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Tomb Raider Review: Journey, Loss and Discovery

Tomb_raider_2013_fan_made_wallpaper_2_by_mikky100-d520l5m

a.k.a. Fear and Loathing in the Jungle!

Good day (or afternoon or evening or night or twilight or Frabjous Day, Callooh Callay!) to you all. I hope you’re having a groovy…time.  Today we’re going to talk about Tomb Raider 2013, and then I’ll probably post some adorable cat videos to make up for how dark Xeawn’s Gaming Corner has been the past week. However, before we do that, we’re going to descend into madness just one more time!

For those of you reading this on http://www.dragonhousestudios.org, well, you’re used to my more literary side by now, so, no cat videos for you! Okay…maybe just a few…

Tomb Raider 2013, man, what’s there to lead up to that I haven’t already? There was controversy. Kind of a lot of it. The men that were in the interviews constantly kept, well, let me begin with my history with Tomb Raider and then my rollercoaster of emotions in regard to the remake. Then we’ll talk about the marketing missteps. Also the one commercial they got right.

Tomb Raider came out in 1996, which seems weird to me because I guess I got into the game when it first came out, yet it felt like it was around forever. Maybe that’s because I was introduced to a lot of games that I was into by my older cousins Marcus and Tre. Shout out to Dessert First by the by.

My cousins got me into Resident Evil, scaring the crap out of me, and then Dino Crisis, scaring the crap out of me, and then Silent Hill, scaring the, well I’m sure you see the trend by now. Ironic that of the three of us I’m now the only one hardcore into horror!

I got into Tomb Raider when I saw them playing it, and soon thereafter I somehow ended up with a copy of the game on our PC. About all that I understood about the franchise was that, to be blunt, Lara Croft was hot and no matter how dangerous a forbidden tomb was, the real danger was always the shoddy controls and incredibly aggressive wolf packs. Well, okay, and the occasional Kraken.

"What's that Drake? You get chased by guys with guns? That must be SO dangerous!"

“What’s that Drake? You get chased by guys with guns? That must be SOOOO dangerous! Tell me more about all those mythological beasts you slay.”

I never got very far in the original Tomb Raider, as I was like, eight when it first came out. Also the controls, collision detection and hit boxes sucked. I gave Lara’s other adventures a chance over time, and found that what I’d learned as a kid held up. I.E., Lara Croft was hot and the controls still sucked.

Then Tomb Raider Legend remade the original with actually decent controls, albeit a Lara Croft that suddenly hated all men because we apparently show an empowered woman either by sexing her up or by making her a cold ice queen, and then Lara Croft fought the Dahaka and it was just as adorable as it was in Prince of Persia. I don’t remember which Tomb Raider that was. Maybe Underworld?

Lara Croft is a character that has pretty much been reinvented with every game with the development team constantly trying to figure out how to make her sell. Her race seemed to change all the time (I’m pretty sure she’s supposed to be White, but I always got more of a Latin vibe. Also Indian. Also Spanish. Also mixed. Which she could be since we’ve never seen her mother to my knowledge), the style and tone of the games has always changed, they couldn’t decide if they wanted to be shooters or puzzle games, and Lara kept hopping between “I WANNA CRAWL THROUGH TOMBS!” to “I WANNA CRAWL THROUGH JUNGLES!” to “I WANNA GO TO A CITY AND SHOOT MERCENARIES!”

I notice she has never really done much in the way of archaeology.

I suppose the overall point that I’m making here is that while I’ve always respected Lara Croft as gaming’s first bad girl, much the way that Chun Li is gaming’s first lady, I’ve never actually liked any of the games. Aside from the PSP remakes and the one were you fought the Dahaka.

tomb_raider

When I saw we were doing a gritty remake I was like “This could be interesting.”

When I saw we were going for realism I was like “That’s cute, they can’t really do big budget action since now Tomb Raider is viewed as the Uncharted wannabe instead of the other way around”.

When I saw Crystal Dynamics was still doing it I was like “This is gonna be horrible.” When I saw Square Enix was helping I was like “This…is probably gonna be horrible.”

Finally I saw promotional art and got excited. Then interviewers started repeating the phrase “You’ll/you want to protect her!” and got concerned. I saw cool bow and arrow scenes that made me think about Far Cry 3 and got excited, then I kept hearing “she’s like a scared wild animal backed into a corner and you want to protect her”. I read about hunting mechanics and got excited, and then I kept reading “These men, they’ve got her backed into a corner like a scared animal. They want to rape her, and you’ll want to protect her”.

Yeah, I lost a lot of excitement around there. And, to be honest, I didn’t have much to begin with.

So, CainKarl and I got together and we spent some time with the game. By some time I mean we played it for like, five or six hours straight and then I played it for two or three more by myself. How does Tomb Raider stack up?

Okay, 2013 is still too young for me to say Game of the Year, and I also have quite a bit of time to spend with Miss Croft yet (also as far as I’m concerned Sleeping Dogs will be the Game of the Year for eternity), but let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised and like the game bunches and bunches.

It’s so much fun. So much fun.

"Just a small time girl! Living in a LONELY WORLD!"

“Just a small time girl! Living in a LONELY WORLD!”

In the new Tomb Raider we have Lara Croft at an ambiguously young age on her first solo-ish mission. She’s helping to make a show with an esteemed (and cocky and egotistical and foppish and lacking in any area of street smarts as well as being pretty dang spineless) archaeologist and going on a journey with her mentor and friends to discover a lost island that many have sought and failed to locate. The island is in a fictional bermuda triangle esque location, and Lara’s instinct and research leads the crew there without fail!

Well, no, their ship gets torn in half in a devastating storm and most everyone dies. But, ya know, aside from that it went pretty smoothly.

Lara, now alone and left to the mercy of the elements, must find her friends and sort out some way to escape. The theme that members of the development team kept trying to get across is that we’re going for a softer, more frightened, more realistic Lara Croft. What they didn’t communicate very well is that this isn’t like Japan’s many “re-envisionings” of female leads (all of which led to strong, powerful women being replaced with terrified or dimwitted shells of themselves that live to serve and/or be saved by men *cough cough* Parasite Eve, Metroid *cough cough*). Instead, this is a journey about empowerment, this is a journey that starkly makes you go “I can handle myself” and then go “OHMYGOODNESS I CAN’T HANDLE MYSELF” and then go “I’m going to learn to handle myself.”

After getting shipwrecked and trying desperately to get your crew to notice you, Lara is immediately sucker punched in the throat. She wakes up tied upside down in a sacrificial cult chamber with numerous bodies in much the same state. Lara is reasonably freaking out, which I’d like to go on record and state that every time Lara freaks out it feels extremely justified and reasonable. You’ve got no choice but to catch the nearest corpse on fire and use that fire to break your ropes. Unfortunately that fire also opens a hole in the ground below, which causes Lara to fall a ridiculous height.

As she falls, she gets impaled through the side, and there began my issues with the game. Looking at where she was stabbed, it would’ve gone through her kidneys. Even assuming it didn’t, this wound (and many more we’ll mention) was never, ever addressed. Running on adrenaline Lara manages to escape, hiding terrified from the mercenaries that are hunting her.

win-tomb-raider-2013-collectors-edition-and-xbox-360-competition-0

You don’t do this till much later, but I couldn’t really find a good place for this shot.

She barely manages to get away from a crazed guy who may or may not have been trying to help (pro tip: when you’ve got a scared girl in a state of shock fighting for her life, maybe pinning her to the ground and holding her legs screaming “STOP IT I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU” isn’t the best way to go about things…), and…somehow with a hole in her side manages to climb over things, jump across things, roll around things, etcetera. I’m willing to say adrenaline, but…

Anyways, you escape, you get a bow and arrow, you hunt which is pointless because you never get hungry and your health regens over time, you climb and scale and jump all over a mountain and an airplane, you fall and crack your head on the side of the mountain but its totally cool because Lara Croft is invincible I guess, and then you make camp and go to sleep.

The island, which is open world and a lot of fun to explore, is actively trying to kill you as you play. This is one of the greatest feelings the game gives you. Everything wants you dead and all of the odds are stacked against you. The island is trying to kill you, the weather is trying to kill you, the animals are trying to kill you, the men are trying to kill you, everything is trying to kill you.

Lara goes quickly from feeling self assured and confident to being realistically terrified of everything around her. Even so, she presses onward deeper into the pit of despair. Despair is a good word for a lot of the game. When you climb to the top of a mountain and see some of the most beautiful sunrises in gaming, you don’t feel joy or pleasure or wonder, you feel tired and ransacked and almost as though mother nature is flipping you off. You look at it and go “Great, just another reminder of the way life should be” moments before you descend back into the depths of hell.

"Oh joy, another sunrise. So nice of you to illuminate my pain and suffering mother nature..."

“Oh joy, another sunrise. So nice of you to illuminate my pain and suffering mother nature…”

The combat in the game is realistic and satisfying. I like that the enemies react based on where they’re hit, such as an arrow to the knee (I’m sorry!) or a bullet to the throat. This sounds morbid, but you do get tired of the usual reactions in shooters where enemies absorb bullets like a sponge and keep on trekking. The very specific mention of the bullet to the throat came from a moment where a man leapt out of an air vent, kicked me down and came at me with machetes. Up to that point I’d been going all Oliver Queen (or is that Olivia Queen?) on em’ using my bow and arrow for every occasion because, why not?

I didn’t have time to knock back an arrow and take aim, so I ran like mad and drew my pistol. Two shots went wide, but the third found his throat and had him holding it, rasping for air before falling. That was pretty great attention to detail.

So yes, the combat is tight and controls well. Exploration is just as tight, as is traversal. You don’t get the feeling that the game is holding your hand like in Assassin’s Creed, and I can’t really think of any moments that I went to jump and failed. The game also doesn’t mind killing you if you do something stupid with exploration. I jumped off a mountain just to see if it would let me, and it did.

One major gripe is the quick time events. The first time one is thrown at you it’s not really clear what you’re supposed to do, and so I ended up quite dead. Later events became exceedingly easy. One thing nice about the game is it doesn’t really insult your intelligence. Everything is organic and the tutorials feel very non-obtrusive. From a gameplay perspective I was blown away, which is strange because Tomb Raider has always had pretty shoddy controls.

So before we talk about the hot topic, lets talk about two big things I didn’t like, as no game is perfect. First and foremost, it feels too easy much of the time. I played on normal, and as I mentioned earlier there’s really no point to hunting aside from achievements because your health regens and you never get hungry or sick or tired. Speaking of sick or tired, in the time I’d played (ignoring the obvious gameplay related stuff) I sustained a hole in my side from a rusty iron rod, a concussion from a fifteen foot drop, had my leg caught in a trap that should have broken it (even at forty pounds an animal trap would break your bones, and if it was made for the sort of big game the island would have it would actually tear you ankle from the rest of you on impact) and was chewed up by a wolf.

"What? That gaping open wound in my side? Naw, s'no big deal!"

“What? That gaping open wound in my side? Naw, s’no big deal!”

Never once does Lara stop to address any of these injuries. Furthermore, she goes on to climb stuff, jump across great distances and fight with those injuries. She stops to address other people’s injuries, but never her own. This bugged me immensely, and every time Lara sustained a new injury I didn’t care. The point was to show how desperate her situation was and to make you feel connected, but I got a hole in my side and climbed a mountain no problem, I got a concussion and fought wild animals and mercs no problem, and I had a trap that should’ve either broken my ankle or torn it off spring on me and was cool after sitting down for like five minutes. In short, I never care when Lara gets hurt because it never actually affects her.

The other thing is, for all the realism they kept touting there isn’t much to be found. I’m nitpicking now, but I can cross a wooden beam covered in water without it making me slip and other niggling things that threw the immersion. More than that though, were the injuries. This especially sticks out because of the countless pieces of promotional art that imply you’ll spend a good deal of time in Snake Eater-esque injury dressing, but it feels like they made the script and made the cutscenes and then decided that actual bit of game design would’ve been too much effort and abandoned it part way through.

So let’s talk about the controversy. You already know what it is, so lets discuss how it was handled. I actually didn’t mind one bit. Either they revised some things or more logically the people in interviews who had hoped to use it as a ploy were exceedingly not the people who should’ve been getting interviewed.

Yes, you spend a good deal of your beginning time as a frightened little girl surrounded by powerful and ruthless men. Yes, you freak out and hide in the dark and hope you can get away safely. Yes, there is an attempted rape scene.

And it was all handled exceedingly well.

The game never made me feel like this was done facetiously. All of Lara’s reactions were logical, she’s alone, unarmed and facing the elements as well as ruthless men that want to hurt her. At one point because of the idiocy and spinelessness of her superior she’s captured by the top merc. One of her allies sacrifices himself when the merc starts getting grabby, and you spend a heart pounding time trying to hide in the shadows and get away.

The game does the usual trope of hiding just outside of their view in a shack and hoping they pass, but in a far more realistic turn the leader finds you and orders you out. It’s up to how good you are at quick time events to see how far this will go. CainKarl was playing this part, and the first time the event started he was promptly held in a stranglehold as Lara struggled and whimpered and the screen went black.

tomb-raider-2013-screenshot-3

The second time he managed to have Lara knee him in the groin, and she was subsequently picked up and thrown to the ground. At that point she was mounted and managed to get at the guy’s pistol. She was pinned down again and it was exceedingly clear what he intended to do to her, as he attempted to do it. Lara managed to force her arm free and shoot the man in the throat.

After rolling away from the rasping dying man, Lara nearly threw up, then held herself and broke down sobbing.

The scene was exceedingly powerful, and served to knock away the last shred of “I can fix everything” that both Lara and the player had. The only real issue I had with it is that, likely due to all the controversy, Lara never calls it what it was when she spoke to her mentor later. Rather than saying “I’m not okay, this man just tried to rape me!” she says “I”m not okay, I just had to kill someone.” which is also something to realistically freak out about, but not necessarily the most logical reason at hand. Though fear and trauma are rarely logical in how they affect us…

Moving on, as I said in a conversation with CainKarl earlier in the week, I really didn’t have an issue with the idea of Lara fighting off rapists. Realistically speaking she’s an attractive women who goes cockily on solo missions all the time in less than practical clothing, and has since she was around fourteen. Realistically speaking, that has probably happened to her on more than one occasion. The problem was whether or not it was done in the game with a point and purpose, and whether it was done just to do it or done as a meaningful part of the story and character.

I personally feel that it was, and done so masterfully. What’s more, as Lara goes from “I’m not okay!” conversations with her mentor (who is one of a long line of males that she has to save and protect, a powerful message in and of itself) to becoming the increasingly more stentorian warrior that we know her to be, not only does Lara feel transformed and empowered, you feel transformed and empowered. The moment the men went from “FIND HER! I don’t care WHAT you do to her when you do, just find her!” to “She’s too big of a threat, kill her.” to “SHE’S JUST ONE GIRL! SHE’S JUST ONE STUPID LITTLE GIRL! HOW IS SHE KILLING ALL OF OUR MEN!” to “OH GOD, OH GOD SHE’S STILL ALIVE! GET MORE ARTILLERY DOWN HER SHE’S STILL ALIVE!” to “OH **** SHE FOUND US! GET THE **** OUT OF MY WAY!” you truly transform from victim to warrior.

"I took a poll with me, myself and I and decided being a helpless victim is OVERRATED SO WHEN YOU FIND YOUR BOY PARTS YOU KNOW WHERE TO FIND ME!!!!"

“I took a poll with me, myself and I and decided being a helpless victim is OVERRATED SO WHEN YOU FIND YOUR BOY PARTS I’LL BE OVER HERE SHOOTING THE CRAP OUT OF YOUR FRIENDS!!!!”

Tomb Raider 2013 surprised me on numerous levels. For one, it was a Tomb Raider game that I liked, nay, loved. For another it controlled well both in combat and in exploration. For another the narrative was something I could focus on and enjoy. For another, everything was handled tastefully and very well done. I appreciate what they did as a gamer, as a reviewer, as a fighter, as a protector, as a writer and as a survivor.

Tomb Raider is out now for the Xbox 360, the PS3, and with some compatibility issues for the PC. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, you won’t regret it.

Xeawn, out.

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