REVIEW: Tomb Raider (2013)

It’s taken me awhile to get started on this review; partly because I wanted to watch the boyfriend’s play-through and gather my thoughts from it, as I prefer to enjoy the experience my first time through, but also because severe writer’s block has been my plague recently. With that being said, I guess I can just dive right in.

via gametrailers.com

Tomb Raider has been “re-made” four times to date, the first in 2003 with the ill-fated Angel of Darkness, featuring a Lara Croft completely unfamiliar to her devoted fan-base; dark and haunted by the death of her mentor/competitor Von Croy and on the run from the Gendarme. The controls were horrible, the supernatural story line too far fetched even for the biggest Lara lover, and was deemed a critical failure that resulted in the demise of Core Design/Eidos as we knew them. Tomb Raider was then (still unofficially) redesigned for the second time in 2006 after Crystal Dynamics acquired the title, introducing us to Tomb Raider: Legend (followed up by a sequel, Underworld, in 2008). While disappointingly short, this game was a satisfying step in the right direction – Lara was back to her globe-trotting ways, maneuvering through trap-laden tombs and killing baddies in the pre-Call of Duty style. Legend and Underworld were worthy, if slightly underwhelming, successors to AOD. Lara Croft’s penultimate revision was in 2007’s Anniversary, wherein Crystal Dynamics (taking over the mantle from Core Design, who’s original attempt had the possibility of being completely awesome, and of whose permanent shelving fans will always be resentful) redesigned and re-imagined the original Tomb Raider for it’s ten year anniversary. The game was a highly enjoyable blast from the past, igniting our fever for re-boots (a Tomb Raider 2: The Dagger of Xian re-boot is every fan’s Holy Grail, with petitions still circulating the internet) and indulging our penchant toward nostalgia.

None of the previous re-boots filled me with as much dread as Tomb Raider (2013) did. When news broke of Crystal Dynamics latest attempt to parade its cash cow under our nose one last time, my stomach sank. Visions of DmC and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City assaulted my brain. None of the previous incarnations actually used the word “re-boot” when describing their game, saving it from the innate connotation of ruination that inevitably follows. In the previous revisions, Lara Croft was not a baby adventurer and we were not expected to be her babysitter. I couldn’t help wondering how this game could be enjoyable – don’t we all hate the moments when games force you to be a escort for an inept little twerp who cannot see their own way through safely? How was this game going to avoid giving players that feeling, but worse this time, with the main character being the twerp? I was not excited about the release of this game, not at all the way I felt with any of the previous installments. I was preparing for the worst, while kind of sort of hoping for the best, as more and more screenshots and details emerged about the game. I have never before played a Tomb Raider game that I didn’t like; hopefully this time would be no different.

At this point, having played through the game twice, I will proudly say that this time was not different. Tomb Raider is simply an amazing game, absolutely worthy of the Tomb Raider name. It’s story (written by Rihanna Pratchett) is a great step for video games in the feminist direction and in overall general story-telling. This Lara Croft is a woman who makes mistakes; she is new to this whole strength-through-adversity thing, she is NOT a tomb raider, but she will put forth all that she has in order to survive and to save her friends. I enjoyed watching Lara’s progression throughout the game; I took note, with all of the pride of a mother watching her baby take its first steps, as her sense of aim improved after many battles. I began to feel more confident myself as Lara’s confidence in herself grew to the point where she no longer needed to constantly mumble encouraging mantras to herself during battle or in a daring feat of climbing. I whooped in triumphant nostalgia and happiness as Lara dual-wielded for the first time – to me, it is the moment when Lara finally gains her independence, the fully confident demeanor she needs in order to become the tomb raider. (Whether Lara actually does desire to become a tomb raider was in question to me prior to the game’s release and is still a niggling annoyance in the back of my mind right now. During the game, Lara groans that she “hates tombs” – a line that was featured in the video game’s trailers and that caused me to develop a nervous twitch every time I heard it. Lara Croft isn’t supposed to hate tombs – she raids them for both love and money. She’s a collector with a hidden room in her mansion displaying the booty she has raided. After playing the game, I realized that Lara does not actually hate tombs; she’s an archaeologist – she wouldn’t be very good at her job if she did! She clearly shows her fascination with archaeological artifacts as she exhibits her awe and knowledge of history and culture every time she discovers one. I believe that Lara was simply expressing frustration with her overall situation, as we are all wont to do. However, the question can be raised that, were Lara never to encounter the hardships she endured after the shipwreck on Yamatai, would she have become the voracious adventurer that we know her as today?)

Tomb Raider grabbed some unfortunate press prior to its release, particularly about the moment in the game wherein it is perceived that Lara is being sexually assaulted. Before I played through this part of the game, I had already formed the opinion that it is wrong to get angry about this scene being included in Lara’s story. Being perfectly honest, the possibility of a woman experiencing some form of sexual assault or rape in her lifetime is high, much more so if a woman is already in a dangerous situation. It is not unlikely that Lara, being surrounded, attacked, and pursued by a cult formed primarily of men, would not at some point be a target of sexual assault. I feel that the game is simply being true to a woman’s journey when they included this incidence. If anything, Lara’s triumph over the men who attempted to kill and assault her made this story more of a feminist experience for me. However, after I played through the game, I realized that Lara was not actually being sexually assaulted in this scene; the man caresses her face, yes, but it’s an patronizing gesture used to subdue her before he chokes her to death. If you miss the subsequent quick time event, Lara’s attacker chokes and kills her, no sign of sexual assault in sight. My only question now is whether the game developers felt forced to change this scene after the media backlash; did the game originally include sexual assault? Did they feel forced to censor their story? If that is the case, should they have felt forced to change the story or should they have persevered in order to make the story more realistic? I’m speaking from a position of feminism, realism, and anti-censorship myself, but you can feel free to reach your own conclusions.

Tomb Raider is a great game, but there have been a lot of criticisms about it not being the perfect game. I personally believe that Tomb Raider is the perfect prequel. It remains to be seen whether Tomb Raider can become the perfect game. In the origin story, Lara Croft is supposed to be imperfect. She is supposed to fight a lot of bad guys, as the story involves a cult of humans attacking Lara, just as they do in our beloved TR2. (And while many complain that this game suffers from “Call of Duty syndrome”, you can clearly hear that Lara herself does not want it to, with her exclamations of “You don’t have to do this!” during battle. This should be a one-off experience in Tomb Raider games.) This story isn’t about raiding tombs, so there are few of them.

All of that being said, I do have some specific requirements for future games, because without them this time, there will be no excuses and it will not be a true Tomb Raider game. In Tomb Raider 2, I would like to go swimming with Lara, and I would not say no to fighting some sort of underwater beast! I would also like to see more melee options (I loved using the climbing axe to knock back enemies who got a little too fresh.) In Tomb Raider games, isolation, more animals, and fewer bad guys (and fewer 3rd person shooter elements, including sneaking, cover, and all-out war) is essential. Globe-spanning and interactive, difficult puzzles are also a must for a TR game. Personally, I would love to see a longer game (I remember when a Tomb Raider game took me months to complete, and that was in addition to the help of Stella’s Tomb Raider walkthroughs!) I want to be involved in a game for longer than two days and I want to be challenged… which includes the challenge tombs! It’s in the name, folks. So, more challenging enemies (supernatural and animal, rarely human), more challenging environments, and more challenging tombs – got it? I would also love to hear some iconic Tomb Raider music incorporated into the soundtrack – something a little more obvious than a few warped notes. I would also enjoy seeing costume changes for weather and environment – the option to change Lara’s outfit was one of my favorite parts about Legend/UnderworldI would also love to be able to see Lara’s Home again! Being able to explore and complete challenges in Lara’s mansion was always the cherry on top of a wonderful gaming experience.

Complaints and suggestions aside, I have not enjoyed a game in a long time as much as I enjoyed Tomb RaiderIt was a truly wonderful experience and I cannot wait for Tomb Raider 2!

Note: 

SPOILER ALERT AHEAD

If you’ve played through the game, you now know that Lara saves the day for everyone, including Sam. Let me just say, I did not expect Sam to die at the end, but I was certainly hoping for it. Conrad Roth lectures Lara at one point that she knows what loss is, but knows nothing about sacrifice – sacrifice being a choice, and loss being a choice made for you. I assumed this statement would be meaningful, but by the end of the game, I noticed that Lara never really had to make a real sacrifice. Sam lived and so did the rest of the survivors. I was disappointed and would have been much happier had Lara actually had to make an ultimate sacrifice, as it would have been truer to the message of the game. Check here for further information on the original ending.

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