Tomb Raider Review

Tomb Raider Review:

Why the New Lara Croft is

What the Franchise Needed

By: LB Chambers

Of all the video game characters, and most especially the iconic ones, you’d be hard pressed to think of one more divisive than Lara Croft. For while Lara Croft herself is an acrobatic, athletic genius with a perfect pedigree and the imaginary back story all women (and most men I’m sure) have wished for themselves at some point- over the last decade or so she has been trivialized and degraded again and again to the point of being recognized more so for her bouncing breasts and short shorts than her position as a video game character icon. So for anyone without first hand experience with Lara Croft, either by playing her games of reading her comics, it would be incredibly easy to dismiss her as some big breasted babe created to fulfill male fantasies and sexualize even the women of fantastical academia.

Which is why the new Tomb Raider game from Crystal Dynamics may be exactly what Lara Croft needed to reclaim her status as video game heroine and reintroduce herself as the role model girl gamers want and need.

Screenshot from Tomb Raider (2013)

Personally I have loved Tomb Raider games since I could afford my first video game, I felt a kindred spirit with this bad ass double pistol wielding genius and not because I was anything like her- but because I wanted to be like her. She embodied the attributes of all the best superheroes; she was smart, funny, clever, she didn’t take crap from anyone- and for an awkward tween who couldn’t build up the nerve to talk to the only other saxophonist in band class she was an ideal to move towards.

Because when it comes down to it, that is why women (or at least this woman) want and applaud diversity in video games. It is such an amazing experience to identify with and emulate a fictional character; they influence and inspire us in ways that no real person can.  And having a character we can identify with, even on a premise as basic as gender, can be the difference between a game you play for fleeting entertainment, and one you invest yourself in wholeheartedly.

As for the game itself, there are pros and cons.

Tomb Raider is such a huge reboot, taking on an already enormous fictional universe, and Crystal Dynamics makes it clear within the first moments of the game that this is a story first and a challenge second. You are going to be completely reintroduced to Lara Croft through an action adventure game that, while still an amazing ride for Tomb Raider veterans, definitely feels targeted towards an entirely new audience; as if we, like Lara, are newbies to adventure and intense action sequences.

The game features the classic puzzle techniques, with hidden caches containing relics, documents and other mini quests that while all offer nice off the beaten track agendas never seem to help you in any real way.

The storyline is interesting and has unique elements, (which I won’t reveal but is definitely worth experiencing) although it is somewhat predictable, the graphics and visuals are perhaps a little too reminiscent of the Uncharted series, and the not-quite-open world is surprisingly challenging to navigate (in an entertaining and fulfilling way).

Unfortunately while the characters are diverse in every way (personality, race, gender, economic status, social status, and even accents) they feel a little too one-dimensional, which is one of Tomb Raider’s biggest failings.

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It’s as if the game designers were too afraid that the side characters would distract the player from Lara, and wound up making a handful of cardboard cut-outs Lara must save, chat with, or abandon from time to time. Even Lara’s father figure mentor, Conrad Roth, winds up acting as little more than a “Hang in There!” cat poster with a great British accent. It’s interesting that with so much emphasis on character development and analysis for Lara Croft the ball would be so utterly dropped on every single other character (and there are nearly a dozen) to the point that you could describe each character in five words or less. It is a difficult failing to ignore considering a great deal of Lara Croft’s growth and drive comes from her attachment to these people and her desire to protect them, so when you couldn’t care less about the one note characters surrounding her it makes it a little difficult to get on board with some of Lara’s death -defying rescue stunts.

Another disappointment is that you can play the entire game without locating a finishing a single side quest and the storyline and Lara Croft character will be unaffected (aside from a lacking a little experience and a lower game completion statistic). There is no reward, and practically no point, to exploring the island and completing these side quests aside from a statistic for game completion and your own intrinsic rewards (which to me, is a big no-no in a game).

A disappointment I was expecting that never came to fruition was my wariness when it came to the controversial rape controversy. In March 2012 Crystal Dynamics mentioned that there would be a sexually tense scene, meant to make the gamer feel protective of Lara and providing a learning moment for the cultivation of her character. There were cries of sexism and triggering from many media outlets, and having now experienced this scene for myself I can whole heartedly say that (in my opinion of course) this turned out to be a huge ball of over-hyped hysteria. The scene in question does feature some strange neck touching, but if no action is taken on the gamers’ part to make Lara defend herself then this is revealed to be the lead up to a strangling.

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Still, the moment has its sexual overtones, which if anything make the situation more intense and make the gamers’ desire to react and strike that much more powerful.

Leveling is much simpler than your average game, with only a handful of character upgrades (and weapon upgrades unlocking for specific weapons as you collect salvageable) there is little room for variation and customization. And while usually I am one to find this sort of hand-holding and forced leveling irritating, in Tomb Raider it makes a lot of sense; certain areas are unreachable to Lara as she moves throughout the island, and it is only by upgrading your weapons that you can then access those higher leveled areas later. It paces the game and allows for previous explored areas to become new and exciting.

And while the way you level up your weapons is hardly something new (you salvage upgrades and than apply to them to either your bow, shotgun, assault rifle, or pistol) it is surprisingly refreshing in it’s simplicity. Again allowing for those new to Lara Croft, or even gaming itself, to become comfortable.

This is also true for the game play, storyline, and even quests. Tomb Raider assumes you have never played Tomb Raider (or maybe even any game) before and has the player perform some sort of walkthrough before any large event for nearly the first third of the game. And while hardcore gamers might find that insulting or irritating this reviewer prefers to view it as a gesture towards a new audience of gamers and a dedication to the whole, “This is Lara Croft’s first adventure!” thing.

But on another level it’s an interesting tactic that really could appeal to new gamers (especially young, female ones). Just as Lara must be introduced to the idea of killing (in fact Lara apologizes to her first kill in the game, a deer she has hunted for food) so must a great deal of new players. To find fault in the slow escalation exhibited in every part of Tomb Raider from the weapons (bow to pistol to machine gun to shotgun) to the storyline (first she’s exploring an island, than fighting a handful of men, then a shantytown full of men, then a mythological force) is to entirely miss the point of Tomb Raider.

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Tomb Raider is about the evolution of a young, vulnerable and insecure woman to the strong, capable and confident Lara Croft that we know and love today. To revel in her strengths and achievements the player must see the steps it took to get her there.

Which is where Tomb Raider really shines.

Just as Crystal Dynamics intended, the gamer can’t help but become bonded with Lara Croft. There are moments of the game that are entirely overwhelming (and you find yourself thanking the developers for making this part a quick time event because there’s no way you could keep track of what’s going on otherwise) and there are moments of quiet introspection where Lara vocalizes the gamers’ own confusion and wonderment at the situation surrounding them.

Having been there when Lara broke down emotionally on the walkie talkie, the gamer will find a thrill of pride as Lara chases the men who have been hunting her, a shotgun in one hand as she yells, “That’s right! Run you bastards!”

Somehow, without knowing exactly when it was, right before your eyes Lara Croft went from being a normal young woman (albeit an extremely athletic, intelligent and attractive young woman) to a bad ass with a passion for adventure, the guts to do what’s right no matter the cost, and the drive to explore.

Tomb Raider will undoubtedly be compared to other action adventure games available, and be criticized for its simplicity compared to a sea of complex first-person shooters.

But where Tomb Raider thrives is it’s story, and it’s ability to get the gamer immersed in the plot and invested in the character; a character we all thought we knew but now we can really love, identify with, and appreciate.

Which is what makes Tomb Raider more than a great game, and more than a great story, but a great beginning.

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lindsaybelle@haveyounerd.com
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