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Lara Croft And The Realistic Veneer

To say the re-booted Tomb Raider game has been a long time coming is an understatement. It’s been so long coming that Lara Craft, the poster girl for a certain type of 3D, pulp-ish adventure hasn’t really put in a decent turn since the first PlayStation. She waited so long to hit the PlayStation 3 her crown was taken by a certain roguish, male relic hunter known as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series.

Uncharted became everything the Tomb Raider series should have been in the current console generation but wasn’t. As a result, it’s inevitable that the new Tomb Raider is essentially Tomb Raider does Uncharted…with a twist. This isn’t a bad thing and just an inevitable consequence of the franchise creatively dropping the ball.

I’ve got 53% of the way through the game last weekend and this post is based on my experiences at this point.

The story is very different to other Tomb Raider games, it’s a mixture of Lost and Rambo: First Blood. Oddly, this works. Lara gets shipwrecked on a strange island which seems to do a good job of attracting people to it and not letting them leave. A strange cult lives on the island. The survivors of the shipwreck must survive. This sets the tone of the piece as it’s not a grand, pulp, globe-trotting adventure featuring a mix of contemporary Indiana Jones and James Bond. Lara has been given the de-rigour veneer of realism and intensity that all franchises seem to get these days. Tomb Raider has been ‘Nolan-ised’. It works. I am very interested in how they take this approach moving forward once Lara becomes the eminent adventurer and her exploits scale up. It could mean, as Lara becomes more adult, the stories do also?

The story is delivered well. The cut scenes merge very well with the game play. They also deliver the right amount of emotion involving desperation, camaraderie, sadness and triumph without milking it too much. I think they are ‘filmed’ well and look amazing. There is also just the right amount of them. The various characters that get shipwrecked with Lara aren’t Mass Effect 2 quality but they get the job done. It is an area they could improve on in later games once Lara gets a handful of years on her. Reduce the number of characters involved and increase the intensity of the relationship with each. I am more involved in the narrative than I am with Uncharted. It is some elusive quality in how it is done, compared with a central protagonist you do want to see grow and succeed, while Nathan Drake is a bit too much the ‘general, laconic and wise-cracking hero’ and as such comes across as a bit of a cipher (women issues aside).

Lara starts the game as a very earnest, eighteen year old posh girl on her first archaeological trip, pushing for her companions to visit a certain location which proves their undoing. Needless to say, she has to grow up fast once shipwrecked. At the 53% point I like how the character is growing. As the scenes with the various characters unfold it’s obvious she is transitioning from the eighteen year old guest to someone who is standing up to be counted, growing into a leadership position and becoming the character with the necessary knowledge to get her friends off the island.

Her growth into an action hero is a bit more abrupt as it takes about two hours for Lara to kill her first human being. The first kill is well done but after this point the set-up of the game and the skill system turns Lara into a posh, teenage Rambo capable of head shots with her bow and pistol, caving in people’s heads with a climbing axe and winning fights in which she is hopelessly outnumbered (just like in Uncharted). This has been a source of complaint, but I think it’s a rather pointless one. She was not going to remain the timid girl all the way throughout the game. We are experiencing the origin story of an exceptional action hero, not a normal person. Her emergence as a teenage action hero shouldn’t be that ridiculous in the context of the genre: we accept it in both The Walking Dead (with the head shot expert that is Karl) and The Hunger Games both of which are members (or part members) of the survivalist genre.

Oddly, the game is 18 rated. This is a brave decision considering the background to the character. It basically does for the franchise what Casino Royale did for Bond. I hope they stick with it as this can only provide more of a benefit as the character ages. One odd benefit of this is the characters swear. They’re not swearing every other word, it’s relatively rare, but it is interesting how that adds to the realism of the overall tapestry. You don’t miss it when it’s not present but in a good script it works when it is. Weird.

In terms of game play I’m loving it, but then its learned from the best, it being a mixture of the Uncharted and the Arkham Batman games. In the main it’s like Uncharted, with the added addition of a brilliant cover system which just seems to work with zero conscious effort. It’s brilliantly done. The Batman influence comes in the form of the ‘survival instinct’ ability which is exactly like detective mode. Is this just a help system? Well, yes, to a degree, though I find I hardly use it, but it does get around the gaming issue of Lara being this preternatural adventurer while the player isn’t so I am fine with it. The running and jumping issues are virtually non-existent. It’s all very good.

The combat parts of the game can be a bit frustrating, especially when they put you in a relatively confined space and then insist on throwing a lot of dynamite. The combats are an Uncharted and Batman mix as well, with the different enemy types coming straight out of Batman. In future games, once they’ve get over the origin story and established Lara as a superlative adventurer with an archaeological bent they should tone these down a bit and ramp up the exotic tombs a bit more and have some grander puzzles.

I like the experience system, also very similar to the one in Batman, as you upgrade yourself with skills and also your gear. The upgrade of gear making your tools (bow, pistol, machine gun, climbing axe) easier to use, better and capable of new functions that open up new areas. Your personal skills aren’t transformed in the sense you go from weak to God-like, but they do open up new combat options that show a level of progression that feels right under the desperate circumstances Lara is in. It’s provides a sense if increased capability.

It’s a very good game and it succeeds in making you care and being very attached to the Lara character, much more than the competition (in the form of Nathan Drake. I am hoping they can use this base and ‘you were there at the beginning’ feel to really deliver some great adventures as the character ages. I’m betting on the next one being on or around University graduation and it being Lara’s first, big ‘solo’ expedition! We shall see.

About Ian O'Rourke

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