It feels like there isn’t that much to say about Tomb Raider (2013). Everything about it is perfectly solid. A true gamer’s game, with skill trees and weapon upgrades and puzzles and combat and stealth and collectibles and diary entries and set pieces and amazing graphics and yadda yadda yadda. It’s so well done that it essentially speaks for itself. So instead of writing a paragraph style review, I’m just gonna list some bullet points, partially as a guide for why this game works so well, but also as a pseudo-checklist for what AAA games need to have to feel polished in my book.
- The leveling system is awesome. The weapon upgrades and skill points make actually gameplay difference – I can tell the difference before I upgrade my bow’s damage and after. When my skill tree says Lara will be able to take more melee damage, I can feel that. It makes me excited to level up and keep playing.
- There are lots of collectibles, enough to make the world feel full and fleshed out, but not so many that collecting them becomes the entire game. I 100%ed it in about 13.5 hours, and only a couple of those hours were spent combing through the areas looking for the scraps I left behind, and that felt perfect to me.
- Paired with the above, allowing you to fast travel between camps, and having the fast travel map be very clear from the beginning what you had left in each area was a godsend. I was never left wondering if I was wasting my time in an area, once a place was done, I knew, and I could move on guilt free (without interrupting the flow of the main storyline too heavily).
- Combat is very fun and feels varied. You could play it by heavily relying on the cover system, or you can dodge counter around and get down and dirty with the bad guys. I never felt like the game was putting me in unfair matchups because I always had enough options to get around them.
- The fact that these systems coincide with each other to push you to stay engaged with every aspect. Exploring leads to finding hidden tombs and other collectibles, which provide experience and also salvage, allowing you to upgrade your weapons. Looting enemies provides ammunition, salvage, and even weapon parts to unlock the more advanced weapon upgrades. The experience points lets you work your way up the skill tree, which will then make it easier to find and collect salvage from the environment, the wildlife, enemies, and onwards and onwards. It’s a truly pleasurable gameplay loop that left me feeling like a superhero.
- The platforming feels like platforming. In a much more open world than similar titles (namely, the Uncharted series), Lara is able to find multiple ways of getting around, and with gear-gated areas of the island, you truly feel like you are learning to traverse your way through the wilderness, especially after receiving the stronger bow.
- The visuals are truly gorgeous, some of the best I’ve ever seen, despite this game being 6 years old now. It’s great how the game remains playable through many of these gorgeous shots, and also the fact that there is no HUD keeps the screen space dedicated to what matters: the things Lara can actually see.
The only thing I really found lacking was the story.. It was… okay, enough to keep me engaged, but despite all of the collectibles, it felt like there was very little characterization. The voice acting was great, but the personalities just weren’t there. Plus, the game does such a good job building the world, that anyone paying any attention will realize the mystery of the island long before Lara does, leaving her moment of epiphany to feel empty. I’m at least grateful the fights felt like they existed for a reason. Enemies never showed up in areas that made little to no story sense, and the sheer number of them did scale with the degree of closeness to the Big Bad, so I was okay with the massive waves of enemies at the end.
That brings us to the final comment, and the thing I will be most paying attention to as I start playing the sequel. “Ludonarrative dissonance.” When Lara kills someone for the first time, it is an EVENT. It is set up as self-defense, with Lara in a trapped state with a non-zero amount of sexual undertones. There are multiple quick time events, and when she finally kills the man, she is left reeling… and then picks up his gun and proceeds to shoot and kill, I don’t know, 500 more people? The game never mentions this again, but does make sure that mortality is always a subject on the table. The deaths of your friends are highly drawn out, and when you die during platforming sections, the death animations are extra gruesome. It’s tough to forget that killing is bad if you’re the one killing, when later you will be forced to reconcile with the violence that is done against you. There is contrary messaging there, and I’m curious how the developers will try to tackle it in the future titles.
All in all, this game is one big dopamine fest. The gameplay loops are great, the combat is fulfilling, and it’s just so pretty to look at. I know that the new trilogy has officially concluded with 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but I look forward to finishing this series out, and maybe even getting more than these three games in the future.