“A survivor is born”. That is what it says on the back of Tomb Raider’s box; they also present that text quite prominently at the end of the game before the credits roll, and after finishing the game it’s important to keep those words in mind when you play Tomb Raider ’13… yes, I’m making the same distinction here as people do to Sonic the Hedgehog ’06 and Prince of Persia ’08. Fortunately, Tomb Raider ’13 won’t have the same reputation as those two reboots.
I’m not going to be dwelling too much on the past of the series, as in many ways this Tomb Raider is an absolute triumph. Crystal Dynamics take Lara Croft, an icon from simpler time in video games, and make her one of the most relevant characters in gaming today. Many contemporary characters come to mind that inspire this new Lara but you can’t help but think of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. It’s made massively apparent that she is an inspiration for the new Lara when early in the game you find yourself with a bow and you’re tasked to hunt a deer in the middle of a forest, like Katniss did; so even from the early on in the game they riff off something you may know in order to set a tone. The character trajectory is already set in stone from this point. You know things are going to go bad for this new, young Lara. She will go down a path she never intended.
Our new Lara finds herself somewhere south of Japan on a hidden island and it is up to you to, eventually, sort everything out, since everyone accompanying you seems to have their attention drawn to other things. But the dynamic between all the characters is strong and really creates an unusual relationship that is made more compelling in that you sometimes stumble across Lara’s friends’, acquaintances’ and enemies’ journals dotted around game’s environments which really fill out the characters you deal with, without them knowing. It’s here that the series’ history is transformed into something much more interesting, with exploration being key to fleshing out the story. This island is full of things to discover.
Environments are approached differently here to past Tomb Raider games. There, the tombs you explored were like puzzle boxes that prescribed a lot of game logic that is silly but is also fun to dive into and figure out, where as with Tomb Raider ’13, environments are designed in a way that comes across more natural and organic; they seem like real places. That does mean anyone coming to Tomb Raider ’13 with puzzle/platforming expectations may feel a little let down by that, especially as the new Lara doesn't seem to have as varied move-set as she has had in the past to get around the environments, but there are what are regarded as “Optional Tombs” in the game that are slightly hidden away that do scratch that itch, though there are only seven of them and are quite small and can be solved relatively quickly. But they are a good addition.
A big change to the series is in the action and the combat. “A survivor is born”, remember, not an explorer, so action is a bit more prevalent now in Tomb Raider ’13. When the action ramps up it is impossible not to see the influence the Uncharted games have had on Tomb Raider. Many say the Uncharted games have made Tomb Raider games obsolete but the reality is they've always been very quite different when you remove the Indiana Jones setting; they have always had very different priorities. Uncharted is a third person action game that focuses a lot on the combat and shooting and Tomb Raider ’13 has essentially took the feel of Uncharted’s combat system and applied it to their game. I have often felt the combat in Uncharted was too wobbly, unresponsive and unsatisfying due to your character being overly animated, and it is the case here in Tomb Raider ’13, too, but since it has a big focus on exploration the game evens out a bit better and you’re rarely too far away from the game calming down and switching up the gameplay into where its strengths are.
The combat not being up to the standard of the best third person shooters isn't a massive issue as it does fit with the tone of the game. Lara is a young woman who has never been in this kind of situation before so giving her the ability to be an efficient soldier from the start would be odd. Unfortunately, they have took this combat system, which is designed in a way to fit a particular character which then fits the context of this story being told, and tried to craft a multiplayer experience with it. This is another example of when publishers have forced a multiplayer mode in a game that just doesn't need one. It just doesn't work.
When you make these kinds of multiplayer games you need to have tight controls with surgically crafted mechanics to stand up to the big guns in this genre. You can’t take this flabby combat system and have opponents rolling around a map like everyone is trying to play a shooter on a bouncy castle and expect anyone to have a good time. As a bit of occasional knock-about fun it kind of has some merit but the game has unlocks and ranks like those found in most online shooters. They expect you to actually pump a lot of time into this mode to unlock the rewards; it’s designed to waste your time, and I would recommend anyone steer clear of the online multiplayer portion of the game. It is everything wrong with game development right now in 2013.
The only problem with Tomb Raider ’13 is that it is very much a game of 2013. As well as the tacked on multiplayer, you will - by the end of the game - have started to unlock new stealth kill abilities which undermine the tone of Tomb Raider ’13. What started out as a tale of understandable desperation soon turns into gleeful murder. You fight your way through armed men by throwing dirt in their eyes, anxious shoves off cliffs and desperately picking up a rock and swinging for the bastards; but by the end you are sticking your climbing axe into the top of a guys skulls and unloading half a machine gun magazine into a downed enemy. It doesn't fit and comes across as a product of being a game released in 2013 for 2013’s gamers. It’s only there to look bad-ass in trailers and not to create a unified game where everything fits. I hope they have the confidence to move away from that with the inevitable sequel.
But overall the game is a success in many ways. Lara Croft is now a character with some depth and a strong personality. When bloggers do lists of good female protagonists we will certainly see this new Lara Croft amongst the likes of Jade from Beyond Good & Evil and April Ryan from The Longest Journey, which is a great thing we can take away from Tomb Raider ’13. “A survivor is born” and long may she continue to survive as this new Tomb Raider has the potential to be one of the finest in its genre again.