Friday, September 16, 2016

Tomb Raider (2013)

I had fun playing Tomb Raider Anniversary almost a decade ago (where does the time go?), but despite being a remake, it didn't capture the magic of the original game (the one that started it all). And so, when this new-fangled reboot of the series came out a few years ago, I was mildly intrigued, but not so excited about the modern direction in which the series was heading that I had to run out and buy it. But now that my new exercise regime has given me regular time to play console games (and what an excuse - it keeps me in shape!), the likes of which I haven't had since before my college days - since the interactive nature of a video game distracts me from the monotony of walking on a treadmill much more effectively than the passive experience of watching a movie or TV show - I've made a point to play it. And here's what I think of it:

It was a fun game. But it doesn't really feel like a Tomb Raider game. A lot of that can be forgiven by the fact that this is an origin story - Lara Croft's first real adventure, before she became the badass we know her as now - but it doesn't really justify this game not simply being called Shipwreck Survivor (starring a Katniss clone with her signature bow and arrow - although, I have to admit, I may have squealed a little bit towards the end when (spoiler!) Lara dual-wielded pistols for the first time), unless or until there's a sequel (and there better be some pyramids!).

As a reboot of the series, this game feels, environmentally, like the Peru levels of the first game (albeit less cavey and more outdoorsy), with a little bit of Natla's Mines thrown in for good measure. But my biggest complaint is that it's only about 10% Tomb Raider. The only actual tombs in the game are literally optional to explore, and are all very samey vertical chambers with some mildly challenging obstacle to surmount. I swear to god, at one point, Lara actually says "I hate tombs" - unironically!

The rest of the game is about 15% Die Hard with button presses - oh, how I loathe the "quick time event" philosophy of modern gameplay. It's ironic, because in the days of Metal Gear Solid, I lauded this new cinematic approach to video gaming, but it's not much fun when you're basically watching a movie, except that you have to press a particular button at a particular point to get to the next scene (and god forbid you should screw it up, and have to rewind the scene and watch it ten more times before moving on).

The remaining 75% of the game is basically Call of Duty or Counterstrike or whatever war games the kids are playing these days (Borderlands? I dunno). Like I said, it was a fun game, but if I had wanted to play a war game, I would have bought a war game. This game is at its best when the world opens up and actually allows you to explore it (a little bit). The way you can hunt for relics (even if they're mostly not that interesting) and documents and salvage that you can use to upgrade your weapons is great. The sequel should have more of that, and less "kill this army of mercenaries (again)".

I'm happy to say that the level design has improved since Tomb Raider Anniversary, but it still has yet to evoke the sandbox appeal of the original Tomb Raider from 1996, where you could climb on everything, and finding the path from point A to point B was legitimately thrilling, and not an exercise in following visual breadcrumbs (emphasized further by your "survival instincts", however helpful they may be). The fact that you are following a scripted path is disguised a little bit better by the impressive graphics, but the effect on the gameplay is pretty much the same.

There is potential here for another winning entry in the Tomb Raider franchise, but the developers will have to iron out some issues first. They've crafted a moving story about the birth of a young explorer, who finds confidence in herself while unraveling the truth behind a Japanese legend about a Sun Queen who was rumored to have been able to control the weather. But there is room to improve, as I think I would prefer a game with more focus on the gameplay than the cinematics. And those of us who appreciated the fact that Lara Croft was simultaneously a sex symbol and a role model for female empowerment are going to have to get used to a less caricatured and more humanized Lara (nevertheless well cast). For better or worse.


That's the end of the review. I'm going to finish up with a note on the controversy I remember this game stirring up when it came out. I should probably just let this be, as it's old news by now, but since I never got to have my say...

I remember when this game came out, there was an uproar in the gaming world over a scene where Lara is subjected to "attempted rape". I suspected that it was PC bullshit at the time, and now having played the game, I'm even more confident of that opinion. It's possible that they toned down the scene after the bad publicity, but I can't imagine any reason why it would have been anything like people complained about in the first place. With all the brutal violence that Lara is subjected to in this game (seriously, it's pretty graphic), it's actually offensive that anyone would single out one tiny scene where a shipwrecked savage who is clearly a Bad Guy puts a hand on Lara's thigh in the midst of combat - and that is absolutely as far as it goes. Considering that this is also the scene that immediately develops Lara's motivation for taking her first (of hundreds in this game) human life, feminists should be rallying around this scene, not criticizing it. Of all the things the developers could do to justify their heroine becoming a murderer, they chose (minor) sexual harassment.

And to anyone who thinks it's "insensitive" to put a female character in a video game through this kind of "abuse" - the tagline for this game is "a survivor is born". Tell me why we can create fictional media depicting the birth of a survivor through such natural and man-made hardships as being washed ashore a remote island and having to fend off wild animals and anomalous weather patterns while climbing a mountain (and falling back down the other side), as a literal army of savage, gun-toting mercenaries and supernatural ogres put out all the stops to try to murder and torture said survivor, but we can't depict her being the target of unwanted sexual advances? I'm sorry, but the "Dragon's Triangle" is most decidedly not a "safe space". Tell me that political correctness hasn't gone too far...

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