It’s been two months since Tomb Raider’s release so I thought I would try to articulate my thoughts about it. I think it has an identity problem. It’s one game, but it is pretending to be another. While it is a fantastic “3rd-person-shooter action-adventure” game … I don’t think it was a Tomb Raider game at all.

I played the first two Tomb Raider games (1 and 2 ) when they first came out. I still have my original PC-CDROM disc of the original Tomb Raider. I didn’t play any of the others until Angel of Darkness (which sucked) and then I caught up on Chronicles which I thought was decent. Tomb Raider Legend was my real reentry point into the franchise and I found it, Anniversary, and Underworld to be quite good. I personally think that Legend was the series high point. Underworld added some interesting gameplay, but didn’t feel as fun to play as Legend. Legend ended on a very serious note that escalated in Underworld, which I think detracted from the game overall.

Given how those three games were kind of a reboot/retcon/remastering of the series, I was intrigued by the idea that the next game would be a complete reboot. So I was looking forward to Tomb Raider, but was a little concerned about the darker more serious tone that all the preview material implied.

Some people have compared it to Uncharted on the PS3, which I’ve’ never played so I can’t comment on that. But I think I could say that the problem is that the gameplay was less about exploring an environment and solving puzzles and more about getting to shoot things.

The platforming mechanics of the game have been dramatically simplified. It almost feels like a “rail-platformer” at times.

In Tomb Raider, Lara automatically grabs and swings off horizontal poles when you jump at them. There’s also several climbing sections which amount to little more than just pushing the thumbstick in one direction until you reach the end. While the previous games where often very linear, you felt like you had some choice in how to traverse that path. Underworld not only allowed you manual control of grabbing and swinging on poles but also allowed you to pull yourself up, crouch on them, jump off or stand up and walk along them. You felt like you were in control and had options. Tomb Raider doesn’t seem to expect you to do do much more than press the thumbstick in the right direction and press jump at the right times until you encounter enemies.

Which brings us to combat.

Actually, the combat felt very nice. Nice balance between stealth attacks and in your face action. You can engage at range silently with the bow, or charge in with the assault rifle, shotgun or pistol. And when you need to, you can lay the smack down with your climbing axe in hand-to-hand. Not all of this to begin with of course, you need to gain experience points by finding relics and killing foes to upgrade all these skills first. But then you turn into a real combat monster. Towards the end of the game my common hand-to-hand strategy involved dodging my opponent’s attack, throwing dirt in their face, stabbing them in the knee with an arrow and then braining them with the climbing axe. It’s all very visceral and satisfying and plays great. They clearly put a lot of work into getting combat to feel right.

But wait a minute. Am I the only one thinking this seems wrong for Lara Croft, a young naive 17 year old?

They make a big deal about the first time she has to take a life, but then she just seems to brush it off and gets stuck in murdering people with startling proficiency. Some enemies you can sneak past, but you aren’t rewarded with experience points for that, and often you don’t have much choice anyway. There’s several sequences spread through the game which are basically waves of dozens of enemies. Especially towards the end of the game, at which point you have an assault rifle with a grenade launcher and it’s a slaughter fest.

She never gets much better at climbing or jumping. But she learns all about murdering people with automatic weapons.

And it’s just as well that there is so much available ammunition scattered around the island. It’s like the stuff grows on trees. I would have thought that a game with a thematic emphasis on survival in the wilderness wouldn’t be so well stocked with supplies.

So how would I have changed it?

  1. Minimize combat, and emphasis exploration and puzzle solving. You know, the hallmarks of the series.
  2. Make ammunition scarce. Make the retrieval of arrows from enemies more critical.
  3. Have Lara’s gymnastic abilities improve as the game progresses instead of her ability to go on a murder spree.
  4. Eliminate the “sidequest” single-puzzle tombs, and give us some big tombs/temples/ruins with multiple puzzles to really explore. I think the island had plenty of opportunity for it.
  5. Do away with the collect salvage to upgrade weapons thing. It’s just dumb. She’s a 17 year old archeology student, not Macguyver. Just let us find new weapons.
  6. Probably eliminate most of the gain experience points to buy skills pseudo-RPG elements.

In short, don’t try to turn Tomb Raider into a 3rd person shooter.

I really wish these guys had made Starcraft Ghost instead.

The gameplay of this Tomb Raider would have been perfect for Starcraft:Ghost.