Tomb Raider review
Trust your own instincts and you risk throwing the game off its rhythm. In Tomb Raider, acting with initiative carries a payload of risk akin to heckling at a comedy show. You’ll either be punished, or - worse - you’ll puncture some meticulously preconceived bit and cause the whole thing to deflate. There's a combat section midway through where you can either fight through a narrow canyon or sneak past on an elevated route. While shimmying across a beam above a pair of Solarii cultists I made the choice to jump off and attack them, figuring that I had the advantage and that the salvage I would gain from killing them was worth it. I pressed the button to drop and Lara fell stiffly to the ground. The camera moved into the canyon at an angle it wasn't designed for, and, trapped in Lara's picking-herself-up animation, I couldn't respond fast enough to attack before I was gunned down.
"Rather than encourage self-motivation Tomb Raider rewards passive acquiescence."
If I'd stuck to the stealth route the game would have continued to animate beautifully: if I'd opted for a gunfight the camera would have known where to be. I made a choice that the designers didn't anticipate and the game could not adapt to support it. 'Keep moving forward', then, is a better piece of advice - but rather than encourage self-motivation Tomb Raider rewards passive acquiescence. As long as you don't forget which button press goes with which bit of the environment, the island will ensure nothing truly terrible happens to you. This obliging design is why Tomb Raider succeeds as a lean-back-and-watch-the-fireworks platformer, but the dissonance is undeniable. You're told that you're seeing a person discovering their strength: what you're shown is someone discovering that the god of zip-line placement loves them very, very much.
You're encouraged to hunt and explore in order to maximise the amount of new skills and equipment upgrades you receive, but neither progression path is rewarding. The power you can gain in this way is carefully prevented from altering the pre-planned flow of the game: there's no way to earn a new traversal skill before its time, for example. In its place are shallow upgrades to the amount of loot Lara receives, or the amount of experience she gets for certain types of kill - and effectively all these do is allow you to level up faster. A few skills do alter the flow of combat, but only in minor ways: headshot indicators are helpful but inessential, ammo capacity upgrades are superfluous in a world where every new body you create can be looted for a fresh clip.
"When the circumstances are right, Tomb Raider becomes a decent if narrow stealth action game."
The areas where Tomb Raider comes together are those where you're given more freedom. When the circumstances are right, Tomb Raider becomes a decent if narrow stealth action game, and figuring out how to silently eliminate the maximum number of enemies before being detected is satisfying and says something about the person Lara is becoming. A scattering of optional tombs offer exploration and puzzle challenges that encourage improvisation with the game's robust physics system. Most can be cleared in a couple of minutes, but their solutions feel like they originate from your actions in a way that the rest of the game withholds.
Multiplayer takes the singleplayer's rock climbing and zip-lining and applies them to a competitive team shooter, adding trap-setting and limited environmental destruction for spice. It's host-based, rather than running on dedicated servers, and I had problems with rubberbanding even on a fast connection. When it does work, the majority of the players I encountered found it more effective to strafe around with an assault rifle than make use of any of the more distinctive features. The designers have provided space for set-piece moments - escapes over collapsing bridges, freeing friends from snare traps - but these will only happen if players find them a more effective way of farming for experience and upgrades than simply gunning each other down, and that doesn't seem to be the case. Abandoned matches are also an issue - roughly half of the games I played ended in victory by default.
The PC version is a good port, for the most part. Fairly comprehensive graphics and control options are available out of the gate, and manual hacks can enable more. It ran perfectly at the highest settings on an Intel i5 system with 8GB of RAM and a Radeon 6970, including the optional 'TressFX' tech that renders Lara's hair as free-flowing, individually modelled strands. I had persistent problems on a comparable system running a GeForce 560 Ti, however, including crashes and unexplained dips to a slideshow framerate that even affected the menus. Players have already found a few workarounds, and a patch is reportedly in the works - but caution is advisable if you're running an Nvidia card.
Tomb Raider is frequently very enjoyable, and there's no denying its production values or the care taken in scripting every inch of its critical path. I had a fine time. My problem with it is that I came in willing to have other, less fine kinds of time - I was willing to feel hounded, frozen and wounded in sympathy with its protagonist. Tomb Raider is never challenging, either emotionally or in what it asks you to do. It gestures at being something deeper, but I don't think you can simply tell the player what to feel. I wanted to participate in Lara's journey, but in the end I just held the button down and tried not to ruin it. A single game can't be held to account for the weaknesses of an entire genre, but they can't be ignored: narrative ambition is fantastic, but execution matters.
Visually stunning and meticulously staged, but hindered by limited depth and stifling linearity.