I finally got around to playing this year’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. A combination of Kumail Nanjiani’s enthusiasm for it on the Indoor Kids podcast as well as a sale at Amazon compelled me to buy it. I’m only two hours in, but I’m already loving it.
I played the original Tomb Raider on my PC back in the late nineties, and even with the janky graphics and even jankier controls, I loved it. It was like playing an Indiana Jones game, allowing you to explore ancient ruins and shoot the odd wild beast (I also loved the Indiana Jones game on the N64, which had even jankier graphics and controls). I loved Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary for the PS2, and I enjoyed Underworld. I’ve gotten five minutes in on Angel of Darkness, only to discover that it was much-maligned for a reason. The PSOne series jumped the shark after a few installments, and 2008’s Underworld also provided diminishing returns. The need to keep producing games led to a dip in quality. So they took five years off and did a J.J. Abrams style reboot/origin story.
Tomb Raider has you playing as Lara before she became the Tomb Raiding badass. Instead, she’s a college (or just post-college) kid on her first real expedition that ends up shipwrecked. The game lets you know that this will be different from the Tomb Raider you are used to in the first cut scene. Lara makes an impossible jump to her colleague, barely managing to catch his outstretched hand…and then slips and plummets into the water below. She’s no longer an invincible super hero who can easily make incredible jumps. She can fall. She can get hurt.
And she definitely get hurt. The game caught some flack when its early trailers suggested that Lara was sexually assaulted in the game. Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg had some not-so-helpful explanations about the scene, explaining that they wanted to make Lara vulnerable so that players would want to protect her. No doubt about it, Lara is vulnerable. She is constantly getting hurt in this game, and hurt badly. Your first act as a player is to help her set herself free, only to have her fall down and get stabbed in the side. She spends the first portion of the game limping and clutching her bleeding wound. That vulnerability is not something you normally feel in an action/adventure game. In fact, Tomb Raider plays almost like an action/survival horror game at times, as you traverse dark caves unsure what will leap out at you, or enter rooms only to have enemies ambush you.
The game does a good job of making the first time you kill someone feel visceral and scary. It is done via quicktime events, which are kind of a bummer, but then you get control of the pistol and blow your attackers head nearly off at point blank range. Even if you have killed millions of virtual enemies in other games, this death feels shocking and grisly. I’ve heard some people complain about the fact that you go from being shocked and sickened after taking a life to blowing away cultist after cultist, but I understood that Lara realized that it was them or her, and so numbed herself to the consequences of what she was doing.
You also feel incredibly claustrophobic. The camera zips in tight when you traverse submerged caverns and narrow openings, making you feel cramped and confined. Tombs are dark, and you’re never sure what is going to leap out at you from the shadows.
Lara is a little whiney, and she relies heavily on a male father figure to guide her. I didn’t love her complaining “I caaaaaahn’t” when asked to do something difficult. I did like how she kept saying “ok…ok.” to herself when she was trying to tackle a difficult jump or task. There is also the fact that the game looks and sounds incredible. I was playing it on a warm summer night, but I could feel the chill of the storm as she lept from building to building in the pissing rain. I like the leveling up system, which gives you an incentive to explore.
I do wish they had done better than Evil Russians as bad guys. I have a feeling the cultists will turn out to be wonderfully creepy, but why did so many of them have to be generic Russian thugs? I’m also not in love with the stealth elements of the game, mostly because I don’t like stealth as a mechanic in any game, with the possible exception of Rocksteady’s Batman games. Hiding from stuff and trying to guess where video game characters are looking is much less satisfying and fun than blowing people away. I’ve also found the game to be a bit difficult, even on easy. Partially this is because different areas need to be tackled in specific ways, and it takes a couple deaths before you realize where the enemies are and in what order you need to dispatch of them. Luckily the checkpoint system is generous. I’ve also found myself dying the first run-through of any quicktime event, since I don’t always know they are coming and you need to be ready to press the right button as soon as it comes up on the screen. Those complaints aside, I’m loving Tomb Raider, and I’m looking forward to getting back from my vacation so that I can continue playing it.