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Tomb Raider Review

Over the past few days I’ve been working my way through the new “Tomb Raider”, developed by Crystal Dynamics. I have generally very high standards on games that try to revive a beloved video game character.

I’m a big Lara fan, having played the original Tomb Raider to death as a child (as well as the “Unfinished Business” expansion pack, and the Tomb Raider 2 demo which was included on the CD). I never did play through the sequels up until Angel of Darkness, instead just drooling at the new outfits and abilities that Lara showed off in the previews that played at local video game stores.

Angel of Darkness was the second Tomb Raider game we bought, and while it was essentially a terrible game, full of glitches and silly attempts at reviving the gameplay with stat building mechanics, there were some elements I *really* liked. The detailed cityscapes and apartments were so fun to explore, and they really nailed the melancholy, parisian, early morning atmospheres. It was a great mix between new and fresh environments, classic tomb raiding, and realism and fantasy.

Until now, the only other Tomb Raider game I had played was “Tomb Raider Anniversary”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was truly as nostalgic yet fresh a remake as I could have asked for.

Now, to the “Tomb Raider” reboot released some weeks ago.
There is so much to like about the game. In fact, if this was a brand new series with no expectations to meet, I would call it ‘flawless’. The visuals are highly detailed and varied, immersive, and beautiful. The story is interesting and mostly believable. Dialog, interactive cutscenes, etc.. all fantastic.

But I have some serious issues with it as a TOMB RAIDER game.
Firstly, Tomb Raider has always been a puzzle adventure game. Combat was pretty minimal; other than taking down wild animals and crazy fictional or extinct creatures (Dinosaurs, Mummies, Skeletons..), Lara’s bodycount was a believably small and innocent number. In the original Tomb Raider, coming across another person was the scariest, most confronting part of the game. They had guns, and you could die very easily. Often they got away, and you only end up killing a handful of people that got in your way. Overall, a pretty civil game focussing on the jump puzzles and exploration elements.

In 2013′s Tomb Raider, the exploration is optional. Puzzles are minimal and generally very easy – rewarding but leaving you wanting more. Instead, your focus is on taking down hundreds and hundreds of deranged & stranded men who really probably don’t deserve death if you could just sneak past them (which you can’t – I tried). If this is Lara’s first big adventure, why is she so sweet, innocent, and hesitant in her “future” adventures that we’ve already played? Or are we re-establishing Lara as a soldier with archaeology and acrobatics as a side dish? This reminds me of Max Payne 3, which too focussed on an unrealistically gigantic number of soldiers trying to take you down, with the depth of each confrontation lost.

I was really fearful that the reboot would see all fantasy get thrown out too. Thankfully, there was one weird beast thing that appears early on (at which Lara gasps “What the hell is that thing?”), and the story is based on a supernatural, ancient power that uses storms to prevent anybody leaving the island on which Lara is stranded. But having not once been placed face-to-face with a huge, mythological beast to fight, I’m still left wanting.

Other minor yet dear elements missing – the memorable Tomb Raider theme tune, dual pistols (at one point she is given a 2nd pistol and I was like “HELL YEAH!” only to find she gives it to another survivor within that same cutscene), and the Croft manor.

All hope is not lost, though.
I really liked Lara as a character. They got her accent right, her face, her clothing. There were references to her father and the Croft legacy, and she had a child-like love for artifacts and discovery even in the heat of battle. She didn’t *want* to kill anybody, at least not at first. The writers were intentional in turning her into a bad ass warrior by the end of the game, and you notice it through her gradually brewing anger towards the people she’s killing. And minor as it might seem, the way she ran, jumped, shimmied, etc felt very similar to previous Tomb Raider games. I also liked the way she related to other characters in the game – courteous and well-spoken, but generally distant, as if she has a hard time relating to people on a personal level. Not socially inept, just very introverted and happy to study and explore.

Essentially, Lara still seemed like Lara, just thrown into a very different and extreme situation to what I’m used to – maybe that would be OK if it were chronologically placed AFTER all her previous adventures, but if this is to define her character, it just doesn’t match up.

Recreating the classic gaming experience

Some of my fondest childhood gaming memories were on the Sega Mega Drive (or Sega Genesis for you Americans). I can’t recall ever being much more excited than the day our Dad gave in and drove us down to the nearest mall/shopping centre to pickup the Toy Story Bundle. We spent the whole afternoon trying to work out how to tune our TV to the console’s adapter which broadcast the games on Channel 36 (I even remember that).

Soon we were renting games from our local video store, squeezing every minute we could into trying to complete the game before it was time to return it. No game was too easy, but nor was any game worth giving up on. The Mega Drive had no storage, and so no saved games once the console was reset. Many games, like Sonic the Hedgehog or Spider-Man & Venom: Separation Anxiety, didn’t even have passwords to start again on a later level. Nope, this was hardcore gaming at its finest. If you don’t time that jump properly, you’re starting from the beginning, buddy.

A few months ago I discovered that one of my brothers still had our old mega drive, and some of the games we bought (although most of the greats we borrowed from friends or the video store). It was an intimate experience, unpacking the mega drive and all its cables and pieces and configuring my TV to see Channel 36 once again. Sadly the only original games left were NHL 95, Andretti Racing, and Brian Lara Cricket. Nothing shooty or jumpy. So I bought some classics from a garage sale: Sonic 2, Another World (WE PLAYED THIS BEFORE IT WAS COOL), Jurassic Park, and Mortal Kombat. Of course, I had played all these many times since the Mega Drive began gathering dust, via emulation on my PC. But the cover art, the manual, the controller, the flickery TV signal.. it was a whole different level of special!

And so I allowed myself to get hooked on Jurassic Park. Like old times. No saving, no graphic filters to pretty up the game, no minimising to check facebook. And just like old times, it took me over 2 hours over numerous sittings just to get through the early levels. And as each level passed, I scribbled down the password as quickly as I could (OK, I typed it on my iPhone..) before it would automatically progress to the next level.

Gaming just ISNT like this anymore. We expect progress with little effort. But could it be? That’s a large slice of the dream that many indie developers have: to tug our (and their) nostalgia-strings. But I don’t think it’s as simple as creating a game inspired by the classics. The world has changed and so has the way we use our time.

While playing Jurassic Park was great fun, I had to fight off this feeling that I could be doing something better, and more efficiently. I’m used to making progress quickly and feeling productive, even in my playing sessions. Minecraft is particularly good at making you feel like you’re getting work done, even though you really aren’t. Furthermore, we have access to 1000s of games, free and paid, at our fingertips at all times. Why spend 10 hours on one game when we could spend 10 hours on five games? I remember running around aimlessly on Brian Lara Cricket, letting my imagination run wild, because a. I didn’t know how to play cricket, and b. I had no other games to play.

Sonic 3 only has 6 ‘zones’ and if you cheat your way through using emulator save-states, you can probably finish the game in a little over an hour. So to many, playing the hardcore way and starting over and over again as you lose all your lives on the final boss is an exercise in futility. But in reality, the feeling you get when you finally destroy Dr Robotnik ‘once and for all’ (or at least until the next instalment) is far greater than cruising your way over the finish line of any modern commercial game. It’s just a case of committing yourself to the game and allowing yourself to get immersed.

And so I think the biggest challenge for an indie developer in recreating this classic experience in a new game, is to give the modern audience a reason to commit their time to finishing it. It’s not impossible but it is getting exponentially harder as the indie game industry grows.

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