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Tomb Raider multiplayer: is Lara better-off alone?

Is Tomb Raider’s multiplayer a worthwhile addition or a step too far for the franchise’s imminent reboot? Stace Harman bids to find out.

Despite being responsible for the highly-regarded Deus Ex: Human Revolution, be in the process of creating the keenly-anticipated Thief 4 and have a hand in the imminent reboot of one of videogame’s iconic franchises, Eidos Montreal finds itself in a curiously unenviable position.

Tasked with creating a multiplayer component for Tomb Raider, the Canadian developer must find a way to confidently deliver the mode to a gaming community that was largely nonplussed by its announcement. From the virtual-sea of rolled eyes and the chorus of clucked tongues that met the multiplayer reveal in early January, it seems few believe it can meaningfully enhance Crystal Dynamics’ reimagining of the Tomb Raider brand.

Eidos Montreal’s unenviable position is further compounded by the Catch-22 that governs how it must attempt to sell the multiplayer mode. On the one hand, it’s trying to assure anyone who will listen that this is not simply a tick-box feature, bolted-on to appease a spreadsheet-wielding, marketing bod. On the other hand, it cannot credibly claim that the addition of multiplayer will meaningfully affect the buying decision of Tomb Raider’s potential audience.

The official line is that, buoyed by the results of the Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light co-op experiment, Crystal Dynamics’ head honcho Darrell Gallagher was determined to include a multiplayer component in Tomb Raider. He envisioned it as one that would be entertaining in and of itself, in addition to fitting the fiction, tone and setting of the single-player adventure.

As Daniel Bisson, gameplay director for both Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics elaborates: “Yes, single-player is the most important thing, because we want to tell an emotional story but the one thing we also wanted to make sure of was the persistence of the universe - that it is something that you can continue to experience beyond the end of the single-player adventure and talk about with your friends.”

With this is mind, let us put aside any accusations of superfluous content or me-too game design and instead focus on whether Tomb Raider multiplayer fulfils its brief. Does it provide that persistent experience and is it actually any fun to play? Based on a walkthrough of its features followed by a brief, four-Vs-four, three-round match of one of its four modes, the answer to both of these questions is yes and no.

The mode we play is called Rescue, where those comprising Team Survivor collect a respawning first-aid kit that must be delivered to a fixed drop-off point on the map. While carrying the hefty item, player movement is slowed and so it behooves the survivors to work together in order to shepherd the incumbent to the drop zone to score a point. The first-aid kit then respawns somewhere else on the map and if the survivors reach a set tally of successful drop-offs, they win the round. Meanwhile, those playing the scavengers must reach a specified kill total to secure victory and after each round the sides are swapped for a best-of-three match.

Here it is in action.

To provide balance, the survivors enter a bleed-out state when downed and can be revived by their teammates, while the scavengers must close in for a melee attack to secure a point. This lends an element of tension, as survivors juggle retrieving the first-aid kit, reviving teammates and killing scavengers they encounter along the way. However, there are some issues.

As soon as a survivor picks-up the first-aid kit, the scavengers are given a directional waypoint marker in order to help them locate the player carrying the objective item. This means there’s little reason for the survivor carrying the box to take anything but the most direct route back to the drop zone. It would interesting to instead alert the scavengers to the fact that the item has been retrieved and have them scour the map to try to locate the survivor carrying it. This would lead to a game of cat and mouse and force the survivor to evade their pursuers by utilising the entire map and thus have to brave the traps the environmental pitfalls that can be set to ensnare them.

A lot of emphasis is placed on the asymmetrical goals of the opposing sides, which is supposedly intended to mirror the struggle of the survivors in the single-player game. However, while forcing the teams to switch after each round is perhaps necessary to maintain interest, it runs counter to the notion that you’re invested in the role that you're playing. What’s more, the characters themselves have no innate abilities. Two perks are chosen prior to each round, which tie back to the single-player experience, but the characters themselves are effectively all the same but for their appearance. Without unique features, stats or the relationships between characters carrying-over from the single-player narrative, the choice of character is arbitrary.

Multiplayer mode will add a level of throwaway entertainment set in the context of a beloved universe, but it seems unlikely to contribute to people’s lasting impressions of the title as a whole. In that regard, multiplayer seems like it will be largely irrelevant.

In truth, like any multiplayer, it takes more than a single session to learn its nuances but on this particular occasion, in this particular mode, it doesn’t immediately hook me. Nor does it induce the necessary feeling of enjoyment or excitement that will be required to entice people to carry on playing after they've sated any initial curiosity they may have concerning the mode.

Ultimately, multiplayer will not damage Tomb Raider, but only prolonged exposure will reveal if it enhances it in any way. And there’s the rub: it’s hard to imagine a significant number of people investing the time necessary to find that out. Like Dead Space and Uncharted before it, its multiplayer mode will add a level of throwaway entertainment set in the context of a beloved universe, but it seems unlikely to contribute to people’s lasting impressions of the title as a whole.

In that regard, multiplayer seems like it will be largely irrelevant. While it feels callous to dismiss a whole body of work in such a fashion, that’s the overriding feeling that I’m left with after experiencing the little that was on offer. Of course, this may come as a relief to traditional Tomb Raider fans, just as it comes as a disappointment to the scant few out there who might have had high hopes. Overall, I can’t help but feel that the Tomb Raider multiplayer puts Eidos Montreal in a curiously unenviable position. While it means the developer has a hand in the reboot of an iconic franchise, a time might come when it wishes it hadn’t.

Tomb Raider launches on PC, PS3 and 360 on March 5.

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