If the reviews for Tomb Raider indicate anything, it’s that games are growing up. Once, Lara Croft was the token pin-up girl of videogames; her ridiculous bustiness was the embodiment of the core ’90′s video game demographic: adolescent boys.
But now videogames have gone to college. They’re experiencing a new world of ideas that challenge the preconceived notions of their youth. Women can be more than princesses to be rescued. Complex stories and nuanced characters are possible. Intelligent discussion on themes can be part of the conversation. But all of these new ideas video games don’t yet know how to adopt into the framework that made them who they are.
Tomb Raider is recognizably an attempt to modernize the series into this new age of videogames. Instead of a Lara Croft that dances around blasting twin pistols, we get a struggling survivor who appears always on the edge. This Lara Croft is tired, afraid, and remorseful.
Title: Tomb Raider
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Release Date: March 5th, 2013
Platform: Multi (PS3 reviewed)
But there are problems in the way that Crystal Dynamics have tried to characterize Lara this time around, the foremost of which is that when the player controls Lara, many of the most interesting aspects of the story are sacrificed for gameplay. Lara may be severely wounded in a cutscene, but she will still survive 5 bullets to the torso as soon as you’re the one controlling her. She will limp and hold her bleeding gut until enemies attack and then she will dance maniacally around between cover. This disconnect between story and gameplay is hardly a new thing, but it feels particularly disorienting in the case of Tomb Raider because of how much the game strives to characterize her as something the gameplay says that she isn’t. The result is that in the cutscenes, she comes across disingenuously. For example, she at one point needs to be reassured by another character that she can mount an attack on a radio tower in order to message for help, but this scene comes immediately after she has faced the far scarier prospect of twenty-odd armed men with the sole objective of killing her.
The novice afraid of violence who then goes on to be become a killing machine has become something of a trope in recent videogames and it’s one I find particularly frustrating because it is so interesting a concept that is never backed up by gameplay. Games–specifically shooters–centered on this trope seem to want to say that killing is hard and that violence will corrupt you into something inhuman, but killing in videogames has rarely been hard or had any real consequences. Indeed it is almost always the one thing you have to do.
It’s worth saying this: the first time that Lara does kill someone, it is difficult. It’s done in quick-time events, but its multi-staged and difficult. It’s even gruesome. But the moment is ruined as soon as the game forces you into facing off with twelve armed men at once. It becomes evident all too soon that Lara can take on anything. The progression to killing machine happens too quickly and the game has hardly earned it. But this is the problem with this trope. It goes against the inherent design of shooters, in which things start easily and then get difficult. The story wants to say that killing starts very hard and progresses only down to hard, but in truth killing starts easy for Lara and only gets easier. (Consider the opposite case: in Spec Ops: The Line, killing being easy in gameplay is precisely the problem of the story.)
There was another moment, in the beginning, when Lara has to kill a deer for meat. I, being as magnanimous as I am, shot the deer in the head so as to prevent it suffering. In the resulting cutscene, the animal was still breathing as Lara cut into it. The moment had me miffed. Lara might be a bad shot, but I most certainly was not.
It’s hard to watch Tomb Raider‘s story unfold in its early stages because it begets a different game, and one I would much rather play: a difficult game that put sheer survival before combat, a game in which you were weak and death seemed to peer perilously down your shoulder. Instead, animals are killed for experience and health regenerates; enemies are mowed down in waves instead of meticulously picked off. But complaining about what a game isn’t wouldn’t be fair to the game’s creators. That said, it often feels as though the game isn’t fair to its writers whose heavy-handiness shows up in only the worst ways.
As for everything else, the game’s combat is competent and rewarding but also mostly unexciting. The bow is a truly fun weapon to use but the game often demands for it to be holstered in favor of duller, more automatic weapons. The weapon and skill upgrades are really just basic progression and the collectibles are superfluous, outside of the documents that provide background narration for the boring supporting cast. The set pieces are so ludicrously explosive as to be comical. The story itself, outside of Lara, is pretty forgettable fare–the kind that people use derisively when they snidely say “videogame stories.” Indeed it was a term that I don’t think I fully understood until I played Tomb Raider. The game is as polished as a AAA game should be, but beyond that it lacks any significant amount of depth.
There is some core of the Tomb Raider experience that is enjoyable, but it feels incredibly disconnected from everything else about the game. The atmosphere that the game is able to convey is astounding and beautiful. Outside of the gameplay concerns, Lara’s characterization is actually pretty compelling. There are a few moments when you can pluck through enemies silently from the shadows and they are by far the game’s most rewarding moments.
But really the game is summed up in one little thought I had while playing: Lara really doesn’t want to be slogging through all the constant onslaughts of enemies. And neither do I. So why the hell were we?