Over the course of my gaming life, I’ve played plenty of games that required one to maneuver a main character through perilous situations. The Uncharted games come to mind, but there are many others (oh, Prince of Persia!) in which you see your character dangling from mountain cliffs, nearly missing stupendous jumps over chasms, and facing off against hordes of seemingly invisible enemies. A notion driving these scenarios is courage in the face of certain death – you fight through any fears and come out victorious on the other side. And there’s nothing terribly new in all that.
But playing through the new Tomb Raider, as I did several months back, made me feel something else entirely: trepidation. Anxiety. Sometimes, fear. Lara Croft has survived the decades, but there were a number of moments in the game were I truly thought she wouldn’t make it to the end. And that’s terrible of me because never once did I think the same of, say, Nathan Drake, a character who takes plenty of licks during his adventures. It’s possible that I’ve been playing such “He-Man” characters for too long, but this new Lara Croft, well…goddamn if she wasn’t one hell of spitfire. And, more importantly, a survivor.
I should probably mention that this newest Tomb Raider game is actually my first Tomb Raider game. I’m not sure if my opinions of it would be any different if I had played as Lara in her previous iterations. I’m coming at this purely from the standpoint of discussing Tomb Raider as an action-adventure game, not as a “Lara Croft” game. Considering that Tomb Raider is an all-around critically acclaimed, it probably doesn’t matter one way or another. Suffice to say, I’m very happy that Lara and I finally crossed paths.
Spoiler-y, cliffhanging, wall-climbing goodness ahead!
Tomb Raider tells the story of a young Lara Croft. She’s a fresh-faced archeologist who’s taking part in an expedition that she helped fund to an island called Yamatai. There Lara seeks to explore the history of the Yamatai people, a mysterious race that once inhabited the island, as well as that of their ruler Himiko, or the “Sun Queen,” as she was called, who was reportedly able to control the weather.
Lara and her team, which is made up of a number of different personalities, but most importantly contains her best friend, Sam Nishimura, a descendant of the Yamatai people, end up wrecking on the island after their ship is subject to horrible storms that plague the region. The group becomes separated and Lara ends up a kidnapping victim. Turns out that Yamatai isn’t deserted, but rather has at least one inhabitant, a guy named Mathias, who claims he was also left shipwrecked. And so begins the game, where you take control of Lara as the must find her team and, eventually, discover the secrets of Yamatai.
Okay, so my stripped down description hardly does justice to what happens on-screen, which is more perilous than Nathan Drake could ever imagine, train car dangling off the side of a mountain or not. The initial shipwreck and depiction of injuries that Lara sustained as a result had me biting my nails during the first session of play. The developers did nothing less than a brilliant job at presenting Lara as a human being – strong yet vulnerable, hopefully yet fearful, savvy yet clumsy. Someone made of flesh and blood and not pixels. And more than once I found myself projecting my own fear upon Lara, especially my fear of heights. And boy oh boy, does Yamatai have heights.
While I (and, I imagine, most folks) don’t care for it when small game worlds really feel small (*ahem* Dragon Age II), I am truly amazed when game-makers are able to present small games worlds as not just large, but expansive. Red Dead Redemption is a perfect example of this, because when you really look at the game map, New Austin really isn’t that big. But by populating the map with fewer towns and people, and more wild-ness, it feels like one of the largest game worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring. Tomb Raider manages to do this too, except the expansiveness goes north and south rather than east and west as in RDR. The island of Yamatai has tons of different levels, from deep, underground caverns to heavenly platforms, and you are free to explore all of it. And sure, there’s a story to follow around too.
Christ, what a story, too! I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to buy in its supernatural aspects, but it was told quite well, and a decent clip. Placing an historical take on the island, particularly the instances of discovering that Japanese soldier had once been stranded there around World War II, was particularly compelling. And it was even fascinating to watch everything unfold, not just within the story itself, but also in Lara’s explorations. I’m very good at ignoring sidequests when they feel like bust work, but I actively sought out to find all the tombs and artifacts and oddities that I could, because those lent themselves extremely well to Lara’s overarching objective. (Seriously, I stand at 88% completion, and I think that’s a personal record I’ve not reached with a game since GTA IV!). And I do love me some good puzzles. As hallmarks of the Tomb Raider games generally, this one do not disappoint by any means.
If there’s one area in which the game fell flat for me, it was the combat. Especially combat that involved the very bane of my existence – Quick-Time Events. This game is ripe with QTEs, and I hated each one. (And I also hated that failure usually meant sending Lara to a number of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad deaths. Those were excruciating to watch!) There were also numerous times (and I think it was the same in Uncharted), when enemies just seemed to appear and re-appear in overwhelming numbers. I know that my own reactions times have soured with age, but oftentimes during ranged battles, I’d miss a number of targets who would then find ways to get close to Lara. That shift between focusing on ranged attacks and suddenly having to manage hand-to-hand combat, while still being shot at from afar, mind you, was unnerving. Also, the game offered up just about the worst dodging mechanism. For all of Lara’s dexterity at scaling walls and jumping across chasms, damn if she couldn’t roll out of a combatant’s way for more than a few inches at a time.
Setting aside those squabbles, Tomb Raider is an incredibly fun and rich game, and it’s one of the better action-adventure (/RPG) games on the market. There’s something truly amazing in being Lara as she survives through countless perils, physical attacks, and mental hardships. I didn’t know Lara before, but I know her now. And I really look forward to someday continuing her journey in Rise of the Tomb Raider.