Review (of the previews of) Tomb Raider
John Brindle takes the previews of Tomb Raider to task.
In recent weeks the world of gaming has had to confront the problem of previews. You know them well – those cosseted, stage-managed First Looks at incipient products that might never see the light of day. Jim Sterling declared his previewing days over, while Gameranx’ own Jordan Garland was moved to defend them; Cara Ellison wrote gonzo-style from a Crysis 3 press event, confirming, in a follow-up piece: “They’re All Like This”. And after the debacle of Aliens: Colonial Marines, how can we ever trust previews again?
Here at Gameranx, we think we’ve got the solution. With so much preview coverage and footage pumped out of eager publishers, why not simply review games purely on the basis of their pre-release material? Doing so will allow us to objectively consider, and rate, what we see, based on what we are given. Consider it real talk from the sceptical trenches of upcoming games journalism.
This neatly solves a second problem, which is that nobody ever gives us any review code. So while other outlets parade around with their high-fallutin’ ‘reviews’ of this year’s Tomb Raider – released on March 5 – we venture like brave explorers into the uncharted territory of the preview review.
With Tomb Raider 2013, Crystal Dynamics has taken series heroine Lara Croft back to her roots – if not those of the series itself. We guide her through her first dig, her first kill (awww!) and even, according to one video, her “first machine-gun” (adorable!). Along the way we enact her transformation from bookish student into iconic badass. And yes, readers, two years of pointed, smirking denials from the developers confirm that you do get to find out where she got those dual pistols from.
But if you’re expecting that to mean a reduction in the body-count, think again. In an hour-long preview video, set somewhere near the start of the game, Lara shoots 13 men before she reaches the next cut-scene. Movement and shooting have changed since 2006’s Tomb Raider: Legend, acquiring the easy fluidity and flawless animation transitions of the Uncharted series. But TR also inherits Nathan Drake’s murderous rampages, if not his happy-go-lucky attitude: the tone is very much gritty, grubby, and GRRM-level grim.
The darkness works, just about. Lara’s movements are commendably desperate and tired; for once it really looks like her activity might be in any way strenuous. Shaky-cam cut-scenes showcase fairly competent voice-acting, Lara might be younger, but in a sense she has also grown up – and with her, the game achieves the narrative and scriptural sophistication of a moderately entertaining CSI episode.
The problem is that Tomb Raider is also a victim of its developers’ own enthusiasm. In video after video they tout completely ordinary features as game-changing revelations. At one point they boast about “the opportunity to initiate combat” (sometimes enemies aren’t aware of you when you enter an area! Gasp!). Later, the same poor fellow gushes about the “opportunities for exploration” – while, at the controls, his boss guides Lara into a small side room about the size of a walk-in freezer. In another, more recent video, a different but indistinguishable developer enthuses that “she can use brains as she approaches the situation.” Lara shoots someone with an arrow, and he gamely tries to keep up: “She can take out one guy…” Then she shoots everyone else too, without any particular intelligence. Developer man drops the subject and moves onto something else.
This is not to say the core mechanics aren’t fun. In the multi-purpose climbing axe, we find a tool of movement almost as flexible and satisfying as Dishonored’s blink or Ape Escape’s helicopter blades. Many surfaces in game can be grappled and traversed, while the same tool also hooks onto ziplines, pries open crates and executes enemies. Combat is engaging enough, if nothing special, save cunning enemy AI which does a good job of flushing you out of cover. And, of course, there are the standard – indeed obligatory – collection, xp and upgrade mechanics, grindable by fast-travelling to previous areas.
Here, unfortunately, is where what we’re told is most mismatched with what we see. Crystal Dynamics have repeatedly claimed that this edition of the series is more free-roaming than most – that alternate paths are yours to explore. In the previews, however, there isn’t much evidence. Save extremely rudimentary forking paths diverging from each other by mere meters, the game is organised as a series of connecting hubs, which offer a limited amount of exploration. The much vaunted camp site system is mostly a means of backtracking to revisit old ground. And while the level design has a stirring pulse to it – switching between wide open vistas and claustrophobic tunnels to great effect – environments too often narrow into linear tunnels full of enemies, where men with guns are the door and your shotgun is a key. Such situations force Lara to rely on what her PR laughably glosses as “survival combat” far more often than the actual fun of the fighting can justify (let alone her much-vaunted origin story).
For all the busy industry of hunting mechanics from Far Cry 3, upgrade mechanics from Assassin’s Creed 2, and skill trees from Arkham Asylum, new-style Tomb Raider never really breathes. That moment, where you stand, alone and silent, before a gigantic and ancient ruin, knowing that nobody in the world but yourself can conquer its secrets? The serene, tense anticipation of a Tomb Raider opening? You won’t find it here, not in what the developers have shown us.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with Tomb Raider – not as such. It has a few tricks up its sleeve and it ladles out its set pieces and quick time events with the polish you’d expect. But we’re not seeing anything here that’s really worth waiting for – indeed, we see nothing that we can’t get from games which have already been released. And with the likes of Bioshock: Infinite or Watch Dogs on the horizon, there are more exciting things to spend your time not playing.
Muted colours and my bad internet connection mar a textured, pretty game.
Moderately interesting to watch, looks barely more interesting to play.
There’s a huge wealth of preview footage available, including an hour-long video.
PR BABBLE: 4.5
Not completely witless, and only one misogyny scandal so far (!), but fluff city nonetheless.
OVERALL MARK: 7.3
Tomb Raider is pleasant enough to follow, but it can’t hold a candle to other long-awaited events like the Second Coming or last year’s Mayan Apocalypse.