Friday, March 1, 2019

Console Corner: Review of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition

Tomb Raider was one of the few games I played on the first Playstation console, let alone completed. And I have distinct memories—the unique gameplay (for its time) and satisfaction of having finished it without assistance helping solidify this. (Online guides were still a thing of the future in 1996.) It was thus an interesting experience, twenty years later, to play Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. Lara Croft for the 21st century, it was a lesson on how far games have both evolved and devolved.

One of my distinct memories of the first Tomb Raider is how much discovery and problem solving was involved, and the relative difficulty. There were various gun fights, but the majority of the game was focused on locating puzzle pieces, finding levers to open gates, moving bits of the environment to access other areas, locating switches that open certain doors, and coming upon the right ledge or tunnel to get to the next area. A lot of trial and error involved, progress was sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly just out of reach. I cannot say the same about Tomb Raider: DE—which is not a bad thing by default, just an observation.

Tomb Raider: DE is a story/action-based rather than puzzle-based experience. And in the context of modern, big-budget video games, this means silver-screen cinematics and set pieces play a big role, similar to the Uncharted series. With the focus on problem solving no longer primary, Tomb Raider: DE aims to be the origin story of how Lara Croft became Lara Croft, and the gun fighting, treasure finding, and platforming action that go hand in hand. On a ship heading to the islands of Japan to do research, Lara starts the game as a timid yet intelligent graduate student. At odds with Dr. Whitman about where to begin their archaeological expedition for Yamatai the Sun Goddess, Lara is able to convince the rest of the crew, and they point the ship toward a group of islands where she believes new discoveries await. Their ship caught in the teeth of a storm, however, it capsizes and the crew is washed ashore. Lara coming to consciousness tied up by a strange cult member inside a cave, she escapes and finds the rest of the crew, and together they try to get off the island. Certain forces, human or otherwise, contrive to stop them, however.

For the first two or three hours of Tomb Raider: DE I was saying to myself: “This is just like Uncharted, this is just like Uncharted…”, but the further I progressed, I was saying, “This is just like Uncharted—but upgraded!”. The cut scenes, the melodrama, the island/treasure adventure, the cover-based gun fighting, the pulp storyline, the quick-time events, the mass murder, the Parkour—all are clearly molded on Nathan Drake’s adventures (ironic considering Drake was inspired by Lara Croft). But Crystal Dynamics have added and subtracted from the Uncharted formula to deliver a more rounded, satisfying game.

Where the puzzle platforming and gun fights in Uncharted all too often overstay their welcome (many seem to go on foreeeever) and exist within a highly predictable cycle, Tomb Raider: DE keeps them short and sweet and rotates in a larger number of interactive cut scenes, one-time events, and mini-puzzles to break up any potential formula, as well as maintain unpredictability and momentum. Dynamic rather than rote, the game feels non-stop from the word go, not all of which is combat. Add to this the fact developers add a wider variety of mechanics (Lara’s bow and arrow are used for more than just killing, the environments are more interactive, and the action sequences are not all straight-forward shooting given that stealth is required in some situations). Tomb Raider: DE is simply the more variegated game.

The other major element which rounds out Tomb Raider: DE gameplay in comparison to the Uncharted series is the upgrade system. Where Uncharted is streamlined into a straight-ahead experience that allows the player to literally run and gun, picking up and discarding weapons as they go, Tomb Raider: DE adds a basic rpg system that allows players to collect experience and salvage points to enhance Lara and her weapons, respectively. In order to do this, the game expands its linear story into a semi-open world experience—emphasis on ‘semi’. If each chapter in Uncharted can be thought of as a corridor the player must shoot and climb their way through, then TR: DE widens the corridors and attaches rooms. Each chapter still has an entrance and exit, but there is more space within to explore/locate the items and collectibles necessary for the rpg system. In no way is this an open world experience like Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn where you never know what awaits around the corner, but getting Lara through the levels is not always a linear experience.

My criticisms of TR: DE, however, remain in line with the Uncharted series. Full of holes, the storyline is disjointed at best (i.e. engaging the thumbs far more than the brain). The player is pushed to like Lara by the plot, yet the grandest side she displays is a mass-murdering gymnast, i.e. difficult to be fully empathetic with. And player agency is limited. Yes, there is more room to explore the semi-open world environments for collectibles, but aside from this, the player is pushed through the main storyline with no agency or decision. Speaking of collectibles, where Uncharted kept its system uselessly simple, Tomb Raider: DE is overflowing with stuff. Journals, herbs, salvage, posters, experience points (yes, boxes with experience points), animals, archeological items, GPS caches, ammo, weapon parts—and that is not a complete list of things the player can spend their time finding. My guess is that the total time a player could spend collecting all these items is three or four times as much as the time needed to complete the main storyline.

Borrowing from Naughty Dog’s playbook, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition feels like an Uncharted cinematic experience utilizing a Last of Us rpg-type system to tell Lara Croft’s origin story. Production is extremely good. Graphics, sound, UI, etc. are reasons to praise the game (though, the voice acting from secondary characters is at times spotty). Not a game that adheres to its Playstation 1 roots (i.e. the main focus is not puzzling and problem solving), rather, the 21st century Lara Croft works effectively within the mold of the current generation’s games (i.e. linear storytelling with integrated gun fighting and platforming). This approach detracts from player agency and lateral thinking, but works with the technical possibilities of new consoles to deliver a bombastic, Hollywood experience. If you like Nathan Drake, you’ll also like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

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