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PLATFORM: XBox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Eidos/Crystal Dynamics
PUBLISHER: Square Enix
The main problem with Lara Croft is the conceit.
In previous Tomb Raider games, Lara Croft suffered from the same conceit as Roger Moore’s James Bond. The core idea of a female archaeologist trotting the globe, finding treasures, and killing bad guys is a fine one. Despite immense peril and dire circumstances, the problem was always that Lara Croft was an invincible, grave-robbing quip machine. Which, you know, all fine and good if it’s in service of a fun game, where Lara is the true badass agent of change in every environment she finds herself in. Where previous Tomb Raiders failed–never minding a long history of glitches, uninteresting puzzles, and gameplay aging like fine shit–was that never for one second did Lara feel like she was in danger. A game where you’re trawling around the hallowed halls of dead kings and pharoahs, fancy European locales and whatnot, that danger of something unknown should feel ever-present. Even in the weaker first and third games, Uncharted got that, which is why Nathan Drake’s adventures always feel more relatable, despite that character being much more of a selfish bastard. Like most of the Moore-era Bonds, Lara Croft was always just boring, with her victory a foregone, uninteresting conclusion and nothing intriguing in between to fill the gaps, unless you really needed pixellated ass shots that badly.
2013’s Tomb Raider has a different kind of conceit. In the game’s last moments, the words “A Survivor Is Born” flash across the screen, as Lara looks off into the future, eyes wide open for the impossible. Which would be all well and good if the game was called Island Survivor. But, it’s called Tomb Raider. And considering the game doesn’t throw a whole lot of those at the player, it needs to go a long way to make the jump between the dual-wielding invincible hero of the past, and a girl for whom just survival is an accomplishment.
Crystal Dynamics gets so god damn close to achieving that with this game it’s painful. Tomb Raider has the right ideas in spades. You want to make Lara interesting? Don’t make her flawless. You want an interesting game? Make the threats credible. You want to keep us coming back? Get the mechanics to shine. You want to make her world worth exploring? Don’t use the same locales as everyone else. The pieces are in play here, and they are utilized. But greatness is in this game’s sights, and to see it fail to grab the brass ring makes what’s still objectively a damn good piece of gaming subjectively lesser.
I might feel differently if the right notes weren’t hit early on. When Lara washes up on the shores of Yamatai, she is weaponless, cold, starving. The first hour or so, teaching Lara and the player the ropes of survival, the player is instantly locked in. If we want to live, we’re going to have to reduce down to basic needs, and having to scavenge off the land and the fallen on a regular basis added a tension to Lara’s actions you had to call in a squad of lumberjacks to cut through. Your encounters, for the first couple of hours, are genuinely nerve-wracking, because it feels like Lara could die at any moment, from any number of natural and unnatural dangers. When the game introduces the terrifying supernatural element–in this case, a pissed-off Japanese ghost with total control over the weather who allows no human stranded on Yamatai to leave alive–the feeling that Lara and her crew are 100% screwed is at its peak.
And then the upgrades start happening, and so does the tonal split. All the awesome survival skills the game introduces early on–skinning animals, salvaging swag, roaming through villages–end up amounting to little more than a complex XP hunt/upgrade system. It’s a shorthand way to visualize Lara getting stronger, and it also reduces the game down to being, well, a game as opposed to the experience set up earlier on. It’s oddly both complaint and praise. The game manages to make the collect-a-thon work much in the same way as Arkham Asylum/City. All the big collectables are either interesting enough to warrant a search, or the search itself leads Lara to new, beautiful, fascinating parts of the island. And yet, the main game urges us ever forward, and these side treks are not an integral part of it.
Despite some disposable, but serviceable side character drama, the game’s main thrust is to see Lara Croft recognize the situation she’s in and adapt, trudging her ever further into the heart of darkness, pumping arrows and bullets into mindless seafarers, mercenaries, deranged criminals, and cultists. The brutality involved in that quest, and the mechanics powering it are well-executed. The game throws lipservice at the dissonance–there’s a line where she mentions just how easy killing was after her first fatal skirmish–and the lipservice is enough early on. To have 3 hours go by, and then have explosions, axe fatalities, and choking out minions be the order of the day and then expect us to believe she’s not ready to Predator her way out of this mess is jarring.
For the most part, every skirmish Lara has feels like her last stand, and when she’s still standing at the end of it, it’s a win well earned. It’s a steady climb to power in the face of true menace–and yes, ladies and gentlemen, that menace is infinitely less rapey than the E3 controversy led us to believe–and seeing Lara Croft get to the end of it has a satisfaction to it. But the game never picks whether it wants us to believe Lara Croft as a remorseful do-what-must-be-done archaeologist in a sticky situation, or as the horror movie survivor girl who may or may not be perceived as completely insane and/or homicidal when it’s all said and done. The game works hard at trying to make both sides of the equation fit, and it’s often effective, when you’re talking about Lara’s extensive history skills being put to good use or when you’re talking about Lara Croft, at her most primal, rising out of a river of blood, stalking maniacs in an underground asylum. And yet rarely if ever do the twain meet. The game finds itself in perfect harmony only once; a protracted, grand setpiece in a burning Japanese pagoda (which the game does the disservice of never topping) that is adrenaline pumping, beautifully realized “fuck yeah” moment after “fuck yeah” moment, and THEN, Lara gets herself a grenade launcher, and for the first time starts yelling taunts at her assailants, an attitude that lasts into the rest of the game. It’s Lara’s “Say hello to my little friend” scene. And it’s great.
It’s the game’s most harmonious moment, where the game’s disparate elements sing, and everything that is truly great about this game–which, lest my criticism overshadow it all, is still pretty a sizable amount–is out to play. But you want to know the game’s best moment? After it ends. After the story plays out, it’s just Lara. No side characters. No non-natural enemies. Just the girl, and a vast, beautiful obstacle course, and a ton of neat little artifacts to find, particularly, the diaries of past survivors, followers of the Sun Queen, researchers, and her own crew. I don’t know if Crystal Dynamics had the faith in gamers to believe this and run with it or not, but allow me to answer your fears publicly, and clearly so that this game’s failure to nail the dismount can be avoided: YES. I would play that game. A game where Lara Croft is allowed to be a strong, no-nonsense, non-cartoon of an archaeologist, on a remote location, hunting an artifact, killing animals, wearing their pelts to stay warm, setting up base camps, and trawling massive, labyrinthine tombs full of the freshly (un)dead. And yes, sure, occasionally have to put an arrow or twelve in someone’s head. It doesn’t have to be the whole of the experience. But you can get away with much if there’s a clear focus on what kind of entity Lara Croft should be in this day and age. It’s okay to not be Uncharted. We already have an Uncharted. And while Tomb Raider does a damn solid, impressive job of aping it, a platform has been built here for this new series to become so much more, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by how much pain Lara’s in, because vulnerability is not the same as depth or damage and vice versa. The next Tomb Raider doesn’t need Lara Croft: Survivor. It needs Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
out of 5