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Review: “Tomb Raider”

TRIGGER WARNING: This review discusses depictions of sexual assault.

WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers for Tomb Raider.
Crystal DynamiTomb Raidercs’ Tomb Raider is a “reimagining” of one of gaming’s most hallowed franchises. It may be useful here to reflect on the profound ways that the preceding TR games have impacted our lives. Imagine a world where Angelina Jolie was just another reasonably well-regarded actress, and not some kind of international diplomat. Imagine theme parks without TR-branded rides. Imagine popular culture without gigantic-breasted female caricatures. OK, the last one really is difficult to imagine, although we suspect such things might have existed prior to the invention of Lara Croft.

Can we be real for a moment? If the Tomb Raider franchise had much going for it in terms of gameplay, the price of admission for the thinking gamer was being constantly embarrassed by the base appeal to hetero-boy titillation embodied (literally) in Lara Croft. Certainly it was a price we were unwilling to pay; this is the first TR game we’ve played, and we approached the title with no little trepidation. Why reboot a series that’s been totally played out, not just in one medium but several, with a main character who practically invites a whole episode of Feminist Frequency devoted entirely to her problematic? Senseless nostalgia, brainless money-squeezing, yet another example of the “crisis of originality” in American popular culture!

So yeah, the game is actually really…good.

We’re tempted to hypothesize that the success of a “reimagined” work is, as a rule, in inverse proportion to the quality of the original. Thus the new Battlestar Galactica was a brilliantly unfaithful development of the schlocky crypto-Mormonite archetype, whereas the second coming of The Prisoner withers before the bizarre genius of Patrick McGoohan’s classic. So maybe the lameness of the source material was a kind of secret boon to Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer on this Tomb Raider, who has produced a notably interesting and strikingly non-sexualized Lara Croft.

The game follows Lara and a small crew after they shipwreck on an island in the “Dragon’s Triangle” south of Tokyo. They had been in search of the fabled island of Yamatai, ruled in ancient times by the “Sun Queen” Himiko, by legend a powerful sorceress. Plowing into the Triangle was Lara’s idea, which was a good idea inasmuch as Yamatai is exactly where they’ve wrecked; and which was a bad idea inasmuch as Yamatai is a total horror show run by a crazy ritual murder cult. Lara’s quest to get herself and her comrades off the island propels her into confrontation with the cult and the dark forces behind it.

Camilla Luddington

Workaday woman Camilla Luddington

One is somewhat ashamed to say so, but the most obviously new aspect of the new Lara Croft is that she looks like a biological woman and not an inflatable sex doll that one would struggle to fully inflate. So at long last, a realistic-looking female protagonist in a major-release video game? Slow down. Lara is modeled on Anglo-American actress Camilla Luddington, who is “realistic-looking” in the sense that she is, you know, real. Like how Luciano Pavarotti is “realistic-sounding” and Thomas Friedman is “realistic-sucking.” That said, Lara’s physical attractiveness isn’t a focus of the game either explicitly or implicitly; she’s dressed more or less normally, in form-fitting clothes but not a salacious “get up” ala most female action heroes. So while we remain in the stage of pre-history where we expect our female protagonists to be “hot,” these days they can at least be low-key about it. Make of that what you will.

We’d give TR far too little credit, however, if we were to suggest that it merely avoids the most obvious facepalms of its predecessors. Actually the game’s development of Lara’s character represents a real advance, even over Pratchett’s earlier work on Faith for Mirror’s Edge. While LGR liked the narrative (but not the gameplay) of that title, we did feel that Faith’s toughness, while refreshing in a female lead, was somewhat too uncomplicated. In TR, on the other hand, Lara really grows into her badassery, starting from a point of great anxiety and fear that nonetheless never overcomes her. Indeed, there’s a profound feeling of danger and dread in the early game that one sometimes misses after Lara fully emerges as a one-woman army.

On that note, we should discuss now-infamous controversy over the “attempted rape” scene, a controversy that Crystal Dynamics inexplicably bumbled itself into. It may give the wrong impression to describe the sequence as an attempted rape: for what it’s worth, if you lose the Quick-Time Event, Lara’s assailant “simply” breaks her neck. Yet the studio’s claim that “[s]exual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game” doesn’t hold up either; Lara’s assailant grabs her in a manner suggesting imminent sexual violence. This is sexual assault by definition–furthermore, anyone in Lara’s position would have every right to think she was in danger of being raped.

There was no need for Crystal Dynamics to “run away from” the issue of sexual assault, because the scene itself is quite justified artistically. Lara is a young woman stranded on a island full of manifestly violent and hostile men: it would insane to pretend that the threat of sexual violence is not present, even pervasive. The game should be credited for actualizing this fear–especially for male players who may not be disposed to “notice” it in the first place. The scene isn’t drawn out, nor is Lara “reduced” to the incident–indeed, the focus is not so much on what Lara’s assailant does to her, but vice-versa. But it does signal that Lara Croft is not–and cannot be–Max Payne or Nathan Drake.

The game plays very smoothly, like a hybrid of Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted, albeit more the latter. It looks and sounds excellent, and the player is treated to some truly stunning (or truly gruesome) vistas. Lara moves a little more slowly and hesitantly than, say, Ezio Auditore, but this is entirely realistic. Particularly notable are the choreographed chase/escape sequences, which are some of the best we’ve ever played. It’s a little eyebrow-raising when just the right platform element appears at just the right moment for the fifth or sixth time in a row, of course, but you’re having so much fun that it would be ungenerous to mind.

tomb raider temple fire

What could possibly go wrong?

Combat is decent, but we didn’t find it particularly compelling. Lara, in this game at least, is sort of a natural for a stealth approach, especially since her bow turns out to be her best weapon; however, the game insists on throwing her into set-piece full frontal assaults on several occasions, in which she plays less effectively. These struck us as somewhat artificial, almost de rigueur demonstrations of badassedness. We would have preferred that the game offered a stealth alternative to bum-rushing the show for those of us who aren’t awfully invested in seeing new Lara reproduce old Lara’s charge-in-guns-blazing approach.

One disappointment–albeit an optional disappointment–is Tomb Raider‘s actual, well, tomb raiding. This is similar to exploring  the Assassin’s Tombs in Assassin’s Creed II: little extra platforming/puzzle challenges that offer nifty rewards. Unfortunately in TR the challenge is very little indeed: solve a single, Abigail Fisher-level puzzle, and you’ve won the prize. Like some of the combat, the tombs feel tacked-on, as if someone late in development said, “Golly, we better put some tombs in a game with the word ‘tomb’ in the title.”

Since Lara’s development is driven by her struggle with her surroundings–the true antagonist is really “the island”–a fairly interesting protagonist development arc coexists incongruously with a mediocre, even cookie-cutter supporting cast. There’s the dignified father figure, the grizzled Scottish brawler, the no-nonsense black lady, the Hawaiian dude who’s “connected to nature,” the Asian girl with a camera, the nerdy-but-cute engineer, the Aryan narcissist who is obviously going to betray you…whatever.

tomb raider graduation photo

Hmm, maybe that’s a “Business Psychology” degree

The story isn’t that interesting either, especially after the mid-game when it flips into straightforward supernaturalism. If we compare Tomb Raider to the (two good) Indiana Jones movies–and we don’t see any way to avoid it, nor any reason why we should–we note in the latter that supernatural forces are only strongly invoked near the end; Jones has to come to terms with the “greater powers” only at the end of his quest. By way of contrast, it’s rather jarring how quickly Lara–who is, you know, a scientist–accepts and even advances mystical explanations for what’s happening on Yamatai. These happen to be the correct explanations, of course, but it uncomplicates the plot and renders the island mystical without being mysterious.

LGR East doesn’t do multiplayer, so we can’t speak to that; but there’s no question but that Crystal Dynamics has produced a very fine single-player experience. It’s not perfect, but the studio deserves credit for risking a reinvention of a tired but historically successful franchise when a conservative sequel or rerun might have made better “business sense.” And the new Lara Croft takes gaming a step beyond Juliet Starling, Bayonetta, or even the women of Mass Effect. It’s an experience we’re happy to recommend.

Tomb Raider is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Windows PC.