"What the fuck is this? This isn't Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider is meant to be about some bird with big tits running and jumping and shooting stuff."
Joke impression of how a stereotypical 14 year old internet hardman FPS player might respond to this, or a literal word-for-word dictation of what my fiancee said after playing it for about 25 minutes? You be the judge. (It was definitely my fiancee.)
Before playing it, I was a little conflicted on whether or not Tomb Raider
actually needed this reboot; I grew up with this series, with Tomb Raider II
being one of the first games I ever really loved, but unlike a lot of others, I feel like it did a decent job of growing up with me. Sure, the Lara Croft
found on any of the PS3-era games, Tomb Raider: Underworld
in particular, wasn't exactly the most three-dimensional character in the world, but she was at least relatable, strong, and - although this says more about gaming as a whole than it does about Tomb Raider
's development - almost unique in the way that she was displayed as an attractive women with zero interest in men. This is not a game series that was stuck in the past with more value as a relic than as an ongoing concern, so a reboot felt slightly awkward and unnecessary.
That thought dissipated entirely within about an hour of playing it, as you get a handle on what the developers are doing with Lara Croft as a character. What's far more important and impressive, though, is what they're doing with the game overall.
Lara first, then. Tomb Raider
is an origin story set a few years before the first game in the series, where Lara was presented as a highly improbable combination of gymnastic athleticism, gravitationally hilarious features, abnormal intellect, and lots and lots and lots of money. Oh, and she was unflappable in the way she stood up to terrorists and armies and dinosaurs and whatever the hell else the first two games through at her. Back in the '90s I don't know if anybody particularly questioned how silly it was, because it was just generally accepted that it was a game and if suspension of disbelief was a problem you should maybe find another hobby - it was a masturbatory fantasy, but hell, what action game (or movie, or TV show, or book....) wasn't? But standards have changed over the 15 years that have passed between Lara's debut and this reboot, with a whole raft of action characters introduced that have set the bar as high as it's ever been - and it would be remiss not to mention Uncharted
's Nathan Drake
as the biggest of the bunch. More on him later.
What the makers of this game needed to do, then, was bring Lara in the line with the realism we've come to expect from modern games, without creating a complete alternate timeline where the older games in the series become unbelievable. A prequel, then, was inevitable - you don't become perfect without overcoming some hurdles to get there, and those hurdles are crucial to fleshing out Lara's story. So at the start of Tomb Raider
, Lara is bookish, slightly socially awkward, no longer gravitationally hilarious, excitable when it comes to archaeology (it's easy to forget sometimes that this is actually meant to be her profession), and totally alien to any kind of adversity. And very rich, of course, but this was the one part of her backstory that was always rock-solid. Within the first two hours of the game, we see her first struggles with survival, as her team crashes onto a mysterious island and she ends up separated from the group, kicked around so much you genuinely feel sorry for her, and forced to learn how to stay alive before she can try to save her friends. The game blazes through this too quickly, in all honesty - she goes from apologizing to the first deer she kills for food to indiscriminately mowing down natives faster than you can Google the spelling of 'cognitive dissonance' - but it's forgivable because it's a necessary step towards the game itself, which is brilliant in a way that's not even relevant to Lara's characterization.
Back to Nathan Drake, then. There was a general assumption before this reboot appeared on the market that Tomb Raider
would become locked in a chicken/egg scenario, partly because Uncharted
was so obviously inspired by Tomb Raider
(and, in a lot of ways, beat it at its own game), and partly because the trailers for Tomb Raider
looked like Uncharted
. My fear, and I'm sure this was true of a lot of people, was that the 2013 version of Lara Croft would aim itself squarely at retaking its crown from Uncharted
and fail, potentially doing even more damage to the franchise and the character than Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness
did. What it actually does, though, is far more ambitious and spectacular - it aims itself squarely at basically every major action game of the past 5 years.
That's what really makes Tomb Raider
such a spectacle; it plays out like a snapshot of the genre for this console generation, a grab-bag of everything good about the games that came before it. You could make a strong argument that this actually has less to do with any earlier Tomb Raider
games than it does, say, Far Cry 3
. Its setting certainly recalls Far Cry
very strongly - both are on mysterious islands populated with nutcases and need you to rescue your kidnapped friends - but plenty of other elements recall and even improve upon plenty of other games, with the animal hunting section giving emotional heft to a simple gameplay mechanic borrowed from Red Dead Redemption
and (to a lesser extent) Metal Gear Solid [メタルギアソリッド]
, the climbing and traversing of the environment being an gritty expansion upon similar sections in Uncharted
, the greater exploration afforded to you by weapon and tool upgrades instantly recalling Batman: Arkham Asylum
, and the quotes from novels found throughout the game feeling like a nod to Deus Ex
. The only thing I can't trace to a specific action game is the QTEs that dominate the first hour - Heavy Rain [HEAVY RAIN 心の軋むとき]
is the obvious comparison, but you certainly wouldn't call that an action game.
The temptation is to call it a rip-off - and sure, you certainly wouldn't give Tomb Raider
any medals for originality - but it brings to mind one of my favourite quotes about art I've ever heard, one I've always known as being attributed to Sammy Davis Jr., but that the internet tells me has been said by damn near every famous person ever. It's the one about how if you copy one person you're a rip-off, but if you copy everyone, you're just doing your research. And that, honestly, is what it feels like the developers of this game have done; they've looked around, taken stock of everything that's going on in modern action games, and resolved to make the ultimate example of one. Being ambitious, optimistic, and insane enough to even attempt that while working under the guise of an established franchise is impressive enough, given that the cost of failure would have been so much higher here than on just about any comparable game. Achieving it is incredible. Yet achieve it they did. Posterity may later cast the 2013 Tomb Raider
as a period piece, as primarily a useful example of contemporary trends, but for now it's a spectacular success, a game that manages to take on all pretenders to the throne and beat them, to likely add an extra decade or more to its heroine's lifespan, and to become undoubtedly the finest game in a series that's hardly lacking in great moments. It's a shame it came out in the same year as The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls
, and Rocksmith 2014
, really - had it been released a year earlier then it would have been the console game of the year.