For some reason, I never got into the Tomb Raider games when they first came out. Part of that was probably because I didn’t actually own a Playstation during that time period, and they just kind of got lost in the backlog when I got a Playstation 2 and started playing through the original’s library. And part of it was probably because even back then, I was a bit cynical about inclusion in games. I had likely always thought of Lara as some kind of gimmick, a genderswapped Indiana Jones who was marketed toward a player base that was at the time considered male in the most unapologetic way.
So, when the series was rebooted last year, I still found myself with no real desire to jump into it. It was only after hearing that the game was actually pretty interesting that I decided that I’d give it a fair shot and see if it could impress me. As many of you know, I do have a thing for well-developed and realistic female characters, and while I don’t generally have a lot of hope that video games can deliver on that front, I was really curious as to how close this game could get.
This game is a reboot, then?: Apparently. Like I said, I never played the others, so I don’t know if it adheres to whatever origin story is presented in those games. I do know that the game comes across as a sort of Batman Begins for Lara; a grittier, darker origin for someone who will, at some nebulous time in the future, become an iconic action hero.
She’s not experienced yet, is what you’re saying?: Correct. When the game begins, Lara has some experience, but it’s more of a theoretical nature. She has never been put in a real life-or-death situation before. So there are a lot of instances where it’s clear she knows what to do, but is getting her first practical experience with things in a completely hostile environment. The Batman analogy is pretty apt, though, as during the course of the game she gains the experience to improvise a great many tools and pieces of equipment that bear resemblance to the upgrades from the Arkham series of games.
So what does it play like?: A third-person action game combined with a bit of exploration platforming with a strong emphasis on survivalism techniques. It seems like a ‘greatest hits’ mashup of features from other video games. It takes the shooting from Uncharted, the climbing and puzzle platforming from, well, also Uncharted with a bit of Assassin’s Creed thrown in, and an emphasis on stealth and survival that can be most closely associated with Metal Gear Solid 3. There is also an ability progression system that is a lot like what one would find in, say, God of War or Devil may Cry, where weapons and abilities can be enhanced at save points.
It sounds like it does a lot of things. Does it do any of them well?: Some of them, yes. The combat sequences seem a bit more, well, fair than the ones in Uncharted. Sure, there are quite a few instances of ‘the game is made harder by just throwing more enemies at the player’, but very rarely did I ever feel like it was a cheap shot. In fact, it actually skewed quite a bit in the other direction, with combat feeling a little bit easier than I would think it should have.
In fact, the other aspects of the game seem to skew that way as well. The platforming and climbing mechanics are solid, but they also aren’t incredibly challenging either. The stealth parts of the game threw me more often than anything, but that was mostly because I am terrible at stealth games and not because of any real effort on the part of the game itself to challenge me.
What about the plot?: I’ve mentioned a couple of comparisons to Uncharted, and the comparisons continue here, as well. In truth, both games take gigantic amounts of inspiration from Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, so there’s bound to be some common ground there. The part that disappointed me, though, was that there are quite a few situations that happen to both Nathan Drake and Lara Croft that are completely unbelievable, even in context. My disbelief can only be suspended so much, and the sheer number of close calls and lucky escapes that both protagonists manage to live through break the experience for me, somewhat.
That being said, there is less disconnect between plot and action that occurs in Tomb Raider than there is in Uncharted. Sure, in both games the protagonist ends up with a gigantic body count, but where Drake almost psychotically shrugs off his kills during the cutscenes, Lara is forced to face up to the things she does in the name of survival. And while the game’s treatment of the escalating kill count is not perfect, at least it is acknowledged that Lara’s increased desensitization toward killing is not at all healthy.
I have to ask: does the game avoid the typical female character tropes?: I can see why you would ask that, and the answer is not a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And I’ll explain that, but first I’ll give a disclaimer that when it comes to the subject of representation in games, there are people far more qualified to talk about it than I am. I feel like it’s a subject that should at least be addressed, though, in this case.
See, when the game was being marketed, there was a great deal of attention called out to the various graphic deaths that Lara can be subjected to. The response to that criticism was, more or less, that the player should feel like they should protect Lara from those deaths, thus implying that she was somehow weaker, or at least somewhat less, than she could have been.
Well, after playing the game, I can say that this was just another example of something being marketed very poorly. At no point in the game did I feel like Lara needed ‘protection’. She is regularly portrayed as the most competent person on the team, and the person that everyone else, male or female, looks to as their leader. And yes, she breaks down under stress, but so does everyone else. It is made very clear that this is the expected human reaction, and the only reason that we, the players, would think otherwise is because we have been conditioned to think that the protagonist of a game can only be strong by being emotionally invincible.
And as far as the death scenes go, well, the environment is hostile. And the most gruesome death scenes happen not at the hands of other humans, but at the hands of nature. This is consistent with the theme of the game: nature is violent, nature is unforgiving, and nature will straight up destroy you without a second thought. The fact that Lara survives the things that she does are a testament to her strength and resilience. Lara gets beaten up a lot, both by people and by the environment, and while it’s always uncomfortable to watch, she never backs down and is consistently stronger rather than just being a punching bag or kidnap bait.
I would even go so far as to say that the game goes out of its way to subvert the typical damsel tropes, at least in regards to Lara herself (more on that later). Throughout the game she is shown protecting her injured colleagues and carrying them to safety, rescuing them, and leading them. Even when she is captured (because everyone in the game is captured or grievously injured at least once), she is never rescued. She gets out of every situation on her own. It would be easy to think of Lara as an archetypical ‘Strong Female Character’, and that might even be what was being attempted there. However, there are so many moments that display her raw humanity that it seems that she accidentally became a fully-fleshed-out, multifaceted, and nuanced character despite all efforts to the contrary.
What did you mean by ‘in regards to Lara herself’?: I meant that while Lara shows a great deal of depth and resistance to the common tropes, there is another character in the game who, it seems, spends the entire time being captured and dangled in front of the player as the ‘objective’. And yes, this character is female. It just seemed to me that because the game tries so hard to be progressive in its character portrayals, the shortfalls stand out even more clearly.
So, just to summarize, what did you like?: I liked the emphasis on survival and the stress that it takes on a person. While it’s not a perfect depiction by any means, the issue is definitely addressed in far more depth than in many other games. I like the salvage system which, while incredibly improbable, does make you feel like Lara is improvising all of her weaponry from the things she finds around her. And I also liked the ability progression system, which puts Lara’s progression from rookie to survival specialist into tangible gameplay mechanics.
And what didn’t you like?: As I mentioned before, I think that the game is inconsistent in what it chooses to portray. While Lara is a character with a fair bit of depth to her, it comes across more as accidental rather than intentional sometimes. Also, some of the other characters aren’t treated with the same progressive intentions as Lara is. The game skews toward being too easy most of the time. I think that the survivalism aspects such as scavenging for plants and hunting wild animals should have been tied into the game mechanics a little more, kind of like what’s present in Metal Gear Solid 3. And, finally, for a game with the title Tomb Raider, there is a depressing lack of time spent inside actual tombs, and most of that time is optional.
Is there anything really ‘definitive’ about the Definitive Edition of the game?: Well, it looks absolutely beautiful. Everything’s been upscaled to, from what I can tell, what the game would look like on a decent gaming PC. All of the DLC from the original release of the game is included, and there are a few touchpad and voice controls added into the game to make use of the Playstation 4 controller. None of the new controls are really essential, though I will say that navigating a map with the touchpad is a lot more intuitive than using a thumbstick.
Anything else?: I don’t know where the obsession with the bow and arrow as a viable combat weapon in video games lately has come from. Hunger Games, maybe? Anyway, I think this is a wonderful trend and should continue indefinitely.