Tomb Raider – Good Game, Horrible Prequel
I think Tomb Raider 2 was the first game I ever played. It was either that or Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, but being the (slightly) less scary of the two, it was Tomb Raider that stuck around. We were a great team, Lara and me, and I’d spend hours sitting on the floor in front of the TV, the cogs and gears inside my infantile mind ticking away while solving the puzzles. Lara was a pretty great companion for a kid like me – her adult appeal something I was completely oblivious to – she was smart, witty, formidable, yet silently patient and tolerant of my poor childish dexterity and problem-solving skills, even when that meant her being thrown to the sharks or into spike-filled pits.
Tomb Raider’s accompanied me throughout my entire life since. Even before gaming was a fairly central part of my day-to-day, Tomb Raider was always something worth paying attention to, worth throwing time and money at. I slaved away at the Playstation 1 titles, I miraculously suffered through the god-awful wreck that was Angel of Darkness without completely losing faith, and I loved Legend and Underworld.
The announcement of a prequel in 2011 was intriguing to say the least. The beginnings of the adventurer that kickstarted my interest in games? Count me interested, if a little cautious. The developer of the original Tomb Raider titles has long since been dissolved, after all. I reject completely the term ‘reboot’ for it, and in fact for most games referred to as such, since for most part all it means is more brown, grey and crying. It doesn’t so much breathe new life into the series – something that I don’t believe is even necessary – as simply adapt it to the Uncharted-style action adventure we’re all suddenly in love with. That’s not inherently bad; the Uncharted series is great and owes plenty of its roots to Tomb Raider, but I seriously question how much we’re supposed to believe that this could have possibly been the ‘adventure that started it all’ for Lara.
Crystal Dynamics are hugely proud of the ‘Lara’s first kill’ scene, a twenty minute-or-so snippet they showed off gratuitously in the months preceding Tomb Raider’s release. This is supposedly the moment in which our leading British lady goes from wide-eyed explorer to a young Indy Jones, but does she? A gruesome, desperate kill, yep. A bit of a breakdown, a re-evaluation of life, fair enough. But then a switch gets flicked inside Lara’s head, something gets cranked up to 11, and we see a Lara that’s not just different to her in the beginning of the game, but completely different to any version of her we’ve ever seen. She’s not experienced or even just cold-hearted, she’s an utter killing machine. Five minutes later and she’s setting people on fire, popping headshots like it’s nothing, and screaming battle cries. This isn’t just a kneejerk fight-or-flight response we see from a ‘true survivor’, she stays like this for the entire game. By the time an hour had passed, I’d killed more enemies than there are in the entirety of Tomb Raider 2.
Another aspect that Crystal love to point out is the sheer physical battery Lara receives. Falling off cliffs and waterfalls, getting impaled on rusty spikes, and generally being thrown about like a ragdoll makes for some impressive cinematics, but it’s nonsensical to believe that this is what makes men out of mice. If anyone, even ‘a Croft’, survived the corridor of pain and misery that Lara endures in Tomb Raider, it’s absurd to believe they’d want anything other than to have a cup of tea and a sit down and a warm blanket… forever. That, or a lifetime of psychiatric help.
If you’re able to enjoy the relentless duck-and-cover shooting that Tomb Raider forces you into 80% of the game, that’s fair. It’s not badly made, I’d even say its combat is much better than Legend’s or Underworld’s. But there’s far, far too much of it, and I’d estimate that time spent killing bad guys more than triples the time spent solving environmental puzzles or climbing gigantic structures. Throw your ‘reboot’ approach around all you want, but Lara *isn’t* Marcus Fenix. Crystal, you make a nice, smooth third person mechanics, but don’t slap the ‘Tomb Raider’ title on it. This isn’t what the series is, and it isn’t who Lara is. She’s smarter, and the games should be smart too.
Perhaps, after all, the problem with it is the marketing. Square Enix were determined not to push just a TR sequel, but a real game-changer in the way people see Mrs Croft. ‘A survivor is born’, we were told ad nauseam. But it’s only served to make me feel more disconnected from the character I’ve known for so long, to discover that, supposedly, my childhood heroine was born on the island from Lost shooting hundreds and hundreds of people in the face. It’s fun, but it’s banal and disappointing. This was meant to be the story that changed everything; I wish I’d never heard it told.