Falling with Style, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider
A Tomb Raider Review
Tomb Raider is an odd game for me. It very much comes out of the CoD generation of games with it’s efforts to ape films, the splashes of water and blood onto the third person camera lens from time to time, the regenerating health system, the familiar “rpg elements”: simple weapon upgrade system, XP and simple character upgrades. I’m by no means a proponent of the Old School or Bust crowd finding plenty of tediousness in a lot of older titles, but I’m not a particularly big fan of the generic, soupy, sloppy feel than most of these shiny, cinematic games have and I hate that they feel like they play themselves. I’m fond of linear games, adventure games, IF games and a host of other sub-genres that limit player agency but I simply don’t enjoy the way these “new school” games do it. I did, however, enjoy Tomb Raider. Let’s look at why.
Tomb Raider, fortunately, learned tricks from the original Tomb Raider (and older platform/action games in general) and from the most successful and artful of new school games such as Arkham Asylum. Uncharted by way of Arkham Asylum is a rather excellent way to describe this newest Tomb Raider series–mechanically, at least. There are points where the scripting feels obnoxious. Where you’d rather be in full control or in a cut-scene that feeling the half-control they give you. This happens rather a lot, especially near the beginning, but never for long after the first 20-40 minutes. One such pseudo-cut-scene is regrettably reused twice in an utterly needless way with Lara bobbing along in a mostly-flooded cave and nearly slipping from time to time. But there are also moments where the scripting comes into it’s own. Moments where you feel like you have more routes than failure and success. I haven’t gone back and replayed to test, but there were moments where I felt like if I had tried a little harder, gone left instead of right, jumped a little sooner, I might have had a slightly different scripted falling sequence. I doubt this is actually the case, but it shows that a lot of thought went into the mechanical believability of the scripted sequences. Some are just roller coasters with QTEs, of course, but some are so well designed that they still feel like mechanically-bound action-platforming that just happens to have crazy scripted awesomeness around it. The balance between scripting and player control has room for improvement but impressed me nonetheless–when the worst part of a game is only mildly frustrating and miles ahead of its directly comparable competition? Hallelujah!
Most of the game isn’t scripted sequences but rather takes place in gigantic, well disguised corridors or more typical caves and buildings. Here, Tomb Raider hosts some beautiful examples of linearity done right. There are caves that have multiple outlets, that turn back on themselves, that have oddly placed drop-offs … it all amounts to unusually clever disguising of the inevitable invisible walls, but that usual cleverness is worth something. These sorts of touches make locations feel real. They make exploring feel right even when you aren’t really exploring. This is something most games–be they linear, non-linear, or even open-world–fail to master. You’ll also spend a lot of time in large, open environments, filled to the brim with collectibles, experience points, and Metroid/Zelda/Arkham style upgrade-required gateways. In these open portions, some with enemies some without, you will find plenty of opportunity to solve environmental puzzles (a few even more satisfying than the half-dozen or so puzzle Tombs hidden throughout these areas), collect things, set things on fire to collect other things, and generally run, jump, climb and shoot to your heart’s content. The brilliance of it, as in Arkham Asylum, is in the pacing it creates. If you feel pulled by the plot? Run. Go to the next objective. Hurry, someone might die! If you feel pulled by the island or feel overwhelmed by the pace of it, the incessant falling off of cliffs, or the annoying periodic loss of control … walk. Idle. Jump. Find things. Upgrade your bow some more. Shoot a deer.
Speaking of shooting, there’s plenty of it! And it’s good. There’s also only two real boss fights (fuck boss fights) that both amount to the same mildly frustrating, harmless and weird mechanic–they don’t last long. I thought both the amount and quality of the man-shooting was excellent. There’s a decent variety of enemies and a decent em-betterment of them as you go on that nonetheless doesn’t make your character’s upgrades feel meaningless but under-powering you in the face of the growing difficulty. The bow feels particularly gratifying to use, and you can’t just run-and-gun. Every weapon requires to you enter the aiming mode before firing which has a great feel to it in practice, making the game feel less arcade-like while still servicing the high-octane action perfectly well. The other weapons were satisfying enough (they sound absolutely incredible). My reigning complaint with combat is the TNT enemies who will, without being intentionally suicidal in fiction, whip out lit dynamite at melee range putting you in a damned-either-way position of having it go off if you kill them or go off before you get far enough away if you don’t when they stupidly throw it at their own feet. Other than that, enemy behavior is pretty great. Refreshingly, unlike to Catwoman in Arkham City, the big scary men don’t call you a bitch when they threaten you. They even sometimes say “Shit! She’s a good shot …” as arrows whiz over their heads or “Don’t let her get close–she has a grenade launcher.” They express awe towards the end game, and anxiety as their numbers decrease in any given combat. The enemies are definitely *goons* and die accordingly easily, but they have an intelligence and roundedness both to their throw-away call-outs and to their fighting style. They’ll flank you, and while sometimes they’ll signpost it in the familiar way they’ll just as often say nothing until they open fire, then shouting “I’m firing from flank” or “I’ve got her from the side.” It enhances the authenticity of the game. Except those TNT fuckers.
It all just feels really fun and slick. The upgrades feel slick, too, although the tier system that attempts to balance them feels awkward because I ended up taking a bunch of perks I didn’t want and never used. I wouldn’t want it to be automated, because I liked (for example) the added challenge of not taking the perk that makes you harder to kill but something felt a little odd and throwaway about the system. I’m not sure how I would have changed it and it doesn’t take away from the game, but it feels a bit flat. That said, the mechanical balance of when various perks become available due to the tier system is very well though out most upgrades have an appreciable fictional logic to them–insofar as fictional logic is possible given the acceleration of Lara’s character development over an illogically small amount of time. Tomb Raider does an even better job than the Arkham games of making new gadgets feel natural. Sure it doesn’t make sense that you can catch all your arrows on fire with a lighter stuck below the shelf of the bow … but Lara figuring it out felt right. Same with the magical-regenerating-rope-bow. Nothing about it makes sense, but the discovery of it sort of worked though that was one of two relatively fictionally weak gear discoveries the other being the grenade launcher. It’s all happening too fast to make sense, but the discovery of combat prowess and gear upgrades is exceptionally paced and feels right all the same. The mechanics trump realism in the fiction, but the fiction doesn’t feel tacked on, either, and has it’s fair share of pull.
Finally, let’s talk about Lara. Well, not yet. Some plot first. The plot is predictable, none of the characters surprise you with their arcs. But it’s well implemented cliche. None of the cliches feel like crutches or feel out of place. This is non-campy cliche done right. I’d prefer more originality, but the quality of implementation is plenty good enough. Characters are well acted except for a few stand-out bad lines or deliveries (most in the Endurance crew’s journal entries). Dialog is well written and occasionally surprising and inventive. There is some really rather good dialog that never quite elevates the other characters, but succeeds in humanizing them just enough to earn the right to their cliches. The writing rarely feeling overly constructed. In fact, the count-em-one-both-hands number of winky-nudgy moments I caught worked. Most of what I caught were allusions to the original Tomb Raider such as the opening of chests in the puzzle Tombs being a beat-for-beat remake of the original animation, and a few comments laced with dramatic irony from Lara such as “I hate tombs.” things get hairy and supernatural, and it still kind of pulls it off. The whole game feels remarkably subdued and grounded for something that ventures this far into the supernatural and into the outrageous world of action movies. It’s hard to make shit this bananas feel authentic. Tomb Raider manages.
Ok. So now, Lara. She works, though there are bits near the beginning of the game where the abuse she faces at the game’s hand feels a bit over-done. To the game’s credit, this never feels glee-full. The trouble she faces feels like it hurts her, but the game doesn’t seem to revel in the pain itself but rather in the overcoming it. There are some moments I could have done without (and some I couldn’t have) that made me uncomfortable. But overall, in spite of the stupidly accelerated pace of her development, Lara feels grounded. She reacts more like a human being to the action-movie shitstorm she goes through than just about any hero or heroine I’ve come across. And the most brilliant part is that they don’t overdo it. They know when to let her be an action hero. She feels just fantastical enough to kill 30 dudes without it seeming entirely out of character. She doesn’t flip arbitrarily between strong and fragile, suddenly losing potency when you lose control of the camera. She gets captured or overpowered here and there (mostly by the environment, but also by people), but it works in context. When she breaks down in ways big and small, it’s non-arbitrary; she doesn’t magically acquire a faintness of heart she didn’t have before. Once she’s capable of taking down 30 guys with you at the controls? She’s not going to suddenly go all green and shaky in the cut-scenes–except when her friends are at stake. And that’s COOL. There were only two moments when I felt annoyed at the game for taking control because of what Lara chose to do rather than me just wanting to play. She never felt over or under powered in those moments, but she made heat-of-the-moment choices I wasn’t sold on in particular when the ship captain is held hostage (given her earlier response when surrounded with Whitman BEFORE she got quite so hard and tough). There are also unusually few moments where Lara and an enemy are both on-screen and both aware of each other without you being in control. That’s SUPER cool.
A few moments to touch the gender gap. Forget “strong female characters.” Forget “strong characters.” Lara is a good character in a game that shows both reasonable and varied representation of female characters. The overarching antagonist is an angry goddess that has enthralled an island of men. 3/8 of the principle cast members are female only one of them is a fully-fledged DID, and none of them are condescended to because of their gender. To be clear, I’m not interested in perfect equality or female-to-male comeuppance in games; but I am interested in good implementation and varied representation. For women in video games, I think Tomb Raider provides both. That doesn’t make it a feminist game and there’s a few things to be uncomfortable about along those lines … but I think Lara works not just as a character in the context of her game, but as a contribution to the broader improvement and variety of female representation in games–and just better character representation in games.
So where does all this leave us? Tomb Raider is a game that leans too heavily on scripting, but does that scripting mostly very well. Tomb Raider has a rather uninspired plot, that still works. Lara is an exceptional character in a bland but serviceable cast. Tomb Raider is pretty*. Tomb Raider is a very good action game and a good platformer that makes exceptional design decisions in order to bind those elements together, and up-scale-ify the whole package into greatness. It is slick, and should be–along with the two Arkham games–our working model of how to do scripted, linear, cinematic games going forward. Which is not to say these games should be copied beat-for-beat, but understood. Tomb Raider knew when to borrow a beat from Arkham, when to reference Old School Tomb Raider, when to borrow a beat from Call of Duty, and when to do something just new enough to be cool without being risky. Tomb Raider is not innovative in the way I would typically use the word to refer to a game, because it is not particularly original or daring. But it is incredibly well crafted and shows ingenuity and innovation in the way it uses it’s various time-tested pieces. True originality is nice, but it does not necessarily show greater skill or craftsmanship than what Tomb Raider does. While it makes missteps, it is overwhelmingly excellent and is one of the finest pieces of game design on my hard drive. It’s also one of the finest games I’ve played to date.
*Tomb Raider is a lovely game with excellent graphical and level design. I have never been LESS frustrated by a third person camera that gets covered in muckity-muck when I go through water or get shot–I haven’t taken the time to analyze why it works here and not elsewhere beyond it being less over-the-top than normal … but they did a lot of very subtle things very very right in the visual department. Even the menu and interface is absolutely lovely (on PC at least), minimal and easy to navigate. I haven’t tried the Fancy Hair graphics setting, but I presume it is fancy.