Shooting things. It seems to be what most games that, in industry parlance, are classed as 'triple A' titles are about these days. Whether it's terrorists, alien scum or some defenceless deer, players these days don't seem happy unless they have a firearm in their hand. From the early days of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, to the multi-million selling Call of Duty games of recent years, shooters seem to dominate the market to the point where the perceived wisdom amongst publishers seems to be that every game needs to be a shooter, in order to stand a chance at being a success.
Enter Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics' reboot of the long-running Tomb Raider series. A retelling of Lara's origin story, detailing the events that led to her transformation from posh-yet-vulnerable teenager into the heroine that's dominated the games industry for the best part of 17 years, it's not only Lara's character that's been drastically changed. What used to be a game series wrought with puzzles, platforming and exploring has degenerated into nothing more than a shooter, and a rather unexceptional one at that.
The game opens with young Lara, a rookie archaeologist, setting sail with a group of fellow adventurers in search of the ancient civilisation of Yamatai, land of the legendary Sun Queen Himiko, somewhere off the coast of Japan. Reluctantly following Lara's instincts, they stray into the Dragon's Triangle, a dangerous area of sea which leads many astray, never to return and true to form, their ship breaks apart in some rather vicious storms. Lara and co awake to find themselves washed up on a mysterious island that's peppered with wrecks, although no-one gets long to take in the sights, as they're quickly knocked out and carried off by the island's violent inhabitants.
Lara eventually comes to, only to find herself tied upside down dangling from the ceiling, in a scene that sets the tone of what's to come. In order to free herself, she needs to swing backwards and forwards towards a nearby flame, till her bonds catch fire and she plummets into the depths below, straight onto a sharp nail-y thing, which embeds itself in her side, with much blood and whimpering. Yanking it out of her side with a mash of the X button to the sound of more screams of agony, Lara picks herself up, and carries on through the dank, dark cave, coming across other victims of torture as she goes, wading through some waist deep water and getting jumped on by mental natives, before legging it out of the collapsing cave into the sunshine.
After a rather hectic half hour, things mellow out a bit as Lara comes across her first weapon a rather battered bow from a corpse in a tree. A bit of Tomb Raider-style platforming brings it in reach, after which it's time to put it to use nabbing yourself some deer for dinner (which you're required to do). Using the third person shooter staple of having to hold the left trigger to draw your bow, and firing with the right, you take down a deer with a whimpered apology, which Lara then dismembers in a cutscene and roasts over a campfire a meal that seemingly feeds Ms. Croft for the rest of the game, thankfully. Separated from the rest of the crew, her next objective is to meet up with everyone and get off the creepy island and it's a good job her friends have Lara to rely on, seeing as they're incapable of accomplishing anything beyond complaining and getting captured by deranged cultists.
Experience points and salvage also known as the two features no-one asked for let you level up Lara or upgrade her weapons each time you sit down at one of the campfire save points. As time goes on, Lara gains more weapons, which can then be upgraded by collecting 'salvage' from convenient crates scattered all over the island, to increase the damage bullets do, add fire to her arrows and tape a grenade launcher to an assault rifle. Some of your newly acquired weapons then become integral to solving the few puzzles the game has blowing a way through fragile wooden doors with a shotgun, prising open locked crates with a climbing axe or shooting grappling hook arrows at objects to set them swinging. Your tools of the trade aren't the only thing you can upgrade either though, as the new experience points system means Lara can be upgraded too, learning new skills such as the ability to scavenge arrows from her defeated foes, letting her absorb more damage in combat and make more efficient use of pockets to carry more ammo.
Tomb Raider may not be so bad if it didn't seem quite so scripted when you're not busy going from group of goons A to band of bad guys B, you're stuck in a cutscene or fumbling your way through another quick-time event. We've lost count of the number of times you're escaping from a collapsing cave, running along a burning bridge or sliding down some rapids, with little to do besides hold the left stick in a direction and press the odd button as it pops up on the screen while Lara goes into slow-mo. Her bad luck seems to kick in far too often with these set pieces, which lose any sense of urgency once you get to your sixth one in ten minutes - and boredom sets in. Even the trademark Tomb Raider climbing and acrobatics sections seem heavily scripted, partially because they're quite short and infrequent, and partially because there's a very definite path to take, often interspersed with more quick time events, with no sense of freedom or choice even a trained monkey could figure out most of them.
What a trained monkey couldn't cope with though are the huge spikes in difficulty, where the game just throws wave upon wave of enemies at you, many of which seem to have a near infinite supply of Molotov cocktails and dynamite to hurl your way. In fact, one rooftop fight in particular in the Shanty Town area took us countless retries and over an hour and a half of attempting before we finally got past it having turned the difficulty down from hard to medium to easy and still struggling. A similarly difficult part came a bit later, when we were fighting atop some cable cars whilst Lara's friend Grim was held hostage on the other side of the chasm.
It's not all terrible though, as the few puzzles the game has do bring flashes of the old Tomb Raider to the forefront, even if they are short-lived. Seemingly Lara's new toy for this game is fire, as a large portion of the puzzles involve shifting around explosive barrels or flaming objects to blow through blockages to get to new areas, as well as the trademark physics-based and timed puzzles such as one where you need to use the wind to blow a platform against a wall so Lara can leap onto a higher ledge. Despite the name of the game, though, there are precious few tombs to explore on the island to explore nine to be exact. Adding insult to injury, the few tombs that are featured are entirely optional, single puzzle affairs that are over in the blink of an eye, rewarding you with nothing more than some more salvage, experience points or occasionally a gun part.
Sadly, the story's not much better, either. The characters are downright boring at best, and unlikable at worst, particularly moody mechanic Reyes and diva Dr. James Whitman, whose every appearance is accompanied by sinister music perhaps the highlight is angry Scotsman Grim being beaten up by bad guys, berating them with a that's nothin' pal I grew up in Glasgah!. Lara herself comes across as a whiny so and so who seems to suffer from some kind of multiple personality disorder, grieving over a single solitary deer she murders for meat then not even emitting so much as a peep as you slice open several wolves mere minutes later. The first time she shoots a man in the head she gets torn up, before happily putting hundreds of goons in body bags without a even the slightest hint of remorse ten seconds later. She's also seemingly clumsy beyond compare, not able to go more than about five minutes without being shot, set on fire, stabbed, beaten up, chocked, kidnapped, tied up or dropped off a cliff more times than you can count but somewhat confusingly, some sections leave her out for the count and complaining at the slightest amount of physical exertion, while others have her dusting herself off and carrying on as if nothing happened. It really is all over the place. Considering how much publicity Square Enix put behind hiring "daughter of famous writer" Rhianna Pratchett, we were expecting something a bit more, well, powerful, than the weird mish-mash that it is.
And perhaps that's the biggest problem. Tomb Raider doesn't feel like a game that you can lose yourself in - instead, it feels like a fairly generic third person shooter with a few tacked on ideas, and Lara stuck in the middle. Marginalising what made the older Tomb Raider games good, in favour of adding in more enemies than in every previous game put together, a shoe-horned leveling up system that serves no real purpose (incidentally, fact fans, the last Tomb Raider to feature a levelling system was Angel of Darkness - and we all know how well that turned out), and more quick-time events than any one woman can take, Tomb Raider is a real mixed bag.
I've had a long relationship with the Tomb Raider games. In fact, it was Tomb Raider that was the game that really sucked me into the world of games. I've played, and finished, every single game since (even Angel of Darkness), hunting down every collectible, searching out every treasure, and finding every secret they had to offer. But even though I had my doubts about the new "reboot", I'd had my doubts about the new 'survival' emphasis, and whether it was the right choice to take. Turns out, I was probably right. While it's not a bad game - if you're a third person shooter fan, or a fan of gratuitious quick time events - with the emphasis on combat, the gore designed purely for shock value, and the lack of puzzles, it's a Tomb Raider game in name only. And while change isn't always a bad thing, if it's not a change for the better, what's the point. All I know is that given the game's so-far stellar sales (this is the fastest selling Tomb Raider game ever, and has sold more than double the number Tomb Raider: Legend managed in the same time), this will likely be what Tomb Raider is like from now on. And that makes me sad.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360