Tomb Raider 2003: A no-longer-brief (and now final) review w/spoilers [UPDATED]

| March 6, 2013


I completed Tomb Raider last night; while I did use walkthroughs for a few segments (without shame, I might add), I mostly did it on my own. Total playing time was a bit over 20 hours. Even though — as I note below — there are some aspects to the game I don’t like, I am still very impressed at what this rather large and dispersed team put together. Also, as an old computer science fart who took a graduate-level computer science graphics class all the way back 1976 — and then wrote my own graphics library (for the Apple II) from scratch in the early 1980s for Sundog: Frozen Legacy — I never cease to be amazed at the ongoing advances in real-time computer graphics animation, as well as physics modeling, and Tomb Raider is no exception (compare the video trailer above with the first [1996] Tomb Raider — actual game play starts at 03:58 or so). In any case, I’ve revised my preliminary review to reflect my thoughts upon completion.

Of the previous “Tomb Raider” games, I only ever played that very first one, and even that not very much — it was my daughter Crystal who was the “Tomb Raider” aficionado (both games and movies). My own taste in games tends to run to 4X and other turn-based strategy games rather than twitch games, and all my games are PC-based. That said, I purchased “Dishonored” late last year — largely because I had bought it for another daughter, Salem, as a Christmas present — and thoroughly enjoyed it (and, in fact, completed the game several times). So with the rebooted “Tomb Raider (2013)” being launched on March 5th, I succumbed to an impulse buy on release day and bought it on Steam. [Note: I’m not sure how many years it has been now since I bought a new game on CD/DVD rather than via electronic download; at least a few.]

That I finally dragged myself away from the computer to bed around 0400 the next morning can be considered my fundamental thumbs-up for the game. My single biggest criticism is reflected by my impulse to quit the game and uninstall it just a few hours before that. I’ll explain both.

The premise is simple: this is Lara Croft’s first major adventure. She is a 17-year-old traveling with an archaeological expedition to search out evidence of an ancient Japanese queen/goddess and her kingdom. Their ship — on Lara’s recommendation — sails into the “Dragon Triangle” east of Japan and is quickly shipwrecked during a major storm on an uncharted island. Uncharted, but not uninhabited — and things fall apart very quickly. The survivors are scatted and some are killed right away. The island itself has lots of crashed aircraft and shipwrecked vessels on or around it; the local inhabitants (apparent survivors) are not at all friendly. Lara has to try to survive, even as she seeks to rendezvous with and/or rescue other survivors of her party, a process that involves a lot of leaping, climbing, dodging and killing.  As that happens, you learn more and more about the island, its history, and its inhabitants.

The fundamental game design is, “Die until you get it right.” Getting it right can involve escaping physical threats (e.g., rock slides and collapsing/burning structures), killing and/or escaping from groups of bad guys, solving puzzles, and traversing difficult/dangerous terrain (often while dealing with one or more of the other three threats). The game story itself is relatively linear, with cut-scenes at key points; you do, however, have the ability to revisit formerly discovered areas to search for additional items. You don’t have the ability to save games directly (though you can have up to three different games in progress); that is done automatically for you, so when you die, you are automatically restarted back at the last save point. I will note that in some cases, that last save point is somewhere in the middle of your current firefight or crisis — sometimes that’s an advantage, but other times, it’s a pain in the butt, since you can’t go back and start the whole encounter in a different way (or avoid it altogether).

As you go through the game, you gain experience points, which in turn convert into skill points, which allow you to ‘purchase’ different skills. Similarly, you scavenge for salvage points and weapon parts, which can be used to upgrade your weapons. Both upgrades — skills and weapons — can only be done at ‘camps’ that you encounters throughout the game. You can ‘fast-travel’ between certain camps (once you have found them on foot), and using a campsite creates a new game savepoint. The weapons themselves (you start out with none) are only gained through specific encounters with cut-scenes. Note that weapons are (largely) useless without ammo; it’s very easy to run out of ammo during a major fight sequence, so you have to think carefully about which weapon you are using, and how fast you shoot. You also may find yourself searching dead enemies and otherwise scavenging ammo in the middle of a firefight, which can make things rather tense.

There are, in fact, a number of tombs to raid along the way; they are all uninhabited and largely exist to present puzzles to be solved. If you do successfully explore the tomb, you get experience points, but they otherwise have no impact on the game (i.e., they are completely optional). Similarly, there are several different classes of objects that you can search for and find  — documents and various items — that gain you some experience points and give you some background on what’s going on at the island (from several different perspectives). Finally, each region usually has a few task challenges (e.g., finding and stealing eggs from a certain number of bird nests) that also give you experience points. Again, that these tombs, artifacts, and quests are completely optinoal, and their only real benefit or impact on the game is the gain in XP.

It took me a little while to get used to combat — the general principle is ready-weapon-and-aim by holding the right mouse button down, then fire by tapping the left mouse button (or in some cases the space bar) while still holding the right mouse button down. Movement is WASD/Space (FLRB/Jump), with Shift, Ctrl, and Alt as modifiers. E is the general ‘interact with object’ button, F is used primarily in melee situations. Several situations require you to tap or mash (press repeatedly) certain keys for the desired effect; for example, when wrestling with a bad guy (or animal), you repeatedly alternate A and S to struggle (holding them at bay), then use F to kick or bite at a key moment. The screen will often prompt you as to the right keys to be using at that moment. The most useful key is the Q key, which triggers your ‘survival instinct’. What this actually means is that the current scene fades to a grayscale display, and important items and locations light up.  (Here’s a video that summarizes the basics of the game.)

You can have up to four weapons and can select among them using number keys (1-4) or the mouse scroll wheel. Note that as the game goes along, your weapons will add additional capabilities; these can be chosen by repeatedly selecting the same weapon. Combat itself (at least at the Easy level) feels a bit more like Torchlight II than like Dishonored — you can take on an awful lot of bad guys and kill them all while surviving and recovering from an awful lot of punishment — but from my point of view, that’s a good thing.

All in all, the game is fun and compelling; not many games can make me stay up until 0400, particularly when I knew I would have to get up at 0645 to put the trash out (which, by the way, I did). It is also very immersive.

I do, however, have some criticisms (and one near-deal-breaker). First, the game has no ‘crouch’ mode, at least in single-player. There are some alternatives — you tend to crouch down automatically behind half-height structures, you can trigger a brief ‘roll/evade’ mode during combat by pressing the Shift key, and you can ‘walk’ instead of run by holding the Ctrl key down while moving. But I really, really miss the ‘crouch’ movement mode from Dishonored, as well as its ‘lean around the corner and peek’ commands (Q/E). I’m really surprised at how awkward stealthy movement is in TR, given its milieu.

Second — and again, this is in comparison to Dishonored — usually there really is only one path/set of choices from point A to point B. One of the brilliant aspects of Dishonored’s game design was not just that you had multiple physical routes and actions you could take to accomplish a given task, but that there were both immediate and long-term consequences to those choices. Not so in TR. You have some freedom to wander around a given setting, mostly to find salvage and tsotchkes, but usually there is pretty much one way, more or less, to get to your next destination, with some predetermine encounters. In many cases, you can’t even backtrack; that is, the opening you just emerged from will not let you retreat back through it to regroup or better prepare. Still, the underlying game design model is cinematic — there is a very definite story arc that pretty much pins down what’s going to happen next — and within that model, the game succeeds very well.

Third, there are a few sequences — in particular, a two-part sequence about a third of the way through the game that I will describe in the ‘spoilers’ section — that can be very frustrating and tedious to get through. That two-part sequence in particular — which represented a grand total of about 60 seconds of on-screen action — blocked me for an hour and a half on the first night I played it, and that was with the game setting on ‘Easy’. The issue wasn’t solving a puzzle — it was shifting left and right multiple times at just the right moment, where a shift just a split second too early or too late would end up killing Lara violently (and let me just add: what is it with the game designers and graphic impalement?). What should have been a visually exhilarating sequence was, instead, the Nearly Endless Loop from Hell, particularly since there is no way to avoid or bypass it. Yes, I did finally get past it — but knowing it’s there may be enough to keep me from ever starting a second game.

Even so, the NELfH was worth enduring to be able to reach the point of shooting lots of ruthless bad guys (as well as handy nearby drums of fuel) with [minor spoiler alert] fire arrows; I’m a sucker for any game that lets me be a deadly archer. And weapons just got better as things went along.

There are, of course, some bugs as well. I ran into three bugs in fairly short order about halfway through the game, two of which were fixed by completely exiting the game and then relaunching it. All three occurred during an escape from a burning temple complex. In the first — while Laura had a spotlight trying to light her up, while a high-powered machine gun was firing at her — Lara suddenly went into a continuous dodge mode (as if I were holding the Shift key down).  This meant that she was constantly running around and was very difficult to control. It continued even after she was killed and the segment restarted. I thought it might be my keyboard, but I brought up a text editor and verified it was working just fine. I exited and then restarted the game, and it went away.

The second — not fixed — happened when she was subsequently running across a bridge being destroyed at Mathias’s command. The camera angle was looking back at her (i.e., you saw her front). Every time I would press W (run forward) to speed her up, she would slow down and be killed by the bridge’s collapse. After half a dozen tries, I finally pressed S (run backward) — and she sped up in the forward direction and made it off the bridge. I don’t know if an exit/restart would have fixed it; I figured it out before I got to that point.

Let me note in passing here that quite often TR does not give you much or any freedom of camera, whereas other times it’s just fine. A minor annoyance, but an annoyance nevertheless.

The third happened when Lara then subsequently tried to climb to the top of a burning building to rendezvous with a helicopter. She jumped from collapsing flooring onto some railing, walked up the railing and jumped onto a suspended crate, and then jumped from the crate to grab onto a window ledge, where she dangled. At that point, the W key should have raised her up onto the ledge and out the window, but it didn’t. She could move side to side; she could let go and die; but she would not get up on the ledge. I tried every key; nothing worked (including killing her a few times and restarting the segment). I finally did an exit/restart — and she leapt directly from the crate onto the ledge and climbed out to the roof.

There was also an intermittent bug that occurred a few times when I went to upgrade skills or weapons at a campsite: the whole display was reversed, as if I was looking at it from behind. This one was a tricky one to get out of; the game in a few cases turned unresponsive for a period (i.e., ignoring the ESC key), but each time, it finally cleared itself.

Note that once you finish the story arc of the game, you are allowed to go back in and use the ‘fast travel’ mode to revisit parts of the island to continue to explore, find/collect items you had passed by previously, and complete some of the regional challenges the game presents. I did this (for about 3 hours) after finishing the game; at first, it appears that all humans had disappeared, and I thought I was going to get bored very quickly. Then I encountered several groups of hostile bad guys at the third region I visited (the mountain village) and so started having fun again.

Unlike most of the other games I’ve enjoyed in the past year — Endless Space, Dishonored, Torchlight II, XCOM, and Skyrim (which I still haven’t finished) — I’m not sure how inclined I am to replay Tomb Raider to completion again. It’s true that now that I understand more about experience points and salvage, if I replay it, I will probably be more inclined to thoroughly milk each region for all the XPs/salvage I can get out of them so that I can move up the skills and weapons curve faster. But  I know pretty much what’s going to happen when, and the ‘die until you get it right’ design almost means that, in fact, you really never lose a game — you just choose to keep going or choose to give up.

Still, all things considered — and even with my criticisms — I think the game is an astounding accomplishment, and I’ll cheerfully give it a  9-out-of-10 score. Highly recommended.

Spoilers after the jump.


The Nearly Endless Loop from Hell comes well into the game. You are trying to cross a raging river where the bridge is out; you only have posts to hold onto. One of the posts gives way, and you are swept down the river, which is full of debris, mostly from crashed aircraft (first segment). You have to steer yourself left and right to avoid impalement (a long shaft through the underside of Lara’s jaw and out the top of her head) on debris, with occasional shotgun blasts to clear barriers. This part only took me 15 minutes or so to get through, but that involved watching Lara get impaled 30+ times. However, once you get through that, Lara ends up in the cockpit of a old bomber dangling over a waterfall (second segment); she grabs a parachute pack and puts it on just before the cockpit glass gives way, opens the chute (which tears away), has to open the reserve, and then has to steer herself left and right through an increasingly thick stand of trees. Any wrong shift or turn, and Lara is impaled through her stomach by a tree branch. I spent over an hour on this second segment, which means I saw Lara die exactly the same way about 75 times. This sequence is very sensitive to the timing and direction of your shifts; wrong moves that are not immediately fatal will often set Lara spinning and swaying, which usually leads to her death anyway. By and large, you are trying to move left and right to steer through openings among the trees, but here’s the ‘trick’ that will get you through (select text  to see): after having gone left and right a few times, you go right to a slight opening, then left to a slight opening, and then it looks as though the trees are clearing to your right again, which makes you want to steer right. Don’t. Instead, steer left, straight into the trees. It, of course, makes no sense, based on everything you’ve been through prior to that point, but you will crash through the trees in front of you, the forest will suddenly thin out, and you’ll go into a cut-scene of you landing (hard, but alive) upon the ground.

By the way, I watched the E3 TR gameplay demonstration,which ends with the NELfH. Guess what: as far as I can tell, they clipped several seconds from the key point in the second sequence that would show you how to get through the trees. What a surprise.

On the upside, there was what I felt was a very nice touch at the end of the game (again, select text to read): Lara, through the game, only ever has a single revolver. At one cutscene midway through the game, she finds herself momentarily with two, but hands one to another crew members. But at the very end — in her battle against Mathias, the leader of the bad guys — she wrests his revolver away, and you kill Mathias by firing away with both revolvers. As I said, a nice touch. 

You’re welcome. ..bruce..

P.S. Bonus minor spoiler (select to see): with the bells: the trick is to first make the smaller bell hit the posts on either side of the large bell.


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Category: Games, Main, Reviews

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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