Blog 772: Tomb Raider

Wait a minute. I reviewed Tomb Raider when I bought it off gog ages ago. How can I…? Oh, yes, of course — this isn’t Tomb Raider, it’s Tomb Raider (2013). Much as I can’t stand the existence of reboots that have the exact same names as their progenitors, they gave this one away for free, and, well, I had heard good things.

Tomb Raider (2013)

The question of the brand-recognition reboot continues to perplex me with this example. It has very little in common with its namesake; beyond the protagonist being a posh girl called Lara Croft and a penchant for landscape clambering, there’s nothing that would really satisfy somebody who saw this and thought “I remember loving Tomb Raider, I’ll be sure to get the new one”. This is putting aside any question of whether or not it’s good; this is purely a question of it being something different.

Okay, fine, nobody’s going to change the AAA/Hollywood mindset that simply having a pre-existing brand name makes a sure-fire hit and unknown properties are the absolute devil. Somebody made an adventure story about being stuck on an island full of cultists, let’s call the player Lara Croft and stick the title Tomb Raider on it. What do you mean, there are no tombs? … Uh, let’s add some optional ones on the side.

(Okay, it’s a fair cop: after the first Tomb Raider the number of tombs involved dropped dramatically. That doesn’t make it right.)

Excuse me, have you seen any tombs around here?

… yep, that’ll do it.

The game itself is relentles in its desire to utterly brutalise its protagonist, and I don’t mean in the sense that it’s difficult (because it’s not). Lara’s on an expedition with a load of pals to discover a lost kingdom, and their ship is destroyed in a massive storm. After the nasty battering she takes just surviving the disintegration of the ship, Lara clambers ashore and is immediately kidnapped by the locals. We first take control of her hanging upside-down with several other dead bodies — our first actions in the game are to make her swing around until she can fall out…

… and she lands on a great big metal spike through her torso. This theme of overly graphic and faintly unnecessary torture continues through the game, most notably in its quick-time events. Not long after the game starts, Lara has to escape the cave as it collapses, struggling through a tight gap before the ceiling falls on her. Except you have to press the right button at the right time to get through. If you fail, you are treating to an eye-watering crunch as she’s flattened by a boulder.

(Yes, all right, we were mildly amused by the sickening crunch when you drove her off an edge in the original, but this game has put considerable time and effort into its myriad gruesome deaths and not just played a meaty sound over a body dropping to the ground.)

Impalement through the neck is not something one wants to see 7 times in a row.

“How you doin’?”

When pursuing the main plot, there’s always so much urgency too. One or other of your friends is kidnapped or lost or otherwise under threat, so you need to rush to get them. The island is full of madmen who will attack you on sight, which invariably leads to vast tracts of ancient ruin exploding around you so you have to run or fall to your death. (It has a minimal HUD, so it’s not always clear when the game is playing and when it expects you to take control again.)

In terms of scale, it reminds me a lot of the more overblown sections of Sonic Adventure or Sonic Heroes — blindly holding forward and trusting the game to point you in the right direction as great chunks of level slough away at your passing. However, where in a Sonic game you’re on board for it being silly because, well, that’s the point, Tomb Raider is narratively very grounded. The people are very normal, the visuals show a very normal world — and yet the devastation is always huge. It’s never just a small fire, it’s never just one broken bridge: it’s always everything for a long distance.

Well done.

For some reason we also stumble into DooM for ten minutes. Yes, that is a lake of blood.

And then suddenly you’re left tool around in the aftermath of the devastation, looking for collectibles. This is generally quite fun, because you get to focus on climbing around — working out which series of jumps and ladders and ledges will get you up to interesting places.

The collectibles vary in quality, which does sour things a bit. Most boring are “GPS caches”, which purely give you an experience point reward — and what even IS a GPS cache? (And how did thousands of them get onto this island, which is accessible only by shipwreck?)

More interesting are the “relics”. Found in tins, these are (reconstructions of presumably genuine) historical items you get to spin around and examine, accompanied by a miniscule tidbit of historical context as Lara identifies the item. While the puzzling traversal of the environment is intrinsically satisfying, it feels even better to get a curious and unique droplet of lore at the end of it. It’s much more varied than, say, the original which could only give you more ammunition (that you often couldn’t even carry because you already had plenty).

I mean, that’s still not a tomb.

Ah yes, the lost kingdom of Yamatai, known for its cable-car system.

The disparity between narrative and gameplay is nothing new, of course, but it feels particularly egregious here. During cinematics, Lara is fighting for her life and constantly in emotional turmoil from all her dead friends; while in gameplay, she’s popping headshots with the longbow and is encouraged to close in for “brutal finishers”. Seeing as you get bonus experience points for headshots, it almost feels like Bulletstorm — but while that game revelled in over-the-top silliness and made such rewards a core of its being (and its narrative!), Tomb Raider so often shows Lara with a pained expression that the combat rewards start to feel a bit weird.

(Funnily enough, the grinning, gun-toting Lara Croft of the early games would probably suit “brutal finishers” just fine. She definitely had a mean streak, what with locking her butler in the freezer all the time.)

I think it’s even more interesting here because, given the starting point of “adventuring woman hunts for weird archeology in exotic places”, you’ve got a golden opportunity to make an exciting game that doesn’t focus entirely on murdering your way through an army of goons. There are glimmers of this alternate world in the collectible relics, but these are ultimately a bonus tacked on the side and are never relevant to the plot.

The RPG elements are fairly perfunctory and the game would have been just fine without them. Indeed, they mostly serve to highlight the BRUTAL FINISHERS.

I think I’m going to be seeing “mash [right shift] to [something]” in my dreams for the next three weeks.

But hey, that’s just me. Overall the experience of playing Tomb Raider has been nothing worse than fine; in terms of production values, it’s very pretty and very dramatic and, aside from a few irritating quick-time events, not particularly difficult. The relics are a nice touch and a bit of Lara talking to herself out loud definitely helps you through the more obtuse puzzles in a way the first game desperately needed. The story, dissonance with the gameplay aside, is also perfectly engaging and coherent.

But would I pay money for a sequel? Ehhh… For some reason, all it makes me want to do is play Crysis.

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