Tomb Raider

Blast from the Past review

FBT is looking forward to critically injuring Lara for fun.

The Past

I was infuriated by TR when I played it on release. I wasn’t even a fan of the originals, but I always admired Lara – and not for the two reasons you’d think. Sure, she looked like a sex doll but any gamer gripping his joystick knew Lara was more than that. She was Indy with better legs, an adrenaline junkie who was in it for the thrills - Lara can also be seen as a rich, spoilt Kardashian-type who goes around desecrating burial grounds and ruining idyllic locations for her own amusement, but I’d take either interpretation over the reboot’s emotional wreck.

It wasn’t a reboot, remake or reimagining. It wasn’t even Lara. It was Nathan Drake reskinned as Lara for the marquee value, and it had a mean-spirited, vindictive streak – it’s fine if you want to be realistic, but the injury and abuse she suffers practically turned Lara into a Jigsaw victim. And it was spectacularly uneven; she’d ball her eyes out in the cut-scene then I’d make her merrily slaughter anyone I came across - It wasn’t just the polar opposites of cut-scene Lara and gameplay Lara; the RPG elements made no sense either. She’d reassert her only goal was to find her friends, then spend hours looking for Dreamcatchers? But what really wound me up was tomb raiding was just a side quest. It’s called Tomb Raider not Optional Tomb Raider. Crap.

I played it, hated it, never played it again. Then I watched the reboot movie. It was awful but that Lara was half-based on this, and she was spunkier than I remembered; it got me thinking about the game again. Was TR really that bad? Time to torture Lara again.

Still a Blast?

Lara, who is the exact opposite of the rebellious, mischievous or even interesting young woman we’d expect, somehow mounts an expedition to the island of Yamatai, known only for it’s dangerous coastline which has wrecked any ship attempting to approach it. Lara insists we go in for a closer look, annnnd, they’re shipwrecked. Nice one Lara.

Turns out the island is filled with fanatics, the ‘Solarii’, formed from the endless shipwreck survivors. They believe the island's ancient ruler, Himiko, was trapped here in spirit form after failing to transfer her ageing soul into a new body; but now they can provide her with one - in the shape of Lara’s friend Sam. Once the transfer is complete, they think Himiko will let them leave. It’s down to Lara to rescue everyone, stop the Solarii and find a way off the island. But first, burst into tears.

And to be honest, crying is what I’d be doing if I was in Lara’s situation. Not even classic-era Lara could withstand how much this game hates her.

TR tips into torture porn. Lara is graphically brutalised throughout; debilitated by a serious abdominal injury which constantly reopens, nearly dies of exposure, drowning, starvation, concussion, fractures and sets herself on fire. She’s forced to cauterize her wounds with a zippo, wade through dead bodies and suffer the most graphic death scenes, all accompanied by fetishistic close-ups of her contorted face and cries of pain. She stubs her toe and we’re there in close-up while she screams like she’s stepped on a bear-trap – which also happens ... and then she gets attacked by wolves. The game delights in ensuring everything is a painful, bloody experience; you never thrill at TR’s events, only wince.

This is not how heroes are honed, this is how you get PTSD and I’ve never seen a male character go through this amount of agony. And then there’s the rape scene.

Early on Lara gets trapped by a Solarii who forces himself on her. The scene tells you Lara is in serious danger and I have no problem with it, this is a plausible situation for Lara to be in. But there’s three unforgivable elements to this. First, we’re active in the scene; I am playing at resisting rape. Second, this is a survival shooter, we know what needs to be done without such an extreme motivator; Jason in Far Cry 3 goes through the same narrative as this, and he didn’t need a sexual assault to justify killing. But the third problem is what comes after the assault – nothing. Literally we’re just into standard survival shooter mode. That’s what I find unforgiveable. Without any repercussions, impact, discussion or provocation, it’s as cynical as any other contentious representation of women in gaming.

TR's writer was quoted as saying “(Lara) has to deal with it, but her character is not changed because of it" - so why are we doing it if there's no character impact? Then they went on to say "(it) has more power for players that feel they are that character, because it is uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable." – you’re making me uncomfortable. Lara shrugs it off but we don’t?! You made us participate in it and that's a good thing, but the game's dismissal of it means we can't explore that discomfort so there is no other way to take it other than lazy sensationalist writing and a risible attempt to be 'mature'. All we can do is be uncomfortable with the game, rather than the moment.

Eventually, as the media storm grew, the writer came up with "you could probably see worse in a soap opera." We’ve seen worse? Really?! That's your defence of a rape scene? You’re making it worse. It’s true that a rape doesn’t actually occur but Lara’s cornered, the guy got touchy-feely and it’s obvious what’s on his mind. He kills Lara if you fail, but that’s because she was resisting the attempt, if she hadn't we all know what was going to occur. Reading the writer's defences only seems to suggest she never actually played the game, just provided a narrative. If she had, she would see it the way we do.

You could think the scene's justification is it pushes her over the edge, after that she kills anyone in her way; no. Lara will murder countless Solarii, level-up, gain better weapons, rinse an area ... and then burst into tears about how unprepared she is and how horrible it is she just killed an NPC. Woman, you just ripped a man’s throat out with a pickaxe, why the tears - oh forget it, you stay at camp, I’ll handle this; you end up separating cut-scene Lara from playable Lara; once in control we’re Doomguy while poor, pitiful cut-scene Lara is forgotten. If you’re going to put so much effort into showing how overwhelmed she is, that’s how she should be played too.

It’s also all-so-serious. Lara never shows that thrill-seeking attitude, never realises she’s good at this; if this really happened to her, she’d never leave Croft Manor again yet the ending implies this experience inspired her. To do what? Her next adventure will be set in a therapist’s office. This is what made Lara the Tomb Raider?

The writing sucks elsewhere too. Supporting characters are pure caricatures; the straight-talking African-American woman, the faithful supporter who says ‘I believe in you Lara’ a lot, a Glaswegian who is Glaswegian, the geek-is-cool Joss Whedon-type with the ironic panic, the grizzled and clearly ill-fated mentor, the ‘going to double-cross you’ one and screamer Sam. If this was a true RPG I’d not bother saving any of them.

Yeah, the RPG element. Lara will worry about her friends then suggest we go mushroom picking. Why would Lara spent hours shooting Dreamcatchers when Sam is tied to a post about to be sacrificed? Talking of which, this is called Tomb Raider but the tombs we find are just side-mission distractions you grind purely for XP which again makes no sense – Lara leaves Sam to be possessed so she can go looking for jugs? They’re great little logic puzzles, but it’s as if they finished the game and some play-tester went 'huh, where are the tombs?' They come across as an afterthought; if this was EA they’d be available as microtransactions.

This is a horrific Tomb Raider game. Unforgivably bad, just as I remembered it. This needed to be a clean race for survival where all of Lara’s trademarks and attitudes were picked up. She doesn’t even duel-wield; there’s an aggravating moment where she picks up two pistols … then hands one off. Bah. The game opens with Lara looking at herself in a mirror, pretty and full of self-doubt. Later we return to that same mirror and a battered but determined woman looks back at us. That’s the game, just not as intended.

Still, if I accept this isn’t Lara Prime, and ignore her whinging … this is a supremely good game. The design is breath-taking, the Solairii are great foes, the locations complex to get around, and the gunfights and escapes are always thrilling. Lara navigates the island scooting on ziplines, leaping through trees, up cliff-faces and down mud chutes; some levels, like navigating a rusting gondola line then fighting on a suspended ship hull that’s breaking apart are edge-of-the-seat stuff; sneaking through the shanty-town, the plane crash, the coastline, they’re all incredible set-pieces, and it’s intense for an open-worlder; everything is risky, hard-fought for, a scramble.

If you skip the cut-scenes you become the Lara you want to be – ingenious, capable, sneaky; it’s only let down is the reliance on QTE moments, the most unforgivable being the ending; Lara finally gets some balls and cuts through the final Solarii and Himiko’s undead protectors only for the fight for Sam’s soul to be determined by button-mashing. It completely undermines Lara’s personal struggle; when she reaches Sam and the Solarii boss it should be like when John McClane appears in the vault and Holly is shocked at the state of him – that’s a survivor. Everything Lara has gone through should come into play; this is the Tomb Raider and you’ve pissed her off. Nope, it’s all down to good I am at touch-typing.

I do get what they were trying to do with cut-scene Lara, it is a different take on a well-worn game genre, but the sheer torment and pain she goes through tips this into a horror and conflicts with the standard open-world shooter stuff. It becomes about how degraded she is until she fights back, but we already know how to do that. I didn’t think twice about shooting the would-be rapist in the balls because it’s a typical shooter QTE moment, it had nothing to do with what happened and unforgivably has nothing to do with what comes after.

It seems as if I remembered Tomb Raider fairly well. Crystal Dynamics call this the ‘Survivor Storyline’ and claim it’s a different Lara to the one we know. Why bother? We wanted a young Angelina Jolie not this navel-gazing wimp. It’s not Tomb Raider, either half of it, but it is a good open-world shooter if you play Lara how you want her to be and skip the cut-scenes.

And the movie.

2013 | Developer Crystal Dynamics | Publisher Square Enix

Platforms; Win | PS3 | X360