Tomb Raider review: Beyond survival

TR7We here at SideQuesting think the traditional review model is great. However, we also love to try new things to cater to an audience that is constantly changing. So, after being inspired by the efforts of Ars Technica and Rock Paper Shotgun, we’ve decided to try “conversational reviews,” where multiple editors discuss their experiences with a game and provide you with the raw discussion. Enjoy!

Steven:  First and foremost: Hey developers? Don’t plaster your marketing slogan over the screen during your goddamn ending! I’m not sure the last time I saw something so tacky in a video game.

Eric:  That whole ending was almost a tragedy. Starting with the introduction of a brand new type of enemy, Uncharted-style. From then on, the game almost lost me. The last two minutes was the icing on that butt cake.

Steven:  The “brand new” enemies were jarring at first, but about three minutes in I realized they were just re-skinned versions of the regular baddies.

Eric:  Oh, yea. It just felt super Uncharted-y to me. Much like the rest of the game.

Steven:  Although, did you ever figure out how they existed at all

Eric:  Nooooooope.

Steven:  I haven’t found all of the journals, so maybe it’s in there, but the main plot never explained it.

Eric:  And if it is just mentioned in a journal: Fuck that.

Steven:  There’s a fine line to toe with that kind of stuff in games. You don’t want to make optional story stuff meaningless, but you don’t want it to be vital either. I was thinking I’d like to see a game where the protagonist carries over information gained in journals into the main narrative.

Eric:  I wouldn’t have even cared, except Lara voiced over a couple times saying, “How are these things still alive?” I agreed with that thought. And got no answer.

Steven:  I have to imagine it’s in one of the journals.

Eric:  DLC.

Steven:  Those journals are actually pretty fantastic at toeing that line I mentioned for the most part. Oh god, yes! That’s absolutely what I was thinking during the last level. “Pay $7.99 to find out what really happened to the [unexpected enemy type]!”

Eric:  We can just pretend Tomb Raider is an anime.

Steven:  Ending sold separately?

Eric:  Yeah. Except instead of the ending, just the majority of the story.

Steven:  I felt the plot overall was pretty lackluster.

Eric:  It was shallow as hell.

Steven:  Like I mentioned before, I think that the plot was mediocre. The moment-to-moment character stuff was much better. Fucking Roth, man!

Eric:  The characters were fine. Roth was dope, though. I just wish they would have gone further in either direction. Either keep it shallow throughout, or make it deeper across the board. The five minutes of timid Lara at the beginning felt really unearned, and almost an afterthought.

Steven:  There’s sort of gap with her character there, yeah. For the first hour or two, she’s so incredibly shocked at what’s happening to her.

Eric:  Not even that long.

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Steven:  Then in the last hour or two she’s like “Bring it, you filthy sons of bitches!”

Eric:  It is about 45 minutes. She says almost that exact thing.

Steven:  Ha!

Eric:  Then followed the worst part of the game. The 20 minute fight with the new enemies. Like, where the hell did that come from?

Steven:  I was surprised none of Lara’s crew said something like “Have fun storming the castle!” Because that’s basically what happens.

Eric:  I would have quit playing if they started dropping Princess Bride quotes.

Steven:  Ha, I didn’t mean literally. I just meant something along those lines. You know, it just occurred to me that I never once heard Lara say “I hate tombs.”

Eric:  What? She said it just before she encountered the giant [boss enemy] for the first time. And it was duuuuuuuuuuuumb.

Steven:  I must have completely missed it. I don’t remember ever hearing it.

Eric:  You just blocked it out.

Steven:  Ha, possibly. But moments like that aside, I thought the writing was pretty snappy. Roth’s bit about loss versus sacrifice was a real standout.

Eric:  That was a good line.

Steven:  I was actually quite taken aback by it, considering how puerile most video game banter is. I actually paused for a moment to consider what he was saying.

Eric:  But then Lara ignored him. And then kept trying to save everyone the rest of the game.

Steven:  Yeah, and I thought that was pretty well in keeping with her character. And it was part of what I liked about her. She’s very unflinching for the majority of the game. Sometimes you want that in a protagonist. It also contrasted her character as a young and unbeaten sort, as opposed to Roth’s more weathered thinking.

Eric:  She went from afraid to walk around to saving everyone in a matter of 15 minutes, once again, unearned. Her coming of age moment was killing a deer. I don’t buy that for a moment.

Steven:  I think that’s pushing it. She was afraid to do things from the start, she was just more hesitant and freaked out about it a bit more. The deer thing was eye-rolling. The first chunk of that game is pretty poor.

Eric:  Until you meet up with Sam, I think.

Steven:  Yeah, that’s probably the turning point. that’s also when the world opens up a bit more. Probably not a coincidence.

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Eric:  Yea. Wanna talk about bad characters? Sam. Man, what a waste.

Steven:  Yeah. I really liked her at the start, but she just becomes an object pretty quickly. Sam and Lara’s lady-bromance was really endearing for the first half hour.

Eric:  Maybe because we are two seconds after Tropes vs. Women, but damn, she was a damsel in distress for half the game.

I was hoping they were going to be lady-bros most the game.

Steven:  If anything, I think it highlights that the damsel in distress trope is more than just sexist. It’s also just a bad plot device. It’s boring, and keeps you from doing so much more with a character I would have otherwise loved to have seen develop.

Eric:  It’s lazy. … That’s harsh. It’s easy, though.

Steven:  Yeah. If Sam had been the Watson to Lara’s Sherlock a bit more, I would have really dug it.

Eric:  I was thinking Sully to her Drake.

Steven:  I almost got the impression that she actually had romantic feelings for Lara at the outset, and thought that would be an interesting place to take the relationship.

Eric:  That is a tightrope. One direction it is gratuitous like Fear Effect, the other direction is needless pandering.

Steven:  I think there was room to do it well, though. I sort of imagined it as an unrequited thing. Which, as it happens, is also in the game. Just with a dude.

Eric:  Did anything ever become of the Reyes/Roth romance?

Steven:  It’s explained in the journals.

Eric:  I must have missed that.

Steven:  It’s actually really interesting, and helps flesh out Reyes’ feelings toward Lara. That’s specifically what I was thinking of when I mentioned that the journals were really good.

Eric:  Does it explain why she is a bitch to Lara for most of the game?

Steven:  Yup.

Eric:  I may have to dive back in to find the rest of those. Speaking of… Actually playing this game was a ton of fun.

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Steven:  Oh my god, yes.

Eric:  It is exactly Uncharted with a bow, and I love that.

Steven:  I think it does some parts better than Uncharted in the gameplay department, actually.

Eric:  The shooting is better. Not that hard, really.

Steven:  Ha, right. This game has, by far, my favorite cover system of all time. It’s so damn sleek.

Eric:  It is simple and it works. Do you prefer the Uncharted style of jumping or what they did with TR?

Steven:  Tomb Raider. I mentioned it to you before, but here it feels much more like Infamous and Sly Cooper. I understand why some people might prefer the weightiness of Uncharted’s platforming, but I like having that direct control.

Eric:  The direct jump control screwed me a couple times. I would set up my jump, and go to aim my shot and cause Lara to fall into a pit to her death.

Steven:  Ha, it’s kind of crazy that we’re basically having the LBP vs. Mario debate in a game like this, but it really does matter, doesn’t it.?

Eric:  It does. I went bow-only most of the game, and those seconds were precious when trying to ace multiple enemies. I got used to it, but it took time.

Steven:  Right.

Eric:  Another way in which this game far outstrips Uncharted was the melee.

Steven:  Agreed, though that’s also not super hard.

Eric:  Instead of a damn QTE for the entire fight, you could actually do different things.

Steven:  Right. And it actually factored into your experience points. Which I really liked. It could have been very easy for each move to feel useless, but getting extra XP for “stylish” kills made it worthwhile. And good lord if they weren’t brutal at times.

Eric:  I could have done without the nomenclature. Stylish wasn’t how I thought of some of those rough-ass kills.

Steven:  Good point. How did you feel about the brutality itself? Not just the kills, but the death animations for Lara.

Eric:  They felt like they were made just to be shown. Like, I saw every brutal death of Lara, and they almost felt unavoidable.

Steven:  I honestly thought I would have a more explicit opinion about them when I first heard about that stuff. Maybe it was because I knew what I was in for, or because I’m just desensitized, but they didn’t seem that crazy.

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Eric:  My thought on what is actually being shown, though, is entirely different. I mean, the whole time I’m like, “Who the hell cares, this is a god damn videogame?” Videogame violence to any extent is laughable when you have seen someone get shot.

Steven:  Right. I saw one interesting interpretation of bullets and regenerative health in modern games. This guy said he liked to think of taking damage as a “threat meter.” To him, it didn’t mean he was getting hit, but that he was putting himself in a situation that was increasingly dangerous and should get back to cover. I’d love to see someone run with that idea, and Tomb Raider would have been a great game for it.

Eric:  The Giant Bomb guys want to see a “luck meter.” As in, when your screen starts glowing red, that is just your luck running out and you are going to actually get shot soon. Same basic principle.

Steven:  Different names, but these sound like the same things.  That being said, I didn’t feel any weirder seeing it happen that way in Tomb Raider than any other game.

Eric:  At some point videogames have to be videogames.

Steven:  Yeah, but presentation can go a long way. And speaking of presentation…

Eric:  Presentation only matters when it is out of the ordinary, not the status quo.

Steven:  I felt it was a little weird how the game was constantly pushing me forward and asking me to backtrack at the same time. The tombs were a great idea, I felt.

Eric:  I never felt like I was backtracking.

Steven:  “Finish this puzzle room, get the map, find the collectibles.”

Eric:  Did you do a lot of fast traveling?

Steven:  I never fast traveled once.

Eric:  Me either.

Steven:  I felt it would be disingenuous to the story to backtrack.

Eric:  Like doing side missions in Mass Effect 3.

Steven:  Right.

Eric:  They did a great job of always making sure you knew your objective, and pushing you to make it there.

Steven:  But the game does such a good job of incentivizing going back to find all of the collectibles with the tomb maps and the great journal entries that I always wanted to backtrack.

Eric:  Which also fit into Lara’s character. She knew what she had to do, but she was still super interested in all of the history of stuff she would find.

Steven:  Huh. I never though of it that way, but you’re totally right.

Eric:  I may be giving CD too much credit on that one, but it worked out. Well, at the end of the day it’s not what the developer intended, but what you took away from it. It’s like that Far Cry 3 business. It works both ways. The way they handled traversal progression really helped make the collectible stuff feel good, too. I felt like all of her gadgets were meaningful and really cool.

Eric:  Once upgraded, I agree.

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Steven:  When you get that electric pulley, and you can suddenly just zip up ropes I let out an audible yelp of excitement. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Eric:  I did not, lol. I wish the game was more Metroidvania-y. Using those tools in some of the earlier locations would have been cool. But there really isn’t any use for those items in old areas.

Steven:  There is, but not very much, I agree. I could have done with a bit more of that as well. The structure is there, just none of the implementation.

Eric:  Very Batman-esque.

Steven:  Right! Just like that.

Eric:  So did you catch any of the multiplayer?

Steven:  Afraid not.

Eric:  I am going to blow your mind with this: It kicks some amount of ass.

Steven:  Bullshit.

Eric:  I swear. Just like the campaign, it is Uncharted with a bow.

Steven:  Hm.

Eric:  I was a man with a bow going up with dudes with guns, and taking them down.

Steven:  Is there any sort of progression system?

Eric:  Yep. It is very much a modern online game.

Steven:  Gotcha.

Eric:  It is a melding of Uncharted and Bad Company 2. I only played a half dozen games, and would have played more but there was one huge flaw: The between match time was FAR too long. When the match ends there is a 25 second countdown to leave the current level. Then there is a minute long map-voting period. Then there is 25 second countdown to start the next match.

Steven:  Gross.

Eric:  None of this includes loading time, which wasn’t insignificant, even with an SSD.

Steven:  Oh, speaking of hardware, how good does this game look on a PC?

Eric:  I have a bunch of screenshots we can dump in with this, but fantastic. I have a relatively old video card, and still ran everything maxed, sans TressFX. Everything else in my machine is less than a year old, though.

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Steven:  I’m in the exact opposite situation. My graphics card is pretty new and powerful, but everything else in my computer is a couple of years old. I still ran everything at maximum with a fairly steady framerate. Again, that is sans hair-tech.

Eric:  I was locked at 60 frames, 30 with TressFX turned on.

Steven:  It’s no DmC in terms of crazy framerate optimization, but it was still solid.

Eric:  Yeah. On the note of the hair tech, screw that shit. Even if I could run it at full frame rate I wouldn’t have used it. It looks terrible.Lara is in a constant state of Pantene Pro-V.

Steven:  I turned it off almost immediately after hearing that’s what was hurting the framerate, so I didn’t really get a solid impression.

Eric:  Lara is all dirty, bloody, and torn apart. Except her hair, she just washed that with L’Oréal.

Steven:  Haha! I liked that attention to detail in terms of her character model, though. And in terms of the whole game, really.

Eric:  Every character model is great. You can view them in the extras menu.

Steven:  You could see the depth to her cuts and gashes. It’s a bit morbid, but it’s amazing how much better it looks than painted-on textures.

Eric:  Did you play Resident Evil: Revelaitons [sic]?

Steven:  No.

Eric:  Okay, well this analogy does little for you. Jill’s ass was distracting as all hell in that game. It was like the dev made it a point of focus. I felt the same way about this game and Lara’s ass. It was like they really wanted to show off the nice work they created.

Steven:  That’s sort of become a trope in video games. It’s weird to say.

Eric:  For purely scientific purposes, I swear, I screenshot every time the camera happened to show off her ass.

Steven:  Hm.

Eric:  I have at least two dozen images.

Steven:  I felt gross about it, but I had the same feeling in Uncharted 2 when you lift Elena and Chloe up ladders.

Eric:  At least Drake made jokes about it.

Steven:  Elena, Chloe, Miranda, Lara.

Eric:  It felt a little less gross.

Steven:  Raiden.

Eric:  lol

Steven:  To be fair, Raiden’s is the most shapely bottom of the lot.

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Steven: What did you think of the game overall?

Where does it stand in the Eric Smith pantheon of interactive entertainment?!

Eric:  This whole time, I think both of us may have been coming off a bit more negative on the experience than we actually were, BUT I LOVED IT! The story was lackluster, I felt some of the voice acting was suspect, but overall, it is a great god damn game.

Steven:  It’s much easier to point out the negatives in this game than the positives. So much of why this game is great is that it just improves in many ways upon the genre.

Eric:  Yeah.

For me what made the game above and beyond was the bow.

Steven:  That bow was more of a character than some actual video game characters.

Eric:  It was such a tactile feeling to draw an arrow back and embed it in a bad guy’s skull. And then turn and do that to one of his buddies before he could shout out. I had more fun with the bow than I have had with any weapon in any action game in recent memory. FPS, TPS, or otherwise. And how beautiful the environments are can’t be overstated. If you can buy this game on PC, do it.

Steven:  Right.

Eric:  How ’bout ‘chu?

Steven:  I think it sets a pretty high bar for third-person shooters of this type. The shooting is incredibly solid. The cover system, by allowing you to move seamlessly between objects without having to pop and lock is the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t think the plot really knocked it out of the park. Even some of the moment-to-moment character stuff could have been better. But it still goes so much further than 95% of games, it’s worth giving it credit just for trying. I’m very interested to see where they take it from here.

Also: I didn’t hate the ending as much as you.

Eric:  I was going to ask, what do you want to see next?

Steven:  I was actually thinking about that once I beat it.

Steven:  I think they set up an interesting premise, with Lara basically coming out of it literally saying “Holy hell, this changes things!”

Eric:  Do you think they can lead into re-retelling the first game? Do they bring back Larson Conway?

Steven: I don’t know what any of that means! I never played any of the old Tomb Raider games.

Eric:  What?! Jesus, Steven.

Steven:  The oldest one I ever played was Legend. And the demo for Tomb Raider 3, I think.

Eric:  Obviously, Lara is going to go on to new adventures.

Steven:  And I only played about 10 minutes of each. But, yes, the ending really drives that home. The aftermath sequence was pretty strong, I felt, and sets up pretty much anything they want for a sequel.

Eric:  As long as this sells.

Steven:  But good lord, do not put your goddamn marketing slogan in your game. Ever!

Eric:  Right.

 This review of Tomb Raider is based on copies of the game purchased by the reviewers.

Author: Steven Strom

Steven is a freelance journalist and editor for SideQuesting, as well as several newspapers. He is a podcast co-host for The Side Quest, Lonely TARDIS and Drunks and Dragons. His interests include comics, books, games you've never heard of and fettucini alfredo.

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