Tomb Raider single-player review: 'Uncharted' territory

We embark on Lara Croft's new origin story in Crystal Dynamics' series reboot of Tomb Raider, and see how her modern makeover fares.

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Rebooting a beloved and long-lived series in any entertainment medium is a challenging prospect. Push your material to the next level in every conceivable way, but stray too far from the core type of experience that made your source material successful, and you risk disappointing your built-in fanbase. Tomb Raider by Crystal Dynamics does both of these things in a number of ways. There's also a lot mechanically and structurally familiar about Lara Croft's new "origin story" experience alongside the new stuff, though that familiarity doesn't stem much from past Tomb Raider games. For starters--and either good news or bad news, depending on your attachment to the more carefree tone of the series' prior games--Tomb Raider is much darker and violent than it's predecessors. The overall story line is infused with a hefty dose of the kind of supernatural elements you might expect from an Indiana Jones movie, but there aren't many (if any) moments of levity. Blood, gore, and decomposing corpses are used liberally in the set dressing, and there are a number of visually gruesome ways for Lara to meet her demise. The setting is confined to a single, but large island where Lara and her group of archaeologist friends find themselves stranded (and separated) after a shipwreck. They're beset upon by some strange cult of mercenaries, and Lara has to escape, try to survive, and rescue her friends. Overall, the voice acting is good, although the script erratically jumps between being decent and overly melodramatic. The story itself, despite a good amount of expository cinematics, is relatively one-dimensional, as is the games generic lead villain. Given the harsh weather and temperatures Lara encounters wearing nothing but her iconic tank top, suspension of disbelief can be tricky, given how seriously the story takes itself. It's also a bit strange that the story doesn't involve much in the way of ancient artifacts or treasures of any kind, which are relegated to the role of optional collectibles. The rest of the game's presentational attributes are great, including an impressive variety of character animations and great-looking locations. The design ethos of the new Tomb Raider game is actually quite different from prior games in the series. Whereas the primary focus was on environmental exploration and puzzles, with a dash of combat thrown in for spice, the new Tomb Raider pulls a complete one-eighty. It's not long before Lara has armed herself with a bow, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and pickax and is mowing down scads of bad guys while en-route to a linear climb to her next objective. The action is punctuated with some visually-impressive, scripted roller-coaster moments, quick-time events, and cinematics. For better or worse, Tomb Raider seems to have cribbed a lot of developer Naughty Dog's playbook for the Uncharted series. There are still some environmental puzzles to be solved--my favorites being ones that involved using Lara's rope arrow upgrade--but you're not likely to get stumped by them, nor are they likely to test your dexterity much. It's a nice touch that there are a number of optional tombs to explore along the way, but most of them basically amount to a single-room puzzle. Similarly, while there are some branching pathways, side-routes, and optional nooks to explore throughout the game, thoroughly scouring each area doesn't take long.

Lara in peril. This kind of thing happens a lot.

When it comes to Lara's new dual-purpose weapon-tools, the bow and the pickax are both fun to use. Upgrading the bow with things like rope arrows, fire arrows, and damage bonuses kept it useful throughout the game. It's actually the weapon I used to defeat the final boss. The pickax adds a minor, but fun new dimension to climbing sheer surfaces, and like the bow, can be used to dispatch enemies quietly. Combat is relatively entertaining throughout, and though much of it feels familiar to other third-person shooters, I felt the game's automatic cover mechanic was particularly well implemented, and much less clunky than the more typical "press a button to stick to cover" systems. In the end, I enjoyed the Tomb Raider ride, but in a B-grade thriller sort of way. A lot of that has to do with the new direction it takes, which skews towards a much different and action-oriented balance of gameplay than its predecessors, and a script that can't quite bear the weight of the story's serious tone. There are a lot of exciting, cinematic moments and action to experience within, even though they come at the expense of the spirit of exploration and environmental puzzling the IP was originally built upon.
This Tomb Raider single-player review is based on pre-release review code for the Xbox 360, provided by the publisher. The game will also be available for PC and PlayStation 3 when it comes out on March 5. The multiplayer portion of the game will be reviewed separately under real world conditions.

From The Chatty

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    February 25, 2013 7:00 AM

    Jeff Mattas posted a new article, Tomb Raider single-player review: 'Uncharted' territory.

    We embark on Lara Croft's new origin story in Crystal Dynamics' series reboot of Tomb Raider, and see how her modern makeover fares.

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      February 25, 2013 7:17 AM

      Wow reviews coming out a week ahead of release? Squenix doing the Right Thing by not having a release day review embargo.

      Not actually going to read this though... don't want any spoilers :)

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        February 25, 2013 7:43 AM

        I always have respect for companies that put out early copies for review, and have no embargo. More often than not, it ends up being a good product and they know it.

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          February 25, 2013 11:56 AM

          Yeah, I agree with that.

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          February 25, 2013 1:38 PM

          Well, most review embargoes are there to hide games that publishers know are shitty so preorders don't get cancelled.

          If the the game isn't a huge pile of shit, then no embargo means getting good reviews out earlier which will cause fence sitters to preorder.

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        February 25, 2013 7:53 AM

        LOL.

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      February 25, 2013 7:44 AM

      Thanks for the review, tempted to pre-order this now!

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      February 25, 2013 7:54 AM

      I WANNA PLAY THIS GAME SO BAD :(*

      • Ziz
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        February 25, 2013 8:50 AM

        Just to see her die on a stick?

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      February 25, 2013 9:27 AM

      Hmm... I'm glad it sounds fairly good, I've been excited for this game. The only worrying thing for me is that exploration and climbing around is my favorite part of these games... I was hoping they would stick more to that side of the formula. Sounds like they went more Uncharted. I'm actually not a big fan of Uncharted (even though I agree it's a really fun game to 'watch').

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        February 25, 2013 9:54 AM

        I agree.
        I like the exploration a lot more than the combat.
        I also didnt like Uncharted series much.
        But, I have already pre-ordered long ago, because, well, its Tomb Raider.
        :)

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      February 25, 2013 10:21 AM

      Hated going around moving blocks and what not.
      I'd rather have this new take on the series.

      Action, adventure and combat are key words to trigger interest in today's gamer. These are action verbs and give one pause to take notice.

      Exploration and puzzle solving are better left for the games of yesteryear when games like Uncharted, RE6, Dead Space 3 and the new DmC were wet dreams of every developer and game hobbyist around the world.

      There is a place for these kinds of games, and a little incorporation of these elements is fine. But today's developers have a HUGE task in their hands. How to make a game feel relevant in today market while simultaneously trying to incorporate features for the old guard. As any project manager will tell you, this is incredibly difficult.

      Now that we have amazing games we condemn developers and publishers for bringing our wildest aspirations to life.?

      Only in this crazy world.

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      February 25, 2013 12:51 PM

      Been a long time since I slapped down 50-60 bucks for a game but it's damn tempting with this one. It's looking good

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      February 25, 2013 1:05 PM

      Gamespot likes it too: http://www.gamespot.com/tomb-raider/reviews/tomb-raider-review-6404378/
      Carolyn Petit is a fine reviewer, but they need someone else to read it for the video. That voice is grating.

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      February 25, 2013 1:48 PM

      DLC nude code.

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        February 25, 2013 4:27 PM

        Do you know how much money they could make with this? I can see the Fox headlines now...

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      February 25, 2013 3:22 PM

      The biggest concern most people have with the game is based on several preview/Play articles where the folks playing out the first couple of hours said that they barely had any fun choices to make due to the game's rail-roading aspect and linearity. Doesn't sound that great to me - wish this article had touched more on that aspect and whether it improves after a while.

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        February 25, 2013 3:24 PM

        One of the coolest things about the Tomb Raider series was the open-ended decision-making you'd enjoy as you tackled some ancient ruins and had to figure out your way through everything. This sounds more like they've turned it into some sort of Adventure game with a few light action-y elements (not a bad thing per se, but also not really Tomb Raider-esque, either).

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          February 25, 2013 3:35 PM

          I don't really remember any open-ended decision-making stuff in the older games, what do you mean by that?

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            February 26, 2013 12:49 AM

            I don't mean open-ended like a sandbox, my apologies for that...but I meant more towards the story. This one seems to have a really rigidly defined path with few choices to make and from of the other stuff I've read, even your movements and actions are fairly well-limited, especially in the first hour or so of gameplay. That doesn't sound too fun to me. Each to their own, though.

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          February 25, 2013 3:42 PM

          play tomb raider: anniversary. there is not much of that. there is one way through each area, with a few side paths for treasure. it's exceptionally linear.

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            February 25, 2013 3:45 PM

            i agree. Legend is the same way too. there's an illusion of choice but it's not really there

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          February 25, 2013 3:57 PM

          there wasn't any open-ended anything in the Tomb Raider series.

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          February 25, 2013 4:06 PM

          we must have played different TR games

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      February 25, 2013 3:41 PM

      So from what I'm reading, if I wanted to play a tomb raider game about exploring big set pieces and solving environmental problems this isn't for me. But if you want more over the top action like uncharted, this will do well (and it does look good).

      I was really hoping for more exploration than action so guess I'll wait, but on the bright side I'm sure the next steam sale will make this a good pickup.

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        February 25, 2013 3:58 PM

        The eurogamer review says that there are optional tombs to explore.

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          February 25, 2013 4:13 PM

          So does this review. ;)

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          February 26, 2013 12:51 AM

          Well that fixes everything! Nah, not really but at least they offer something like that.

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      February 25, 2013 7:20 PM

      Nice am really looking forward to it.

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      February 26, 2013 12:39 AM

      "Given the harsh weather and temperatures Lara encounters wearing nothing but her iconic tank top..."

      So Lara is naked from the waist down?

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        February 26, 2013 8:01 AM

        Was playing with mods made by an 11 year old to make the game more "Mature".

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      February 26, 2013 4:43 AM

      So it's a Tomb Raider game without the Tomb Raider bit?

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      March 6, 2013 5:05 AM

      I don't know what B grade thrillers you've seen but in my opinion this was nothing short of a grade A blockbuster. Best game I've played in a long time and my favorite Tomb Raider.