Monday, June 29, 2015

\\ Raiders of the Lost Croft: Tomb Raider //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and locations in Tomb Raider, developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix. Played the Definitive Edition on the PlayStation 4. 

If the new Tomb Raider has done anything, it has given me a deeper appreciation for games with more singular, holistic visions. A complete reboot of a franchise which seemed dated after the release of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it’s a game that tries several things at once, to varying degrees of effectiveness. With this reboot, developer Crystal Dynamics have gone back to the drawing board for their own franchise, echoing Nintendo’s mantra of constant attempts at revitalization of existing intellectual property, but instead of forging their own path, simply mucking about in the dregs of well-torn ground.

A more serious Lara.
A more serious Lara. (image credits: Destructoid)

Here, Crystal Dynamics have opted to forge a gritty origin story for young Lara (which makes calling the sequel
Rise of the Tomb Raider a strange idea); in doing so, they’ve stripped her of much of the sardonic quips and sociopathic tendencies of her history. Whenever she’s faced with outlandishly low chances of survival, her friend and mentor Conrad Roth reminds her that she can do this; after all, she’s a Croft. Indeed, she’s not quite the Croft yet, but Tomb Raider takes its time to weave a narrative of adventure and perseverance to take Lara to that place of renewed self-confidence and strength.

Unfortunately, the way the writers went about doing this was, to put it bluntly, really fuck Lara up. There are a wealth of grotesque animated death scenes triggered if the player fails to correctly complete a quick-time event (or QTE, wherein the player must press the button that appears on-screen in a timely fashion). Lara’s neck is snapped, bitten and impaled. One involves an enormous boulder crushing her from the torso down, then another crushing the rest of her body save for her head, giving the player a disturbing visual of her facial reaction. Leading up to the release of the game, Crystal Dynamics received flack for claiming that the player will want to “want to protect her.” This ends up being true, but only because the developers crafted such dire deaths that the player wouldn’t want to interface with in any way. It’s death as punishment in the most unfortunate way possible. I’m actually surprised Lara is never raped in this game, though a particular scene wherein a man grabs her by the neck and slams her up against the wall reminds of this (he kills her if you fail the QTE, of course).

Even when Lara isn’t outright dying, she’s getting tossed around a lot. One scene shows Lara scrounging around a downed airplane for first-aid supplies, only to find nothing. Upon failure to do so, she uses a lighter to burn an arrow and scald her wound with it, closing it in the process. The camera cuts away to the exterior of the vessel so we don’t see it, but it’s still not exactly tasteful; her screams are enough to make their point. Lara often falls from great heights, and is bashed around. She’s dirtied, bruised, and bloodied, all because she’s a woman. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake never had to endure this, and he shot up just as many folks in any one game as Lara does here. Crystal Dynamics go to great lengths to show off their large budget in the name of having Lara “prove herself.” The camera gets off on pain. I, the player, do not. I have hopes with the sequel that the developers rid of this excess, and put that development time to something more worthwhile.

Prior to the game’s introduction, Lara has convinced a family of descendants of the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai to fund an expedition in search of the place, based on a hunch she has of its location. Alongside her are a ragtag group of folks. We have Sam Nishimura, one of the Yamatai descendants, and videographer; Joslyn Reyes, a frequent skeptic of Lara’s abilities and the team mechanic; James Whitman, an archaeologist who will stop at nothing to retain his notoriety, often to the detriment of his cohorts; the aforementioned Conrad Roth, general friendly person and Lara’s mentor; Jonah Maiava, a wise man and a good, helpful friend of Lara’s; Alex Weiss, a techie (his shirt has an escape key on it) and kind of useless, one-dimensional character until a moment near the end; and Angus Grimaldi, the gruff captain of the Endurance.

One day, while Lara is browsing on her phone, she feels a crash and looks outside her quarters to find a rush of water coming right for her. She’s pulled away from drowning, misses a jump, and goes tumbling to the ocean below, washing up on a nearby island conveniently near the other denizens of the ship. From there, it’s off to the races.

Tomb Raider plays a lot like the Uncharted franchise. It’s a third-person shooter with lots of running, jumping, and things exploding and crumbling around you. Lara has a pretty standard array of weaponry available, from a handgun, to a rifle, to a shotgun, to a bow which can be upgraded with fire arrows. This arsenal in tow, you aim, shoot, take cover, and hope for the best as you move from objective to objective.

There are two core ideas at play here that separate Tomb Raider from its heritage of Nathan Drake. Every time Lara kills an enemy, finds a collectible, or does anything really, the player gains experience points (XP). Gather enough XP and you’ll level up, gaining a skill point. Littered around the island are campfires which Lara can rest at to spend skill points on upgrades, ranging from new finishing moves to reduced fall damage. She can also spend “salvage”, the game’s currency, on upgrades to her weaponry, from mere damage increases to secondary firing modes. The crafting and leveling up systems are extremely basic, not requiring much in the way of careful consideration of choices. There’s not a whole lot of customization either. I didn’t expect RPG levels of choice, but having more options would help for replayability.

You can do this.
You can do this. (image credits:

In setting the entirety of the game on one island, Crystal Dynamics opted to inherit some light Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night characteristics in terms of world design and progression structure. There are a couple instances in the game where the player will find themselves revisiting an area in a way that they might not have expected would happen. The player visits the Village Plateau section of the Mountain Village a couple times throughout the course of the game, and at one point it has significantly changed due to the remnants of a plane crash destroying some buildings located there. But where it most significantly borrows from the Metroid formula is in finding new items and upgrades which can be used to perform tasks which previously were impossible, like shooting a rope across a chasm and being able to descend down it like a zip-line, or a shotgun to shoot down certain barriers, or a hook to grab onto rock walls with.

Unfortunately, you’re not often required to revisit old areas, and if you do want to in order to pick up collectibles you missed, you can fast travel to any of the multitudes of camps a la Dark Souls II. This takes away from the theme of being a survivor, of having to persevere through a merciless jungle of traps to make it out alive. I understand most gamers don’t want to be bothered by such tedium, but the best Metroid-style world designs often feature several ways in and out of any given location to keep traversal interesting throughout. I mentioned the plane crash changing up a certain area earlier, and would have liked to see more of that in other areas of the game to make returning to earlier areas interesting.

As I’m not forced to do this, Tomb Raider ends up feeling like a weird mishmash of ideas that don’t all mesh well together. Since neither of its core differentiators are that compelling, we’re left with the setpieces, the narrative and the combat to keep us occupied. In terms of mere destruction, Tomb Raider’s setpieces are to San Andreas what Uncharted’s are to Man of Steel. Having seen none of these movies, I’m just going to guess based off the trailers that San Andreas has more. Bear with me here.

The setpieces here are fine, but they feel cookie cutter in a way a gameplay designer would not necessarily want. Every time I crossed a bridge, I expected some random goon to blow it up during a scripted sequence; nine times out of ten, I was correct. Most of them are really simple and hard to fail, requiring successful traversal of lenient QTE’s and basic, magnetic-feeling jumps toward ledges which Lara always just barely manages to grab onto. Unfortunately, none of them really stuck with me in the way Uncharted 2’s lengthy train sequence did, or its collapsing building, or Uncharted 3’s fully playable exploding plane.

Unnecessary. (image credits: GearNuke)

A bit of an aside here: a couple weeks ago, many watched intently as the future of video games was revealed to us at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles. Monday morning, Microsoft showed off its timed-exclusive Rise of the Tomb Raider to a fairly muted reaction. In the gameplay demo, Lara and a man are walking along the side of a snowy mountain. Lara straps herself to a cord, ensuring her safety as she jumps across a chasm toward this game’s icy equivalent of the original’s rock wall. Immediately, pounding percussion kicks in, signaling to the player that something’s about to go wrong before they even know it. Lara tells her companion, “Let’s take it slow and steady,” and then a bunch of stuff breaks literally inches away from her, collapsing on top of her and yet she survives. The rest is well-forged territory: more rock walls, jumps that Lara barely makes, inclines to slide down, and of course, QTE’s.

Later that night, Sony showed off an amazing demo for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The demo starts and immediately it’s apparent the Naughty Dog Difference™. The game looks nicer, and it’s populated by people all doing interesting things. The writing is great; listening to Nathan Drake and Sully banter back and forth at each other is inimitable. They are just so much fun to hear. A van shows up, gunning for the dynamic duo, and a ton of interesting dynamic gunplay and melee opportunities appear. We see some neat location-sensitive animations, some great scripted sequences which never take control away from the player, and after some thrilling rooftop traversal, the two jump into a jeep that the player gets to control. A whole new gameplay concept for the franchise, and it’s integrated so well that it feels natural, unlike some games LINK HERE. We get a ton of enticing branching path opportunities, and the action keeps amping up, the banter never lets up, and it’s all just fucking rad. Apparently what was shown behind closed doors at the show was even more thrilling, which I can barely even comprehend.

Not to say that the Uncharted games are perfect (I enjoyed Tomb Raider more than Drake’s Fortune), but they illustrate a problem with the industry continuing to make these types of games. If we’ve already seen the most elaborate, most insane contraption of a catastrophe one could conceive putting an avatar through, how else are we to re-experience that thrill then to dream even bigger? Tomb Raider fails on this front because its setpieces, which no doubt required tons of time and money to pull off to any degree of competency, do not exceed the expectations of what we think these games should be. Unlike Lara, they miss the leap. There is no sense of pacing, no anticipation, no what if? Things just happen, and because I don’t care about the people inside the machine, I don’t care at all.

I uttered something about Uncharted’s writing before. Save for a couple blunders, it’s mostly excellent, engaging, and makes us actually care about these characters. I do not give a single fuck about any of the characters in Tomb Raider. Here are characters as mere utility, not as human being. Sam is constantly damseled; Whitman the villainous cohort; Reyes the skeptic, using any chance she can get to belittle others; Jonah the pleasant but underutilized one; Grim the one who steered the ship; Alex the one who was a complete sob story till his pathetic death. And most of them end up dying too, as if I had much investment in them. The only one whose death seemed of any consequence to me was Roth, who unknowingly fathered Reyes’ child and constantly encouraged Lara to push further and further ahead, never condescending but remaining firm as a father figure to her.

There’s also a cartoon villain, because of course there is. And of course, he fails in trying to resurrect Himiko, the sun queen, in Sam. Lara kills him with pistols akimbo, awakening her inner tomb raider.

Speaking of raiding tombs, you won’t intentionally find much of that along the main story line. There are a few tombs to raid on the side, which by simply existing breaks any tension in a linear narrative. Unfortunately, they’re extremely simple physics puzzles that don’t require a ton of thought. I wish these had been more elaborate or integrated into the main narrative throughline in some way, because what’s here is inadequate. It’s ironic that the game called Tomb Raider has virtually no necessary tomb-raiding, whereas the side games Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, and Lara Croft Go have actual tomb-raiding.

I will say that the combat in this game is relatively satisfying. It actually feels better than the gunplay in Uncharted, which I’ve always felt needed some work. I particularly loved scoring stealthy headshots with Lara’s bow; for some reason the XP bonus offered from such feats never ceased to feel endearing for me.

The more I ponder Crystal Dynamic’s reboot of their own franchise, the more perplexed and encumbered I feel. It is as if the designers thought, “How do we make this thing relevant again?” and just Google-searched “trends in video games” for quick answers. It’s got crafting and upgrades because games today have crafting and upgrades. It’s got a sort of open world because that’s the thing today. It’s got tons of gunplay because gunplay is easily marketable. It’s got setpieces with stuff exploding and walls and bridges collapsing because interactive action movies replace the need for decent writing. It’s got characters that exist more as things. It’s got gruesome impalings because Lara is a woman. The game even has a multiplayer mode, which I couldn’t tell you anything about because nobody’s playing it on PS4 anymore, but I’d imagine it’s pretty standard fare, i.e. Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, zone defense, etc.

For all this, Tomb Raider is fascinating. It is abhorrent, yet tame. Pretty, yet empty. Experimental, yet cynical in design. Rarely do we see games cast a net so wide but pull in only morsels. Feel free to look upon the tomb of this reanimated corpse, but expect better.

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1 comment:

  1. Saying that Lara is only tortured/killed in nasty ways because she is a woman is rather silly, I think. If anything, it's an exception; we don't mind seeing men chopped to pieces and impaled, but it makes us uncomfortable when it's a young girl. I think that would have been a better thing to discuss, but you unfortunately went for a pretty dumbed-down approach of "unnecesary gratuity" on that point without looking at any other examples besides Uncharted. Check out the deaths in Resident Evil or any horror/survival game.