I finished the new Tomb Raider game yesterday.
Who Should Play This Game?
This game isn’t for younger kids or the squeamish. It’s violent. Teenagers who have already seen movies with violence will be fine, but teens and even adults who are sensitive to images of violence will want to stay away. The dialogue contains blunt profanity.
Because the protagonist is a woman, and because the sexuality of the story is sublimated (see below) I think that this iteration of Tomb Raider would be a good way for women curious about serious video gaming to get started. Men will like it very much too, but I would hesitate to say that the reason for this is seeing Lara Croft as a sex object.
Criticism of sexualized, passive female characters in video games is a worthy cultural discussion. In my opinion, the new Tomb Raider is a decent, if incomplete, step in the right direction. Lara Croft, the heroine of the story, has been rebooted and is presented in a less cartoonish sort of way than earlier incarnations of the character from earlier Tomb Raider games.
Let’s make no mistake: Lara Croft is sexy. She is athletic, and the physical traits of athleticism juxtapose with traditional attractiveness. She was acted and modeled by Camilla Luddington. Lara’s ample bosom was one of the first things my wife commented on when she saw the game — a woman with that kind of development might have some trouble using a bow and arrow. But Lara’s athleticism quickly becomes more important than her sex appeal. For instance, after my wife’s comment about how drawstrings aren’t friends to big boobs, I had Lara ride down a zip line and fight some bad guys, and my wife’s next comment was, “Wow, she’s fearless.”
The action was intense enough that I never really saw Lara as a sex object while playing the game, at least not consciously. There is a small element of one of Lara’s friends being romantically attracted to her, and a critical scene is made more intense by the hint of threatened rape. Other than that, though, I found very little sexuality in the story.
What’s The Game About?
Lara Croft is recently graduated from university, and still living in the shadow of her famous but absent father. She’s signed on as a junior archeologist for a reality TV show being filmed by her college friend. The ship carrying the exploration and film crew is wrecked near an island southeast of Japan, and Lara finds herself thrown into one extreme situation after another, forced to rely on her wits and what tools she can find to survive.
But this synopsis doesn’t give enough credit to the lead writer, Rhianna Pratchett. She and her team did a very nice job structuring a story that was respectful of the character as a person, and which chronicles the transformation of a naïve young woman into a complete badass. Like a novel or a movie, the game tells the story of Lara’s growth as a person — an emotional journey.
What Do You Do In The Game?
Lara runs, jumps, climbs, zip-lines, and uses weapons (after she finds them). You learn as you go how to fight with various weapons, and fighting is smooth and fluid. Lara racks up a ridiculously high body count consisting largely of unshaven mean white guys. Combat frequently involves using features of the local environment and improvisational thinking. My favorite weapon was the bow, but I probably used the assault rifle more. When you make a mistake as a player, Lara dies in a sometimes gory cutscene, and the game reloads right away so you can try again.
Embedded into the environment are a variety of puzzles. Most of the puzzles involve finding things and figuring out how to get to them. As the story progresses, appropriately, these become more and more challenging. Some are more formally presented (the “tombs” from the title) and others are just sort of there. You don’t have to tackle solving these puzzles in order to move forward through the game, but it’s part of the fun.
When I played Assassin’s Creed II , I found the protagonist very difficult to control, with too many button and joystick sequences of too high a level of complexity for my middle-aged mind to retain and execute. Tomb Raider gives Lara a more limited vocabulary of moves, almost all of which have two combinations of joystick and button sequences; it’s either aim and shoot, or dodge and strike. Minor spoiler: you only learn one of Lara Croft’s more famous special moves in the very last battle. But it was kind of cool that way, too.
Features or Bugs?
My friend Erik Kain has complained that the story of the game is too tightly “railed” — there is pretty much a single narrative and the player lacks the ability to make any meaningful choices that affect the outcome of the game. So it’s like riding a roller coaster on rails rather than driving a car, which you can steer to a multiplicity of self-selected destinations. Erik also complained about the cinematic aesthetic — the game, in his opinion, tries too hard to be a movie. This involves a lot “camera swings” and the cutscenes that I described above. He’s right that there is cognitive dissonance in Lara retaining a degree of preciousness about violence and death, and a periodic inability (within the cutscenes) to control events after she’s become a one-woman instrument of mass destruction.
But without them, the story would have been different and surely less compelling and credible. And I really liked the story the game told.
Another frequent complaint about the game are the pop-up “hints,” that appear even when the game is on its highest difficulty level. For instance, to open a strong box, the player must cause Lara to work a jammed lock with her climbing axe, which the player does by repeatedly pressing a button, prompted by a little graphic of the axe and the button that pops up within the scene. I’ve seen reviews complaining that gamers can figure this out by themselves and they don’t need the designers to hold their hands.
This makes me I recall why I never completed Assassin’s Creed II. The single most difficult moment I had in the game was an early mission in which the sole task is to pick up a box and carry it for three blocks. In order to pick up the box, the player must position the character at a precise location and there isn’t any indication that he’s now in position. At least three times, I grew so frustrated at this that I assumed the game had some sort of a bug in it, grew bitter, and turned the game off. I’m one of those gamers who can’t figure it out for himself. I’d much rather have a pop-up hint tell me “Mash the X button now, dummy!” than another can’t-pick-up-the-box moment. Tomb Raider never had that moment. Consequently, I didn’t walk away from the game out of frustration with anything other my own mistakes in combat.
The cinematic camera swings were annoying in a couple of sequences where the director decided to reverse camera angle and see Lara from the front rather than position the player’s point of view behind her. This took away my ability to see what obstacles Lara had to dodge or jump around and reduced the chance sequence to a trial-and-error exercise of memorizing moves with my controller. I’d have had more fun sticking with the perspective I’d grown used to. But all the same, it looked great.
Stuff I Loved
The limited vocabulary of combat moves makes the controls simple to remember and execute, so even this amateur middle-aged gamer acquired sufficient proficiency to take on the waves of baddies with confidence. There were very few fights where I felt like things weren’t fair or that my death wasn’t the result of some error in control that I had made. A few boss battles left me confused about how to take the baddie out, and I needed some online hints to even know what to do.
Jason Graves’ score is fantastic. As with everything else in the game, a cinematic sensibility permeates it and I really enjoyed that. In particular, the combat music from the game’s third act creates an impelling, propulsive force that makes you as the player want to go fight despite what you know will seem like overwhelming odds. A video feature that comes with the game shows how a custom percussion instrument was created for the game, accounting for a lot of the more interesting scorings that were used in moments of tension.
The motion is fluid and credible. The game knows when it’s appropriate for Lara to crouch for cover or to run fast or to sneak up on enemies and takes care of doing that for you; I cannot think of many times I thought it made bad decisions in those regards and integrating those tactical decisions kept the learning curve manageable. So again unlike my main man Erik Kain, I thought this was a good thing rather than a drawback.
The backdrop is beautiful. I want to visit the island where Lara Croft has her adventures (after she clears out all the bad guys for me) so I can drink in all the scenery. Tomb Raider gives Skyrim a run for its money on the beauty of its setting. On the other hand, Skyrim did a better job of handling the flow of time — in sequences where I needed some time to solve a puzzle, I noticed the sun did not move in the sky. This was particularly annoying during sequences set at nighttime when it was harder to see places I needed to run and jump — no matter how long I waited, the sun never came up.
The survival and growth story is compelling, in part from the good writing from Ms. Pratchett and her team that went into it, in part from the clever and skilled nuances put in to the character’s face by the animators, and in part from the good acting by Ms. Luddington and her supporting cast. This was the main reason I’ve played the game as intensely as I did after getting it — I wanted to see how the story worked out.
The game frequently auto-saves. There is no manual save function (other than using a campsite). The transition from player-control to cutscene is fluid and sometimes unnoticeable. Load time and transition time between regions of the game universe is minimal. This defeated one of the frustrations I have with Skyrim: its ridiculously long load and save times. Also defeating my other major frustration with Skyrim is Lara’s limited equipment: with less stuff available to carry, Tomb Raider does not turn in to an inventory management system burdened by huge amounts of clutter.
I had a lot of fun playing Tomb Raider, and pretty much anyone who plays video games at all will too. Its flaws are trivial and its strengths are legion.