Originally published at The Arcade Philosopher on July 18th, 2013.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should point out that I never played any of the original Tomb Raider titles. I admit that this is odd, particularly when you realize that the first incarnation of this iconic series was made just as the drunken mechanical bull of puberty began body slamming me mercilessly into the hay-filled mattress of life. But 1996 was a very strange time for all of us: Romeo was shooting Tybalt in the face, Atlanta was hosting the Olympics, and Tupac was speaking to us from the grave (or something). It was like 1997 but with half of the good stuff. So you can understand if I missed the first Tomb Raider.
I’d love to say that I was too mature for what Tomb Raider seemed to represent on the surface: an Indiana Jones-esque premise betrayed horribly by the questionable need to slap superfluous sexuality on everything (read: pixelated titties). But that just wasn’t the case. I would have experimented with the sexual design of postage stamps applied creatively if someone had even implied that it would feel pleasurable. Also, remember: mine was a generation that invented an urban legend that involved seeing the two-inch tall sprite of Princess Peach naked—a task which would necessitate TV screens the size of which had not yet been invented.
So no: remarkably early sexual maturity was not within my grasp. I was fourteen: dignity wasn’t even within my grasp. So it wasn’t a conscious decision I made. Tomb Raider, like a high school cheerleader, just passed me up entirely. And by the time I was aware of this game and its many sequels, I was old enough to pretend that I found it offensive and reprehensible as a symbol of femininity (read: I was trying to get laid).
Now I’m older, and things are different. I actually do find the original Lara Croft to be about as accurate to femininity as a three-foot bong with blown glass breasts welded to the front. We’re doing our best to ignore Baz Luhrmann, Atlanta is back to being a mediocre metropolis with delusions of grandeur, and Tupac is unequivocally dead. We still play games, but those horndog teens have been replaced by… well… horndog adults. But adults nonetheless. And Crystal Dynamics and their thoughtful re-engineering of this iconic heroine is proof positive that, if so inclined, it is possible to paper mache a Botticelli angel out of back issues of Playboy.
Tomb Raider is exciting.
Everything about it screams excitement. The jumps, the falls, the gun-fighting and the stealth are all designed to get your heart pumping and your brain glittering and shiny with endorphins and dopamine. And it wastes no time roping you into that thrill ride. The first ten minutes of Tomb Raider is as adrenalin-pumping as being chased by a 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger and a 2011 Jesse “The Body” Ventura. It is sheer terror coupled with the whoops and shouts of a much younger gamer than myself. By the time Lara has crawled out onto a cliff overlooking the island of Yamatai, you have completed a tutorial that smashes the teeth of scores of entire games released in years past.
This is derived, largely, from the unceasing nature of these sections of the game: just as you leap from a falling bridge, the forest explodes with fire. As soon as you put out the fire, you’re ambushed by an army of cultists. As soon as the last cultist dies, you get a cramp in your big toe and a quick time event is initiated to massage it out (not really, but I wouldn’t be surprised). There is always something to do and some place to be in this island’s forest. And what a forest it is: for infinitely gorgeous scenery, Tomb Raider can compete with any game on the market. Lara herself is one of the most beautifully designed and implemented characters yet made. And her beauty isn’t just in the traditional sense (though, let’s be honest: damn, girl).
Each wound is etched into the lines of her face. Mud, water, and blood splatters, cakes, and dries. Her cries of pain, cautious breaths, and self-conscious soliloquies are flawlessly voiced by Camilla Luddington. In fact, the entire cast is outstanding, if a little standard for the course (an Indian survivalist, a grumpy Scotsman, and a take-no-guff black woman are just some of the usual suspects the storyline employs). I can count on one hand the number of times the camera became problematic: indeed, most of the time I was marveling at how the angles of vision seemed to be chosen with the specific intention of giving you the most enjoyable panic attack you’ve ever had in your life. The cinematics and cutscenes feel so effortlessly executed that you often don’t realize that they’re over and gameplay has begun.
The gameplay is engaging without being too easy. This is actually a good rule of thumb for everything that came with playing Tomb Raider on the default difficulty. The ambush sequences were challenging without being frustratingly hard. The puzzles were simple, but not insultingly so. Everything about the game suggested that the designers wanted to keep you from being stuck for any serious length of time without it being a boring “push-button-to-win” endeavor. I appreciated this aspect especially. I don’t want to have victory handed to me. If I wanted the experience of watching a character defeat every obstacle in his path with or without my involvement, I’ll watch an episode of 24. But I also don’t enjoy games that are arbitrarily arduous (see: Catherine). Collectibles are plentiful, but seeking them out doesn’t feel like a chore you ought to be paid for (see: Assassin’s Creed, GTA). I stormed the jungles and mountains of Yamatai treated as neither an infant nor Stephen Hawking, and I was satisfied.
During these puzzles and shootouts, Lara gains confidence and an abundance of skills and abilities. These skills, linked to one of three trees (hunter, survivor, and brawler), are lots of fun to experiment with, and enrich the gameplay at a pace that matches the storyline perfectly. Unfortunately, there isn’t much customizing to be done here, as you’ll have maxed out each tree by the end of the storyline. While this makes sense for what sort of heroine the storyline is shaping Lara up to be by its conclusion (a survivor—a savant of the wild places), it leaves no room for variation or different play styles. To be fair, in this age of paragons, renegades, and customization, it’s easy to forget that a character or game style isn’t necessarily supposed to fit itself to your notion of how a game should work. That said, a new tree or two would have been very welcome. The weapon system and its customization is a great consolation prize, though.
A lack of heavy customization doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t have different “modes” to speak of. Between platforming, puzzles and gunfights, there are moments of intense unease that made me nostalgic, though I couldn’t at first put my finger on what exactly I was feeling wistful for. It came in moments alone in a chamber of ritual sacrifice, or climbing through the rotting timbers of a bridge, hoping the unsuspecting cultists above you won’t hear the soft sound of your breath beneath them. And then I remembered: I was feeling the same wariness and fear that the early installments of theResident Evil series used to bring out in me. Not so much regarding the supernatural or horrific flavor of it (though there are smatterings of both, to be sure), but the survivoraspect of it. Tomb Raider has not exactly revived the (regretfully) dead genre of survival horror, but it’s certainly got fifty percent of the equation well in hand. It wasn’t a massive part of the game itself, but it was something significant that I noticed and hope they expand upon in future sequels.
These gameplay features are perfectly woven into an engaging, sometimes blistering coming-of-age story. Lara Croft goes from a frightened young student of archaeology to a warrior-goddess. This reboot Tomb Raider was no different from its earlier incarnations in the sense that it received its share of controversy early on. Cinematic sequences of Lara bound and beaten was just another handful of dried leaves tossed on the flames of the bonfire that a year of rape jokes built. Having seen the finished product, these misgivings seem unfounded. Don’t get me wrong here: throughout the course of Tomb Raider, Lara absolutely gets the tar whipped out of her. She falls from cliff faces, hitting every available surface on the way to the hard, hard ground. Tree branches, rock outcroppings, crumbling ruins, your kitchen sink, my kitchen sink—these are all smashed into your protagonist’s body at every available opportunity. But if she survives it, Lara Croft stands back up. Early in the storyline, she is terrified, but she is always infinitely strong and capable. Later in the storyline, she is Artemis with her bow. She bellows calls to war and faces down scores of enemies. In short: she is a badass.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with the multiplayer, but the time I did seemed unnecessary. While it had its charming points (the trap system comes to mind), multiplayer felt like the last thing this game needed. It has become a sore spot with me when games add-on completely arbitrary multiplayer modes just to make a half-hearted attempt at attracting new blood to their game (see: Bioshock 2). It is completely fair to point out here that I have never had much use for multiplayer games and/or multiplayer modes in single player games. Ten year olds calling me slurs they could barely pronounce was bad enough in elementary school—I don’t need that crap in my life now that I’m 30. It might be an older gamer thing to complain about, and I understand if you don’t agree. But in my defense: you multiplayer whipper-snappers wouldn’t know a good single player campaign from a hole in the ground. Now pass the Funions and get the hell off’a my lawn.
I had so much fun playing Tomb Raider that I sincerely doubt that my lack of experience with any of its previous titles could have made me enjoy it any more. And I think that is at the heart of what makes this reboot such a solid game. The designers didn’t set out to create the next Tomb Raider game—they set out to create a great game. The fact that it’s an existing franchise is incidental to the game’s genius. At no point did they sacrifice playability to wink at the audience. There are no significant “nudge, nudge” moments. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on a thing. Nothing from the past of Tomb Raider has passed me by. If anything, I feel like I’ve found a shiny new toy. Okay: an archaeological artifact covered in mud, but still.