Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Tomb Raider: The Verdict

Tomb Raider is out! Before I launch into what I thought of it, I suggest you read my latest Character Select, which is about the new Lara Croft. I have now written nine Character Select articles, two of which have been about Lara Croft. Make of that what you will. That article represents a fairly detached view of the new game, in which I look at the cultural and commercial reasons why Lara Croft was transformed from this:

 ...into this...

It's the same reason Casino Royale began with a macho James Bond setting out on his first mission as 007, just four years after Die Another Day showed him racing an invisible car across an iceberg whilst being pursued by a deadly ray of fire controlled by an immortal red-haired North Korean prince before para-surfing along a giant wave to go and rescue Halle Berry from a melting ice palace.

Lara had got to a point where she couldn't grow any more. She'd found (and destroyed) Altantis, explored the Norse underworld and even stolen a meteorite from inside an alien spacecraft. There really is nowhere you can go from there without becoming completely self-parodic, which many would argue she'd already done.

Consequently, she had to change, which is why Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the series with an origin story. Like Casino Royale and Batman Begins (2005) it revamped a series that even its most avid followers admitted was growing tired, and on the whole it fulfilled all the hopes that I had for it when I wrote this piece on it last year, in which I said:

It might be great. It just might.

It might not be the game we grew up with, but it may forge its own identity and become a powerful, compelling story in its own right, maybe even with some decent gameplay.

For all I write about Tomb Raider, I don't think it should be reserved a permanent place at the high table of gaming just because it's got a great legacy. If it really has passed its sell-by date, lay it to rest, let something else take its place, give new designers a voice, but let's give it one last chance to prove itself.

I hope it can. 

The risks Crystal Dynamics took with the plot and the gameplay paid off. The game didn't quite feel like Tomb Raider to me (which I'll get to shortly), but it was a brilliant, unique game with a very human protagonist, and I'm currently working my way through it for the second time. It's also enjoyed huge commercial and critical success, which hopefully paves the way for many more character-driven, exploration-based video game stories.

Officially, I'm thrilled for it.

Unofficially, I'm still a fangirl and there are several things I was initially a bit unsure about, some of which eventually grew on me. Most of those things are down to personal preference rather than any fault with the game itself, but after spending the last couple of weeks wearing a journalist hat (an Anthony Eden as modelled by Don Draper), it's a relief to take it off and wear a fangirl hat (modelled here by someone I saw in the Goldsmiths library once).

The biggest of these is swimming, one of my favourite things to do both in Tomb Raider and in real life. Tomb Raider has always been about the full use of three dimensional spaces, and swimming has always been an extension of that. Many Tomb Raider games feature huge three-dimensional puzzles which you solve by changing the level of the water in a room, and swimming in the pool in Lara's house is one of the first things new Raiders ever do.

There are few games which use water to add interest to platforming in this way. Come to think of it, there aren't that many games that actually have swimming in them full stop. A lot of characters simply die or climb out when you drop them in the water while others, like Nathan Drake, just paddle around on the surface. Off the top of my head I can only think of Lara and, erm, Spyro the Dragon, who could really swim in three dimensions. I really missed swimming this game and I hope it only got left out because there wasn't the time and budget to do it properly and that it makes its way into the sequel.

It also took me a while to get used to Lara Croft's actress, Camilla Luddington. This is partly her accent; Luddington was raised in both the US and the UK and thus has a slight mid-Atlantic twang. At first I found this irritating because it seemed like Crystal Dynamics, being as American as most of the people who made Mary Poppins, hired Luddington purely on the basis that having already played Kate Middleton (yes, really) she was the very epitome of Britishness, even though to my ears she couldn't have sounded less so.

The heavy breathing throughout the first four hours of the game did not help me warm to her. But as the game went on and the character grew stronger and more resilient, so the performance grew on me. I also realised that having an adventurous father who no doubt took her all over the world as a child, it made sense that Lara might not have a Home Counties accent.

I also really liked Luddington's physical performance. Motion capture is key to the narrative's success and Tomb Raider may well be the best I have ever seen. This is partly down to the brilliant animators, of course, who seamlessly blend motion capture with the things it would be impossible to film, but it's also down to nuances on Luddington's part, like the way walks with slightly hunched shoulders and frequently reaches out to nervously touch her surroundings.

She also has real weight, which is still exceptionally rare in games. Nathan Drake seems bouncy by comparison. When she jumps, she hits the ground with tangible thud. When she hauls herself up onto a ledge it's with one knee, as a person, rather than a gymnast would do it. She is possibly the most human feeling character I have ever controlled in a video game, which makes the game extremely immersive.

What makes the game less immersive is the enormous body count, which I suppose is understandable given that if there's any shooting, there really has to be a lot of it otherwise, like all game mechanics that get a disproportionately low amount of playing time, it seems odd and out of place. I won't dwell on this since a lot of critics have raised it as an issue with the narrative (most amusingly Yahtzee, with whom I grudgingly agree, as usual), but it is still worth mentioning.

Also worth mentioning is this interview with Tomb Raider's writer Rhianna Pratchett, in which she discusses the difficulties that come with writing for games:

"I always joke about… how writers are used as narrative paramedics that are just sort of parachuted in to fix up a bleeding story. That does happen a lot. I don't tend to take on those projects, but I know a lot of talented, hard-working games writers that do, and that's kind of what needs to change. Writers do need to be involved in the process. It's not about writing specifically, in that the actual writing down the words bit is only one part of being a writer in games. It is about building the world, it is about bringing narrative logic, it is about using gameplay mechanics to define characters and themes. That is all stuff that would benefit from being done earlier. I think the term 'writer' somewhat scuppers us. The earlier that you're involved, the more you can bring to a project. It's as simple as that really."

She clearly states that she doesn't "tend to take on those projects" so she's not really talking about Tomb Raider here, but the general idea that narrative is often an afterthought to gameplay is very true. So often you play a game where you get the sense that a developer has spent years making a game about someone who kills a lot of people, calls a writer and says: "Hi, can you make this guy likeable please?"

Tomb Raider is not one of those games because for the most part the gameplay and the narrative are closely tied together. A good example of this is the way Lara's skills slowly develop as you play, both in terms of her basic abilities and the quality of her equipment, which she upgrades herself at campfires, using salvage. This reflects the character's growing confidence and emotional resiliance in the face of adversity.

The narrative is neither helped nor hindered by Lara's friends, for the simple reason that compared to her, they're just not very interesting. There's orphaned Lara's father-figure Roth, whom Lara refers to as "you northern bastard" in a way that no-one with any actual northern friends ever would, tough girl Reyes, profound island man Jonah, mutton-chop-sporting Scot "Grim" (I'm sorry, I must put his name in quote marks) and Alex, whose "Esc" T-Shirt is already a cosplay favourite.

The other two survivors of Lara's shipwreck are slightly more interesting; Samantha because she has to be (as Lara's best friend she provides motivation throughout) and Dr. James Whitman because as the game's token douche, he provides most of the conflict, or at least all the conflict that doesn't involve burning arrows. Like BioShock, both characters and narrative are fleshed out with convenient diary entries left scattered around the island. I love how the survivors have time to bash out some quick prose in between bouts of hysterical crying.

Finding these diaries, and indeed all kinds of other hidden goodies, necessitates thorough exploration, and it's when I was doing this that I most enjoyed Tomb Raider. I loved figuring out how I was going to reach hidden areas, and what kind of tools I would need to do so. I also relished the sense that every new piece of equipment meant I could return to a past area and uncover more of its secrets.

Exploration in the game is exemplified by tombs, hidden challenge rooms ("hidden" in the sense that whenever you're even slightly near one these bells start jangling and the words "HIDDEN TOMB NEARBY" obscure the entire screen) containing a single puzzle that you have to solve to reach a treasure chest. Now, not only are these tombs both rare and entirely optional - making the game's title a bit of a misnomer - but they are easy. Ridiculously easy. There is not one that I had to stop and think about.

I understand that because this game has a strong narrative, pacing is important in a way that it wasn't for earlier games, but if the tombs are optional anyway, what would the harm in making the puzzles a little bigger and more challenging? If players getting stuck and frustrated was a development concern, fair enough, but none of the compulsory material presents much of a mental challenge, so why not throw in a little more depth for those who want it?

The answer is because that's a silly argument and that you might as well say "Tetris is alright but I really like shooters, why not put in a shooting section for players who really like that stuff? It wouldn't have made the falling block bits any worse". I think by this stage Crystal Dynamics have demonstrated that they know what they're doing and bigger puzzles might actually have hampered the game, especially if implementing them would have taken resources away from core mechanics. If I had to choose between puzzles and swimming I'd have to go with swimming because I feel it could add depth and texture to the gameplay and the environment without really changing much (there's plenty of water in the game, but Lara just wades in it), while I understand that more puzzles could un-balance it.

Besides, Crystal Dynamics' previous game, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, had lots of puzzles and they have mentioned that they'd like to make more games like that. If this means I have to head to the XBLA for our 3D-puzzle fix while AAA Lara takes care of the action/story stuff, fine.

So what next for Lara? I hope it's another Tomb Raider, this game ended on such a high that I can't wait for the next one. I also hope to see another puzzle-heavy Lara Croft title in the vein of The Guardian of Light and let's not forget that there's a film on the way.

This time last year I would never have predicted that I would say this, but now I really can imagine Lara Croft still being around in fifty years, just like Bond. I didn't love this game as much as I loved the classic Core Design games, but it's right for the times. If Lara carries on, there will be good games and bad games, experiments that don't work out and flukes tha come out of nowhere. Whatever happens, I hope she keeps re-inventing herself and that I'm still writing about her whenever she does. For as Erich Fried once said: "he who wants the world to remain as it is doesn't want it to remain at all."

As ever, thanks to Katie for the screenshots. They're from the PC version of the game and there are many more where they came from over at Katie's Tomb Raider Site.


  1. I think they may put in more tomb raidery tombs per DLC, if they don't go MP maps only. I've spotted a few places they could add them--killer bushes and collapsed mine entrances.

    I'm off put by the body as well, but this is the first Tomb Raider I've played were the combat was satisfying, stealth kills and being sneaky was my favorite way to go about it. But, strangely enough, as satisfying as the stealth was, it was all about stealth kills. For the most part, you couldn't sneak around without killing everyone in the room/area. I would have rather passed through with the bad guys none the wiser.

    As far as swimming, I didn't miss it so much. I understand the longing for the full 3D style puzzle solving, but most of the time I was too afraid of the underwater combat--damn sharks.

    1. I also hope they put more raider-y tombs in the DLC, though I heard they might be focussing on the multiplayer side of things. That said, I've just finished my second playthrough and I'm now feeling more kindly disposed towards them; they're still quite easy but they're logical, coherent and fun rather than boring, particularly towards the end of the game.

      I'm thinking (spoilers!) of the fishery one, where there's a circular current of water and you have to use it move a swinging bar around the room in order to reach the treasure, and the water-filled room where you have to use a floating platform to cut the electrical current to it. Simple yet satisfying.

      I agree about the satisfying combat. The combat in the older games uses auto lock-on (due to her gymnastic leaping around, which wouldn't work with third-person shooting), which is never going to be satisfying because you just hold "shoot" and keep tapping "jump". There was at least a resource-management aspect to it, making it quite similar to the combat in survival-horror games. You didn't want to spend all your grenades on henchmen before a final boss, for example.

      I also think that there was no way they could make satisfying combat in this Tomb Raider without a massive body-count. You can't have a mechanic as well-implemented as that without giving it significant game-time. Part of the reason it wasn't that great in earlier games is that it was just added for texture, and there wasn't that much of it. They made the decision to make good combat in this game, so you had to spend a lot of time doing it, so ultimately, a lot of dudes had to die.

      A lot of my favourite games are stealth games because they're often very creative, but I also really dislike playing in a stealthy manner because I find it too stressful. Also, I quite like the idea of "completing" a section of a game and if someone is left alive I feel like it's a secret missed. Obviously this is a dysfunction on my part, not a fault with the genre. However, javing Lara have to sneak around the enemies would have been a bit more realistic.

      Another thing that felt a bit odd about the body-count was... How many guys are there? How do they all survive? What do they eat? Did you see any farms on that island? Do they have a big dorm somewhere where they all sleep? Where on earth do they keep coming from? In real terms, Yamatai isn't even that big!

    2. Well, there was a LOT of guys. But the island was bigger than what we went through in the game. I'm guessing we only seen about half of it. I know we only got one little section of beach--I'm pretty sure it goes all the way around the island. I'm guess they did have dorms in the main camp, maybe we just didn't see it. There's plenty to eat, this small orange shrubs and critters you kill as Lara. But, yeah, there was a lot of guys.

      I'm a completionist when it comes to games--that's why I hated them adding multiplayer Tomb Raider, it's just more stuff I feel like I'm required to do, though I derive little to no enjoyment from it. So, I get the stealth thing about leaving guys alive--for the fear of missing something. But I find more and more games are moving away from the 100% completion thing. Now if you can do more than 50% of things that are in a open world game, you probably were cheating somehow. This isn't a bad thing for games, but it is nerve wreaking for me. I want to do it all. I find myself acting like a child when it comes to games, if "If I can have it all, I don't want any!"

      I did like the tombs you spoke of. They stuck with me a little longer than the others. The bigest problem that they are too short. There only one puzzle and kind of a simple one. When i was stuck on any puzzle--not just the optional tombs but the whole game--it was because I was unaware of something I could interact with. You could say I was missing a piece. (Spoiler?) When I got back on the Endurance toward the end you had to move a hook around. I couldn't get it on the track I wanted because I was unaware you could jump on it from the other side to move it over. I thought pretty soon that would be the case, but the first time I tried to jump on it, Lara didn't grab hold. I just assumed, that wouldn't work and didn't try again for another 30 minutes or so.

      One of the things that turned me off at the very beginning was the racial/cultural split between the survivors. It was like they went through a check list of what kind of stereotypes they needed to add. The journals you find are a great away to add to the characters, and it wasn't such a big problem by the end of the game. But it still gave the vibe he/she is this stereotype plus a few honest character traits.

    3. The survivors are definitey stereotypes. Diversity is very important in creating believable casts, but when the characters are just stereotypical versions of the racial/social demographics they are so obviously meant to represent, it is embarrassing. Jonah's a pretty bad offender, but Grim is definitely the worst.

      Never mind, most of them are sacrificed in the name of plot development!

  2. The lack of tombs was probably the biggest off-put for me, which is suprising as I remember being somewhat defensive over the series back during Chronicles and AOD when people were complaining for lack of Tombs. I remember just thinking "Gosh do people really care about the actual setting? The gameplay is what makes it great" but in this one I thoroughly enjoyed the small tombs that were dotted around the game, and I wished they did more of them. It's a different kind of isolation when you're in a tomb than when you're isolated in an island jungle, if you're in nature you sort of know what to expect whereas in a Tomb anything could happen, and it's that sense of being somewhere that you're not supposed to be.

    I enjoyed the new Tomb Raider so much, I suppose the one thing I'd hope for in a sequel was just a return to the whole artifacts and temples and hidden mystic powers taht were so enticing in the originals, and I think it could really work with the reboot and perhaps it just needed time to develop.

    I agree about Camilla, I'm still not sure how I feel about her, she sounds so drastically different from any other Lara but perhaps that is a good thing, it made me appreciate her as a very much individual character. The strange American / British accent is probably always going to be off putting however.