An Iconic Female Finally Finds Her Place
The iconic Lara Croft, everyone's favorite pistol-wielding archaeologist with the snarky comebacks and tit, err, titillating drive for action has been a part of the video game community for a while now. And while she hasn't exactly done wonders for females in gaming, she's certainly cemented herself as one of video games' figureheads. Despite this, the past few years haven't been kind to Lara; thus a reboot of the series isn't completely out of left field. But, like myself, the world turned blue with laughter when developer Crystal Dynamics announced they'd be rebooting Lara into a vulnerable, relatable character reluctantly thrust into an epic action platformer with multiple survival horror elements.
And yet somehow, despite pitfalls of Lara Croft's recent games and character, Crystal Dynamics makes this new Lara Croft work unimaginably well, to the point where I don't even remember the more endowed version. By narrowly avoiding the "Female Uncharted" comparison and creating a believable version of Lara that players get emotionally invested in, Crystal Dynamics has not only crafted a beautiful game in its own right, but a beautiful new start to a video game figurehead and franchise that desperately needed to find its place in the video gaming world.
Tomb Raider starts off with Lara's first expedition aboard the ship Endurance. Their goal: to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, home of a powerful shaman known in legends as the 'Sun Queen'. In true "this is what happens to boats in all forms of media" form, the ship is shipwrecked, and Lara is taken captive by a supernatural tribe on a mysterious island. Expectantly, the tribe takes Lara directly into the heart of Yamatai, and it's up to Lara to not only solve the mystery of the kingdom itself, but survive from the supernatural tribes efforts to make sure the mystery never leaves the island.
While there are certainly elements of the Uncharted series, Far Cry 3, and television's Lost, the storyline of the island takes a backseat to the more important aspect of Tomb Raider"”Lara Croft's development as a character. She's unfamiliar with this situation, and as an eager budding archaeologist, she's never had to deal with the harsh realities presented to her with the mystery tribe's brutality. After the tribe breaks her innocence (in fade-to-black ways I dare not speak of), she barely escapes with her life, a walkie talkie, and a bow and arrow on her back.
A main aspect of Tomb Raider is the character study of the origins of Lara Croft. But where the game truly shines is its ability to juxtapose the player alongside Lara, in terms of emotional investment. Lara goes through HELL in this game: in the first 2 hours alone, Lara Croft is nearly drowned, sliced, beaten, impaled, molested, and tossed around like a tennis ball. Her introduction to the world of treasure seeking is not the glamorous upbringing the previous iteration of Lara would suggest. She cries, screams, bleeds, swears, and stumbles her way through the game, to a point where it seems Crystal Dynamics is dishing out pain to Lara just for funsies. And yet this insane sadism plays even more to the strength of the game, as the pain angers the player as well, strengthening their resolve for revenge and turning Lara from helpless victim to the badass daredevil she's known to become.
The methodology players get for powering through that change is where the game shows a lack of innovation. The analogy "female Uncharted clone" isn't far off, as not only are this platform adventure game's control schemes similar, but you'll find Lara acrobatically jumping from ledge to ledge, scaling rock walls, using zip-lines, and alternating between stealth survival and all-out killing sprees depending on the situation. Lara's primary weapon is a bow and arrow, with the inventory in the game being anything you can find to survive. There are even Quick-time events, and if you mistime the proper button sequence, you die. Sound familiar?
Fortunately, while gameplay isn't exactly original, it's implemented in a much different tone from Uncharted. Tomb Raider is a more methodical game with impressive setpieces and moments of calm that most certainly takes inspiration from the survival horror genre. While I'd argue Uncharted is as its best during high-intensity combat, Tomb Raider is at its best when it slows things down and gives the player a moment to reflect on the scariness of the situation. The frightening atmospheres and foreboding moments, like a section with a prison full of starving lunatics, force a different gameplay nature on the player, particularly since there's a strong emotional connection and care for the main character and her survival.
Finally, the battle system. While Tomb Raider's never been known for combat, Crystal Dynamics has created an elegant solution. When enemies are near, Lara begins crouching, and will automatically take cover near convenient walls and boxes. The motion is very natural thanks to an impressive gameset design, and moving from cover to cover is as fluid as doing so in the Gears of War series. Stealth, therefore, is incredibly implemented as a valid alternative to most situations.
Where the game slightly falters with battles, in terms of thematic resonance, is when Lara is forced into head-on combat, which occurs at multiple points in the game. There is a disconnect between the vulnerable Lara in the cutscenes and the soulless one apparently okay with taking lives in the combat sequences, and when Lara's thrust into these unavoidable battles, it detracts from the character driven narrative. That being said, direct combat and its animation is superb, and the level to which it's so wonderfully crafted sort of compensates for this disconnect.
Tomb Raider had a lot of things going against it, but fortunately, like the difficulty of female Lara Croft becoming a figurehead in a male dominated medium, Tomb Raider rises above. The best part is that now Tomb Raider's doing so in a way that doesn't adhere to teen boy puberty stereotypes, instead playing on the emotional investment of the character itself. The story of Lara Croft's ascent (or is it a decent?) into the badass we know she becomes is a perfect analogy for the series itself, as Tomb Raider has not only found its identity in the world, but it's placement as one of the better videogames to come out in a while.
-One element of gameplay that clearly wasn't taken from Uncharted: the camera. BY GOD is it awful.
-While Lara's character is wonderfully crafted, every other character is a bland stereotype. Fortunately, that doesn't matter, because this is a character study done to the finest degree that never loses focus.
-Geezus, how is Lara still alive after the opening sequences?? I think someone needs to sit down with the developers and run a few psych tests"¦
-There's no sprinting in the main game"¦which I thought would bother me, but honestly, it doesn't. This game is intentionally deliberate in its slow pacing, and it works.
-There is a multiplayer mode in Tomb Raider, and once again it is shockingly good. Heavily influenced by Gears of War, 2 teams of 4 face off in deathmatches, king of the hill scenarios, and more. Is implementing a multiplayer mode starting to become a standard for games that used to pride itself on the single player experience? More on that in an upcoming article.
-DAMNIT CAMERA, STOP SHAKING!