The New ‘Tomb Raider’ Video Game Does It Right
I didn't want to play Tomb Raider. I was never a huge fan of the franchise to begin with, but what really turned me off of the new game was the minor controversy last year that arose when executive producer Ron Rosenberg talked about how it was a game about players wanting to "protect" Lara Croft because players apparently couldn't project themselves onto the character like they do in other games. Throw in some rapey imagery in the trailer and some chatter about how that was going to be a key part of Lara's new origin story, and the whole thing seemed like something that was better left avoided.
After it came out, though -- and after a few articles about how Rosenberg misspoke in his initial interview -- a few of my friends grabbed it and had a lot of good things to say, and when one offered to loan me his copy, I decided to give it a shot. I'm glad I did, too. Despite everything that worried me from the press before it came out, Tomb Raider is easily the best game I've played all year.Now that I've played through it, it's pretty easy to see what Rosenberg was trying to get at. The entire game is built around moving Lara from a young, inexperienced student to the battle-hardened, ultra-competent Indiana Jones type that we're used to. There's a theme of survival that runs through the game -- something that it's not particularly subtle about reminding you every chance it gets -- and in order for that to work, there has to be a sense of danger to what you're doing. If you don't feel like you can be overwhelmed by enemies or plummet to your death at any time, the whole idea of "survival" is pointless if you don't feel like you're surviving something perilous.
That's what I think they were trying to get that with all that jazz about "protecting" Lara Croft, and fortunately, they did it really well. The game goes out of its way to create an atmosphere where it always feels like you're beating impossible odds, where a missed shot can mean fighting ten bad guys with assault rifles instead of silently killing two, and where that "click" of running out of ammo in the middle of a firefight can send you scrambling into a retreat and looking for cover.
Don't get me wrong. It's still a video game and once you get to the point where you strap a grenade launcher to the barrel of your AK-47, it enters a phase that I like to call "No, F*** You Mode," but by the time you actually get to that point, the game does a great job of actually making that feel like something has changed. And that's what that theme they were building is really all about.
The most obvious way they go about this is to spend the majority of the game just straight up beating the living hell out of Lara Croft, and I actually like that a lot. That might sound weird, but I like it in the same way that I like pulp novels where detectives get punched out by heavies or conked on the head and tied up every other page. Tomb Raider actually manages to play it so that the emphasis isn't on getting knocked down, but on getting back up for a second round, and that's a very difficult thing to pull off.
It's even more impressive when you consider that it's also doing it in an insanely over-the-top video game way. Seriously, the very first thing that happens to Lara Croft after you start playing this game is that she falls onto a rusty spike that impales her right through the obliques and gives her the first of many bloodstains on her tank top. That's basically how this game opens, and Lara's torso isn't exactly big enough for that thing to have gone through anything other than a major organ. At the very least -- the very least -- Lara's going to be needing a new kidney once she gets off this island, but she pulls the spike out, limps around for a few minutes, and them promptly goes back to rock-climbing, archery and occasionally wading through actual cesspits and rivers of blood.
By contrast, I got up from playing this game the other night, stubbed my toe, and just laid down on the floor waiting to die.
The single best example of this might be a mission where Lara is injured (yet again) and the stated goal is to find a first-aid kid. It's a pretty intense mission with an atmosphere that's almost like something from a Fallout game, with a real sense that you need to get medical attention or you'll suffer a quick and brutal death from all the running around fighting crazed murder-cultists with open, definitely infected wounds. But then at the end of the level, you never do get that first-aid kit. Instead, you get an upgrade that lets you shoot your enemies with arrows that are on fire. And I'm not gonna lie, I absolutely love that. If you're going to be super-serious, at least have a little fun with it.
I mentioned Fallout above, and that's really the closest thing I've played to Tomb Raider in terms of really nailing that sense of isolation and desperation. I spent the first half of Fallout 3 creeping carefully through ruins and scrounging for ammo, and while Tomb Raider definitely didn't go as in depth in constructing a world, it got that atmosphere perfectly (and also had a similar moment halfway through when I had enough upgrades to just unload machine guns at anyone who got in my way). The setting, an island where centuries upon centuries of shipwrecks that date back to a lost empire, hidden cults and research bases, is built up so that they can have anything from an ancient temple to a gunfight on the deck of a battleship, and they take full advantage of that.
It helps with fleshing out Lara's character, too. Her constant mantra of "I can do this," which Camilla Luddington's voice acting does a great job of shifting from someone trying to psych herself up to the grim confidence of a person who actually believes that, is the sign of a great arc for Lara's character, but it's not the thing that made me really like her. That came, in true video game fashion, from the way she was sidetracked by relics and exploring ancient tombs. The kind of boundless curiosity that was on display even when her life was in danger really gave her a character hook that I hadn't considered before.
In terms of gameplay, Tomb Raider lifts a little from Assassin's Creed and a lot from Arkham City. Lara's increasingly bloody tank top and her steady accumulation of wounds are a logical extension of Batman's progression to full-on battle-damaged costume in Arkham Asylum, and the island setting with a bunch of weird, incongruous areas and the emphasis on alternating between stealth and combat reminded me more of that game than anything else. There is one thing that they decided to leave on the table, though.
Back when it came out, I wrote a little bit about how the Catwoman levels in Arkham City involved overhearing the bad guys referring to you as a bitch about once every thirty seconds or so and occasionally spice things up with a few rape threats for good measure. It was one of the only big problems that I had with the game, because it was so constant and distracted from the game. It just didn't need to be there. Admittedly, there were people who argued that that was how real criminals would refer to Catwoman and how it can be excused in the name of realism, but I'm going to assume that those people were unaware that this was a game where you fought a giant swamp zombie, an immortal and a guy with an ice laser.
I went into Tomb Raider expecting more of the same, but not once did any of the all-male army of embittered murderers that Lara was facing call her a bitch. Not once. It didn't make them any less threatening and it didn't make the game less "realistic" (the immortal samurai took care of that one), and it didn't take away from the way they treated Lara as a character who had to overcome long odds and a pretty rough string of injuries and setbacks. All it did was show that the creators were willing to learn from the mistakes other games have made and make something that didn't actively insult its audience.
Along the same lines, I was also pleasantly surprised at how non-sexualized Lara was as a character. Don't worry: The game never lets you forget that you're playing as an attractive young lady, but as someone whose last experience with Tomb Raider came back when everyone was super stoked about her dodecahedral D-cups, it was nice to see her treated as a well-rounded character and not just a well-rounded body.
There's one extremely brief moment, very early on, where one of the bad guys gets a little handsy, and while I could've done without it, it's nowhere near what I was expecting. The reaction from most of the bad guys is just to treat Lara as an enemy, and the chatter you overhear as they're regrouping from an attack isn't Arkham City's "most of these guys haven't seen a woman in years," it's "where did she get a f**king machine gun?!" and "She's just one girl!" "Yeah, well that one girl is kicking our ass!" Swap out the pronoun, and that last exchange could be something crooks said about Batman.
Despite a poor choice of words while it was still in development, that's the kind of game Tomb Raider is. It's a great game that made the effort to be better than it had to be, to treat both its characters and the players with respect and intelligence, and it succeeds on every level because of it. More games could learn from its example.
Especially when it comes to letting players set things on fire at a distance.