Friday, November 1, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (PS3)

Lara Croft and I have been adventuring together since 1996. At the time, I was in high school and her boobs were large triangles, thanks to cutting-edge PlayStation technology. The game’s mix of action and puzzle-solving was engaging and entertaining, and I liked having two guns to shoot things with, especially wild animals who wanted to eat my archaeologist in short shorts. At least they had taste, amirite?

The developers of the latest, PS3 origin story have done a spectacular job of creating a nearly perfect action/adventure game. 2013’s Tomb Raider has a sympathetic protagonist, solid supporting characters, a creepy, creepy villain, great graphics, terrific gameplay, a fun combat system, and effective music. It seems no Tomb Raider game can go without a sci-fi/fantasy component, so this time, 21-year-old Lara is marooned on Yamatai, the Japanese version of Atlantis. Weaponless and injured, she must reunite with the crew of the ship Endurance, and find out how to leave the deadly island.

The game seamlessly integrates cut scenes with the action. After a grim opening scene where Lara has to burn her way out of restraints, players find themselves exploring the island, learning Lara’s trademark skills along the way: leaping, rock climbing, and generally exerting an exceptional amount of upper body strength. She later picks up weapons that players can modify with salvage items. For example, the basic wood-and-string bow later becomes a shiny harbinger of silent death. It’s also Lara’s signature weapon in the game, and proves so versatile that I used no other weapon unless absolutely necessary. Interestingly, the double handguns were the first Tomb Raider’s trademark weapons, and they were the ones I liked best, too. I guess I’m just a sucker for the default option.

The graphics are fantastic – forests, mountaintops, and caves are well rendered, as are vistas of faraway objects (like statues and shipwrecks). Dark caves, once lit, are richly detailed with mad scribbles and bloody trails. Character design is equally superb: each character has a distinctive look, from Lara down to the lowliest bad guy.

The gameplay is likewise impressive: it’s an intuitive game that blends every element into the larger story, with campsites for Lara to rest at and secret challenges that can be unlocked by players who take note of everything that seems out of place in the environment. There’s a mode that lets Lara see key locations or items, which improves the chances of uncovering a collectible, finding a way out, or spotting gunmen before they see Lara.

The combat system rewards patient and canny players, and I enjoyed adjusting my fighting style from reckless rushing to careful aiming and sneaking around. It’s necessary, because the cultists on the island are armed with pistols and assault rifles, and all Lara gets (in the beginning, at least) is a bow and arrow. Players can gain experience points and choose to upgrade Lara’s fighting ability, which is an excellent investment for the later parts of the game, when the enemies get bigger and tougher.

Like every other aspect of the game, the music is well done. It’s fairly low-key, until players need to be alerted to imminent danger. Then it shifts into high gear. The main theme thrums with tension and grandness, and incorporates keening notes of sorrow and mystery. Hauling Lara to a place with a particularly epic view will cue soaring notes.

Lara Croft herself anchors the game. This Tomb Raider presents her before she becomes the cool badass of the first game, ably assisted by English actress Camilla Luddington, who provided the voice and her movements through motion capture. (There’s a bonus video about Luddington’s work in the main menu for players who unlock the feature.) Through Luddington and the developers, players control a Lara who’s scared and outgunned, but has so much grit and determination that it’s a pleasure to navigate her through her painful journey. And boy, is it painful. This young woman gets impaled, falls great distances, gets shot at and pelted with debris, and experiences all other manner of grievous bodily harm. "She should not be alive,” said Fragrant Husband after seeing a falling cut scene.

Yes, she should! And may she live forever! And if developers continue to craft fine games centering on the brave, intelligent, and lovely Ms. Croft, she just might.

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