This was really, really good. In ways that video games often are, but also in ways they often aren’t.
I remember the first Tomb Raider coming out in – Wikipedia says 1996, would you believe – with an unprecedented marketing drive, game-changing graphics, and exploration of detailed 3d worlds like never before. Lara Croft became the definitive badass video game heroine for quite some time, I guess. But I think it’s fair to say the franchise lost freshness over many sequels and became … kinda stodgy. Uncharted then picked up the archaeological adventure baton and added snappy gameplay, cheeky characters, and stunning cinematic sequences. With this reboot Tomb Raider has snaffled that baton back, not quite getting Uncharted’s lightness of touch on the characters, but delivering big on drama and thrills, the cinematic sequences and then some, and adding a bit more exploration back into the mix. But, bottom line, it just tells a great story, and delivers a kind of emotional involvement in the action you just don’t get much in video games.
In outline it’s one of them reboot origin story prequel type-o-things we keep getting these days. With a young and naive Lara shipwrecked with some sidekicks-r-us on a mysterious island that puts one strongly in mind of both the first Uncharted and Lost. We then follow her progression from crapping her pants archaeology graduate to hard ass survivor as she tackles the sadistic cult that’s grown up on the island, plus older, darker powers, with thrills aplenty along the way.
To quickly cover the basics, gameplay is solid – action pretty good, climbing about and exploring pretty good, enough to find if not too much, puzzles perhaps a little on the straightforward side, but generally the whole thing works nicely with good sound and atmosphere, lots of cracking cinematic sequences and a lot of variety in the movement of the character, making her feel very real. It’s an object lesson in pacing, with more open, explore-y sequences that reward the grey matter and give some spectacular settings alternating with more scripted, cinematic sections that really get the heart going. Far Cry 3, say, didn’t seem to be able to marry its plot and its free-form stuff very well, but Tomb raider keeps a narrative coherence, it all feels part of the same story, with cut scenes doing what they need to without intruding. And it keeps on delivering new thrills, new ideas and new content, with plenty of skills to learn and weapons to modify. There’s a real sense of building up to crescendoes then settling back, then back to crescendoes again. I can’t remember a game that seemed so truly cinematic. Longer than expected, as well, and with a great ending. Interest doesn’t peak early then start to wane as it often can.
There’s a bit of work to do on the secondary characters, I’d say – they pretty much all turned out to be exactly what you thought they’d be from the first moment they appeared, and the dialogue, relationships and voice-acting were nowhere near as free wheeling and appealing as in Uncharted, nor the cut scenes quite so lavish in their lighting and detail, but Lara herself was great. I mean, she weren’t ugly, and she was extremely attached to that hardest working vest in video games, but she was reassuringly unsexified. A solid female lead, not played for fan service, at least from where I was sitting.
It was connection with the character where it really shone. Just a great and very cunningly calibrated central narrative, as Lara goes from helpless innocent to hardened survivor. Initially she’s stumbling about coughing, shivering, horrified. When she first gets her hands on a gun it trembles as she aims. But steadily her skills and yours improve. And the stakes feel high. The action is crunching, visceral, unforgiving. At times there’s a resident-evil like nastiness and threat about it. Lara’s hung upside down among corpses, impales herself on spikes escaping, slides down mountains, falls out of wrecked planes, is beaten up, and gets progressively more scratched, torn, battered, bandaged and dirty. You never fear for Nathan Drake, and though you might be wowed by the cinematics in Uncharted, I don’t know if you’re ever emotionally affected in the way you are by Tomb Raider. You really find yourself rooting for Lara, and that sense of immersion just ups the ante on everything. When you make a long jump over a dizzying void and she just clings on by her fingertips – you feel it. When she dodges a goon’s machete and rock-axes him in the head – you feel it. When she parachutes down a mountainside and impales herself on a tree because you were too busy watching the landscape swoop past – you feel that too.
And that connection meant nothing in it really came across as cheap or schlocky. There was a real emotional weight to the violence, a real sense of danger, pain, and impact, that stands very much at odds with the sawdust-chewing action of something like Max Payne 3. I’ll let someone who speaks from more experience talk on that score.
So in sum, a good game, which isn’t all that rare, but an excellent piece of storytelling, which is. Very promising for the future, not just of Lara Croft, but of video games in general…
Now to Bioshock Infinite…