US: 5 Mar 2013
Lara Croft is back… again.
This isn’t the first effort to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise. Actually, by my count it is (at least) the third.
Lara’s original developers, Core Design, having created the iconic Tomb Raider property and more or less having milked it for all that it was worth in the late 90s and early 2000s, infamously failed to successfully reboot the character at the end of their own tenure with the Tomb Raider series. The darker, more urban tone of Angel of Darkness and the forgettable addition of a new playable, male tomb raider, Kurtis Trent, never really found its audience, leading to an aborted trilogy and the eventual passing on of the property to a new developer.
Crystal Dynamics would reconsider the character by returning Lara to her roots with the remake of her original adventures, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, but in doing so would also attempt to modernize Lara by stripping her of her tank-like movement system, allowing her a more familiar and more fluid ability to interact in 3D environments. Both Legend (which preceded the remake) and Underworld (which followed it) would essentially maintain the core concepts of Tomb Raider as a game about raiding tombs, solving puzzles, alongside some combat sequences, though. The games essentially just put a fresh coat of paint on an older property through the revamped controls and greater emphasis on Lara’s character and past.
Excluding The Guardian of Light, a top down isometric action puzzler, very different from (though pretty enjoyable in and of itself) classic tomb Raider games, these previous reboots haven’t diverged much from the core of the Tomb Raider experience, an experience that in the past I have suggested largely concerns a focus on observational play. Not only has the star of the series, the voluptuous, gaming sex symbol Lara Croft, perhaps, always been intended to be something for the player to observe, but the gameplay of most Tomb Raider games largely come down to entering environments and figuring out how to traverse them. The original game was designed at a time that 3D gaming and giving control of the camera to the player to facilitate that play had just begun, and in that regard, it is no surprise to me that moving Lara into rooms where one has to pan the camera all over the place in order to determine how to traverse an environment or solve a physics-based puzzle is kind of the chief preoccupation of the gameplay of the series.
Crystal Dynamics latest effort to reconsider the adventures of Lara Croft, likewise, still focuses much of its attention on Lara Croft herself with its effort to go back and explore the origins of the stoic, super competent, badass tomb raider that any gamer who has been playing video games for the past decade and a half is familiar with. However, the feel of the game itself (especially its first half) is quite different than any Tomb Raider before it.
In many ways, Lara has been transformed more into a gunslinger than a tomb raider in the newest version of the game with its much greater emphasis on combat and new hunting mechanics. Environmental traversal still remains a central activity in the game, as Lara explores a seemingly cursed island where she and her crew have been shipwrecked while hunting for the tomb of a supposed Sun Godess. However, there is an awful lot more to do in the game with its larger, open world, rather than the experience of the less linear sequence of puzzle chambers that essentially previously defined a Tomb Raider experience.
Indeed, there really isn’t much tomb raiding to be had in Tomb Raider, as the game’s theme of developing endurance as a means of describing the evolution of a naïve and softer Lara Croft into a hardened survivor instead finds Lara focused on a number of activities necessary to survive rather than to merely observe and explore. You can hunt the island’s wildlife, forage for other sources of food, seek out medicine and other supplies, all while scavenging salvage to upgrade your weapons and equipment. Tomb raiding has been relegated, for the most part, to optional side missions in which Lara explores very brief puzzle rooms, basically needing to solve a single puzzle to reach the tomb’s treasure.
These side quests are reminiscent of the more slowly paced sequences of the original game, as one needs to stop, take a look around, and then experiment with how to explore and reach a tomb’s objective. Traversal in the main bulk of the game still leans heavily on the idea of getting to know how Lara moves and interacts with certain kinds of obstacles and how to grapple about the island, ascending and descending, to achieve plot quests, but the pace of the game is vastly accelerated. Lara’s movement and climbing, punctuated frequently and ferociously with gun battles with the less-than-friendly natives of the island finds Lara constantly driving forward, making quick decisions about where to move next, who to fight, and how to escape. A far cry from the more meditative moments of simply observing the mechanisms of an ancient burial chamber in order to figure out how to get from point A to point B.
In that sense, hardcore fans of the series may be disappointed with the injection of a whole lot of the vibe of Uncharted‘s more furious pacing and grander spectacle into their action-puzzle game. I would suggest that those folks do give the game a chance, though, as its latter half, which still features some pretty furious fights, does (to me at least) feel a bit more attuned to emphasizing the traversal elements of the original as the central interest of Tomb Raider. I find myself personally torn on the gameplay, as I was initially disappointed at finding tomb raiding diminished to a sideline activity, yet the new activities and pacing feel fresh, and I found myself pretty immersed in the new and once again more modern feel of this Tomb Raider. It is a series that needed an overhaul, even one this drastic.
Despite what I feel to be pretty substantial revisions of the gameplay elements of Tomb Raider, though, what has probably generated the most buzz surrounding the reboot, of course, though, is the revision of Lara herself. In the opening scene of the game, there is a moment in which Lara, before being shipwrecked, looks at herself in a mirror. This is a younger Lara than we have ever seen before. She looks pretty and soft. About two thirds or maybe three quarters of the way into the game, having survived a substantial number of challenges and encounters, the player will find themselves returning to the wreck of Lara’s ship, the Endurance, and once again Lara will find herself in one of the ship’s cabins looking at herself in a mirror. The mirror itself is smeared in dirt and thus the cloudy image of a young woman that herself is now dirty, cut up, and ravaged stares back. In a sense, this is really what all of the game’s “getting from here to there” is all about. How does one get from fresh faced, naïve girl to capable survivalist?
This story is largely told through Lara’s body in the game, as we watch her initially stumble and fall a lot, scream in terror at what confronts her, limp wounded away from a fight, and hesitate to climb heights that the older version of Lara would not have even blinked at. The dirt and wounds that appear on Lara’s body as the game progresses tell a tale somewhat similar to the one told in the fairly recent James Bond reboot, Casino Royale, a film that exquisitely punishes its iconic hero’s body in order to represent his masculinity, his endurance, and his inability to give up. Here, in a sense, we get a similar story of the punishment of the protagonist’s body as a visual metaphor for the hardening of a hero. Dirt and scars are read as signs of experience and perseverance.
Game critics (myself included), of course, were concerned about how the vulnerability on display in early preview footage of the first few hours of Tomb Raider might indicate that Crystal Dynamics was going the route of exploitation cinema, as the first part of the game places Lara in a position that looks more like victim than capable protagonist. I have written a bit about my own response to the game as I have been playing through it, and I personally feel like some of this concern is unwarranted as it makes complete sense in terms of the game’s plot and its thematic concerns (see ”Why Is She So Feminine?”, PopMatters, 6 March 2013), but then again some of the more brutal and gory death sequences that exist in the game seem a bit more troubling in that light (see ”With Great Vulnerability, Comes Great Brutality: The Evisceration of Lara Croft”, PopMatters, 20 March 2013).
That being said, a scene in the early part of the game, in which Lara has to confront a daunting climb to the top of a radio tower is somewhat indicative of what seems to be the intention of the developers, which I find to be an interest in attempting to show vulnerability as a means of then highlighting triumph and character building more often than not. In that scene, Lara reaches the first platform of the tower and crouches/crawls towards the middle of it (which is exactly what I would instinctively do if I were up that high—try to stay as low to as possible, fearing standing up and losing my balance). As I was playing, when she peeked over the edge, my stomach dropped, and I thought to myself, “I would never do this” (indeed, I have problems with heights). It is that moment then when she looks up at the next broken ladder to ascend even higher that I believed in her—because while I wouldn’t have been willing to do it—I knew she was. It’s a surprisingly simple, but surprisingly evocative scene.
Highly effective scenes like this and well-paced gameplay make Tomb Raider a game worth taking more than a brief look at. This is the most substantial revision of this iconic figure of video games that has yet been attempted, and it is clearly the most successful, even if its success is simply in creating a revision more interesting than any other and one that makes one consider and reconsider how a significant character in video game history has evolved over nearly two decades.