Let’s start by saying the newly rebooted Tomb Raider is a fantastically fluid, beautiful looking action game. It’s as close as I’ve ever got to playing a big, box-office smashing action movie on my PC. Including all the eye-candy and quickened heart beat inducing scenes that Hollywood provides. But how would you feel if you were watching a movie and the same set pieces repeated themselves identically five times? What about if a movie told you the main character was a victim, an oppressed downtrodden weakling, but then showed that character slaughtering hundreds of innocent people. Would you have the Orwellian fortitude to doublethink at such an intense level? Would you have the patience to watch a six-hour long movie showing a person sliding down a cliff over and over and over again?
I couldn’t. I couldn’t watch a movie like that. But for some reason I can play a 15 hour-long video game that suffers from the exact same problems. I endured through Tomb Raider’s agonizingly idiotic cut scenes, repetitive quick time events ,and Lara’s glaringly obvious and disturbingly sociopathic world view for a very simple reason; It’s fun to control Lara Croft. It’s fun to control her while she’s running around the fantastic supernatural island that Crystal Dynamics has created. It feels great to explore primordial forests filled with ancient ruins, it’s exhilarating to jump from roof to roof on a cliff-side temple and rummage through a bizarre shanty town in search of artifacts. As I played through Tomb Raider I constantly asked myself; why bother with the Hollywoodism? Why drown great gameplay in cut scenes, quick time events, and have Lara be a homicidal maniac? Games can do much better than emulating their bigger bloated cousin, the movie industry and they don’t need guns and big explosions to do it. For Tomb Raider all that was needed was for the game to remember its name.
Technically the tombs featured in Tomb Raider aren’t actually tombs but underground altars, although this isn’t my point. What I’m referring to is the definite absence in the game of large underground complexes filled with traps, puzzles and artifacts. What is included are small recesses with singular puzzles rewarding experience point giving trinkets. They are a slight diversion from the main focus of the game (which seems to be murdering castaways). I went through the entire adventure waiting for a giant awe-inspiring labyrinth to explore but was only given glimpses of the ancient architecture as I was ushered onto the next shooting segment. I wanted to interact with a coherent and interesting underground environment that made me feel the wonder of uncovering the mysteries of a long forgotten civilization. Instead I opened and closed window shutters and destroyed ruins with explosive gas. The 3D artifacts and journals were a nice touch, but always seemed tacked on and separate from the rest of the game’s world. History, archaeology, and mystery should all be intrinsic to a game called Tomb Raider, not a foot note to endless scenes of shooting and destruction.
If Tomb Raider had slowed down, decreased the body count and the rate at which bombastic action scenes are thrown in your face it could have created an experience that no Hollywood movie could. It could have made the player the explorer, figuring out the mysteries of the island themselves and slowly opening up a coherent, alive, and dangerous environment. Instead you drive Lara through a battlefield like bipedal tank until the next deus ex machina railroads the story forward. What makes me lament the fact things turned out this way is when the game does give you a sliver of freedom, letting go of your hand for just a moment, it’s an exhilarating experience. The most fun I had with Tomb Raider was when I was allowed to explore, play, and interact with the world around me rather than watching a character in a cut scene do it.
If I wasn’t exploring in Tomb Raider, then I was killing people. The Combat is good. Hell, its spectacular. But if one of the game’s stated goals is to tell the story of Lara becoming a survivor, transforming from a frail, frightened human into a globetrotting archaeologist ubermensch, then is the most appropriate way to do that to show her gunning down hundreds of people? Couldn’t you leave out the shooting and the destruction and cleverly use game mechanics to more uniquely and genuinely convey the same message? As good as the combat is to play, it would have been a much more daring re-imaging of Lara to have her ditch the guns completely. Have her use the environment to survive, making the player’s interaction with the game world advance and evolve parallel to Lara’s self empowerment. Instead of mowing down masses of bearded men, reduce the population of the island and make them all the more deadly. Then Lara would actually have to run away at times, to survive, and slowly learn how to overcome her enemies. Even the encounters with the island’s native and ancient Japanese warriors is cheapened by the fact Lara simply blows them away with a shotgun.
A scene in the final moments of Tomb Raider serves as a good analogy for my experience with the game. As I fought a mutated or overgrown giant, wearing ancient Japanese body armour I was incredibly curious as to how this creature came to be. Was it magic? Was it in-breeding? Was it a monster? I was filled with questions. As the fight neared an end, its helmet was flung from its head revealing a distorted and warped face. I made a mental note to have a look at this face once the fight was over (although I was in fact ashamed that I was killing what was clearly an incredibly rare sub-species of humanity). Maybe I could understand some of the mysteries of this creature, or at least sate some of my curiosity by studying it’s death mask. Lara had other plans though. As the fight came to its climax a quick time event was triggered in which I had to sit on in horror as Lara hacked at the creatures face with her axe. The true horror was that I had to press the button each time she drove her jagged and cruel axe into the creatures flesh. Each button stroke she mashed more of its face into a bloody goop, utterly destroying any hope of studying it. The final stroke she pushed her whole body weight down on the creature’s head, her axe rending the rare and unique specimens skull in half.
A few minutes later she filled an elderly, philosophizing hermit full of bullets and celebrated a job well done.If Lara’s actions seem like those of a mad woman, its because she is a mad woman. She has watched too many action movies.