Game: Tomb Raider
Released: Square-Enix/Crystal Dynamics/Eidos, March 5th, 2013
System: Xbox 360
Game started: March 6th, 2013
Amount completed: Finished the single-player campaign, currently trying to achieve 100% collection completion, haven’t even touched the useless multiplayer.
Whenever controversy hits a video game, the quality of gameplay and story seem to take backseat to media coverage of hot-button topics. GTA: San Andreas became, “the title with a hidden sex mini-game” after the Hot Coffee debacle, Modern Warfare 2 was touted as a civilian massacre simulator thanks to the “No Russian” stage, and here we are now with Tomb Raider’s infamous near-rape scene. When an interview with the executive producer implied that Lara Croft is captured and nearly raped by island scavengers, the Internet was aflame with comments and condemnations on the trials the beloved heroine was forced to endure. Later, an E3 trailer showed the world that while Miss Croft manages to defend herself from her assailant, she would still face many violent and gruesome challenges in the reboot of Tomb Raider. The developers were forced to defend their design and narrative choices before the game had even hit store shelves.
With the tagline, “A survivor is born” at the game’s helm, Crystal Dynamics explains that the suffering Lara Croft goes through is meant to establish her evolution from a bookish archeology grad into a hardened adventurer. Now that I have played the game, I can confirm that Lara Croft does undergo a serious change over the course of Tomb Raider, but not necessarily for the better.
Initially, much of the gameplay in Tomb Raider revolves around the premise that this is Lara’s first adventure. She does not have the experience of a battle-weary warrior, and the player’s limitations express this notion quite well. For the first few hours of the game, Lara must rely on stealth and simple weapons to defend herself. The player does not have an option of hand-to-hand combat or a melee weapon for quite a while; a crude bow and arrows are the only weapons provided. Fortunately, the bow combat and mechanics are some of the best in gaming, so the gameplay is fun and engaging. During this first half of Tomb Raider, the player is treated to gorgeous views and immersive environments where they must climb, sneak, and solve their way through this treacherous paradise. But over time, Lara acquires the usual trifecta of guns (pistol, shotgun, rifle) and cover-based combat starts to creep into the game.
After a denouement where Lara and her crew discover there is a supernatural element keeping them on the island, Tomb Raider quickly devolves into a series of uninspired and increasingly crowded gunfights. The young woman who used her survival skills and intelligence to save her friends has transformed into a vengeful bad-ass who mows down anyone who stands in her way. Even the final moments of the game become nothing more than walking in a circle, slaying wave after wave of enemies, culminating in a bull-fight with a “big guy” enemy, and quick-time events with double pistols.
Overall, Tomb Raider is a beautiful game with responsive controls and plenty of interesting ideas. It is a shame that what starts off as a product that stands out from its action-adventure brethren comes to rely on tired gunfights to get the player through the story. How strange that after all of the trials Lara Croft has experienced, the survivor that was born turned out to be just another action hero cliché.
It is not hard to see that Crystal Dynamics wanted to make Tomb Raider as good as it could possibly be, in order to appeal to a broad audience. It’s obvious that they tried really, really hard to make something that would appeal to the modern gaming community while not outright offending its female audience. For the most part, it does really well. I do love playing this game. Once they gave me the bow, I was in love. The bow is so much fun to play with and it is by far and wide the only weapon I use if I can help it. The environments are breathtaking. The cinematics are intense. This is undoubtedly a great game.
However, as I played through the story it was made abundantly clear that I was not the target audience for this game.
At the beginning of the campaign I was given a bow and I loved it. I should have given it a name, I loved it so much. And all I wanted to do was make my bow as big and shiny as possible and shoot bad guys with it. And then huzzah! I got a stick! And oh, what a stick it was. I could climb with it and open heavy chests with it, and surely I would be given some sort of melee attack. But no. I don’t know if it was because of my frail woman-ness or general ineptitude but I was not really allowed to hit bad guys with it. This was a skill I needed to cultivate.
Then we come to the infamous scene where the player must help Lara fend off the unwanted sexual advances of a crazy island dweller… with quick-time events… but don’t worry, if you don’t manage to “push x to not be molested” in time, you get to watch Lara get strangled to death. Every. Single. Time. Until you get the sequence and timing perfectly. About the third time this happens, it’s not fun anymore. By the seventh, it’s obnoxious and the gravity has long since dissipated. And by the twelfth, I want to strangle Lara myself for being so dependant and incompetent that she needs me to walk her through all of this again.
She then proceeds to have a rather noisy breakdown in the middle of an open field, where the guys she just snuck past, not 20 seconds prior, could easily hear her. Maybe after 20 minutes of watching Lara get murdered again and again, they got bored and went home. Otherwise, this part is a very good example of “things that are fun to do as a writer” and not “things that are fun to do as an audience”.
So now I have a gun. And this is when the game and I begin to disagree with each other. I was perfectly happy with my bow and was prepared to stealth-kill my way through this game because, quite frankly, I’m a coward. But now that I had a gun, the game seemed to think that I wanted to use it. Frequently.
So often it would try to tell me “Look! We gave you this noisier, less effective weapon. Isn’t that great?”
To which I reply “No thanks. I’ve got my bow. I’m good.”
“See!” The game retorts, not listening “You’re going to have so much fun with this” As waves of much better armed bad guys show up with assault rifles and flaming arrows and machetes.
To this I ask, “Can I just have flaming arrows instead? Those guys have them.”
“What? No, you can’t have flaming arrows. You haven’t even used that perfectly good pistol we gave you.”
“But I don’t like it”
“Well, too bad. You can’t have flaming arrows until after you learn how to hit people with that stick you’ve been carrying around the whole game.”
“Why do I need a gun before I learn to hit people with a stic–”
“STOP ASKING QUESTIONS!”
So I left it at that and continued with the story, which first seemed so engaging, then degraded into a series of WTF moments, including the three or four occasions where Lara could have simply shot the lead bad guy in the face (with my bow and arrows of course), but didn’t (particularly when she would just shoot the guy next to him instead).
After that, I really stopped caring about the story, and tried to trudge through it so I could actually have fun with the game. I made Chip play most of the frustrating bits since I continued to use my bow and arrow when it was not appropriate to do so. After all, Chip is a boy, so certainly he loves shooting guys and blowing stuff up, right?