Thursday Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

Tomb Raider is always one of those franchises I’ve avoided because of its perception; Lara Croft prior to recent developments had always been a video game sex symbol, but was handled in a way that I found somewhat offensive. She’d become an object of a brand rather than a living breathing character, and while she certainly wasn’t the worst example of how women are treated in video games, she wasn’t a character so much as an image. However, having heard good things about Lara’s new direction in character development, and the general gameplay of the series reboot, I picked it up and gave it a shot.

The new Lara is, in my opinion, actually one of the best characters to ever grace the screen of a video game. She doesn’t lose anything from a comparable male protagonist, but she also brings an element of humanity that is often lacking within games’ central characters. When she kills, she finds it disturbing, and she also has her own interests and relationships to consider whenever she does anything. She’s well-rounded, believable, and incredibly strong without having to pander to a male demographic. Of course, she never puts on winter-wear through the course of the whole adventure, including some mountaineering segments, sticking with a trademark tank top, but her attitude is one of modesty and she is not treated as a character for male fantasies.

Gameplay wise, the game is more or less what you’d expect. It feels fast, visceral, and exciting with plenty of combat options, though the ranged combat seems a little flighty and takes some getting used to. Weapons and skills are upgraded throughout the game, allowing some customization of play style, though by the end of the game Lara will have almost all skills and upgrades unlocked. In addition, most of the exploration and platforming felt pretty satisfying, with a few issues from controls on PC but a lot of smooth-flowing and cool feeling movement as well, especially in a few of the more cinematic scenes. However, some of the cinematic scenes transferred to player control shortly after I had made the decision to check out and watch the cutscene unfold, which results in Lara’s unfortunate demise, for which there is no penalty.

On the subject of Lara’s unfortunate demise, the game is incredibly violent. It does a good job of justifying this in context, which I won’t go into too much detail on, since Lara is always fighting for her life, but some of the things which I actually found most disturbing were the ways that the environment can kill Lara. I’ve been getting older, and such things bother me more now than they used to, but it really earns its M rating, and is not a game for kids. However, at the same time, it offers a vibrantly cinematic experience, with explosions and falling platforms combined with more relaxed but still engaging group dynamics between Lara and her fellow shipwreck survivors, though for the most part Lara’s experience is solitary. No part of the game gets a lack of treatment, and the soundtrack works well at creating a driving, intense mood at certain points and creating an epic or relaxed feel at other parts of the game.

This is somewhat unfortunate, actually, because it means that one of my favorite parts of the game isn’t accessible to everyone: the archaeology. It may fall into the standard Indiana Jones trap of archaeologist adventurers, but perhaps with a better excuse that people tend to die and leave things sitting around within recent memory rather than hundreds or thousands of years ago. Lara never has to dig to find stuff, but she does find an impressive amount of relics,  each of which has a little blurb and information. None of it’s deep, but it’s the sort of thing that can get one thinking about material culture and how the things we use reflect our way of life, though perhaps my prior background studies of the field have colored my perception of the game.

Technically, Tomb Raider is outstanding. If you want to see what games will look like in five years, this is a perfect picture. It performs well, even on my aging laptop, with really cool physics and a lot of pretty graphical effects. Admittedly, some of the most impressive physics-related things I saw in the game could have been animated beforehand, and I have little doubt that they were, but a lot of the game’s core mechanics integrated believable physical interactions with environmental objects and some really pretty dynamic water, without having to make it a box-cover feature. I didn’t have the rig to run TressFX, but as someone with a background in CGI I’m pleased with the technical achievement it entails.

Story wise, the game isn’t anything new, but it works with preexisting genres and ideas in a way that hasn’t ever been seen in quite this way before, and while it screams the same Indiana Jones sort of pulp that has long been the staple of “archaeology-em-ups”, it’s exciting at points. Cinematic set pieces, truly depraved villains, and a protagonist who questions and analyzes her own actions creates a believable but over-the-top storyline with very few plot holes if one is willing to temporarily suspend their disbelief of the supernatural elements within the plot.

So, in short, Tomb Raider is a very good experience that’s not for everyone, partially because of the brutal, graphic violence throughout, delivering a valid emotional payload and conveying a lot of philosophical and psychological points in between the gunfire, explosions, and stunts.

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