Tomb Raider – or, as it more accurately might be called, QTEs and Shooting From Behind Waist-High Walls – is not a game about raiding tombs. Indeed, there is only one tomb you “raid” to any meaningful extent as part of the story, and then only at the very end. If you were hoping for a large number of platforming puzzles and overcoming ancient traps and suchlike, you’re going to be disappointed – that is not even remotely what this game is about.
Tomb Raider is, instead, a cinematic action game. Where the game excels is in movie-like action sequences – bits where you run through a burning building and fight your way out, or run across a disintegrating bridge, or maneuver around a boat which is being shot apart around you. It is in these scenes that the game excels and feels exciting, as Lara Croft makes her way through the environment.
Sadly, this game offers very little else that excels.
The game is ostensibly a “how Lara Croft became who she is” story, but at that, it actually doesn’t do a very good job at all. The biggest problem – which I’m afraid is kind of crucial – is that the game does a rather poor job of doing exactly that. Lara Croft apparently learned how to do many things before this game even started, as in the tutorial sections towards the beginning, she constantly refers back to things she learned from other characters. As such, this is really the first time she used those skills.
Beyond that, I don’t know who Lara Croft is by the end of the game. She is, frankly, a generic power-fantasy action hero who is kind of whiny about it. When she kills a bad guy for the first time, she freaks out a bit and cries – but this is an event which has zero meaningful emotional impact on the audience. The problem is, we’ve all killed bad guys in video games before, and this particular rendition thereof is not particularly remarkable. Worse, Lara Croft herself is a certified badass – perhaps not at the beginning of the game, but by reputation, we know that Lara Croft is one of gaming’s Big Heroes. And indeed, throughout the rest of the game, Lara Croft kills many hundreds of bad guys, with pretty much zero impact.
As such, the game is already undermining the idea that taking a life is a big deal here at all – mechanically, it isn’t, players have already done all this before, Lara Croft herself is reputationally someone who kills lots of people, and in the game she kills hundreds of people.
She is scared for much of the game, until she resolves herself at the end, but this is simply not communicated mechanically – you feel powerful as you slaughter your way through hundreds of bad guys. When she starts shaking in the cutscenes after having escaped death and gone through numerous ridiculous movie setpieces, it just doesn’t sell itself to the audience at all emotionally.
This results in a sharp disconnect between the audience and the character, and indeed, between the character in cutscenes and the character outside of cutscenes, as she is actually played. It just doesn’t work.
And this means that the entire story falls flat on its face.
The plot itself is a mess – numerous characters come in and out of the story, but the reality is that there is just no reason to care. There are at least two characters who are introduced to you and then killed off a scene later, negating any possible emotional impact their deaths might have had. The only good guy character who spends any significant amount of time with the player through much of the story is Roth, but his presence, too, is too ephemeral for the player to care about what happens to him, and his eventual fate is not something that the player feels in any way responsible for.
It doesn’t help that the characters themselves are all extremely flat. Lara talks about her dad’s theories, but we don’t get a good grasp of who were dad was. Sam, the person you’re trying to rescue, is not someone you forge any sort of meaningful emotional bond with as a player – there are a couple of flashback scenes, which I thought were there to try and establish the bonds with the absent characters, but then they end and I’m left going through the rest of the story trying to rescue someone that I have no real emotional connection to. I mean, sure, you’re going to save them – you’re the hero – but as the player, you have no reason to care. Likewise with the rest of the surviving crew, who mostly only show up towards the end of the game.
The bad guy himself is a standard crazy cult leader/survivalist, and the bad guys are dudes with guns, occasionally mixed up with dudes with machetes and a few dudes with riot shields. Almost everyone you confront throughout the game falls into those categories; there just isn’t enough variety. There’s a handful of wolves, who only feel threatening in any way at the beginning, and a tiny number of other enemies – machine gunners behind turrets with shields, and a boss at the very end of the game who is a gigantic armored dude – who feel somewhat significant but are only extremely sparingly used.
The result is that most of the actual combat in the game is samey “stand behind waist-high walls while shooting bad guys”. It isn’t particularly interesting or exciting, and the game does little to make these encounters interesting in most cases. There are a few setpiece battles which work very well, and which are pretty fun, but a lot of the combat in the game is pretty bland and rather trivial.
The game also has major pacing issues. It takes more than three hours before Lara Croft gains the ability to climb walls, which is a pretty key ability in the game. The game up to that point is basically a tutorial, and you don’t really get into the real “meat” of the game until about four hours in. I’ve played entire games that are shorter, and which are much better. Most of the interesting content happens after that point, and I almost gave up on the game by the midway point. The second half of the game is a bit better than the first half, though, so I ended up persevering and completing it.
Still, I can’t feel like it was a mistake to ever start it in the first place. Even when the game gets into the “good bits”, it is constantly holding itself back with collectibles scattered throughout the environment. To what end? These collectibles give in-game rewards – experience to unlock skills and scrap and parts to improve your weapons – which encourages you to spend a lot of time exploring. But the game’s best parts are not looking around the environment for tiny objects, but doing those cinematic action scenes – the collectibles serve to slow down the pace of the game and act as a diversion. They stretch out the length of the game, but dilute what is good about it. And while some of the environmental traversal sections are enjoyable, and there were a few bits where I liked the exploration – the optional tombs, of which there are about eight or so, were decent, if extremely short – a lot of it was looking for objects in the environment, which isn’t really much fun, doubly so given that the objects you find are almost all bland and pointless-feeling, most especially some “GPS locator” devices which have no discernible purpose in-game.
Clocking in around 20 hours in length to 100%, and maybe half that if you just ignore the collectibles, Tomb Raider is a mid-length game. But I feel like I could have spent those 20 hours so much better. The good points are decent, but there is so much in the game which just isn’t all that great, and what is there is not really challenging by and large. It doesn’t really make me care about Lara Croft as a person, and the core gameplay experience doesn’t make me really care about the game – there are games which have neat moments which don’t have boring bits in between, and which populate their worlds with more interesting allies and enemies.
It isn’t the worst game I’ve ever played, but I can’t recommend it to anyone.