Tomb Raider review
Stranded on the mythical island of Yamatai following a freak storm, 21-year-old Lara Croft's career as a videogame protagonist begins with suffering. In the opening hours of Tomb Raider she is stabbed, burned, drenched, assaulted and almost freezes to death: that's if you're doing well, meeting the demands of every linear climbing section, gunfight, finickety stealth sequence and quick-time event that presents itself. Fail any of these and you'll also watch her be crushed, impaled, strangled, mauled and so on.
"Lara sobs and trembles, and evident effort has been made to slow down and focus on the details of her experience."
This early cruelty is the game's most strikingly idiosyncratic feature. Lara sobs and trembles, and evident effort has been made to slow down and focus on the details of her experience. Hunger necessitates finding a bow and hunting deer. Her elbows shake believably when she mantles up onto a ledge. Her first human kill leaves her blood-soaked and distraught. Give it a few months and I suspect these opening hours will be what people will be talking about when they talk about Crystal Dynamics' reboot. It's certainly what they've been talking about until now.
Play on for another few hours, however, and you'll find yourself in a hybrid of third-person shooter and linear platformer, Lara trading the bleak little lethalities of life as a shipwreck survivor for a parade of regulation set-pieces: an escape from a burning building, a helicopter crash, a section where your guns are taken away, a climactic assault on an enemy stronghold.
Moment by moment, the game evolves into something more familiar. During a battle with Yamatai's savage Solarii brotherhood high up in the mountains, the camera crash-zooms onto a set of blast doors which burst open to reveal an armoured islander holding a riot shield. Stop me if you've heard this one before: you beat him by dodging his machete blows and shooting him in the back when he stumbles. Everything about this character - from his introduction to his execution - is lifted from the Big Book of Miniboss Design, Third-Person Shooter Edition (Bleszinski/Mikami, 2005).
Shortly afterwards, Lara hops onto the bottom rung of a ladder leading up a rickety radar tower whose topmost transmitter is her crew's best hope for rescue. Once you're on that bottom rung, the game will only accept one input: forwards. Press forward and Lara climbs: press anything else and Lara stops. There's no way to fail, though a few pre-canned moments will have a rusty rung give way and leave her hanging. There's a point where the game slips into a cutscene but pretends that it hasn't: nothing changes, with the exception that it's no longer accepting your input. Let go and Lara will keep climbing without you. Adventure game sleight-of-hand, as taught at Uncharted's School of Seven Bells - what is being pickpocketed, in this case, is your right as a player to have your agency reflected in the events taking place on-screen.
"It relaxes back into the series' matinee adventure comfort zone."
Then, after another calamitous mountainside descent, Lara emerges out onto a familiar landscape - a hub area - from a new vantage point. Your options for traversal have been expanded by the acquisition of rope arrows that allow you to pull down certain doors and affix zip-lines to particular posts. There are letters and relics to find, and secret tombs to plunder for bonus skill points. Tomb Raider becomes about gentle exploration for a while, and there's nothing particularly traumatic about it. It's very, very pretty. You forget about the multiple times you watched Lara's throat be ripped out by a wolf because you kept fumbling a quicktime event. You stop wondering if pressing the buttons to make Lara go through this carnival of horrors is not an act of cruelty in and of itself.
The memory of that first traumatic kill fades as you kneel behind another piece of waist-high cover to ping arrows into the cranii of obliging brotherhood warrior after obliging brotherhood warrior. When the game gives up on being a story about a young woman having an absolutely terrible time, it improves. It relaxes back into the series' matinee adventure comfort zone, and some of its later set-pieces are genuinely spectacular as a result.
"Lara herself is the game's standout success, particularly when she stops running."
The quality of the writing varies. Conversations between Lara's fellow survivors are believable despite their rote characterisation: nerdy twenty-something male, tough black woman, untrustworthy TV personality, spiritual Maori, and so on. Lara herself is the game's standout success, particularly when she stops running and decides to take direct action: the perceptible change she undergoes is a good example of writing, performance, and animation working together to create a sympathetic and admirable person in place of a fantasy.
The game spits out some real eye-rollers, though - it's honestly a miracle that Lara can find anything to fall off given the amount of scenery the villain manages to chew through in his relatively brief screen-time. Enemy chatter doesn't fare much better. I can think of a number of things I might say if I suddenly found myself with an arrow in my sternum, and "damn, she's a good shot!" isn't high on the list.
The real weakness of Tomb Raider's storytelling, though, is its failure to express its big ideas in the way it plays. Lara receives two pieces of advice repeatedly during the game: 'trust your instincts' and 'keep moving forward'. Both jar with the reality of what Tomb Raider actually wants you to do. 'Trust your instincts' should really be understood as 'trust Lara's instincts': or at least, trust Survival Instinct mode, which highlights objects in the environment you can interact with. Trust that this type of craggy rock will always be climbable, that these barricades will always yield to your rope arrows, that this particular type of scenery will always be flammable - and that you should always do all of these things because that's why they're there.