Tomb Raider: An UberPunctual Review

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Yeah, I know I’m a tad late on the draw with this one, but here we go. I don’t have a ton of time or money, but it was on sale this summer through Steam and I had to get it because I heard good things.

First and foremost I’d like to say that this game is tippy-top. Or wicked awesome for my Bostonian friends. Bostonite? You know who you are, you persons from Boston. And I ain’t talking about those biotches from Quincy either. I’m talking Boston proper… I’m spending too much time on Boston and making too many enemies from Boston’s outlying burbs. I’ve never even been to Boston, so I don’t even know what I’m talking about. Whatever, moving on!

Like I said, Tomb Raider is one of the best action/adventure games I’ve played in a very long time and probably the best platformer since the first Prince of Persia reboot. Yeah, The Sands of Time. Great frikin game. And, yes, I’m including the Assassin’s creed games in my thought process here. I love those games (though less and less with each release…) but taking into account pure, technical platforming gameplay they are not as good PoP or this beauty of a game called: Tomb Raider.

So, I’m not going to get into the multiplayer because I think a game should be viewed in terms of the developers primary focus or foci. While some games have an obvious focus on multiplayer and just kind of drizzle out a single player campaign (here’s lookin’ at you Brink.), other games should only be considered for their single player campaign because their multiplayer was either half-assed and thrown into the game, seemingly, as an after thought (Bioshock 2) or forced on the developer by a misguided publisher, thus staining an otherwise impeccable effort (I love you Spec Ops: The Line!!!). Though, to be fair, Bioshock 2 was published by the same company (2K Games) as Spec Ops, so it might have been the same issue for that game as well. I don’t know, but whatever, back to Tomb Raider…

Now, I was never a fan of the originals. I know a lot of people were, but I never got into them. I played one demo and the controls were clumsy and there was way too much backtracking through giant, empty rooms that a pair of anatomically horrifying polygonal breasts couldn’t make up for. It just wasn’t my bag back then.

But this game… this game fits nicely in my bag.

Time for another digression: I love video games because they interact with and challenge my mind in ways that nothing else can. Books don’t have shit on the mental stimulus provided by a good FPS on the hardest difficulty and the most touching drama movies are as emotionally engaging as a Geico advert compared to the rush of finally bitch-slapping a level that’s spent the last 4 hours murdering you over and over and over again only to finally and painfully succumb to your dry-mouthed, haven’t-blinked-in-43-minutes, “EAT A SLOPPY ONE ‘CAUSE YOU’RE NOT BETTER THAN ME, YOU STUPID PILE OF PIXELS!!!!!” determination… Just sayin’… Video games are awesome… But I rarely, rarely, RARELY ever feel powerful when I play a video game.

Video games are supposedly power trips and most games only prove the character’s might through having them murder tons of people. You’re one guy and you’ve got a kill count larger than most minor wars? You’re a badass, right? I guess, but I hardly ever feel that way. Most of the time I don’t notice it because it’s not my character that’s powerful, it’s the bad guys that are terrible. Gameplay breaks it too.

Here are some examples of things that break the illusion of power unless counteracted by some other feature:

1.) Any modern shooter: When I play as Soap or Master Chief or Marcus Fenix I don’t feel like an elite soldier that’s better than everyone else. I feel like a normal soldier facing an enemy so stupid that they can’t make proper use of basic military tactics or even their iron sights (though Veteran on most CoD games helps with that). If I went up against an AI that utilized flanking, sniper cover and suppressive fire and, on top of that, I wasn’t able to take every bullet ever made straight into my face, so as long as I was able to duck behind cover for 5 seconds every few face bullets, I might feel like more of a badass. I love all those games, but I never feel like a badass while playing them.

2.) Hack and slash games: Does anyone ever feel like a badass playing these games? No doubt, they’re fun, but if someone has the speed, strength and stamina of the entire JLA put together, big flippin whoop. It’s the reason why Superman is so damn boring. If someone’s quite literally unkillable, what are the stakes? Why do I give a crap? I don’t. But I’ll get back to this genre in a second.

3.) RPGs (and also any strategy game): Probably the biggest injustice and also worst offender of them all. In damn near every RPG you play as “the one,” but I always feel like “someone.” Basically what I mean is I never feel like I’m better or more powerful than any one else in the story. I just feel like I’m playing the only guy who’s bothered stepping up to the big bad, whether through some unintelligible choice or (far more commonly) because my character is mystically obligated to for one reason or another. And if there’s one way to surefire neuter a character’s badassness, it’s to have them fight because of either destiny or they just have nothing better to do.

Now there have been a few games where I felt like the main character was truly a force to be slightly peeved:

1.) The aforementioned Prince Of Persia: SoT – The maneuvers he accomplished in that game were astonishing.

2.) God of War – Shaking the camera on heavy hits, strategic slo-mo to emphasize power, feats of godly might impossible for any normal human… this is how to do Hack n Slash correctly. Kratos rotates a frikin temple with his hands. He climbed out of Hades! Just climbed the hell out of Hell! He was like, “I’m dead? Nah, not today… BRB, Hades! TTFN! ROFL.” He’s a beast, pure and simple.

3.) Assassin’s Creed – And I’m talking about the first one. Sure, Ezio and Connor can take on more bad guys in hand to hand combat, but that just makes them more unrealistic, not more badass. Altair was a badass because he was human and could still accomplish these amazing feats of agility. But what made me feel like a badass the most in these games was the fact that Altair was a mental giant (yes, that’s a Tecca Nina reference) as well as a physical one. He could sneak into a heavily fortified place, murder a high ranking official, have a small conversation with his victim, and then sneak the hell out without anyone ever knowing what happened. Ezio and Connor are forced into so many conflicts during their missions that the only assumption is that they’re just not as good as Altair.

4.) Mass Effect 3 – Despite the ending poisoning the experience, this is still one of the best games I’ve ever played. This game is a phenom. I’ve loved this series since the first and I have to say that it wasn’t until the third game that I truly appreciated how powerful the crew of the Normandy really was. And do you know what made me realize it? Playing the multiplayer. In the multiplayer you’re supposed to be a hyper-elite soldier and compared to Commander Shepard you suck. You’re supposed to be one of the best in the universe and any member of the Normandy crew could wipe the floor with you without ever breaking a sweat. Of course, all of this is most apparent when playing a biotic-focused character because of the way they programmed the biotic abilities, but I think it works no matter what.

5.) Hotline Miami – Now, you might be thinking, “What? Really, dude?” And that would be because you’ve never played this game. If you’re thinking, “You took your sweet time getting to this one…” then you’ve certainly played this game. I’ve never played a game that detached me from the character I’m playing so much in a way that’s probably good for my mental health. If I could relate and sympathize with the effortless and utterly merciless way this guy dispatches his prey when I’m in the zone I would probably need some alone time to seriously contemplate my life. This guy is a brutal and horrifying individual and it feels great when you manage to get an “A+” grade on a level. It just occured to me how jacked up it is that you get graded in that unflinchingly violent game on a grade school scale (F through A+). Oh, and did I mention he does all these terrible things wearing rubber animal masks…

6.) Demon/Dark Souls – Nothing else need be said about these two. You either get it or you don’t.

I’m sure there are others but those ones really made an impression. And now I get to add Tomb Raider to the list, but for a whole different reason than the others.

Lara Croft has been the symbol of what’s wrong with gaming culture’s concepts of women since she appeared. Her games have always been well loved, but the character herself was everything wrong with depictions of females in the medium. An inhuman, Barbie-esque physique and some of the most idiotic clothing to go rummaging through caverns and crypts in, especially when she knows there’s going to be gunfights and tigers and statues coming to life to murder you. And she most certainly knows those things are coming because there are ALWAYS gunfights and tigers and statues coming to life to murder you. Even if she didn’t know, you don’t go wandering into the bowels of the earth in nothing but short shorts, a tank top and two pistols! “At least she’s wearing boots…” She’s wearing frikin combat boots! Any first day hiker would know that combat boots don’t give even close to the same ankle support as hiking boots do. It’s frikin baby town frolics.

I think I may be too passionate about proper hiking attire and deviating from the more important and sexist point. Lara Croft was never a role model or anything even slightly resembling a symbol of female empowerment. Until this game.

Lara Croft in this rebooted version is the ultimate symbol of feminine force of will if only in the simple fact that her determination in the face of immense challenges goes WAY the hell beyond the fact that she’s a woman. This isn’t a story about what a woman can accomplish. It goes further than that. It transcends the precepts of biological sex and is simply a story of what a member of the human race can accomplish when put to the test. And that’s the true goal of feminism. The transcendance of the societal mindset beyond any and all assumptions based on sex and looking at both sexes as an equal and cohesive human race.

Throughout Lara Croft’s origin story, through her many, many trials, both physical and mental, she consistently overcomes and pushes on in a manner that is at once both completely believable and thoroughly admirable. Throughout the game all I could do was wonder if I would have the strength of will to do the same and honestly… Listen, I’m not strong and I’m not fast, but I pride myself on my ability to endure pain and hardships and brush it off like so much Jay-Z shoulder dirt but the stuff she goes through in this game would have me crying like a wee little baby.

She’s get messed the hell up in this game. Granted, yes, if you fail, she meets with some of the most grisly demises I’ve ever seen a player character experience which only serves as a deterrent from failing because every time I messed up and she experienced a death, I felt like I was to blame. It’s the same great feeling I got when I died in Dark Souls and Demon Souls. And if you’re confused why I described the feeling as, “great,” it’s because knowing that you failed because you actually failed is certainly a great feeling compared to knowing you failed because the computer has a clear advantage (a la homing grenades) or you simply got screwed by poor programming.

But I’m not even talking about the gruesome deaths. I mean, just throughout the course of the game. She gets knocked out 4-5 times, near a massive explosion at least twice, and tossed down mountains. Yeah, “mountains.” Plural. She even gets impaled through the side with a bit of quarter-inch rebar and then cauterizes the wound with the lighter-heated tip of an arrow… like two days after she was impaled! Running and jumping and fighting with a hole through her side. She’s in gunfights and physical, tooth-and-nail life or death struggles throughout the game and you know what the best part is? They never once go for the cheap and easy target that all fictional women seem to have on their back when men are writing their struggle. They never have anyone rape her.

Yes, they touch on the subject as subtly and classy as a writer possibly could by hinting at one bad guy’s intentions and then she promptly bust a cap in the bastard’s ass. And the cherry on the delicious sundae that is this beautifully crafted bit of character drama: She doesn’t kill the guy and then say something stupid and snarky like, “Now who’s screwed?”

No, no, no… These writers are far more respectful of Lara’s humanity than that.

She’s forced to shoot the guy in the head after a frantic, frenzied struggle for the gun and afterward he lays there, still alive and struggling to breathe past his own blood, he immediately becomes human and nearly worthy of pity were it not for knowledge of his previous ruthless actions and intentions. Lara is visibly shaken by the experience and later mentions how it disturbed her how easy killing was for her. You see, if the writers had let the bad guy have his way, it would have been a crude and inelegant way of harming and signifying the character’s loss of innocence. But by not letting him have his way, they were able to do the same thing.

The bad guy’s intention was to take Lara’s innocence away from her and, in failing, he succeeded by forcing her to take a person’s life for the first time.

This scene is masterful in it’s execution. It’s like a handcrafted pocket watch. If you look at the thing as a whole, it’s seems simple and with limited purpose, but if you take it apart and look at each piece separately, you can start to truly appreciate it as a finely crafted work of art. And that’s really what this game is at it’s heart. An in depth character study of what a human being is capable when their back is against the wall.

But on top of that, it’s also a video game, so let’s get to the nuts and bolts of it.

This game is gorgeous both inside and out. The textures and meshes are great. The attention to detail when it comes to Lara’s character design is astonishing. She’s constantly getting dirty, jumping and falling all over the island, and then she’s forced into some water and comes out cleaner (though never as clean as she is in the beginning of the game). Her injuries and torn up clothes serve as roadmaps for what she’s been through in the course of the game (which is probably the most obvious concept they pulled from Die Hard; a major influence on the development team). I can only imagine the amount of separate textures just for Lara alone. I mean, they probably used layers of textures on top of each other , but if they didn’t then there would have to be… at least 15-20… at least. Maybe half a dozen separate meshes? Pure guess, but I’m probably low-balling the numbers. Either way, it’s impressive. I haven’t seen that level of attention given to the player character’s design since Arkham Asylum the detail of those changes simply pale in comparison.

And then there’s the world. Fantastically designed world. Despite it’s use of the typical gritty realism inherent in action games these days, I would put money on the fact that in five, ten, even twenty years, you could probably show me screenshots of just the game world and I’d be able to pick out which game it is. For a game that utilizes such boring locales as forests, caves and industrial complexes they still, mind-bogglingly, make it all seem new and different like I’ve never seen a forest before.

And by gorgeous on the inside, I mean the programming and optimization. Now, I don’t have a particularly speedy computer. It’s pushing on 6 years now, with the only upgrade being a mid-level video card that was out of date when I bought it in 2010 and two extra Gigs of RAM to bump it up to the 32-bit max of 4GB. This rig is pretty much on life support in computer years. And on top of that, I recently played Sleeping Dogs on it (which is a great game, BTW) and that game would drag like hell on my PC. It would sometimes get down to <10 FPS during fast driving sequences and when it was going smoothly the audio would skip like crazy. Now, granted, Sleeping Dogs, while being an excellent game, was probably one of the laziest ports from console to PC I’ve ever seen. It’s completely acceptable, given it’s production history, and I don’t fault it whatsoever because of that, but it was essentially a processor anchor, dragging down my system until I was forced to run the game right after a fresh restart of my PC just to let the old bastard reallocate as much RAM and processing speed as possible to the game. Oh, and might I add… This was all on the lowest possible graphical settings.

And then there’s Tomb Raider. Tomb raider should be far more graphically intensive than sleeping dogs. Despite the high speeds you move through Hong Kong in Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider simply has more going on graphically. Well, at least when you put it on the highest settings, which I’m able to do, while still maintaining an average of 30FPS. If I drop it down to lowest settings I can get over 60FPS, but then the game looks like doodoo, so no thanks. I’ve experienced graphical slowdowns literally twice and both times were due to me forgetting to turn off a couple of processes that take up a lot of room and once I turned those off it was back to business without even the hint of a reboot. Like I said, this game is gorgeous inside and out.

Programming-wise I’ve only come across a couple of anomalies, such as two characters walking off in one direction, I follow them to listen to their conversation, they stop talking only to completely disappear. I shrug and go back to find them reset back where I first found them and then they start their pathing and conversation over like the script just looped.

The physics are realistic and predictable (predictable being a good thing). When you shoot someone with an arrow, they just sort of slump over as one might, since there’s not a whole lot of force behind an arrow. I’m not quite sure, but I think I noticed the wind direction change randomly each time I entered an area. If that actually happened, whoever decided on the brilliant, but simple little nuance needs a tidy little bonus for the holidays just for being ballsy enough to work on something that most gamers would never even notice. Whoever you are, I love you.

The camera placement is excellent. There are few things in video games worse than a terribly programmed game camera.

The cover system is elegant. Hands down, the best I’ve ever seen. When you need cover it gives it to you. No pressing of any buttons. No lining up the character just right so you know where (or ever if) she’ll pop out to shoot. Everything is fluid and responsive and just oh so cherry.

My biggest problem with the programming in the game would be the weapons. They’re good, but not great. They just don’t have the heft that I would hope for. The shotgun especially, but it’s all of them, really. If you want a great example of a game where you can really feel the weight and power of your firearms, you should play Mafia 2 because they nailed it with that one. Also, if you haven’t played Mafia 2, you should play Mafia 2 because it’s a great frikin game. There one beautiful bit of call back that you won’t get if you’ve never played the first one, but it won’t ruin your experience.

I’ll finish this enormous post with a bit about a problem I have with the story and the gameplay and really my whole reason for writing this review in the first place because it bothered me so much. Now, this didn’t bother me because I hated it, it just really irritated me because they designed the game in a way that both hindered and greatly benefitted itself in a ways that’s been really frustrating to me.

I’ll explain.

Now, this is an adventure/platformer game. You need collectables in a game like this or you’re defeating the purpose and really shortchanging yourself on all the hours spent programming the platforming parts of the game in the first place. Exploring the world and discovering things through solving little mini puzzles is one of the best parts about these games.

On the other hand, the story is one about desperation and necessity. In almost every part of the game you have to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible or someone will die. And when you finally get there and the person does actually die… Sure, there’s no way to actually save them, but you can’t help thinking, at least a bit, that if you hadn’t spent 20 minutes figuring out puzzles and looking for treasure and hunting deer… well maybe he might not have died 3 seconds after you arrived.

And here’s the catch and the real “screw you” inherent in Tomb Raider’s game design. If you just play through the game with the urgency that Lara would actually display in the situations she’s in, then you’re missing out on almost half of the experience and weapon upgrade in the game. You will go into scripted battle after scripted battle without the weapons or skills that you should have. Sure, you can run around the island and collect everything you missed after the game is complete, but who gives a crap? You can’t use those awesome weapons and skills in any conflict that actually matters… You know, because you’ve already completed the game?

It’s a frustrating catch 22 between proper story pacing and proper game design. The only way around this that I could think of is if they had giving you, essentially, two separate games. One where you play through the campaign with all the urgency and determination required to not completely undermine the narrative and then, after that, Lara comes back to the island a month or two later in an attempt to explore and discover all of the island’s secrets using all of the skills and items she gained last time she was there only to find the remnants of the bad guy army still running around to give you a bit of combat fun. It would be the best of both worlds. First, people who just want to play the game can play through and not be punished by lulls in the narrative or insufficient weapons and skills during later levels and then those of us who are completionists are allowed to explore and solve puzzles at our story-appropriate leisure. There doesn’t need to be an in-game reward for finding everything either. The rewards are the achievements and the fun of exploring and discovering hidden nooks and grannies. Grannies? Crannies? Crannies. Nooks and crannies.

But yeah, I get why they did it the way they did, it’s just incredibly frustrating from a writer’s standpoint. The leisurely exploration inherent to the gameplay just doesn’t mesh with the stressful and constantly life threatening urgency they’ve set up with the story and situations they put the characters in.

But despite all that, this is still an amazing game. Great gameplay. Great visuals. Great story. And a great way to turn one of the least feminist characters into, arguably, the greatest feminist hero in video games ever. Of all time.

Buy it. Play it. Love it.

P.S. I heard the multiplayer was actually pretty damn good. I just haven’t tried it yet.

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