Review : Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider 2013

Lara Croft’s having a bad day. For the old Croft that might mean a broken nail or a failed attempt at locking the Butler in the fridge. For this new Lara, a bad day means kidnap, suspension from the ceiling of a dingy cave, and the uncomfortable experience of being hurled off a cliff before landing in a pool of guts. So take a deep breath and brace yourself because Tomb Raider is an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of Square Enix’s original series.

Normally I would now provide a brief synopsis of the story, but in this case the less players know about the intricacies of the island Lara’s marooned on, the better. Suffice to say, the story begins as a young Lara struggles to escape the sinking ship that was transporting her and her crewmates to an archaeological dig. Washed up on the beach of an island in the South China Sea, Lara is separated from her group and swiftly captured by the island’s current inhabitants: a cult so preoccupied with skewering people on sharp objects they clearly have forgotten basic personal hygiene. As Lara struggles to escape and ventures deeper into the island, the secrets she unearths about its dark history soon prove that men with excessive facial hair are the least of her worries.

Abandoning the traditional structure of swashbuckling adventures punctuated by pithy one liners, Crystal Dynamics have opted for a story of brutality. Seriously, I don’t know what Lara did to upset the developers, but boy she’s paying for it now. In the first eight minutes alone she is knocked unconscious, forced to burn herself alive to escape her captors and chased through a collapsing cave by a cannibal before scrambling up the decaying shell of a WW2 bomber suspended on the side of a cliff as sections of it break away, all with a rusty great nail through her side.

Technically, Tomb Raider’s gameplay is seamless, flowing from area to area with barely any loading screens unless you die – and honestly, you need a couple of seconds to compose yourself because the ways Lara is wiped out are brutal. Saying that though, our stubborn heroine gives as good as she gets and some of the finishing moves players can unlock as Lara progresses in combat would make even Patrick Bateman wince.

Developers have never seemed to nail combat mechanics in the previous Tomb Raider games, but here they’ve finally got it right. Scrounging for scrap metal around the island gives Lara access to a small arsenal of weapons ranging from a bow and arrow to a rifle complete with grenade launcher that can be swiftly switched between in the heat of battle. Hand-to-hand combat is also an option, with timed attacks and dodges often more effective than the traditional bang-bang-you’re-dead-eat-my-bullets technique seen in previous games.

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While at camp Lara can upgrade her weapons from bits of junk she salvaged around the island – sort of like Duke of Edinburgh meets scrapheap challenge

Still, Tomb Raider is as beautiful as it is bloody. This is a game that’s been five years in the making and it shows. The attention to detail, from fingerprints on the screen of a digital camera to the fact that Lara is programmed to put out a hand to steady herself if you’re running along a narrow cliff ledge, is mind-blowing. Detail tessellation on the island’s surfaces create ultra-realistic environments that players can spend hours exploring, collecting hidden relics and even raiding secret tombs to gain a deeper insight into the island’s history. The only time the game fails in its attention to detail is the time it devotes to Lara’s crew mates. The supporting cast are given very little significant screen time, with the only real attempt to flesh out their backstories coming in the form of scraps of journals scattered around the island that are easily missed.

After the 15 hours of campaign, many have criticised the new multiplayer option designed by Eidos Montreal as an unnecessary addition. Whilst it is significantly weaker than the core campaign, if viewed as an innovative online extra, this new competitive mode is a challenging new add on. Five maps and four match types offer players an entirely new tomb raiding experience, including the ability to manipulate the environment as a weapon against your enemies. For instance, in one map you can ring an ancient bell which conjures up a sandstorm blinding your enemies and revealing to you their locations. It’s a small fish in the big pond of first-person shooters, but a pretty fish nonetheless that’s more than capable of making a few splashes.

The bar has been set high for a Tomb Raider sequel which, if announced, will be launched on the next generation of consoles. The likelihood of it involving actual tomb raiding, though, is slim: it’s more likely to centre in on Lara two months after her adventures on the island, sitting in a hospital bed, feverish from all the diseases she contracted after wading her open wounds through waist deep, festering waters strewn with bloated, rotten corpses.

Still, if you’re anything like me you will finish playing Tomb Raider sleep-deprived and suspicious of anyone with excessive amounts of facial hair. But you’ll also finish it exhilarated and ready to sling a bow over your shoulder, affix a nasty expression of grizzled determination to your face and go scale a cliff. Gripping, gritty and compelling, Lara’s newest adventure really is the cream of the croft.

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The latest big button you are itching to press

share-button-ps4-controller-dual-shock-4-screenshotWhen I was eight, I decided to exercise my lack of self-preservation by adventuring onto our house’s roof. Since my appalling relationship with gravity made clear I would require the climbing talents of my brother to secure the operation’s success (family holidays to the beach would often see him disappear, only to be found a few hours later suspended off a ledge halfway up a cliff), he was immediately recruited and we ventured forth onto the tiled wilderness.

While Mr. Number 11 mowed his lawn next door, oblivious to the pre-pubescent siblings dangling from his drainpipe on a Sunny-D induced high, a wild thought entered my head: working together me and my brother could become professional rooftop adventurers. As a dynamic duo we could clamber to the highest point of the chimney or uncover untold mysteries beneath the slates. Energized by our ambition, we danced along the guttering, gave each other footholds to get higher and excitedly plotted our next explorative adventure. We were a team.

Then my brother (the idiot) went blabbing to our Mum about what we’d been doing

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Look at them. With their “smiles” and “friends”.

So you understand now why social gaming may seriously stress out 21-year old me. In that instant I learned a valuable life lesson: “always adventure alone”. However, a new craze has swept through the videogame industry that invites players to join forces to achieve their goals, to display their adventures online for the viewing benefit of the gaming community. Thanks to the PS4, we now have a ‘share’ button.

 But this completely contradicts the image of the Gamer; everybody knows that videogames aren’t meant to be sociable, right? You can’t maintain the horrific tension of a horror game like Dead Space 3 with your mate sitting beside you desperately mashing “x” as wotsits drool down their chin. You’re meant to play them in a darkened room sat in your underwear whilst picking fluff out your bellybutton and destroying half the virtual population of the planet. It’s a commonly accepted fact that gamers are all nerds with no social skills, so why oh why is there this sudden preoccupation with “Social Gaming”?

Well, maybe because it’s not so sudden.

It’s a misconception that gaming is a reclusive form of entertainment. When you watch a film, everyone sits and stares at the cinema screen in silence (unless you’re twelve years old and want to find out the aerodynamic capabilities of a piece of popcorn) but when you play a videogame, your whole household can get involved. Stuck on a puzzle? Draft in the problem-solving capabilities of your physics student housemate. Playing through a particularly cinematic environment? Budge up on the sofa because you’ll need to make room for an “ooooo”-ing and “aaaaah”-ing audience come to join you. Particularly in university halls, gaming provides a type of communal escapism that no other form of entertainment offers. Multiplayer and co-op take an ordinary game and elevate it to a whole new level of distraction, and the consoles of last generation took full advantage of this with the implementation of online gameplay. People worldwide are now connected by their controllers, fighting alongside each other in virtual arenas against hoards of undead or simply just strolling through a desert together.

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The new “Happy Crab” PS4 Controller

But now the next-gen console is introducing the next phase in the social evolution. Last week, after months of rumor, hearsay and “It’s-True-I-Heard-It-From-Steve-Behind-The-Bikeshed-At-Break”, Sony officially announced the PS4 specs. The PlayStation controller has become an iconic symbol of gaming and in its latest form, the Dualshock 4, the beloved “Start” button has been discarded. According to the developers at Sony “Select” is for Neanderthals and the new “Share” button is where it’s at. With a flick of the thumb players can now instantly capture game footage and forward it to friends. In addition, the PS4 will now allow you to hop into a friend’s game and watch the action of their console unfold on your own screen or, intriguingly, take over gameplay yourself. The idea is that if a group of ninja-fingered friends get together on the PS4 network, they can recreate that pass-the-pad feel of swapping the controller in the virtual sphere.

So what does that mean?

It seems in the next couple of years video games are going to start aligning themselves more and more with social media, becoming a part of our online lives in the same way that Spotify and Netflix pop up in our news feeds. Call of Duty, Counterstrike, SSX, Streetfighter, Hitman:Absolution and even Tomb Raider constitute just a handful of the games that now offer social gaming features, and there seems to be an ever-increasing pressure on developers to deliver more.

Yet, perhaps we should take a tiny step back from the “Social Media Is The Future” precipice and think about the implications of this. Of course videogames are sociable, but that’s not their sole feature. Part of the joy of playing a game is the escapism it offers from the real world, the richness of its story and the quality of its graphics. If you constantly have little notifications popping up on your screen and a big button glaring up from your controller screaming “SHARE ME”, some of that magic is lost. If developers become obsessed with launching videogames onto virtual platforms, the core features that make a game a decent game might be crushed under the pure pressure of telling people that you’re playing it. Just as linking Spotify to Facebook means I can no longer listen to One Direction without some distant virtual acquaintance sniggering from behind their keyboard, gaming could easily become a matter of public status, not personal pleasure.

But then again, if you not feeling sociable, you can just sit in a darkened room and play some campaign alone in your undies, right?

First published on Planet Ivy 04/03/13