Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tomb Raider (2013)

I had heard that the new Tomb Raider reboot was good, but I certainly didn't expect it to be this good. It's the game that Uncharted 3 should have been.

I am squarely in Tomb Raider's target demographic, having little to no exposure to the previous games in the series but a fondness for linear, heavily authored third-person action games. The story is extremely perfunctory, and would probably have no emotional punch whatsoever if I hadn't read the prequel comic that came with the special edition, which introduced the characters in a much more sympathetic way than their one-dimensional portrayal in the actual game. It doesn't help that half the cast is clearly just there to die in protagonist Lara Croft's arms for a Tragic Character Arc, when the game has plenty of other scripted events that provide real character development for her anyway. This isn't inconsistent on the game's part; rather, Tomb Raider is great at letting you connect with Lara when you're playing, and doesn't really know what to do with her when you aren't.

The mechanical heart of Tomb Raider is very strong. The basic methods of interacting with the game are quickly established: climbing things, shooting things, solving physics-based puzzles, exploring for hidden collectibles, and taking tremendous amounts of physical punishment in cut scenes. Because it is 2013, there are a bunch of expensive scripted scenes where the player's only contribution is Press X to Not Die, or Run and Jump in a Straight Line to Not Die, uneasily coexisting with the actual cut scenes where the plot moves forward. Loading screens are elegantly disguised with narrow rock passages or high windows Lara must wiggle through, and generally everything comes off very well and the pacing is tight, with plenty of breathers in the large open areas to explore. Because it is the Year of the Bow, Lara has the option to silently take down enemies, allowing you to bring your environment traversal skills to bear on the combat in a refreshing manner. The bow is also mandatory for the non-combat sections of the game, used to light things on fire, attach rope to things, and hunt animals, which encourages you to use it against enemies as well.

Upgrades are plentiful, with the unusual but very apt decision to make 100% completion of all upgrades possible by the end of the game, rather than forcing players to replay to see the other skill trees. This makes total sense with the story arc of "Lara Croft develops from a callow youth into Indiana Jones and/or Batman". The order in which the skills unlock essentially co-opts the player into telling the story through gameplay: first you buy a bunch of "Survival" upgrades which provide boosts to resource collection and have an exploration and hunting theme, then you buy the combat upgrades as Lara gets more comfortable (way too comfortable) with her arsenal of melee weapons and guns, then you unlock the gratuitous finishing moves and flashy weapon upgrades. By the end of the game, your cute camisole may be ripped, but you are squarely in action video game territory, as you graduate to napalm arrows, melee combos, and a silenced assault rifle. To deal with your expanding prowess, the game narrows in scope: the exploratory sections become few and far between, the role of nature recedes and the dingy corridors of a thousand military shooters full of faceless bad guys reappear. You are occasionally asked to feel sorry for the men you brutally murder, but it's not really effective after reading a dozen audio logs from their low-rent cult leader.

Why am I even discussing how shocking the violence is in this game, especially considering it's much more tasteful than Bioshock Infinite? Because it pulls the same trick as Bioshock, of setting you up in the opening hour with a very different and much more interesting game, before turning up the Rambo meter. Lara is scared, she complains, she has a fear of heights, she freaks out after killing her first enemy, she stalks deer with her Important Objects Vision (straight from Batman: Arkham Asylum) in the forest. She is instantly relatable, she invests the player in the story, and she's beautiful without being overly sexualized to boot. So when the game drops that conceit and starts mowing through waves of enemies and awarding extra points for brutal kills, it falls into the same trap as Uncharted. Because Lara has been so strongly set up as a character who doesn't have decades of experience with headshots, it strikes a wrong note when she sets about the task so quietly and efficiently. At least Bioshock takes pains to mention that you, the player, are a scary dude, and this is not your first combat engagement or even your first war crime. Tomb Raider shoves Lara into these action-hero situations, but forgets to really develop her into someone who can handle it. She gives the impression of simply being too tired and too driven by necessity to care.

The other element that deserves to be touched on here is the ridiculous amount of bodies strewn everywhere. The first time I saw the interior of an enemy-occupied cave, with at least a dozen human skeletons, I thought it was a little excessive. The first time I saw a pile of decomposing human corpses with some tastefully arranged red candles on a skull (the universal symbol for "crazy cultist it is ethically OK to choke with your bow"), I started asking myself how many shipwrecked survivors really landed on this island, and why every single room would be full of bodies in the way most games are full of crates. This really bugged me and broke the immersion, because it is so gratuitous, unnecessary and nonsensical. There is absolutely no reason for the cultists to be this comfortable around death, and they would definitely all have contracted some horrible disease and died because they left a dozen or more dismembered rotting corpses in each tiny cave. Yes, I get that they are bad guys, but they're actually pretty sensible for evil cultists. They have a totally reasonable master plan, they play chess on duty, they're wearing regular clothes - basically, their comical lack of hygiene (to the point where the elevator will let you off next to a skeleton of a soldier killed in World War II, still propped up against the wall with his diary) doesn't mesh with the overall realistic tone of the game. Indiana Jones fights actual Nazis and they don't have this much of a body count on their hands.

While this post has a rather negative tone, it's because the game makes such a great first impression that I feel the need to nitpick about it so much. Its mechanics remain fun all the way up to the end, allowing you that moment of cathartic power fantasy as you unlock the ridiculous final upgrades. The story is prone to extremely convenient collapsing objects, and for a genius archaeologist Lara Croft is as dumb as a bag of hammers when it comes to figuring out the cultists' plan, but overall Tomb Raider makes me overlook its many flaws to earn a spot on my favorites list. It doesn't have the sheer awe of worldbuilding that Bioshock Infinite does, but it feels competent, self-assured and complete in a way that Bioshock doesn't. Every plot thread and theme gets an answer, every annoying player action is upgraded to a cool and effortless one, and the ending is satisfying without resorting to a surprise plot twist. It displays what a lot of games are missing: a soul.

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