Ostensibly, Tomb Raider is a game about survival. In actuality, survival plays only a small part in the game. Tomb Raider is actually about the reinvention of an early female gaming icon into a character, an actual person. To this point I’ve seen some argue that the game should have been called “Lara Croft”, and I can’t disagree (aside from the fact that it would have been less marketing friendly). For the first time, Lara is more than a pair of tits and guns. Writer Rhianna Pratchett has crafted a believable script, and Crystal Dynamics have taken great care to coax performances that bring it to life. Alongside Naughty Dog and Irrational, CD have created some of the best motion capture in a game to date, supported with procedural animation that helps further ground the game. More importantly, Lara is written not exclusively as a female, but a person fighting to survive, her experiences informed by her gender but not defined by it. This alone is probably what makes it a standout games, as much of the rest of the game is familiar territory, even if it is well polished.
That familiarity is the biggest sticking point for the game. On the surface, TR shares a lot with the mechanics of Uncharted, which themselves can be seen as a more “cinematic” approach to the classic TR’s gameplay. While it avoids the massive being quite as dissonant as Uncharted, or Bioshock Infinite, the endless parade of violence, gore, and death that Lara contributes to still makes it hard to keep her actions morally justified, or keep both the player and the character realistically affected by the horrid scenes before them. While it is more than clear that the enemies are horrid, mad, and morally reprehensible creatures the death count and extreme violence of the acts Lara commit still feel painfully cruel, almost as horrid as the acts of her enemies. Even when the story kicks into high gear and it becomes clear that something unnatural and frightening is going on, escalating the need for absolute survival, the needs of the gameplay cut work against the needs of the narrative.
As I rounded out the story, I also wondered how exactly the game would fit into Lara’s grander character arc. While I do realize it is a reboot, as an origin story I find it hard to believe that this can be the same character engages in fights with dinosaurs. It’s a bit of dissonance that’s caused not only by the game’s place in the history of the series, but also our current place in games today. It’s a game that is simultaneously benefiting from the incredible technology that is helping ground games in a more realistic setting (and arguably helping appeal to a larger audience), but also being hampered by it, as it the clash between gameplay and narrative continues to become more pronounced.
There’s also the nagging feeling that even as solidly written as the narrative is, it hits the same predictable arcs and plot points that any decent action movie would be. While the involvement of the player may be higher do to participation ultimately the plot will play out in the same way each time and not afford you very much in terms of interacting with the crew members you are supposed to relate to, or allow you to affect their fate in any way. I don’t expect to be able to actually save these people, but a few characters aside the game never provided me enough history for me to give a damn. Essentially they seem to be many damsels in distress made for the purpose of giving Lara an objective to save or lament the loss of. While there is some novelty in being a female character in that role overall I felt more rewarded in finding new gadgets and weapons than in rescuing them.
To that end the game also provides a good chunk of collectibles and optional tombs to explore, to gain more backstory and resources to upgrade Lara’s skills and weapons. Even when justified by the context, these still feel like a very “gamey” element designed to lengthen the game and provide value to the player. I found myself compulsively picking them up, yet lamenting it each time as it would bring up a flow breaking screen to cut into the actual interactive part of the game. Again, it’s a leftover of the games as product mentality, the price of games, and the niche that the mediums has cornered itself in.
While TR attempts to move forward into a space that explores the extremes of what it means to be human, bringing in some much needed diversity and gravitas, it ultimately suffers from the conventions of the medium and does nothing more than provide an engaging and polished product.