For the last week, I’ve guided Lara Croft across an island filled with dangers, both natural and two-legged, in Tomb Raider. This is the first game in the series I’ve played (apart from the Guardian of Light spinoff) – after developer Crystal Dynamics promised both lavish AAA excitement and a story with a heart, I hoped for something truly great. Halfway in, I can report this is good, and often exciting – but so far, it’s not great.
After finishing Tomb Raider, I’m happy with the gameplay appraisal I posted halfway through. This is a title that’s not sure whether it wants to be “the subtle tale of a young woman using her wits to survive… or a summer blockbuster, long on explosions and short on brains.” There is a fair amount of running and jumping and climbing about, as much of a pleasure as it was in Assassin’s Creed; there are puzzles whose solutions made me feel quite pleased with myself; and there is a lot of third-person cover shooting, too much and too repetitive for my taste (and with some downright aggravating ‘watch pattern -> dodge -> counterattack -> repeat’ closed-arena boss fights).
I do want to home in on one word in that last sentence – “cover”. In a game that derives so much of its appeal from the main character’s agility, I am not convinced that cover shooting was the best way to handle combat. Taking cover, by definition, deprives Lara of her agility; and while she has to move from cover to cover (enemies will lob Molotov cocktails or grenades if she stays still too long), a brief scramble to the next waist-high obstacle pales next to the freedom of the game’s non-combat segments. TR does contain a tantalising “what might have been” moment – one particular sequence is a lot closer to old-fashioned run-and-gun shooters, and it’s amazing what a difference that made to my enjoyment. Suddenly I could sprint! Retreat! Climb up and climb down! Fall back to a previously cleared section! Why even stop there? In a game with this many cliffside jumps and ziplines – see the above screenshot – couldn’t Lara have, say, an unlockable ability to aim her pistol in bullet time and shoot while in mid-air (a la one skill in Sleeping Dogs), or while shimmying along a rope? Surely the designers could have done better than the parade of shooting galleries that did make into the game.