Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tomb Raider - The Big Ass Review Edition

The Game

Tomb Raider (2013) reintroduces us to Lara Croft, and while many things have changed, the core of the game remains the same.  The biggest change is that this is a cinematic experience.  This game seeks to insert you as far into Lara's experience as possible and to this end cut scenes and camera shifts alter the game constantly, without interruption.  She is fully voiced throughout the game, and Camille Luddington provided both the physical motion capture and voice performances.  The core of the game, exploration and puzzle solving is still there, but much changed from the previous versions of the game.  Puzzles are more realistic, in some ways, rather than some ancient stone gear driven pyramid puzzle there are blocked rooms or crashed planes that you must navigate to progress.  There is no globe hopping, everything takes place on a single island, but the locations you explore are beautiful, ranging from lush to stark, and filled with disturbing and wondrous details.  It would make for a fantastic movie.


The controls on this game lend towards a fairly dynamic movement, leaving you with a natural flow unlike the previous games where exact line ups and radial motions were the norm.  Lara gains the ability to interact with her world differently as she acquires gear rather than learning to shimmy magically.  Combat is brutal.  I played on normal and it is very easy to die if you are not careful.  There are no hit points or a health bar, certain types of hits do damage, enough damage causes the screen to go grey, and more damage kills.  An unwary Lara caught in the blast of an AK-47 is dead.  The game is not breaking any new ground though, it is definitely a product of the last 5 years of action adventure games.  Stealth and cover mechanics are key to the game, as is a "survival instinct" mode that Lara uses to notice enemies and secrets in the game.

As Lara progresses through the game she will acquire XP and salvage from the world around her.  These let her buy skills and upgrade weapons as the game progresses.  At the end of the game I had completed 99 percent of the tracked items, literally missing two things.  Even so, I was unable to completely upgrade all my items.  My bow, my favorite weapon in the game, was missing one upgrade.  It isn't actually necessary to upgrade all the items, as most likely you will favor one over the others, or prefer not to use a specific weapon.  I preferred not to use the shotgun as it did not fit with my precision style of play.  You don't always have the choice to avoid close combat though, and while you can brute force it by assaulting directly, it is often smarter to create an opening and attack decisively, which utilizes a sort of timed finishing move.  This system is the only way to beat the bosses you will encounter.

In order to get every upgrade you will have to retrace your steps significantly once you get the flaming arrows and the grappling hook. Luckily, this is fairly easy. The game utilizes a "camp" system where you can upgrade and spend your XP and also has a fast travel system to return to some of the other camps.  As you move along in the story the zones change slightly, becoming day or night, and repopulating with enemies from time to time.  This creates a nice dynamic, and doesn't leave you feeling like you are simply retreading the same ground.

Exploration is much more dynamic than in previous games.  You will encounter places where the game world changes around you.  There will be cave ins, rock slides, burning buildings, explosions, zip line craziness...  There are some really great set pieces and they don't always stand around and wait patiently for you to climb them.

The Story

Tomb Raider has always played with the fantastic.  In the very first game Lara went to Atlantis, she's fought a T-Rex and a dragon.  She's been around.  This game takes a very different tack.  Lara is not an archaeologist  she is a research assistant.  Oh, she grew up on digs and her father and his best friend Conrad Roth taught her a lot about expeditions, but she is a kid in a real world, where myths are just that.  When we meet our crew they have no idea what is in store for them.  The NPCs range from two surly Scotsmen, Roth and Grimm who are quite obviously old hands, and formidable men. Lara's best friend Sam, a boy crazy rich girl with a love of cameras.  Witty hipster computer guy who is the biggest stereotype in the game.  Reyes, the angry female mechanic who has a past with Conrad Roth (the prelude comic gives her an interesting background untouched in the game).  Jonah, a Samoan cook who speaks Island wisdom and carries a shotgun.  Finally, Dr. Whitman, a sniveling, self serving, ego-maniacal asshole before they crash.  You can only imagine what a pain in the ass he will be once he is away from his comfort zone.  These characters are all recognizable types, and they serve as  foils to Lara.  What is noteworthy is that there is no romantic entanglement between Lara and any of them.  She is a respected and liked member of the crew, it is unimportant that she is a girl.  Likewise, Reyes is taken seriously because she is tough and capable, and not treated as a woman.  Even Sam, with her painted on jeans and girlish charms is here on business,  making a documentary on a lost Japanese colony called the Kingdom of Yamatai, which Sam claims was ruled by her ancestor Himiko.

Their search will lead them into the Devil's Triangle, away from the supposed historical routes.  This plan is Lara's and is opposed by Whitman, but Roth makes the decision to trust the girls instincts.  It pays off, as they do find Yamatai, but it is not without significant cost.  What they find on Yamatai is not some old ruins, but rather centuries worth of missing ships, crashed planes, and the survivors of those tragedies living a neo-tribal society that is brutal and bloodthirsty.  This island is a horror show.  The natives are headhunters and decorate their lairs with the corpses of their victims, piling their bones before burning candles illuminating painted idols.  When she comes to, she is attacked in a sequence that had a lot of critics upset because "sexual assault" was not necessary to make a strong female character.  They're right, it's not, and the scene is better for leaving out the more salivating looks on the attackers face, but in the end it plays very close to the original.  One of the islanders, a scarred, filthy bearded guy who apparently likes hanging out with corpses, comes after her and grabs her.  He looks at her like prey, which she is.  Whether he is going to rape her or kill her is functionally immaterial, he is an attacker and she (we) have to escape him.

When Lara gets a moment to breath she finds a radio and manages to contact her crew who has become separated and make a plan to reconnect and get the hell of this rock.  This is her motivation, not exploration. She is rightfully freaked out.  Of course, things won't be that simple and to tell you the details would ruin the game.  Suffice it to say some people are taken captive and other's remain separated.

As Lara explores the island she encounters extraordinary violence, and she does what is necessary to survive, but for a long time she merely escapes from her attackers.  When she finally has to kill we feel it i her face, we see what it does to her.  It does not harden her, it nearly breaks her heart, but she gets back up and moves on because she has to save her friends. These motivations are important to our acceptance of this Lara and are empathizing with her.  By creating a human woman in this situation we are allowed to experience something horrific and life shattering right along side her, and in the end it forges her into a new woman.

This Tomb Raider is more horror inspired than it is fantasy.  For a very long time Lara and her companions do not believe in any supernatural force, but eventually it is undeniable.  When she first directly encounters the supernatural it is treated with an appropriate amount of dread.  This is not a situation where she dives in with her two pistols, she hides as she should.  The game slowly reveals to you the history of this place, replete with tragedies and mysteries, and it creates an ever mounting anticipation for the final supernatural conclusion to the story.  When I first described this game to my friends I said it was like a mashup of LOST, the Hills Have Eyes, and First Blood, I stand by that.

If I have one complaint it is that the supernatural enemies you eventually fight are not much different than the human ones you face.  There should have been more of a difference and numerically rarer.

I thoroughly enjoyed this game and felt a sense of accomplishment at the conclusion of it.  More importantly, I felt that Lara had legitimately grown as a character.


I remember the first time I played Tomb Raider.  My friend Steve invited me over to play on his Sega Saturn and check out this new game.  He showed me the intro cut screen and then we skipped right into the the first level, as tutorials are for pussies.  The fact that I was playing a female character was a novelty, but at the moment not really of interest to me.  I was much more excited about a puzzle game set in a Lost Valley where I would search for relics, and explore, and eventually be attacked by the famous T-Rex.  I was hooked.  It was only later, talking about the game with another friend that the novelty of the protagonist being female became relevant.

First off, this character had a voice and a personality, two things that were pretty new to video gaming at that point.  Sure, Link was cool and all, but what did we really know about him?  Mario and Luigi were some kind of crazy Japanese idea of an Italian stereotype with their beards.  Samus Aran was a girl, but that was all we knew about her.  Dirk the Daring from Dragon's Lair probably had the most established personality in a non RPG, which was a goofy, barely competent warrior with terrible fashion sense.  Throughout video gaming history, the only characters who had ever received any real personality were those in RPGS, mostly of the Japanese variety, though Bard's Tale deserves a mention.  Your usual avatar in a game was literally just a stand in for your actions, and that was perfectly fine.  Most gamers being guys meant that most avatars (almost exclusively) were male.  Tomb Raider changed that.

Actually, Mortal Kombat did.  In 1992 video games were starting to have videos with voice overs, and in the case of games like Mortal Kombat actual motion captured avatars.  The ability to play as a pixelated, but photorealistic female was pretty daring, especially with all the violence.  Personally, I liked kicking ass as Sonja Blade, she was my best character.  Most of the fig`hting games had central females. Chun-li from Street Fighter, Pai-Chan from Virtua Fighter, etc.

As a fighting game, Mortal Kombat was not exactly concerned with character development.  Tomb Raider, on the other handm  delved a little more into Lara's personality, revealed in cut-scenes and voice overs inside the levels.  She was smart, capable, cocky, rich, posh, well armed, ready for anything, brave, and a little brash.  She was Harrison Ford's two most famous roles rolled up inside a female James Bond.  It was pretty awesome, and it was an immediate controversy.

The Ever Changing Look of Lara Croft

One of the first questions the media, and my parents asked was "why are her tits so big?"  Well, the simplest answer is usually the easiest.  In this case it has a lot to do with polygons.  The designers choose to make a woman, the game system's specs allow for a specific number of operations, which must be split between rendering the level, controlling the character, establishing results, and rendering the movable objects.  The primary movable object is the avatar, Lara in this case, who must LOOK female from every angle, at all times, within the constraints of a specific size to screen ratio, and within the previous parameters. Don't forget about TV resolution of the time, either.  The result, much like in 28 mm miniatures, is a larger hip and breast ratio than the norm so that it can be "read" as female.  This sort of thing is common in ancient art.  Females were designed with large hips and breasts to be easily recognized as such.  It really wasn't a big deal.  Yet, a big deal it would become.

In TR1, Lara was already a little posh and the tutorial had her running around in a black tank top working out around her house.  Otherwise, the game was pretty well focused on the actual missions.  Somewhere between TR1 and TR2 she had become a sex symbol, initially a respected one.  U2 had featured her in their 1997 Popmart tour.  She had graced several magazines.  She was the toughest girl in gaming.  Yet, the big boobs followed her.  Men were asked why they wanted to play a girl, and glibly (and honestly) we answered, "if you were going to stare at someone's ass all day, what would you want to look at?"  Well, by the time TR2 was published the game had taken a much sexier tone.  She was featured in various costumes, including an evening gown and a swimsuit.  Pretty mundane stuff really, but there was an ending to the game that included a trip to her bedroom and a steamy shower scene where nothing was actually shown.  Still, this was blatant fan service and it changed Lara Croft from being sexy for being badass to being a sexpot.
This is not an in game render.  These were computer generated pinups used for advertising. So, the technical aspects I mentioned earlier were largely irrelevant. In other words, Sony/Eidos/Crystal Dynamics understood the most basic truth of advertising, sex sells.  Here's the thing, yes, there was fan service but Lara Croft was never a damsel in distress.  Lara Croft was on a self appointed mission to discover and understand the mysteries of the ancient world, and along the way ends up saving the world a few times.  She doesn't need a man to do this, she isn't a side kick, she works on her own terms, and she is fearless.  These are not masculine qualities mapped onto a 16-bit female form, these are simply character traits of a Lara Croft.

The complaint of many feminists is that she did not need to have the short shorts and the tank top, and they're right.  She didn't have to.  She could have worn pants.  She could have worn a jacket.  It would not have changed anything.  The pants would have looked skin tight because there are only so many polygons, and as I said before, need to read as female.  The shirt and jacket would have been skin tight for the same reasons.  Functionally, changing the look would have made no difference to those opposed to her sexier aspects.  Now, my memory is a little fuzzy, but somewhere in the period of Tomb Raider II and III fans started making nude mods for the PC.  This is a fandom issue, and not a matter of the character or the game.

As the games progressed and technology improved her wire frame, polygon shell, and movements all improved.  She started off being able to walk, run, climb, jump and back flip   Eventually she could swing on ropes, do cool hand stands, swan dives, shimmy and make crazy jumps.  She was a super human gymnast explorer gun expert adventurer.  She also wore more appropriate clothing where necessary.  One does not simply go to Antarctica in short shorts and a tank top.  Her look and design would stay pretty consistent through the first five games, it was only in Angel of Darkness that her look changed significantly.

Angel of Darkness was where my fandom began to flag, and it had nothing to do with her sudden proclivity for pants.  The game was just boring.  The locations were too urban and the plot too convoluted.  Legend was even worse, and Underworld was so abyssal I could not stand to finish it.  I played only a couple of hours before I gave up.  What changed?  Lara.  Actually, I really think the movies did the series in.  Angelina Jolie, at the height of her hotness, takes the role of Lara Croft and is required to pad her perfectly ample chest.  This is remarkably dumb to force a very attractive woman to wear a silicon prosthetic to make her match the proportions of a video game character.  The movie was made in 2001 and every game there after sought to emulate the more overtly supernatural plots of the movie, and Lara really took on a much more mercenary  hardass tone.  Tomb Raider Legend was unbearable, and that is all I have to say on that.

Tomb Raider Anniversary basically confirmed the very worst criticisms of the character.  The original model was updated to current technological standards and the boobs reached epic proportions, a little more fan service was added, and Lara Croft basically became a parody of herself.  IGN has a good comparison of the original wire frame and skin mesh and the anniversary edition.  I appreciate that there was a legitimate attempt to make things round, but the wire frame nipples MIGHT be a tad much.  After the movie there was a distinct change to her physicality, and rather than become more realistic as one might expect, she became more sex doll like.  Still a badass, but a digital Real Doll.

Underworld honestly attempted to solve some of the problems of the series. Had the combat system not been so buggy and there not been a reliance on button mashing timed response challenges (that's what I call those sequences where a random button will be needed to be mashed in a limited amount of time) it would have been a good game.  Lara was motion captured rendering her smooth and realistic.  Her proportions were idealized, but more natural looking, and her costume looked more rugged.  Combat was no longer just run and shoot, but had melee aspects.  The game was decent and did redeem the series in a lot of ways, but had one really annoying feature.  Lara suddenly has a handler, an American who talks her through everthing via some high tech bluetooth headset and camera bundle.  Why the hell does Lara Croft need some Yank tosser talking in her ear? The video has some decent commentary on the relative tech requirements of the game and showcases just how violent this iteration is.  In terms of look, while Lara's clothes may look more realistic she has physical proportions beyond reason, and the rendering capacity of the systems this was designed for meant that a realistic body type was possible, and would have looked great on screen. There is no denying that her proportions at this point are a matter of both fan service and history.  Underworld was so focused on her physical attributes that the advertising barely bothered to show her face.

The newest Tomb Raider is a big departure, but it is not so much about her physical proportions as many suggest, but how she is portrayed.  Yes, Lara's breasts have been reduced to a smaller size, but they are still pretty large for a girl who is in as good shape as she is in.  Yes, her waist has been expanded to better support her torso, but it is still taut and lean.  Yes, her hips have been reduced, but they are still notably feminine.  This Lara Croft would be a super model if she did not have some deep seated guilt forcing her to work as a research assistant/deckhand on an archaeological expedition.  Yes, she was redesigned, but she is still an idealized human form, just in the vein of Classical sculpture, not 90's porn.  And if you compare the current in game model with the promotional image from Underworld directly above, you will see she is not that different.  In some ways, I find the complaint about Lara's proportions unfair, because there are women shaped like that.  I won't be showcasing any of these ladies in this particular post, but you are welcome to search for Lucy Pinder, Jana Defi, Erica Rose Campbell, or Ewa Sonnet.  They may be the exception, but no more than the masculine definition of attractiveness or strength in most games.  I know that particular argument generally holds no water, but my point here is that male characters are trapped in an expectation of supreme manliness.  There is no crying in baseball video games.  Prior to this, female characters had the choice of being the damsel in distress, the sidekick, or a manly woman.

Closing Remarks

The new Tomb Raider is a cinematic experience, and an introduction to Lara Croft.  This is an origin story, and by the end of it could very easily be the prelude to all the games that have gone before.  I will not be recounting the course of the game here, as I think it is a worthwhile play experience and other reviews have covered that angle to great depth.  Lara is a good hearted girl in a terrible situation, and experiencing dangers that no person should have to face.  Her friends and crew-mates have been captured or killed and she takes it on herself to save them.  Camille Luddington's excellent voice work lends to the fear, despair, heartbreak and steely resolve that Lara, and we, experience as she conquers this ordeal.  As players we engage in this story that would never be told with a male character, because male characters in this situation would have to be stoic, powerful, and near super-human.  They certainly would not cry, nor wail in anguish, nor suffer guilt. Being a woman frees Lara from the constraints of masculine storytelling and the result is that we experience a real heroic journey, with legitimate emotions.  When she gets hurt, we feel it.  She leaps and jumps and falls, but unlike previous incarnations these look painful.  The jumps still stretch credibility, but they are treated as if they are real physical feats, not the Nightcrawler like acrobatics of previous games. There is a lot of combat in this game, but it always feels dangerous (if not that hard) and she never becomes the hard hearted kiler of before. The previous Lara Crofts were badass sexual fantasies, this Lara Croft is one that the player (male or female) can come to love.

There are many legitimate complaints that women are subject to misogyny in popular media, especially video games.  This is not one of those times.  By creating a vibrant female character who encounters terrible danger and reacts realistically, with pathos and intellect, Crystal Dynamics has given us a new Lara Croft.  She is not a cypher for a male character, she is not just the sex doll we move through the puzzles, she is an action heroin who does not need to pretend to be a boy to be worthwhile.

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