Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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Title: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Developer: Eidos Montréal

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 9/10

Well, I’ve just finished serving the big bad boss up some whoop-ass in the latest outing for Lara Croft, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, so I thought I’d hit y’all with my review whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. Just give me a moment to blink away the bleed-through …

I am in reality. We don’t skewer each other with pickaxes. We don’t steal resources from impoverished civilians. And we definitely don’t poke holes in endangered species …

There we go.

I’ve been a fan of Tomb Raider since Tomb Raider II, the first game I was old enough to play (oh, the hours I’ve spent pottering around blocktastic Venice). So this has to be the longest-running franchise that I’ve eagerly anticipated each release date of. Lara has been with me ever since my age had double digits, so it’s fair to say she’s had quite an impact on my life. As a child, I so desperately wanted to be her, but now I’m an adult and the opportunity to raid tombs for a living has passed me by, I’m quite content to live vicariously through Lara as she adapts and flourishes into the fourth decade of my time.

I’m a fan of all three of these latest games, but I have to say, I am particularly impressed with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It really feels like the maturation of Lara in her current iteration. They had an excellent formula is 2013, but the brew is at its best in the final episode of this trilogy. I think this is mainly due to the proportions and qualities of this world, set in the Peruvian jungle. The hub areas are vastly bigger than they are in the previous two games, and more than that, there are actual side quests. Gasp! Yes, this is a real, living, breathing world populated by actual people. Previously, our Lara has been adventuring through fantastic settings with some truly epic locations (which can definitely be said for this latest game), but they were all lacking that certain something that made them feel lifelike: life. There are NPCs galore in Shadow, beset with the usual problems that NPCs can’t solve for themselves. Poor lambs. And because you spend time in these hubs, hunting out relics and documents or completing side quests and challenges, this game feels a lot bigger than it really is. Unlike vast open worlds in which you spend most of your time trying to find the fastest way to traverse them, you’ve got to poke your nose into every nook and commit suicide several times to reach every cranny to find every bit of hidden treasure (and I’m ace at finding every way possible to commit suicide in Tomb Raider – I particularly liked being blown off a ledge, breaking my leg and then being devoured by wolves). And there is some fantastic background information about the indigenous and colonial cultures in this area. I actually stop and listen to each entry, rather than just collecting for collecting’s sake, because it’s so fascinating. The challenge tombs are also much bigger than in previous episodes, with much more involved puzzling and problem-solving. The puzzling feels far more like a significant feature of the game now, rather than just a natty bit of fun on the side. I do love a good brain challenge, and this is Tomb Raider after all. The key is in the title.

There are some nice RPG touches in this game. Right from the off, you can customise Lara’s outfit and then collect other outfits with certain bonus effects (you can even skin her in old-school Lara – ah, the memories! That bloody butler!). There are a decent number of weapons to buy or earn, and a comprehensive skill tree that allows you to build Lara’s skills in a way that’s useful for your particular play style. My preference is to be stealthy (because I just panic when all the bad guys rush me), and Lara has learned a few new tricks in this regard. She can now apply mud camo and stick to muddy walls, ready with her trusty jury-rigged knife to savage the presumably half-blind guards. The only problem I had here was that Lara was a bit too sticky for me. It took a lot of joystick waggling to get her to peel away and run to the next cover. Not great when you have to time things exactly. But as compensation, you can now put lure traps on dead bodies, attracting the presumably half-brain-dead guards to your latest kill so that a proximity bomb can blast them into oblivion. That’s great fun! Probably my favourite feature for stealth kills.

But there’s not too much RPG stuff to threaten a total change in genre. I think they’ve got the balance about right. These days, gamers expect more from an action-adventure. People like to make choices and be in control regardless of genre. It’s fun and it makes the game dynamic and personal. And at this point, we’re really getting to know this Lara and understand her choices and behaviour, even if she does cock up on an apocalyptic level. I think that’s the other aspect of this game that really makes it stand out from the others. We see Lara at her worst and best. She’s like Percival crossed with an avenging angel who’s still too young to make wise choices, but when she cocks up, she makes damn sure she puts things to rights. This is a Lara that I can really get on with: rash and flawed, but ultimately courageous and righteous. And that is just the kind of dynamic hero/anti-hero that I like in my games.

So I’m really pleased with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I think the developers should all get cake for this game. They’ve done themselves proud, they’ve done the franchise proud, and they’ve made a lifelong fan very happy.

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Pages: 374

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

This was one of those times when I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, and since Ernest Cline is a self-confessed uber-geek, I felt like I was in safe hands with this one. Even from the first page, I knew I had found a book nestled very deeply within my comfort zone. Within these pages, I was among friends.

And, boy, do I know feel like a total geek wannabe. I love books, games and films, but I now realise I am several hundred levels away from being able to call myself a true geek. I’m not going to tell you what year I was born, but I don’t remember the eighties. Yet since reading Ready Player One, I feel like I was there, in the infancy of true consumer gaming. The whole book is a neon tapestry of geeky knowledge woven with extra geeky knowledge, with an extra sprinkling of geeky knowledge for good measure. And the best part is that Cline’s encyclopaedia of eighties geek culture is delivered in an unnervingly prophetic dystopian – only one of my favourite genres. I keep going on at people that virtual reality is the future of our society, in a world that is overcrowded and drained of resources. Cline’s bleak near future satisfies my predictions and provides a jolly good story to boot.

There’s plenty of world-building, which I can rarely get enough of, but it’s done in such a thorough way that it’s hard to poke holes in it. This is why geeks should write books. They are very hole-aware because a robust world is the only satisfying one. To be honest, as I was reading Ready Player One, I really struggled to like the POV character, Wade. At times, he gets a bit bogged down in self-pity and has a whiff of the cowardy custard about him, but he does improve, and now that I think about it, he’s just exhibiting the same insecurities that a lot of us loner-geek types can’t shake (I am definitely included in that category). So really, he’s an archetype geek, and I can’t criticise that. Who wants a perfect hero after all? There’s nowhere to go with that.

I have to say, I was totally gripped by this book. It was the kind of book that I made time for during my day. It’s a real escape-and-immerse novel that’s as robust as any decent massive open-world game. It’s a pure, unashamed geek-fest, written for geeks, by a geek. If you’re a geek, you’ll love it. If you’re not (or you’re a wannabe like me), you’ll be really impressed by it. And I think that’s probably my key descriptor for Ready Player One: it’s impressive. I am impressed.

Now, have I said ‘geek’ too many times?