The main screen makes it look like a B movie, with the blunt, effective, high-contrast, attention-demanding typography and the cheap, brash attitude: lightning strikes on the high tide of a forgotten, foreboding island, with the remains of a shipwreck on the front. I mean that in the best possible sense. It bodes well.
Tomb Raider’s subject matter is entirely “B”: genre fiction that promises adventure and excitement in a straightforward fashion. If it’s dumb, you’re perfectly welcome to say “that’s all right – come on, it’s Tomb Raider!”
Except the game is not “B” in any sense, but pushing the limits of the vaunted triple-A club, with production values through the roof, all without losing a strong emotional connection with the player. As a developer, I’m scared to think of the amount of effort, people, care, risk and money it’s required to create. I can only think of two games that have been as impressive: Uncharted and Arkham Asylum, and neither of them manage this level of intimacy, which just makes me care more. I am there in the jungle with Lara.
Maybe this is just indicative of the place videogames inhabit in the current cultural field and in our lives. It would feel out of place – inappropriate – to expect anything but “B” from the subject matter of a major release, compared to any other sort of mainstream entertainment. But here it becomes a strength, for Tomb Raider owns its subject matter with rare grace and an air of genuinity.
Things start off weird when you realize that right from the first moments, Tomb Raider makes you care. You care about survival, you care about yourself as Lara, you care about her distress. You came for the popcorn entertainment or perhaps the mystery of Lara Croft, once gaming’s most visible and unattainable female icon, since fallen off-stage, and it’s surprising to realize that the game is working very hard to make sure it gets under your skin between all the death-defying stunts and countless fights.
For a remake of a conceptually thin action adventure series, Tomb Raider packs a lot of emotion and heft to its opening hour. You get why Lara feels bad about herself – it’s not just about survival, it’s also about feeling responsible for the plight of the others. The only place where the writing falls short are the other characters – you just don’t care about them. There’s a problematic scene halfway through the game where you’re supposed to really care for someone else, and even though they do all the right things – make you play the game with him, have him help you out, give him added narrative heft with motives and flaws – it just doesn’t work. Luckily the script knows to focus on Lara, and that works all through.
Uncharted made its hero look human, dodging fire and leaping around. Tomb Raider takes that and ups it: it makes Lara feel real, someone that’s thrust into a situation she can’t control. With the great sound design and camera work, it’s very immersive. They use the elements to a great effect and the cold and the wet gets to you. Lighting that first campfire to take shelter from the storm feels like a real achievement.
The animation is amazing. Lara is still a videogame hero, defined by her super-human action, but they bring a physicality and plausibility to her that’s just unprecedented. Where many games have attempted an “I’ve never done this kind of thing before” scenario, Tomb Raider pulls it off, even hours and dozens of killed enemies later. It’s like Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard: you buy into the character. You believe in her.
It’s hard to find any reasonable fault with the execution. Even though the game is packed with features, from exploration and scavenging to hunting, they’re all delivered on a level where everything just works, unlike for example Assassin’s Creed III. The design doesn’t miss any beats, only slightly fumbling with a couple of quick time events, but even those are redeemed by master class use of mechanics to make you star in seriously bonkers, seat of your pants sequences where you’re left feeling “holy shit! Did I just do all that? Yes I did!” If only all of the sequences were the same.
There is a rare seen confidence in the environmental design. They hold actual puzzles in check without losing the sense of adventure. Moving through the large open hub areas feels like making your own way, not following a prescribed path, even when they pull in the edges to make sure you get to the plot-critical events. It feels like an adventure in a way Uncharted never manages, even for all its flawless writing and pacing. It lets go of the reins just enough for you to feel like being your own master, responsible for your mishaps. In a triumph, all the puzzles are environmental and based on lines of traversal and physics, no antique keys to hunt for.
Even while the game is a triumph in marrying gameplay and narrative, there is a stunning discord in the way violence is displayed. The Indiana Jones style visits to skull-adorned temples and torture chambers, even complete with pools of blood, are perfectly in-genre, and the focus on intimate combat fits the survival theme perfectly with its messy, sloppy, desperate tone. But I can’t see Lara Croft as a character whose final skill unlocks are all vicious executions. The first (and only) time Lara put a shotgun barrel under a stunned enemy’s chin and pulled the trigger, I had no idea what the hell I was playing anymore. In addition to the combat, there are disturbing scenes of Lara dying violently due to the player missing a QTE prompt. It’s baffling, and a shame because due to the excessive violence, I just can’t recommend this to anyone.
For all of this generation of gaming consoles, Tomb Raider was an example of a series fallen out of touch with the times. The Uncharted series owes a lot to Tomb Raider, and it utterly outclassed it in every regard. Now the tables have been turned. I’m excited to see both what’s going to be Uncharted’s answer and Lara’s next adventure. Truly a legend reborn.