Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tomb Raider (2013)

Would you judge me too harshly if I told you that I have never played a Tomb Raider game?  My home was a Nintendo home, and Lara Croft was a PlayStation girl.  Whatever romance we could have had would have been star-crossed and forbidden, almost certain to end in tragedy.  Years passed, Kingdom Hearts finally broke my PlayStation taboo and forced me to get a PS2, Lara Croft appeared in two fairly generic Angelina Jolie movies* that nobody remembers, and yet she never migrated into my controller.  The franchise was scuttled by its original studio, Core Design, then taken up again by the Eidos-owned Crystal Dynamics.  They rebooted the franchise once, but that didn't quite take, so here we are again, with a second reboot, starting with a game simply called "Tomb Raider".

Since I've never played an older Tomb Raider, this meant I had to do some research, which is an irritating process that requires real work.  Older Tomb Raider games were a mixture of a third-person shooter and 3D platforming with puzzle solving, which is essentially what the 2013 "Tomb Raider" happens to be.  The biggest development of this franchise is a change in tone.  Where the older Tomb Raider games were careless fanservice nonsense - this is a franchise whose fame was built on being the first video game series to star a pair of enormous tits stapled to a polygon humanoid - this new "Tomb Raider" wants to move away from that.  Old Lara was like a female James Bond doing Indiana Jones' job, fighting monsters and doing elaborate acrobatics and gunplay in absolutely shameless swimsuits, New Lara wears pants the entire game, never once winks to the camera, and digs through dirt for twenty or so hours.

The word on the mind of the developers and the thing clinging to Lara Croft's skin is "grit".  This is supposed to be a game of realism, realistically surviving dangerous situations, and realistically getting those situations impaled through your throat.  The adventure this time is no fun brawl through mindless levels, this is supposed to be a horrifying survival experience, as a first-time adventurer, Lara, battles her way through a ruined island which is not quite deserted.  It's actually the home to about 10,000 rapist cult members who want to murder any human being who makes the mistake of stepping foot on their miserable stretch of the planet.  Croft has to step up, brush the dust off her trousers, and slaughter every one of them to go home.

Generally I approve of the concept of this reboot.  The old Tomb Raider series is a legend of gaming history - every gamer knows who Lara is and what she does - but I don't think it was a series with very much depth.  Are there hardcore Tomb Raider fans?   Or just gamers who were fifteen and never realized pixels could be sexualized before?  So re-focusing the series on something other than a virtual sex doll with a cartoon smile is definitely a step forward.  Much like the new James Bond films, I like how we've moved towards something more serious and more character-driven.  I also like the idea behind this new "Tomb Raider", shoving us into a Robinson Caruso adventure with a machine gun.  What is supposed to be a simple history documentary filmed in the rougher parts of the Sea of Japan winds up crashing on the worst island on Earth.  Lara, being one of the survivors of this doomed trip, now has to gather her friends and fight their way out to go home.

The opening points of "Tomb Raider (2014)" definitely give the illusion that this will be a rough and tumble survival game.  A sort of slow burn of holding onto resources, hunting for food, only occasionally punctuated by moments of intense violence.  It is only after an hour into the game that Lara Croft kills her first would-be rapist**, which is back when you imagine this is a deserted island with only a score of lunatics hanging around.  The game makes special points to show off that Lara Croft was injured very specifically in her side and the player is made to go on a hunting quest for some delicious wild venison.  Naturally you would start to assume that this game is going to borrow some mechanics from "Metal Gear Solid 3", where you would have to forage for food and supplies to keep up your stamina and heal wounds directly.  Unfortunately, both of those things are false.  Hunting only gives a spattering of EXP which you do not actually need, health regenerates automatically without any thought, and even ammo is so plentiful in this game that you will never ever run out.  Even stranger, this island is not at all deserted, it is filled with an army equal to that of the size of an industrial-sized nation, all of whom you will have to kill.  This isn't a survival game, this is a shooting gallery.

I was giggling somewhat early on with the first encounters, fairly impressed by the rooms filled with six guys that I would just murder without much thought.  The lunatics would rush at me and I would mutter to myself:  "gentlemen, please, must we really?  Can't we talk about this like reasonable people?"  Then when the machete-bearing fool kept running, I would accept "no" and then shoot him twice in the face.  Even then I was fully unprepared for the ferocity and ridiculousness of the battles "Tomb Raider" had in store for me.

It's like a running gag, was that battle not enough for you?  Those six guys?  That was a low number.  Now prepare for battles against fifteen guys.  Now thirty.  How about fifty?  Is it enough now?  How about now?  I don't really know how all these mad cultists were living on this island - What do they eat?  Do they grow crops?  Where are they getting all this SWAT-level equipment for the last levels?  Where are they getting all this ammo in general? - but I guess all those supply mysteries become non-issues once Lara Croft decimates their army on her own.

Shoot these guys in the head.  They're just three mouths to feed.
The first weapon you are given is a bow and arrow, which automatically became everybody's favorite weapon in the game.  Since Blue Highwind is a subset of everybody, my favorite weapon was also the bow.  I'm not one for shipping, but I've officially decided that my first pairing will be Lara Croft and her bow.  It was mildly stealthy (at least as stealthy as the limited options of this game give), it was easy to aim, it had the best range, and it felt the most appropriate to the surroundings.  I still wanted to pretend this was a filthy, dig them out with your teeth kind of bitter survivalist war, rather than a mindless shoot-em-up, so I used the most barbaric weapon available.  Beyond bows you are given a hiking ax for melee attacks, the usual variety of guns:  machine, shotgun, handgun.   But back on the more interesting issue of bows you can evolve your bows with ropes to tug enemies, pull down supports, and make tight-ropes to climb between areas.  Later you can take a clue from the Gods of Hyrule and make fire arrows to burn the nutcases to ground, or even have bomb arrows.

Generally the gunplay is well-designed.  Guns give satisfying recoil, the weapons feel natural to use, and aiming is fair, there is plenty of time to draw a bead for a headshot.  However, there is a small issue in that the loonies you're usually fighting do not seem to have graduated from the honors program, if you know what I mean.  They do not pick very good hiding spots, they're terrible shots, they have no concept of flanking, and they'll pick the worst spots for ambushes.  One poor sucker jumped down from the ceiling ten feet away from me, thinking this was his big moment.  Of course, he landing right with my handgun out, and seeing clearly that I had him dead to rights, his immediate reaction was to stick to the course, keep on running, and die horribly for in the name of bravado.  Even the pigs on this island have a better survival instinct, they at least flee when you shoot at them.  Randomly you will get cut in half by a well-placed machine gun burst, but this can be avoided with comical ease by a dodge roll.

I get the sense from "Tomb Raider" that they were unable to make a game, considering the limited combat options, with very much challenge.  So the only solution was more.  Waves upon waves of enemies, able to take more damage, until finally they send so many that you might finally have to die.  (Even with a battle against thirty foes, the game is still too easy, turn you difficulty up to Hard.)  It's disappointing, since a game that should have been about sneaky strategic combat, resource management, and actual fear of combat, turns into a mindless - but fun - murder sim.  It is a game that makes no sense in of itself, aren't I supposed to be a girl just trying to pull myself out of the muck and go home?  Why am I basically a super model Pol Pot?

Lara Croft despite her college education, does not know the definition of the word "mercy".
Ignoring the combat, I am generally pleased by the production value of the game.  "Tomb Raider"'s ruined island has a unique and very pretty look:  foggy mountain cliffs, vertical Japanese towns on mountain sides, ruined junk yard shanty towns populated by rust and crashed B-29s, or huge hanging industrial sectors, tearing apart whole battleships hanging in the air.  It makes for a unique-looking adventure and interesting climbing/platforming sections.  There are plenty of creative caves, hellish blood-filled pools, and hidden smokey temples.  It all makes for a unified creative mood that is sadly lacking from actual nuts and bolts of the game.

Lara's reinvention from smiling Jessica Rabbit to a more realistic and subtle character is very successful - and somehow makes her about 100 times more attractive, paradoxically.  There is a huge issue with some of the graphics in the game, her hair never quite moves correctly.  Her ponytail swings around like a solid muddy appendage rather than anything that you would actually see growing out of a real human.  Sometimes her eyes do not quite roll in the right direction.  I was not inordinately in love with the character presented here, but New Lara was definitely more tolerable than the winking hormone creature of yesteryear.  I do wish Lara was more self-aware of how brutal her behavior was, or even could keep track of just the absurd number of lives she had taken, but I can accept some sacrifices.

Unfortunately the focus on bullets and shooting somewhat limits what are positive elements of the game.  For whatever reason most of the actual brain-requiring puzzles have bee relegated to a sidequest.  There is climbing, there are a few running action segments, but between them is always the glue of infinite numbers of very dumb very belligerent men always running right into my arrow shots.  The game barely bothers to have much of a plot being the set-up, leaving the supporting characters either to die in the name of Ms. Croft's character development or be kidnapped several times.  Who is this charismatic leader who can inspire an endless supply of grizzled fools to die against a hundred pound girl?  Just some idiot with a funny cane.

Probably best not to ask what those things hanging actually are.
Ultimately "Tomb Raider" is has the same successes and the same failings as pretty much every game from the PlayStation 3 era.  This is not just a last gen game, "Tomb Raider" is the last generation.  Regenerating health, mountains of bodies to pile up, ungainly upgrade systems, mild attempts at stealth gameplay, huge scripted collapsing sequences straight out of "Uncharted", very pretty environments wasted to make room for more bullet storms.  We've upped the realism, we've upped the emotional ambition, we've even upped the graphic power, but unfortunately gaming still has a great deal of work to do.  It is simply far too easy to kill people, it means so little, and it is so simple to just make a shoot-out when games could be so much more.  Really what we need are far fewer enemies but of much higher intelligence and threat.  I should not laugh as enemies ambush me, it should not be so easy to just cut through them with no concern.  "Tomb Raider" is not alone with this problem - even "The Last of Us" poked beyond the point of believability with its butchery.  Compared to "BioShock: Infinite" this game is actually rather enlightened.  I'm not saying do not have violence - action games need violence!  I love killing people.  But there is a time and place for it, excess for excess's own sake cannot be enough to make a video game anymore.

Judging "Tomb Raider" on its own terms, however, shows that it is still an above-average game.  Compared to the Tomb Raider games that came before, it is a clear improvement.  You do not even need to have played the games to see the obvious superior quality of this title over the previous ones.  There were fun action scenes, a few creative puzzles, some dazzling scenery, and "Tomb Raider" made for an excellent couple of weeks of gameplay.  If you like Lara Croft, if you barely know Lara Croft, Hell even if you just really like bows, this will be your kind of video game.  But one cannot really find themselves fully satisfied if gratuitous sex can only be replaced by gratuitous violence.

* A few years ago I might possibly call those Angelina Jolie films some of the best video game adaptations ever made.  Once upon a time you had to either choose between straight-up fully awful or adorably cheesy like "Street Fighter" or "Resident Evil" when it came to video game movies.  Well, now we have "Wreck-It Ralph", a legitimately fantastic movie though not technically an adaptation of any one game, and on the dumber side of the spectrum, "Need for Speed", another entirely decent film with charming leads (admittedly one that has nothing to do with the games).  So you can leave the Tomb Raider movies as forgotten early 2000s crap.

** There was a lot of (ultimately meaningless) controversy a few years back during this game's first reveal about how Lara Croft would nearly get sexually assaulted at one point, resulting in the usual kind of slackivist whiners - the same crusading paladins who put more energy into "Assassin's Creed 5"'s lack of female protagonists than actual violence against women - complaining about misogyny.  Personally I don't see any reason why a video game couldn't handle more difficult subject matter such as putting the character you're playing in serious danger of violation, but it is definitely something that needs to be handled carefully.  Ultimately the controversy added up to nothing because if you fail the Quick Time Event sequence the groper lunatic simply strangles Lara to death which is... better?


  1. Hmm well if you liked the tomb raider reboot and you have steam on your PC.
    May I recommend the Forest, its a early access game where you crash on a desert island, filled with mutant cannibals.
    I have not been able to get a hold of it myself, but from what ive heard its pretty good.
    Sword Of Primus

  2. I think the direction this game went, is pretty good, but I don't get the extreme amount of violence and the lack of fan service. Especially as a PC player I was annoyed by the scenarios, where a text pops up, saying: "Press *Handsymbol*" (What is that supposed to be?!) or "Hurry up and don't spend too much time reading, but press the button "F" ". Having to watch a pretty young Lara getting brutally killed multiple times, just cause of the stupid gimmick of having to press buttons at a specific time, is no fun for me at all. If I was into that shit, I would've bought Postal 2 or a snuff movie. I hope the next Lara Croft game finds something in between the old games and this one. And yeah... I don't want to buy a bunch of outfits for Lara which all make her look like an Eskimo.