A Second Look: ‘Tomb Raider’

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A Second Look is a new recurring feature which allows StickSkills editors to critique games outside of the official review. It provides an avenue for discussion for those who may not be as knowledgeable of a certain genre, or simply have a bone to pick. Be sure to check out our official review of Tomb Raider as well.

Let me open by saying I’m not the biggest fan of modern triple-A games. I’ve long since checked out of Call of Duty, Uncharted’s Indiana Jones motif never really did anything for me, and the Grand Theft Auto series has only ever been a passing interest. Now before you begin typing your snarky comments about how I’m just being contrary, or hating popular things to be a hipster douche, but hear me out.

I thought I’d give Tomb Raider a try because it looked like it might be different. I loved the idea of a game like Uncharted, but with more of a survivalist aspect; all of the bombast of the usual big-budget game, but with a few more systems. Most importantly of all, I thought it might have more of a connection between the protagonist presented in the story and the protagonist you actually play as. But after finishing the game, I know this isn’t the case at all. I’m not picking on Tomb Raider in particular, as much if its competition suffers from the same bi-polar design, I’m just using it to exemplify what I see as a greater problem in big-budget games.

To begin, I’ll point out that I didn’t hate the story. Quite the opposite actually. The Lara Croft created for this reboot is easily the most well-developed and realistic version to date. The cast of characters you encounter can be pretty cliche, but they succeed in making Lara into a relatable character, and one you can believe might exist. That is, at least during the cinematics. A brief warning, there will be mild spoilers below.

During the first hour of the game, Lara and her crew crash on an island and encounter some shady natives. We get the idea right away that something isn’t right, and that they probably mean the newly shipwrecked crew harm. Once the inhabitants show their true intentions, a fire-filled scene plays out, with the good guys scattering into the woods in a chaotic mess. Lara takes this opportunity to slink away, sneaking past nearby enemies, and teaching the player stealth mechanics along the way.

This culminates with an imposing islander finding Croft’s hiding spot, resulting in a struggle for a pistol. In a climactic burst, Lara takes control, firing the gun at point blank range into the man’s face. As he falls back, the camera sits on his brutalized visage, half of it now missing. We clearly see him spend his last seconds choking on his own blood, as his remaining eye darts around in its battered socket, terrified and confused. From what we know of her background, this is obviously the first person Lara has ever killed. But what’s her reaction?

She sobs briefly for about 10-15 seconds and bam, I’m back in control completely unaffected. Within a few minutes of this, we’re introduced to stealth kills, during which she strangles another man to death without reaction. Before the scene is done, the player will have killed an additional four or five enemies with the skill of an assassin. This is the first glaring example of the story telling the player one thing, while the gameplay says something entirely different. This is supposed to be an origin story in which Lara becomes a hero. Why am I silently killing multiple enemies from the get -go?

Later down the line, possibly three or so hours in, you’ll find more of the same. While exploring a ruined facility, Lara opens a set of huge double doors, only to be blinded by a floodlight. Moments later an islander alerts the room that they’ve found the outsider. Luckily enough, time happens to slow down so that Lara can pick off two or three enemies within the first few seconds of combat. After this, with minimal effort the player can drop one enemy after another; two well placed shots drop each scruffy-faced maniac.

When all was said and done, I counted ten bodies in the ruins. Ten fully armed psychopaths meant nothing to Lara. She downright obliterated them. And to add insult to injury, while leaving this room, another enemy drops in through the ceiling, providing a mild jump scare. What was meant to be “one last fright” only left me chuckling at the absurdity of it all. After the previous carnage I’d just caused, was I really supposed to be affected by a lone guy dropping some twenty feet away from me?

This main problem repeatedly rears its head through the first 75% of the game. How am I supposed to feel any dread or tension during quick-time events during which my foe is a single, possibly unarmed enemy? Lara annihilates group after group of well-positioned, well-armed foes like a veteran soldier. The story is telling me to be afraid, but I can’t be. It’s telling me Lara is getting tougher, but she was never unskilled. The Lara I know through the gameplay scoffs at the idea of mowing down enemies, can pick off people four buildings away with a pistol, and has been a trained killer since the first scenes of the game.

All of this intensifies as the end approaches, and every encounter includes hordes of enemies. By this point, the cinematics try to portray a similarly capable Croft, but she dispatches enemies as per usual. She’s been capable of this slaughter from the start, only now conveniently placed explosive barrels allow death on a larger scale. The only thing that ever really changes is Lara’s growing arsenal.

Whenever I found myself finally falling into the experience, becoming fully immersed in the world, this sort of contrast would slap me back into reality. During the cinematics, yes Lara develops into a more capable warrior, but the disconnect is always there; she’s still a normal person in the cutscenes and a superhero when fighting. It’s clear that Tomb Raider places Lara in the same ranks as Nathan Drake, but his various adventures suffer from the exact same problems.

Tomb Raider isn’t the only game to build around this idea. Far Cry 3 is another recent example, with the protagonist Jason Brody taking on a similar “transformation.” The yuppie in his mid-twenties becomes a serial killer, mowing down camps of armed guards within the first hour of the game. In Tomb Raider, I’m not a space marine, I’m not a super soldier, I’m not a mutant, I’m a college student. Why doesn’t the gameplay reflect this? Why does the crux of the game have to be endless killing that finishes with waves of enemies or mounted gun after mounted gun?

Both games even include dialogue which discusses who the “real monster” is, with the enemy claiming their goal was the same as the protagonist’s: simple survival. But this message cannot resonate when the only way I’ve been able to interact with the world is through slaughtering every inhabitant.

This is made all the more heartbreaking when you consider what Tomb Raider might have been. According to Jeff Keighley’s “The Final Hours of Tomb Raider,” the original concept was much different. He writes, “In early design meetings the team started thinking about other games that could inspire a new approach. The emotionally rich role-playing game Ico, the survival horror of Resident Evil, and the towering mythical creatures of Shadow of the Colossus all served as early inspiration.” But none of these inspirations seemed to have made it into the final product.

The Lara we see in cutscenes is tired, nervous, and worn., but I don’t see how I’m supposed to take any of her development seriously considering what I accomplish while actually playing the game. The cinematics portray a realistic person, the gameplay a green beret with years of experience. What could have been an interesting big-budget title about survival ended up as the same bland power fantasy we’ve played countless times before–albeit flashy and well produced.

Chris is an odd sort of thing from the wilds of central Pennsylvania. You can hit him up on Twitter under @chrishauge, PSN under faceless_page, or Xbox Live under teh sledge.