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Tomb Raider Early Review

posted Mar 5, 2013, 5:40 PM by oneclipleft   [ updated Mar 7, 2013, 7:10 PM ]
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix really hit it out of the park with the newest entry in the Tomb Raider series, released today. I'm almost one hour in, and I can already honestly say that this will likely be one of the most immersive and enjoyable games I'll play all year. While I haven't played a Tomb Raider game recently (I did retry the first three in the series, but they haven't aged very well and are especially clunky on PC), I'm fairly confident that this game blows the others away in terms of presentation and all around quality. Here's what I've enjoyed about it so far, and keep in mind, I haven't been introduced to all the game's mechanics yet, so this is just a first-look kind of thing.

Graphics: Yes, people are still obsessed with graphical quality like it's going to keep improving at the breakneck rates of the olden days. Regardless, Tomb Raider's graphics are truly impressive even by today's standards. While you'll definitely need a beefed up machine to enjoy the higher-end whistles and bells, the game still manages to look incredible even on the lowest settings. I have also noticed that the settings that have the largest impact on visual quality (Texture Quality, Shadows, Level of Detail, and Post Processing) seem to have the least impact on performance, which is nice. One thing I found interesting, though, is the setting that controls Lara's hair's level of detail. That's right, we finally have a setting for how intricately rendered the main character's hair is. This setting is pretty intense, as it replaces Lara's default video-gamey hair with what looks like physics-enabled individual strands. I, for one, actually welcome this kind of option rather than a generic "model detail" setting or, more often, no setting for character models at all. Now, I'm not saying that this kind of refined tweakage should extend to absurd levels (boob resolution/jigglyness, for instance, might be too much), but it's nice having the option to make our main character look more realistic if our machines can handle it. Mine can't, sadly, so I'm stuck with mop-head Lara until I spend a jillion dollars upgrading my PC.

I also love the minimalist UI and infrequent popup messages, which helps increase immersion quite a bit. Although I don't really need a message telling me every single time I gain some XP, as I can check that at my campsite, the game does a great job staying out of its own way, allowing the player to be drawn into the incredibly detailed settings. The UI itself can be a little odd to navigate at times on PC, as it was obviously designed for consoles. This is a practice that I hope dies out immediately. Character animations are amazingly fluid, as are their expressions. Overall, the visual elements of Tomb Raider really remind me of Sleeping Dogs (which was pretty damn good), but perhaps more realistic and detailed.

Sound: Ah, yes, my area of expertise. Whoever designed the sound for this game should be given a medal. With its deafening booms of falling rocks or vehicle crashes down to the most subtle forest ambiance, the sound design goes a long way toward selling the cinematic nature of the game. It sounds like a movie, if you get my meaning. Sound effects feel natural and never get annoying or repetitive, and any post processing audio effects (reverb, echo, etc) sound very natural, syncing up well with Lara's visual surroundings. Music is never intrusive, and seems to fit well whenever it does kick in. The primary way I can tell if a game has great sound design, other than big impressive displays of sound, is that I completely forget its even there. It never draws attention to itself, rather, it complements everything else that is going on in the game. To me, that is exactly how sound design in a game should work.

The voice acting deserves some discussion, because so few games I've ever played have done voice acting justice. I'm not sure why there is so much poor voice work in gaming, but I'm definitely glad to see more titles getting this part right. Again, like Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider's voice acting feels natural and believable, the two most important qualities to me. Another extremely important quality to voice acting is the actual written dialog, because nothing will ruin a great voice actor's day faster than an awful script, but this has not been an issue so far. All dialog has felt right for the character, and conversations between characters tend to be engaging and fluid, which really helps flesh out each character and make them distinct.

Gameplay: Here's the big category. The make-or-break category, especially for me. What is a game without good gameplay? A really expensive drink coaster (or a ton of unwanted bits in today's downloadable world). Once again, I have to go back to Sleeping Dogs (seeing a pattern here?). Sleeping Dogs' gameplay was incredibly addictive for me. It was like if GTA had gotten its game mechanics right. Lots of context-sensitive actions that can be fluidly invoked using a small number of buttons or keys, completely enriching the game while keeping the control scheme simple. It enables players to play rather than fight with their controller or the game's camera. Tomb Raider is very similar in practice, even though the two games are very different in concept. When moving Lara around, she automatically does the things you would expect a character to do. Common sense stuff like crouching, looking around, placing her hands on objects as she moves, all by simply moving her forward. Jumping is precise and doesn't look or feel ridiculous like some other games. Mantling and scaling walls is simple, but feels complex and dangerous. Using Lara's bow is satisfying, and a welcome replacement for all those guns she used to tote around. Everything just feels fluid and looks very natural on-screen. The best part is that you'll never fall off a ledge or fail a quicktime event (actually not as annoying as you might think) without knowing exactly what you did wrong. This all adds up to some great gameplay to me.

Story: This is also a big category for me, but I'm not really far enough into the game to make a judgment on this yet. I'm really enjoying how the game is setting itself up story-wise, only revealing what is necessary for the moment. I'm expecting some big surprises later, along with some intriguing Indiana Jones type stuff. If TR delivers on this front, it might become one of my favorite games of all time. I guess I'll find out in the coming weeks! Peace!
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