It took me a few weeks to work my way through Tomb Raider, the Lara Croft reboot written by Rhianna Pratchett and creative directed by Noah Hughes. I liked it quite a bit, and ended the game somewhere around 81% completion. I think it has the best platforming gameplay since Uncharted 2, and the best sense of spectacle since Uncharted 3. The platforming action/adventure genre is one I like more than just about anything else, though I need a final ruling on whether or not the NBA 2k series is a genre unto itself. I never played a lot of Tomb Raider as a kid, though I wore the original PS1 demo out. But you know, Lara Croft is an institution. She’s like The Simpsons or James Bond. Even if you never watched the show or the movies, you know the deal, and probably think of them at least a little fondly.
I was surprised, but pleased, to see that Tomb Raider‘s tone is dark and desperate, with occasional outbursts of violence. Lara’s proficient with her pistol, rifle, shotgun, and bow, and she uses them to kill. I preferred the bow, feeling that it fit more with the survival-oriented story, and used melee attacks for when things got too close and hectic. I liked the bow because it felt more skillful than the guns. You can spray and pray with any of the weapons. You just look and tap R1 and hope for the best. But it’s not that easy with the bow, especially when taking on multiple dudes at once. When you get into a groove, it’s all about timing, position, and clever use of cover. I liked walking that line when I could, though I definitely relented a few times and used the shotgun for close-range combat.
Camilla Luddington’s performance as Lara was pretty good, too. I’m less keen on the turn toward cliché hardness the character takes toward the end of the game, after yet another dude sacrifices his life for her, but she absolutely sold the lost, wet, and cornered take on the character that is the main thrust of the game. She’s quiet when she needs to be, hard when she needs to be, and I like how she evolved over the course of the game in a general sense. She sounds appropriate for the character and story. That sounds more clinical and less enthusiastic than I want it to, but I mean it. She works, and works well. I hope she sticks around.
My only real problem with the game, outside of the unavoidable “Hey! This is a video game!” plot and gameplay elements, is that the death sequences that play when Lara dies in certain situations actually greatly detract from the experience.
The violence when in combat is on par for most games these days. Headshots kill and blood sprays, but you aren’t exactly dismembering or eviscerating people, nine times out of ten. Some of the context-sensitive kills are rough — better to call them executions, honestly — but they’re here and then they’re gone. They’re a blip in your experience, a speed bump on the way to getting Lara to return her bow to her back to signal that you can safely explore again.
The death sequences for Lara, though. Now those stick around. The game dwells on them, and if you die a lot early on — I did! I died often enough to get so good at the game I rarely died at all by the end — then they quickly turn from horrific to tedious. But even horrific feels like too much. Lara doesn’t just die from a bump on the head when she falls in water. She gets bumped, blood floats in the water, and she slumps. She doesn’t get stabbed and die. She gets stabbed and is then lifted into the air on a spear, where she shakes a little. Wolves go for her throat as she struggles, arrows pierce her neck and thigh in quick succession, the screen goes fuzzy and fades as you’re choked to death, and Lara gets a spike through the neck as she fights for her life before dying.
This supercut has a lot of the deaths:
It’s a little misleading in and of itself, because the deaths make sense in context. The game’s not a non-stop slideshow of trauma, so much as a showcase for occasional explosions of trauma when you screw up. I didn’t see most of these, but I did see a few of them a lot of times.
The fatalities are too much for me. They’re not too much because they’re offensive, though I do think they tend to be more gross than dumb. They’re too much because the game already does a great job of positioning Lara as someone who is cornered and almost drowning under the tension. The stealth sections, for example, are legitimately tense, because you have to do them without the creature comforts of a Soliton Radar. It’s just you, your guts, and your quiet prayers that you can make it through quickly enough to not get caught.
The tension is actually somewhat lessened in the combat segments, of all places, but it shines in the scripted platforming sequences. Every instance of Lara running away from explosions, sprinting toward a rapidly-decreasing window of opportunity, or taking a leap of faith across a gorge are fantastic. You have some measure of control in these segments, and I really enjoyed gunning it down hallways or trying to figure out the best way to make a jump while something unlikely was chasing me. While the chase sequences used an implicit, though sometimes absent, time limit to generate tension, the platforming sections generated tension by simply being a do-or-die scenario.
That balance really worked for me, even though I can recognize that the chases tended to be repetitive (Lara escapes a lot of crumbling or exploding structures) and the platforming fundamentally basic. The execution was good enough that simply exploring felt like a worthwhile endeavor. There’s a lot to say for a familiar thing being executed well.
The thing about the fatalities is that they feel like icing on a steak. They feel out of place within the greater context of Tomb Raider, and awkwardly vicious on a smaller level. They go much further than the rest of the game does when it comes to violence, and more than anything else, they feel like a punishment that’s out of proportion to the sin. They don’t add to the Tomb Raider experience for me, either. The tension is already there and properly effective, but the fatalities tip the balance from The Descent toward a cheap direct-to-dvd slasher movie. I’m really interested in seeing how developers portray violence in games, and how that affects the entire experience. Jacking up the tension without going fully exploitative is a tough row to hoe, and Tomb Raider manages to strike a pretty solid balance, but doesn’t quite stick the landing.