important. Likewise, one should stay alert for quick time events that can occur in virtually any cut scene.

The bottom line is that this is an action adventure game that emphasizes both facets of that label. Combat and exploration both demand careful observation and quick reflexes and take advantage of myriad moves and upgradeable skillsets. In fact, movement is key to Crystal Dynamics' reboot.

I think I smell Starbucks.

The one thing I wish so far in my playthrough was that more moves were available from the very start of the game. However, they do emerge in a reasonable progression as one plays the game, and fast travel allows for returning to earlier levels that might have had previously inaccessible areas.

It's a credit to what Crystal Dynamics has accomplished that I want to have had more time to access all Lara's moves. But they deserve kudos for also reinventing the main character, creating someone we care about and want to spend more time with. The challenge going forward (in my play through and likely future installments) is keeping Lara grounded.

The natural impulse would be to up the ante by creating more elaborate stories and action to take full advantage of all her abilities, but in so doing there is a risk in approaching the iconic legend that this reboot so successfully avoids to this point. That said, Tomb Raider finds the right balance of homage and reinvention and is better for it.

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