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The crying game: it’s time to talk Tomb Raider

Wednesday, 5th December 2012 08:36 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Early next year, Crystal Dynamics will release one of the most radical reboots gaming’s ever seen. Devoted Tomb Raider fan Brenna Hillier has held her diplomatic tongue long enough. It’s time to judge.

Lara’s just a person, a young woman in an impossible situation whose courage and determination feels all the more real and admirable for her confusion, grief and panic. I kind of love her.

Tomb Raider is one of my passions. There have been a handful of titles which have really changed the way I play and think about games in general, and Tomb Raider, one of just two games I got with my first PlayStation, is one of the pivotal ones. It was the first game I ever played with explorable three dimensional environments. It blew my mind.

In the years when a new Tomb Raider sequel reliably turned up in time for Christmas (looking back, this must have been a nightmare for Core), I would find a game-shaped package under the tree and take it with me on my access visits. I spent a couple of weeks every summer (Australia, remember) on my dad’s farm, as did two of my cousins, also mad Tomb Raider fans. We’d play through together – as far as we could, because without Internet access the puzzles sometimes stalled us for days – the three of us arguing over which path to take, and swapping the control pad back and forth to try and get through tricky action sequences.

I still have all the games. I have a number of resin statues. I have the movies. I have a life-sized cardboard cut out of Angelina Jolie in the wetsuit from the second film. That’s my credentials. I’m a capital letter Fan.

Ever since the Tomb Raider reboot was announced, apparently a re-skinning of a survival horror Crystal Dynamics had been pitching for ages, I’ve tried to keep quiet about it. Because it looked ruddy awful to me – lacking everything I’d loved and appreciated in the series to date, and a total betrayal of a character I’d held close to my heart for a substantial portion of my formative years. There. I’ve said it. Tomb Raider, from reveal to reveal, has looked like nothing but utter rubbish, and I have been quietly anticipating giving it a critical savaging of such righteous fury that brand manager Karl Stewart will have to put his laptop in the freezer and cry himself to sleep. I’m not a very nice person, I’m afraid, especially where “my” games are concerned.

Well, I’ve played it now. It’s not actually that bad. I’m as surprised as you are.

Modern Life
With Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics has completed what it began with Legends, its first attempt at reinventing Lara, in thoroughly modernising the franchise’s gameplay. I don’t like this at all, but I understand it, and if it were attached to any other property, I probably wouldn’t give the merest flutter of an eyelid.

Stace mentioned that Tomb Raider does away with the “a tiresome, uninspiring” combat of early games. I can’t argue with his assessment, but combat never felt like the point of Tomb Raider – until now. On a purely mechanical level, the combat sections of the reboot were by far the most engaging. Battles are fast paced and despite an emphasis on cover, encourage you to move around – the trigger-happy molotov throwers in particular, but even goons will try to flank you and aren’t afraid to climb and cross environments.

Outside of battles, you’ll be doing a lot of running down corridors looking for interactive objects, and that’s about it. It feels as if you’re being funnelled from encounter to encounter, where the “real” game – fighting – happens. That sounds harsh, and it undersells the branching paths of the level design as well as the simple pleasure of hopping about the environments, but perhaps more to the point it’s a type of gameplay which has become endemic. You could see it creeping in as early as Angel of Darkness, the doomed, fatally-flawed, final Core-developed Tomb Raider: run down corridor – press X (or A, if you must, Xbots) when prompted, progress to next combat encounter, rinse, repeat.

Tomb Raider’s latest gameplay footage.

Every action Lara has access to is smooth and easy to perform, even as the animations demonstrate the effort it costs her – no more awkwardly clambering about, then. The navigation in Core-developed Tomb Raider games was a chore – but it was a chore that was in some way a challenge of your co-ordination, just as shooting is today. That’s missing from modern games, but it’s probably missing for a good reason. Triple-A games need to sell orders of magnitude more than they did a decade-and-a-half ago, which means they need to appeal to a much broader base than those who liked pressing three keys to complete actions as simple as mantling.

So I forgive Tomb Raider its simple controls, as I forgive it its heavily messaged navigational puzzles. Graphics are too detailed to ever again ship a game without signalling, like Assassin’s Creed’s white sheets or the telltale shine of a climbable ledge in Uncharted; Tomb Raider actually does an admirable job of keeping these cues subtle, even amid the gloriously mad tangle of its impressively rich textures.

I forgive it its simple puzzles. To quote Stace again, we relied on “Lara’s prescient knowledge” of “obtuse” design to find the levers that would open doors in the old Tomb Raider games – and that was narratively silly. It was fun, though, and I’ll never forget some of those puzzles; the rooms so huge the draw point was a third of the way across, littered with doors, ledges, levers, keys and you with hours to spend putting together the correct sequence of events needed to pass through to the next problem.

Again, it’s not a gameplay style with mass appeal; it was too easy to get horribly stuck. The examples I saw in my preview session demonstrated a different approach which is probably more accessible but will still require you to engage your logic circuits. Square Enix has asked us not to talk about puzzles and secrets in detail, and I think that’s wise; I’d hate to spoil for you what has, for me, always been the best part of a Tomb Raider game. I will say that I didn’t see very many of either, and they weren’t overly challenging, but I was playing the introductory sequence so it’s likely we can expect bigger and better brain-bending further in.

Differentiation
That’s how it plays. Throw in a levelling system, collectibles, upgradable weapons and equipment and it all adds up to a game which has little to distinguish itself, mechanically, from any number of third-person action games. During E3 2011, Pat observed that he’s sick of watching characters run around in burning environments, beating up baddies and occasionally stopping to pull a lever. At the time I wrote off his jaded cynicism but 18 months later, playing Tomb Raider made me realise he’s right. Modern “action adventure” is in a hole and in serious need of fresh innovation. I’m tired of playing this game, and it’s the same game every time – the differences between them feel cosmetic. Gorgeous graphics, smooth, satisfying combat and the carrot of progression systems aren’t enough. I need a reason to play it again.

It was one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced in a game. As Lara sighed out her final line I actually bit my tongue because I might otherwise have cried.

Here’s where I bait and switch you because, friends and neighbours, Tomb Raider has a reason. It’s like Crystal Dynamics had the same realisation as Pat and I and set out to discover just what might motivate us to make one last effort. It didn’t have to – this is Tomb Raider, a property with plenty of gravity – but it did.

That reason is Lara Croft.

She’s not the Lara I knew, but let’s face it – she’s rarely held onto a personality for the span of a whole game, let alone more than one, reinventing herself through multiple (psychopathic) identities. This Lara, penned by Rhianna Pratchett, is someone I actually care about. I don’t want to “protect” her. I don’t “identify” with her, either. She’s just a person, a young woman in an impossible situation whose courage and determination feels all the more real and admirable for her confusion, grief and panic. I kind of love her.

My preview session was two-and-a-half hours of power-gaming in the dark, a concerted effort to see all the available content. These kind of conditions never give you the same enjoyment as several relaxed sessions at home would. I kept checking my watch. I was bored, and tired, and too cold, and sick of running through the forest shooting wolves. I kept writing petty little notes about how awful everything was.

At the end of the demo, though, I put down my control pad, took off my headset, and just sat, staring, at the game’s title super-imposed on the final image. I had just guided Lara through an incredible ordeal – a series of ordeals – culminating in a short sequence which was, mechanically, as simple as it is possible to get without actually taking your hands off the control and watching the game masturbate.

It was one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced in a game. As Lara sighed out her final line I actually bit my tongue because I might otherwise have cried.

I want so much to go back to that game. I want to find out what happens next; I want to see what Lara does next. I want to uncover the mysteries of the island, and to put the boot into a couple of characters I’ve taken offense to. I want to spend more time with Lara’s mentor, and I want to watch her inevitable growth into the woman she’ll have to be to survive this adventure. I want to inhale the orchestral score, the wilderness atmosphere, the genuine tension of combat.

Narrative, character and beauty are what makes games worth playing when mechanics have boiled down to a gluey pot of homogeneity. Tomb Raider has all three in spades. It seems a fine tribute to Lara Croft-as-was, and can never be again. I can’t help but feel that, for all my doubts up till now, the 13 year-old Brenna who nearly threw up in awe at the sight of a towering temple rendered in about eighteen polygons would approve.

Brenna spent three hours at Namco Bandai Partners, which handles PR for Square Enix in Australia. She refused even to enjoy the air conditioning.

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5 Comments

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  1. absolutezero

    If Crystal was sitting on an actual Survival Horror and this was the result then Im quietly depressed.

    The over all direction the series moved off in, while being a pretty huge departure is something I quite like, its different like Lost crossed with the island from Arrow.

    Its also decidedly strange that in a game based around survival at all costs having regenerating health seems out of place, regen health was meant to streamline difficulty and pace but surely searching out health kits would be more beneficial for something a little slower?

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Kabby

    Regenerating health is a design cop out.

    If they had a better feel for the gaming seas they would have implemented a hardcore mode in the game. One life, need to eat food etc.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. Ireland Michael

    It’s a pity you can’t go into more detail Brenna. I would love to know how you managed to shift so dramatically from being bored playing it to blown away and amazed. That part of the article confuses the hell out of me.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Sini

    I liked Underworld, it was much better than Legends. I hope the new game isn’t too close to Uncharted series, which I consider to be vastly overrated(simplistic puzzles, no thought required platforming, generic merc enemies).

    #4 1 year ago
  5. Clupula

    I’m getting a definitive “good story, shitty gameplay” feel from what you’re saying here.

    #5 1 year ago