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More than a survivor: my take on Tomb Raider


"Why is this necessary?"

It's a question that often gets asked whenever an older property is rebooted, and in today's troubled financial landscape it's often a question well worth asking as older film and game franchises are shamelessly mined for brand-recognition. So, let's apply the question to Tomb Raider and see if we can come up with an answer- why is this necessary?

Rewind the clock back to the release of the original Tomb Raider. At the time Sony and many developers were aggressively pushing the Playstation as the "adult" alternative to the more kid-friendly image of Nintendo and video games in general. This led to a lot of questionable marketing decisions that would only start to alleviate with the PS3 era.

Then along came Tomb Raider, which offered not just innovative gameplay and amazing graphics but a potential sex symbol in the form of Lara Croft. At a time when consoles were still expected to have mascots she seemed like the perfect figurehead to emphasize Sony's focus on older gamers. Nintendo and Sega had a fat plumber and a cartoon hedgehog- the playstation had a sexy lady with guns! It was perfect.

I don't know whether Sony, Eidos or the people behind the PlayStation magazines at the time are more to blame for what happened next, but this led to perhaps the most embarrassingly juvenile period in gaming history. Primitive CG images of Lara Croft in "sexy" poses started to pop up everywhere, her plastic face frozen in awkward come-hither expressions. It was incredibly tacky and sleazy and spoke volumes about the boy's club attitude of the gaming world and how misguided the quest for "maturity" had become, both issues that continue to plague games right now to a slightly lesser extent.

As the PS2 era advanced and gaming established itself more as a mainstream hobby Lara's public image improved, perhaps as publishers realized that associating themselves with softcore pornography wasn't doing them any favours. The Tomb Raider franchise went through some rough patches at this time with a string of mediocre games that failed to update the now-ancient gameplay mechanics to the analogue stick age. After a long struggle Tomb Raider eventually re-established itself in terms of quality, but not cultural relevance. Elements of Lara's character and iconic visual design carried atavistic traces of her origin as a crude sex symbol that made her difficult to take seriously in a landscape where action heroes were becoming more grounded in reality.

Tomb Raider is a franchise worth saving. Its gameplay was revolutionary at the time and it's important to remember that Lara Croft's actual in-game persona was always much more grounded and down to Earth than the ludicrous virtual porn star image she was saddled with in public. I fully believe this helped to encourage the same trend of video game characters as realistic human beings instead of over the top cartoon characters that would eventually make her obsolete.

This is one situation where a clean slate was absolutely necessary. Lara Croft was like that epic seven-part Pokemon fanfiction you were so proud of when you were fifteen- a product of a bygone age that you look back on with equal parts nostalgia and shame. Gamers had to be reintroduced to the character without that baggage attached. Did Crystal Dynamics pull it off?

Just like a superhero reboot, the lynchpin of this game was always going to be the portrayal of Lara Croft. Early game footage and the developer's statements initially gave some people, including myself, cause to worry about the direction the game was taking. Some of those fears were justified, and I might write more about the game's more questionable aspects in future, but for the most part I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked hiking, climbing and face-stomping in the boots of this new Lara Croft. The fact that the game takes so long to establish her at the beginning as an ordinary person rather than simply placing a gun in the player's hand and commanding them to kill gives everything in the game a greater weight and context. I'm climbing a wrecked plane over a cliff- pretty dangerous! Holy crap I just shot a guy! With bullets! Listen to those enemies panic as I tear through their ranks- I'm kicking ass! Nothing you do in the game is fundamentally different from what you do in any other game made in the last six or seven years, but seen through the eyes of a ship-wrecked archaeologist rather than a faceless action hero it all takes on a new light.

This allows for a unique synergy between story and gameplay, as the player gains skills and weapons in tandem with Lara's growing confidence. The acquisition of new gear or upgrades is accompanied by a series of escalating "fuck yeah" moments, each serving to propel Lara one step further on her journey from shipwrecked hostage to survivor, then from survivor to badass, and finally from badass to leader. By the time she runs out of a burning temple waving a grenade launcher and screaming about her intention to murder everyone in sight I was just about ready to get up and start cheering at both the triumphant character moment and the thought of reducing those machine-gun fuckers to pieces.

Of course all those skills would be useless without a good combat system. Herein lies Tomb Raider's greatest strength and it's biggest weakness. Early gameplay footage suggested a predictable retread of the Gears of War style whack-a-mole cover shooting that's infested so much game design lately; in reality this couldn't be further from the truth. Tomb Raider uses a revolutionary cover system that involves moving behind objects in order to escape from bullets. I know it might seem massively counter-intuitive to not have to press a button and have your character latch awkwardly onto the nearest wall as if attracted by a powerful magnet but trust me, you'll get used to it eventually. This fluidity along with enemies who will aggressively flank and throw grenades mean the player is encouraged to stay mobile and use improvisational strategies to out-think larger, better armed enemy forces. The addition of close combat attacks adds a whole new dimension to battles, as distracting and then charging enemies is often a much more efficient strategy than waiting for them to move out of cover. Plus murdering someone with a climbing axe just makes you feel like more of a badass.

It's unfortunate then that the combat is at it's best early on, when the player only has a bow, a handgun and the ability to shove enemies around a bit, or possibly off a cliff if the opportunity presents itself. As more weapons and skills are obtained the battles start to become more conventional, relying more on rapid fire weapons than cunning and experimentation. It never entirely loses that exciting win-by-the-skin-of-teeth flair and the new tools do offer some cool action-movie moments (my favorite was when I launched a grenade at someone at close range, flinging myself backwards down a flight of stairs and away from his heavily armed buddies) but too often I found myself crouching behind some boxes waiting for a dude to poke his head out so I could spray bullets at him.

The other component to Tomb Raider is exploration, as there are several large hub areas stuffed full of hidden collectibles and every combat area can be revisited to explore at the player's leisure for XP-granting achievements. It's here that Tomb Raider innovates by taking a step backward, shrugging off many of the limitations modern game design has foisted on the player. Objective markers and usable-item highlights are only visible by using an optional "survival vision", indicating a refreshing willingness to trust that the player can find their way around without having their hand held constantly. It's a sad irony that this version of Lara is significantly less acrobatic than her PS1 counterpart (no backflips here) but moves like a goddamn Cirque Du Soleil member compared to the majority of cement-footed game protagonists trundling around the environment these days. Even just being able to jump whenever you want feels incredibly refreshing. Unfortunately this effort to cast off the shackles of modern gaming conventions doesn't extend to Quick Time Events, which are used far too frequently.

I'd love to say the mostly-excellent gameplay is accompanied by an excellent story, but that's unfortunately not the case. Tomb Raider spins a predictable, cliched, extraordinarily silly yarn over the course of its playtime. For all it's been marketed as a gritty Batman Begins style reinvention Tomb Raider goes into territory just as hokey as the early games in the series. This doesn't mean its badly executed by any means- the dialogue is pretty well written and Lara's adventure crew reveal themselves to be a bit more than the pack of one-dimensional cliches they initially appear to be- but it's impossible to take certain plot revelations seriously. This isn't helped by the fact that the player will figure out exactly what's going on a good six hours before the characters do. The game also follows the recent trend of anti-climactic endings, going out with a whimper after 10-12 hours of increasingly big bangs.

These are flaws to be sure, but they were only minor blemishes on Tomb Raider's gloriously scratched, mud-splattered veneer for me. This is a quality game representing one major step forward for a venerable icon and a refreshing step back for gameplay design.
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About PenguinFactoryone of us since 3:15 PM on 08.18.2011

Long-time game player, first-time game blogger. I'm a news junkie and quite fond of armchair analysis. Hit me up to sate your craving for uninformed opinions about the Future of The Industry.

I play all games, on any platform that's available, but I'm always looking for games that offer unique experiences. I am one of Those People who payed money for Bus Driver, a game about driving buses. This should tell you everything you need to know about my tastes.

I'm interested in the development of strong narrative in games and seeing them expand their scope and inclusiveness. Expect politically charged opinions. Polemics are a distinct possibility. Take appropriate safety measures