2013-03-19

Tomb Raider – Grittier Isn’t Always Better

by Yo Snyder

I really think the sub-title for the new Tomb Raider should be something like
Indiana Rambo and the Island of Doom. There are a lot of influences at work in
this Tomb Raider reboot – Metroid, Bioshock, Lost, Uncharted, Prince of Persia – but the one’s I keep
coming back to are Indy’s darkest episode crossed with cinema’s ultimate
one-man army. This is a dark, gritty, bloody adventure that tells the story of
how Lara Croft went from a frightened, untested academic to the hardened raider
of tombs we all know and love. Her development is well done, but on the whole,
I’m of the mind that grittier isn’t always better when it comes to these kinds
of reboots.

Actually, now that I think of it, there’s also a little
Wolverine in there too because Lara is truly indestructible. This girl takes
more hard falls, falls that would break any normal person in half, or at least
shatter half the bones in their body, and yet she keeps getting up and moving
on. The only explanation for that is adamantium in her bones. Apparently that
part of her back story got left out, but I know it’s in there; it’s the only
explanation for how she can survive so many brutal falls, but survive she does so,
I’m going with that Wolverine back story angle.

While appreciate the attempt to make this the most
“realistic” Lara Croft adventure yet, especially when it comes to her
proportions, I just don’t buy into the whole “more real means more gritty”
concept of reboots. This is easily the most brutal and bloody Tomb Raider game
yet. Granted, the point of it all is that these extreme circumstances help Lara
become a hardened survivor, but there are plenty of moments where the drive for
gritty realism overshadows what I’ve always like best about Tomb Raider games;
the fun sense of awe and discovery. It’s part of what makes Indiana Jones so
much fun; that light-hearted whimsy of his adventures which help make them
enjoyable. Part of the reason Temple of
Doom
isn’t a favorite Indy adventure is because it forgot that aspect for
the most part and instead was just dark and gritty. Tomb Raider has the same problem with how the darker themes, the
creepy locations full of dead bodies and skeletons, human sacrifices, occultic
rituals, fanatical cults, and the bloody violence all takes away that fun sense
of whimsical adventure. This is a survivor’s story, but because of that, it
feels less like a Tomb Raider story. But then, maybe that’s the point. Maybe
there isn’t any room in our cynical culture for fun, innocent adventures. If
that’s the case, it’s rather a shame.

However, despite the darker, grittier trappings of the game,
there is a good adventure in here. The moments when you’re climbing, exploring,
and solving puzzles are a delight. No pushing blocks and pulling switches here.
In truth, the puzzles are perhaps a bit too easy, but they also all make sense.
The few times when you might have to take some time to consider your options
you should be able to reason out a solution without any obtuse thinking. And
there’s a little “survivor’s instinct” to help out by highlighting useful
things in the environment and give you a beacon to show where to go. The result
is one rarely ever feels lost or directionless in this game. Plus, it’s
satisfying to solve the puzzles and move on because they do make sense. There
are even optional tombs for you to raid which are all about solving puzzles.
They’re short and for the most part pretty simple, but they were my favorite
moments in the game. There’s also plenty of collectibles to discover, which
should make completionists happy, but I honestly didn’t feel much to compel me
to go back and find those or finish any challenges that I may have missed.

Then there’s the combat, and that’s when Rambo enters the
picture. First, I must say that for once, combat is actually enjoyable in a
Tomb Raider game and not something that feels like an after thought. I enjoyed
the fact that smart players can use the environment to their advantage in most
fights, finding ways other than directing bullets and arrows at foes to defeat
them. However, considering that Lara starts the game by sobbing and retching
after her first kill, she quickly gets into the swing of things as her own
Rambo-eque one-person army. The drama of that first moment when she has to kill is undermined by the
gameplay necessity for players to mow down endless hordes of bad guys. Lara has
quite the arsenal, with a bow, shot gun, automatic rifle, and a pistol. All of
them are upgradable, and near the end of the game, it’s an arsenal that makes
it pretty tough for any enemy to contend with Rambo-Lara. And yes, for all of
us fans, before the game ends Lara does indeed pick up her iconic dual pistols.
There’s also some melee combat, with a timing technique somewhat like the
Arkham series for counter moves. It all works well and at least makes combat
interesting, but then there’s all that bloody grittiness that reminds this
isn’t quite the action/adventure of Raiders
of the Lost Ark
, which yes, had it’s bloody moments, but not this
consistently, brutally, or grittily. Melee finishing moves can be pretty grisly
as, akin to the ones in Assassin’s Creed. So, combat has improved, and yet not
improved. The mechanics are better, but the grisly, gritty nature of it not
quite so much.

The game also has a multiplayer…um…not much more to say than
that; it’s just there.

Now Tomb Raider is mostly about a survivor known as Lara
Croft being born, but another interesting element to the story is how Lara starts
to let go of her limited view of the world. Like her male counterpart, Dr.
Jones, Lara had a hard to believing in the mystical, magical and fantastic. If
it can’t be explained in a pragmatic, rational sense that it must not be real.
Yet, by the end of her adventure, she starts to realize that there may be more
to myth and legend than she thought, and just perhaps, there may be more truth
there than she thought. A lot of people treat the Bible like that, a just a
bunch of legends and stories, and there for write it off as nothing
significant. However, that’s a big mistake. We’re moving into the Easter season
where people commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The
interesting thing is, if you take the time to investigate these “legends”, you
might be surprised at just how much fact there is to them. In fact, the
resurrection is one of the best documented historical events (check out a book
by Lee Strobel called The Case for the
Resurrection
for more details on that). The point is to write off Bible
stories as mere stories is to make the same error that Lara made, and it’s a
costly one. There’s more at stake than just history, your eternity is at stake.
The mystical, the supernatural, and the miraculous may be hard to grasp for us
sometimes, but just because the Bible talks about miracles doesn’t make it any
less real, or what it has to say any less true (2 Peter 1:16). True objectivity
should take that into account.

Tomb Raider does a
lot of things well. It tells a solid origin story for Lara Croft, it reboots
the franchise and gives it a fresh start, it updates the feel of the mechanics
for the game and has all the elements of a fun adventure game. However, it’s
just so determined to be gritty that it leeches away some of that fun. There are
times when I almost felt like Lara had stumbled across the island from Lost with
all of its intriguing mysteries and unexplainable quirks, and other times where
I felt like she was truly lost in the Temple of Doom. In the end the game is
successful in that it still feels like a Tomb Raider game, and it does humanize
Lara more than any game preceding it. However, grittier isn’t always better, so
here’s hoping that her next adventure will have more of that light-hearted,
adventurous feel to it.

Score: 5 of 7 – Tomb Raider is rated M for Mature, and
it works hard to attain that rating with some grisly, bloody deaths – of Lara
when you fail to do something, and of her enemies, especially when you get up
close and personal in melee combat. There’s also some pretty dark, occultic,
religious fanatical cult stuff here, and creepy locations with lots of bodies.
Finally, lots of a language as well. So yeah, take that M rating seriously.