Wot I Think: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider is out, and I’ve played the single player to the very end. How does Lara fare in this reboot of one of gaming’s most famous series? Here’s wot I think:

I don’t think there could be a more emblematic game of the divide gaming has taken in the last few years. In the blue corner are the traditionalists, the old-school, they who see gaming as something they control. In the red corner, the new-school, the neophites, they who see gaming as an experience to be guided through. Tomb Raider, a series traditionally set in the old, in this reboot of the franchise firmly enters the new. It’s got something it wants to show you, so could you please follow this way.

But let’s be clear – this isn’t Medal Of Honor. While Crystal Dynamics have created a game that frankly seems to resent letting you be in control every now and then, those moments do happen, there are extended sections where you can explore, challenge yourself, and most of all, play. And I think that’s the word that divides these two branches of gaming – play. It’s where Tomb Raider is at its absolute strongest, where it feels like something classic, yet technologically modern, free and explorable. It’s also what the game seems to be constantly fighting against letting you do.

So we’re meeting Lara for the first time, all over again. In the hands of the team who created the last superb trilogy, but with a fresh start, a new approach to the British heroine. Stranded on an island with a group of her explorer colleagues, quickly it becomes apparent that a small army of crazed shipwreckees are intent on killing anyone they see as an “outsider”. There’s something about some goddess, weird weather meaning anything that flies or floats nearby gets wrecked, and a clutter of other mumbojumbo that demands we run about climbing and shooting. Lara begins as a young, innocent girl, horrified at being forced to kill to save her own life, and then begins her inevitable journey into a grunting killing machine. (Although it’s a little more nuanced than that.)

It’s become quite well known that the first hour is notoriously filled with quick-time events (QTEs), button mashing, and a strict, linear path. CD themselves explained that we should not worry, that the previews of this portion were not representative of the full game, and it all opens out soon enough. Well, that’s only partially true. Yes, you absolutely can revisit previous areas of the island (using a fast travel option, should you wish), to scoop up any of the seventy trillion secret items scattered about, locate any “Optional Tombs” (puzzle-based vaults where you must manipulate the scenery to reach a treasure), and climb to the top of things to say that you did. But the game really doesn’t want you to. It wants you to keep going, to rescue the next person, to keep saving the day. The urgency with which you’re pressed to carry on means that to go off and explore is to shatter the thin veneer of a narrative it so desperately wants to have.

This narrative, which offers not a single twist, surprise, or even interesting notion, is shoved down your throat at every opportunity, the controls constantly wrestled from your hands as it crucially needs to take over to stop you from doing something it might not like. This is so deeply at the core of every element of the game that you can’t even shimmy along a ledge without the game doing the bits where you go past a pillar for you. Run toward a building and scoooop, control is stolen, the camera jerked upward, because you might not have looked up at the pretty thing they drew. It feels like a combination of arrogance and deep paranoia. “You might play the game wrong! Let me do it!”

For the first hour or so, I don’t remember being in complete control for more than about 30 seconds at a time. This certainly slows down later on, but never so I didn’t feel endlessly exasperated. Sometimes it’s so it can cram the next story element in – a room in which you think, “Okay, I’ll shoot him with an arrow, and then take them out with the rifle” suddenly becomes a cutscene in which Lara stands uselessly still while someone gets killed or captured. Other times, most of the time, it’s for no discernible reason whatsoever.

This scripting also means that Lara is repeatedly put in situations where she must run/slide/fall away from everything exploding and collapsing. (Never has one person fallen so far, so often. The brutality with which Croft is ceaselessly met is astonishing.) And during these sections your job is to move left or right to avoid obstacles, and sometimes jump. It’s enormously impressive, the scenery blowing up and tearing away, the fantastic physics very well shown off. But are you playing? Barely.

This all really cannot be emphasised enough, and I think perhaps is best captured by the following: The game decides when you run, walk, sprint, crawl, get weapons out, put them away, light torches, put them out… There literally isn’t a crawl button in the game, because it’s going to do that for you. And most peculiar of all, there’s no indication from the game when it’s in control or you are. On some occasions I’ve found myself embarrassed to realise I’ve not been controlling things for a while, like a kid in a service station, thinking they’re steering the arcade car while “INSERT COIN” flashes on the screen. On many others I was killed because I wasn’t aware it had stopped playing for me, and didn’t know it was my turn to press forward again. Games do that widescreen borders thing for a reason, Crystal.

And this is such a massive shame, because when you are playing, damn, it’s great. Despite the addition of upgradeable weapons, and some RPG-ish XP-based stats for Lara, it’s actually remarkably similar to the previous Tomb Raiders from the developer. There are puzzle-climbing sections, and there are shooty-bang sections. No one ever wanted the latter in any of the previous eight hundred Tomb Raider games, but they were darned well included anyway. This time, while I’m pretty sure no one on Earth would have cared if they were ditched entirely, instead they’ve had the rather bright idea to make them actually decent. Yes, it becomes yet another cover shooter, but the bow and arrow is great fun to use, and the rest of the weapons are ludicrously powerful. I think there’s too much of it, where more tombs and exploring would always have been preferable, but at least this time out it’s not an absolute chore.

But what’s really great is still the exploring. Crystal Dynamics have proved a number of times just how smart they are at creating challenges, setting up location-based puzzles and letting you explore to solve them. Here Tomb Raider shines. Yes, it’s still entirely artificial, with ledges and beams you can use ludicrously painted white (thanks helpful locals!), and the rope-able sections all mysteriously perfectly placed to allow progress. When something is wrecked, it just so happens to be wrecked in a way that creates a new path! But none of that really matters, because it’s about offering a playground. When the first game that offers truly free climbing and exploring appears it’ll be the greatest day in history, but in the meantime, no one does it as slickly as CD.

So I’m left utterly bemused why they seemed to want to bury it so deeply.

Something should be said for the portrayal of Lara. Yes, obviously things go from her being terrified to have killed a guy, to killing them in their dozens. But it’s not deserving of the scorn some have offered. Lara is portrayed as suffering throughout. It’s seriously gruesome what she’s subjected to, endlessly smashing through roofs and walls, gashed, punched, and bruised. And it feels like it too. She’s never happy (apart from when opening boxes containing relics, when she creepily breaks from whatever horrors she’s facing and excitedly describes a coin to you), always hurting, and never confident. And that makes an important difference. While she’s surrounded by dreadful stereotypes and pantomime villains, her state of mind is gently portrayed. And the interesting effect of this is, no matter how many you kill, she never seems to like it. It always feels regrettable, like it’s eating at her soul. Of everything this game does well, this is its highest achievement.

Things are pretty unrelentingly bleak, too. While the dipshit friends offer nothing but glib nonsense (albeit well acted in the main), the grim weather, sparse lands, and phenomenal amount of gore-strewn corpses certainly set a tone. In fact, there are so many dead bodies that I’m pretty sure this remote island must once have been the most populated place on Earth.

The upgrade system is fairly pointless. It may as well have been just added skills as you progress, since it’s pretty difficult not to have enough XP and salvage to grab everything on offer as you play. But still, you get to choose the order in which you add them, so if you’re especially keen on being able to beat a man to death with an axe, you can opt for that before you improve how long you can hold an arrow in a bow. Really, nothing makes a dramatic difference to the game itself, not least because what you actually do to progress is so heavily scripted that it couldn’t allow it to.

I’m left just bewildered that the most fun I’ve had with the game is going back to sections I’ve already played. This time I’m actually allowed to enjoy them properly, without characters screaming at me to go a certain way, do a certain thing, and the controls endlessly taken from me. Sure, to do so is to abandon what a character has just screamed at you that you need to do, but it’s worth it just to enjoy the game that’s buried beneath the noise. And crucially, once the game’s over you can go back to any area to do so, meaning you can allow the nose-dragging to pull you past without worrying you’re going to miss out.

It looks stunning for a game designed for current-gen tech, and it’s important to note that Nixxes have done another great job for Square, ensuring the game takes advantage of what a PC can do over a console. Although the much trumpeted “TressFX” designed to give Lara realistic hair is absolutely crippling on powerful NVidia cards. Created by AMD, it really seems to only be an option for their own cards. (And it looks epically silly, too.) Also, despite a pretty powerful rig, putting things above the “quite good” details saw things really struggle. Turn things up to the max and I wasn’t offered a slideshow, so much as received a single postcard. I think things could have been better optimised, and perhaps the next set of graphics drivers will see to that.

It creates such an odd space. Tomb Raider is a theme park ride, but one where you can get off and go back to look around the ghost towns you’ve left behind. It’s a game for the new crowd, but clearly with hankerings to be part of the old. When you first see that island map, and the quick travel points, it’s hard not to think you’ve got yourself a Far Cry 3-style thing here, something that will let you encounter the game in your own way, with a main story running through. But that certainly isn’t the case. The story, which you could predict in its entirety from the opening cutscene (let’s just say that of the collection of stereotypes you have with you, none deviates from their inevitable path), doesn’t offer any reward for this obsessive control-freakery.

With the game making every decision for you – and I feel the need to stress this again – even deciding when you run, walk or crawl, some will argue it all allows this rollercoaster ride to be as smooth as possible. It all allows you to be swept along by the experience, to be wowed by the epic scenery and breathtaking destruction. But me – I want to play.

When it let me, I had a really good time. When it didn’t, well, I sat back in my chair and wondered what I was doing here.

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