How do you describe a game that lies somewhere between "mediocre" and "decent"? If you can think of an appropriate adjective, please let me know, because that's the kind of word I'm looking for to describe the recent Tomb Raider reboot. Nothing about Tomb Raider 2013 is overtly terrible -- the gameplay, story, and pacing were all good enough to keep me going for long stretches of time -- but things that should have been great turned out to be kind of bland or just never lived up to their full potential. As a result, for every time I felt really impressed with the game, I also found myself feeling like I wasn't having as much fun as I should have been.
I was cynically expecting the new Tomb Raider to be as shallow and overrated as most "AAA" games are these days, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was actually enjoying the experience. Having never played any of the previous Tomb Raider games, the reboot felt to me like a cross between Resident Evil 4 and The Last of Us, and it was, at times, as deeply satisfying as either of those games. With the added benefit of the series' traditional puzzle-solving and platforming, Tomb Raider 2013 seemed like the best of three worlds and made me eager to like it. As I played, however, I started to realize how subtly disappointing the game really is.
In this version of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is a young archaeologist seemingly fresh out of college, on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai. As the ship's crew members become restless searching the Pacific Ocean, Lara suggests steering into the Dragon's Triangle, whereupon a sudden and violent storm wrecks the ship and causes its crew members to wash ashore on an unknown island. Lara finds herself captured by a strange, murderous cult and accidentally impales herself on a metal rod in her escape. Critically wounded, she has to seek out shelter and food to weather the storm for the night before setting out in search of her crew members and uncovering the truth behind the mysterious island.
The game's first hour of introduction sequences certainly look nice, but they're the worst kind of limited-control, "cinematic-gameplay," quick-time-event nonsense that give you just barely enough control to make you feel like you're playing a video game, while the game essentially plays itself for you. The game is so particular about wanting everything to look just right that you end up in situations where you're walking down a hallway and all you can do is press forward on the control stick to move forward -- you can't even turn or walk backwards -- you may as well just be holding down the "play" button on the remote control while watching a movie.
It's kind of insulting that the game doesn't trust me enough to let me walk down a corridor without feeling the need to yank the controls from me in order to make sure I actually go down that corridor properly. It's also pretty jarring having the gameplay switch in and out of cutscenes so flippantly -- often Lara would be doing something in the cutscene, and then she'd end up standing around doing nothing for a few seconds while I realize that I'm suddenly in control again. On a few occasions, the game suddenly dropped me into a scripted "run towards the camera while something big rolls at you from behind" scenario that killed me instantly because it offered me no warning that it was putting me back in control.
The general lack of control extends to things beyond the overly frequent cinematic cutscenes, too. You have no ability to choose whether you're standing, crouching, or crawling -- the game chooses all of that for you automatically. I suppose the idea was to streamline gameplay as much as possible so that Lara will naturally do whatever's best for the situation, but it has a crippling effect of psychologically detaching me from my character. If I'm trying to sneak up behind a guy, I want to be crouched and low to the ground, not standing upright; if I'm hiding behind cover and want to shoot someone on my flank, then I want to remain crouched so I don't stand up and expose myself.
The automatic stance selection also has the effect of telegraphing when you're entering a combat encounter, because Lara will only drop into her cautious head-down stance whenever there are enemies nearby. Sometimes this happens long before you've even had the chance to see or hear enemies in the area, which is kind of lame because it gives away the potential surprise when she realistically shouldn't know there are enemies in the vicinity. A couple times I went back to areas I'd previously cleared and found Lara adopting her "combat stance" when I couldn't see anyone around, because apparently a pair of enemies had respawned and Lara somehow psychically knew hostiles were nearby. That just takes me out of the experience by reminding me that I'm in a video game that distinguishes between two different gameplay modes.
From the very beginning, the game tries to instill a theme of survival -- you're stranded on a deserted island, after all, so your first priorities are to seek shelter and hunt for food. The game features an experience-point system that grants you skill points to spend in basic skill trees, and one of these categories is even designated the "survival" tree. I was totally on-board with this premise, but after the game's hour-long introduction sequence, it does away with the survival theme altogether in favor of turning the game into another typical cover-based third-person shooter, and none of the actual gameplay mechanisms do anything to enforce the survival feel.
Survival games are all about tension, making you feel like you're constantly up against the ropes and always only one bad move from dying. They do this by limiting your resources so that it feels like you never have enough of what you need, thus causing you to evaluate each course of action and act intelligently because the game will punish you for using your resources too frivolously, or reward you if you get past a scenario efficiently. There's absolutely none this in Tomb Raider, because you have instant health regeneration and a practically limitless supply of ammunition (even in hard mode), so there's no reason ever to be concerned about your wellbeing.
Surviving is a joke in this game, and that's a fatal flaw for a game whose official tagline is "A survivor is born." A major point of the game is watching Lara endure so much physical punishment (if you like watching pretty women getting constantly smashed against walls, beat to a pulp, drenched in blood, and their flesh sliced open, then this is the game for you) to emphasize how painful and arduous the experience is on her, to show how much she's suffered and overcome when she manages to survive it all. It serves a good purpose and works exactly the way it's intended, but it's a classic case of showing the character's plight and struggle entirely through cutscenes and never letting you get to feel it through actual gameplay, because the actual survival mechanics are simply non-existent.
The reboot is meant to serve as Lara's origin story, allowing players to take part in the journey that transforms her from an innocent student to a courageous adventurer. In this game, Lara Croft is not the established badass she was of previous games -- in this game, she starts out scared, weak, vulnerable, and doubtful of her own abilities. As she's forced to respond to the dire situations around her and fight for her very survival, we get to see her grow as a character -- from the guilt she experiences over killing a deer for food, to the traumatic horror of killing a man in self-defense, to ruthlessly eliminating enemy threats that stand in her way.
It's kind of surprising, actually, how quickly the game devolves into a murder simulator. All it takes is one taste of human blood (out of pure defensive necessity) before Lara's silently assassinating people just because they're slightly in her way. Stealth is rarely ever an option because the combat is usually forced on you, and you're actually rewarded (with experience and salvage) for killing people, whereas you get nothing if you let them live. Granted, the context of the story dictates some bloodshed in the name of self-defense -- if a murderous cult is trying to kill you, you don't have much choice but to shoot back at them -- but it would've been nice if the game gave you some more options for dealing with hostile enemies besides shooting them in the face or plunging a climbing pick into the back of their skull.
There's one section early on when they force you into stealth, and it's just about the worst thing ever. Your crew gets captured, something happens, and everyone runs away. Lara is the only one who doesn't escape, and she gets pistol-whipped by the leader who says "Don't you move!" as he sends a few guys to go after your friends. When it put me in control of the game, I saw a guard coming around the corner and assumed he'd shoot me if I moved, so I stayed still intending to wait for him to turn his back, and then he shot me to death because apparently I was "escaping" at that point in the gameplay. The rest of this section is total crap, because getting caught triggers an instant death cutscene, where the game snatches control away from you before you even realize you've been caught.
I have to give some credit for the story, though, because watching (and experiencing) Lara's transformation over the course of the game is a genuinely moving emotional experience. After spending two-thirds of the game watching Lara take a royal beating and fighting an uphill battle, she finally reaches the pinnacle of her arc where she becomes a badass killing machine. That moment when she gets her hands on a grenade launcher and yells "That's right, run you bastards! I'm coming for you all!" was the epitome of awesome. I was doing mental fist-pumps and vocally cheering at the screen as I charged forward blasting enemies while the music swelled, the flames raged all around me, and the enemies fled in terror.
All of the epic excitement disappeared seconds later when I got chain-stunned to death because of the game's shoddy cover system. Maybe it was partially my fault that I died, but the entire point of this particular section was to showcase the final step in Lara's character development, growing from the meek, scared girl into the confident, capable woman we all know and expect. The fact that I died in the midst of that final transformation completely ruined the significance and emotional impact of that moment. If you ask me, this moment should have been designed so that it would be virtually impossible to die to ensure that the artistic point in the story is made. For as much as the game likes to control itself for you, this is the one moment in the story where it actually needed to take some kind of control to make sure you couldn't possibly screw it up, and they didn't even get that right.
Fun fact: Tomb Raider handles bonfires (and torches) better than Dark Souls II.
The intent this time around was to make Lara more realistic by ditching the barbie doll physique and giving her a more modest figure, while emphasizing the physical limits of her body by showing how beat up it gets over the course of the game. The amount of bodily harm she's able to withstand, though, is entirely inhuman and undermines whatever realism they were striving for with her new presentation. She impales herself on a metal rod, but besides wincing in pain initially, she's virtually unaffected; not long after that, she gets her leg clamped in a bear trap and walks it off like nothing happened. The only time she's ever physically impaired by her injuries is when her parachute breaks and she falls 50 feet to the ground, bouncing off several tree branches on the way down.
The fall aggravates the puncture wound running through her intestines (which, by this point, she's done nothing to treat), causing her to clutch her side and move more slowly. In addition, she's now too weak to jump or climb, and can sustain less damage before dying. This offers an interesting change of pace for the gameplay, but she finds a lighter shortly thereafter and cauterizes the wound by heating an arrowhead, which magically heals her and restores her back to full functionality. Ignoring how little sense that makes, if cauterizing it is all it took, then why didn't she do that much earlier? Even after the fall, she could've just used her fire striker to ignite her torch like she'd been doing all along and cauterize it then and there, rather than fighting her way through enemy territory in the hope of finding a first aid kit.
As interesting as the game's central premise and setting are, the storytelling doesn't always make much sense. Towards the end of the game, when Lara's only goal is to rescue her friend from the cultist leader, she has multiple opportunities to take a clear shot on the leader while he's unaware and undefended. She could literally take the shot, drop down, collect her friend (who was right there with the leader), and walk away with no resistance, but instead she stands around like an idiot and lets the leader escape and mount his defenses before she springs into action, just so that the stakes can escalate towards the climax. It feels so stupid and contrived, and she does it consistently throughout the entire game.
You have a clear shot at his face. Take the shot. Take the shot.
Why aren't you taking the f**king shot?
The story commands a quick pace, often using the threat of imminent danger to your crew mates as the driving force behind your actions, but the pacing of the story doesn't always mesh well with the pacing of the gameplay. At one point I was fighting my way through enemy territory and Lara randomly decided to stop halfway through and watch video footage on a camcorder she'd been carrying around, which seemed totally out of place considering there were more enemies just a little ways up the path. Later on, cultists kidnap one of your friends planning to use them for a ritual sacrifice, so Lara tells the player "I have to get there and stop them before they kill her!" Except you, the player, don't actually want to do that, because you'd much rather spend the next 20 minutes exploring the area in search of goodies that will help you level-up and improve your weapons before moving on.
The game tries to endear you to your crew mates in a very short amount of time so that you'll care about them when bad things happen, but the designers didn't bother to characterize any of them as anybody worth caring about. They're all one stereotype after another -- the gruff and stubborn Scotsman, the strong black woman, the sensitive friend, the computer nerd, the book-smart-but-otherwise-inept scientist, the hardened war veteran, and the big-but-lovable native islander. They never break out from these archetypal molds on screen, and any depth they receive happens off-screen via audio logs, which is too little too late. It was pretty bad when a major character died in Lara's arms, and my first (and only) thought was "oooh, does that mean I can take his pistol and dual-wield now?"
Combat in Tomb Raider plays like any typical third-person cover-shooter -- you get behind cover, then press the left trigger to pop up and go into aiming mode, and then press the right trigger to shoot, while moving from cover to cover to avoid taking damage. That formula has worked successfully in a number of games, but it just feels too inconsistent in this one -- sometimes it's tense, exciting, and fun, while other times it feels stupidly frustrating. It's generally fine when the enemies stay directly in front of you, but the system falls apart in designed situations where they surround you or come at you from multiple angles.
Since you have no way to control your stances manually, you can only fire your weapons while standing up. Thus, if you're behind a wall of crates being shot at by dudes on the opposite side of your cover and someone moves into your exposed flank, you have to stand up and expose yourself to the enemies you're already protected from in order to shoot the guy on your flank, because the game assumes that you're trying to shoot over the cover, even when you're not. In that situation, you simply cannot shoot the guy on your flank while remaining safely crouched behind cover, and that's exactly what got me killed during the climax of Lara's character development. Since you can't hip fire, either, your only options in that scenario are to take damage (and likely die) or scramble for another cover source.
Trying to take cover behind a small crate, tree, or pillar is infuriatingly difficult, because Lara will often "miss" the coded section of the cover surface and sort of bounce off the edge, leaving you standing around as normal, totally exposed to enemy fire. On a few occasions I had to bumble around a crate for five seconds or more trying to get the game to put me into cover mode before I inevitably died or gave up and tried to find somewhere else to take cover. Lara has a dodge maneuver that will let you scramble and then roll to avoid enemy fire, but I found this maneuver controlled rather oddly, because it causes Lara to quickly scramble in whatever direction she's facing -- not the direction you tilt the stick as you press the button -- which frequently caused me to scramble into enemy fire or out from behind cover.
The camera also moves around rather unpredictably as it tries to reposition itself behind you as you come out of a scramble or roll dodge, which frequently made me lose track of enemies as they suddenly were spun off screen, while I struggled to get my bearings and slowly move the camera to face the direction I intended to be facing. It's sometimes equally bad coming out of a cinematic finisher and leaves me no idea where I'm going to be looking or where enemies have moved in the meantime while they were off screen. Add in the fact that most enemies carry an infinite supply of molotovs that they can perfectly place directly at your feet, even while you're behind cover, from any distance, with perfect accuracy, and combat ultimately proved more frustrating than fun for me.
Why, for instance, did I have to play the game for nearly four hours before unlocking the ability to perform melee attacks? I had melee weapons the whole freaking time, but for some inexplicable reason the game would not let me use them in combat until I had leveled up arbitrarily high enough to buy a particular skill. This made combat such a tedious chore in those first several hours, because you just can't aim a ranged weapon quickly enough against close-ranged enemies, and it made no sense for Lara to have an axe easily accessible and not use it in those situations.
Midway through, the game pulls the video game trope of making you lose all of your weapons so that you feel vulnerable again, and it actually felt like a relief to get away from the combat for a change. During that section of the game you actually have the option to take a stealthy approach to situations, and the game emphasizes puzzles and environmental manipulation more than shooting enemies in the face. It even features some genuinely creepy, memorable scenes and encounters. I sighed when I got my weapons back because I enjoyed the game so much more without them.
The platforming is pretty good, but like the combat, it feels just inconsistent enough to be a little annoying at times. Some objects look like you can jump on top of them, but then when you approach and press the jump button, Lara vaults over them and slides across to the other side, which in one instance sent me into a pit of death. You have no momentum when you jump -- you can jump straight up and then move forward in mid-air, which looks and feels ridiculous. You can't control your jump height, so if you're trying to jump only a small distance you have no choice but to jump five feet straight up in the air and flail about awkwardly trying to position yourself over a narrow ledge before gravity kicks in, and the extreme height makes it significantly harder to perceive depth as you jump away from the camera.
The worst offender when it comes to platforming is the fact that everything you can climb is highlighted in bright white paint. The level design usually makes it pretty obvious where you have to go, even without that paint, but it takes a lot away from the satisfaction of figuring things out for yourself when the game so blatantly tells you where to go and how to get there. A lot of hidden items are meant to be found by exploring less-obvious areas that don't grab your eye with the white paint, but there are lot of times when you try to climb onto a ledge or drop down to suspend yourself from a ledge, only to find that you can't grab onto that ledge and thus fall to your death. The system therefore feels just a little too restrictive to be fully satisfying.
Exploration is where the game really shines. Although not technically an open world game, it does let you backtrack to previous areas so that you can use your new items to explore hidden areas that were previously inaccessible, Metroid-style, and you're often in fairly spacious areas that have a lot of complex nuances to explore. Exploration is tangibly rewarded with experience points and upgrade components for weapons, and you basically have to explore areas for the hidden journals if you want to get the most out of the story. Relics are particularly fun to find, because that's one of the rare occasions when Lara actually gets to act like a real archaeologist, and you get to learn some things about ancient Japanese culture in the process.
The best parts of the game, though, are the optional tombs you can explore for boatloads of extra experience, treasure maps (which show the location of all hidden items in an area), and rare components. These optional tombs are where the game presents its best puzzles by having you manipulate some contraption(s) in the environment in order to reach some unreachable area. This is the kind of stuff I was expecting to see in a Tomb Raider game, so it's disappointing that there are only a handful of tombs in the entire game and that they each only consist of one room with one puzzle. In some occasions, you walk into a tomb and solve the puzzle instantly, and then leave two or three minutes after you entered.
The game alternates between spacious hubs and linear story/action levels at a pretty nice pace, so you always feel like you're doing something different. The gameplay rarely gets to feel repetitive, especially considering the fact that you're always finding new weapons and unlocking new skills. The crafting and experience systems aren't all that impressive (they feel a little shallow and tacked on -- how, for example, am I adding a three-round burst to my pistol with parts harvested from a deer?), but they do a sufficient job of making you feel some sort of reward and progression. The story moves at a decent pace that keeps changing up the scenarios you're in, and the island itself is an interesting setting that will likely compel you to want to solve the mystery and see the game through to the end.
Add in the type of streamlined polish you'd expect from a "AAA" producer, and you have a game that never feels like a burdensome chore to play. Tomb Raider 2013 has a lot going for it -- an interesting setting and story, decent platforming, fun exploration, good pacing, intense combat, satisfying puzzles -- that should be an instant recipe for success, but there's something subtly wrong about every one of those things. This is a game that had the potential to be one of my favorite games of the last 10 years, but it came up just short in nearly every category. As a result, the game feels merely passable -- at best, it's "decent," and at worst it's "mediocre." Pick an adjective that fits somewhere between those two.