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December 10, 2015

So How Good is Tomb Raider, Really?

Hey, anybody remember PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale?  Anybody?

A lot of discussions have been had on the game’s roster, which is completely fair.  Not all of the choices made in/for that game were what I’d call good, and the lack of some key faces is proof of that.  Chief among them?  I’m pretty sure there were some people calling for Lara Croft (with Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon pretty much locked away in Activision’s dungeon), but were passionately denied the chance.  Why?  Who knows?  I mean, I’m not an expert on the franchise, but I thought that Tomb Raider was a mainstay of the PlayStation family until semi-recently.  Granted I’m guessing some installments and ports made it to the PC, but even if Lara’s jumped to other consoles, it’s a moot point when she would’ve shared a game with a Big Daddy and Isaac Clarke.

Anyway, Tomb Raider.  Thanks to the 2013 reboot and the recent game, the name’s seen a lot of traction.  Like plenty of properties these days, what’s old is new again; there’s a new Lara Croft and not one, but two brand new adventures, with a whole new style and the horsepower to make each new game the most extensive to date.  That’s not to undermine the successes and legacy of the earlier games, of course, but it’s a safe bet that the new stuff -- spearheaded by Crystal Dynamics -- is here to stay.

But is that a good thing?  Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

In case it wasn’t obvious by now, let me go ahead and be clear: I don’t have any deep attachment to or loyalty towards the Tomb Raider franchise.  My very first experience with it was thanks to one of its installments being part of a demo disc for the PC, and even then I only touched it a couple of times.  After that, I played a bit of Tomb Raider Underworld on the Xbox 360…which went unfinished, because that was right around the time when the console red-ringed.  I haven’t even touched the 2013 game, and with Rise of the Tomb Raider being an Xbone exclusive (for now), I’m definitely not going to touch it for a good while.  If at all.

Not to strain my credibility (sure, let’s call it that), but I have to be honest: I can’t summon up the will to care about the two recent TR games.  It’s a gritty reboot!  It’s got that now-standard AAA excess!  It’s so violent!  And so on, and so forth.  I acknowledge that the two new games are probably better than my gut instinct gives them credit for, but even though I’ve had plenty of chances to give the new stuff a try -- buying the 2013 game at launch well among them -- I’ve never bothered.  It’s a green eggs and ham situation, only I’d wager there’s a 50/50 chance that the secret ingredient is poison.

How topical.

I’ll probably get around to playing the 2013 game someday, maybe.  But to my credit, I have seen footage and read/watched reviews and editorials.  The first installment of the reboot has the infamous problems of “there are barely any tombs” and “ludonarrative dissonance”, and to some extent, those are legacy issues that carried over into the second game (the second point more than the first, I’d bet).  The new canon is firmly lodged in the armpit of modern gaming, but it may have soaked up the stench as a result.  When I see the leading lady walking through a dark alley in the rain with her hood up and morosely dishing out a soliloquy, I can’t help but groan.

Speaking of which, the game-maker or game-breaker is and always will be its lead: Lara Croft.  Again, I have to be honest; part of the reason I’ve been so apathetic towards this reboot is that even now, I haven’t been won over by the new Lara.  Based on what I’ve seen -- which is technically enough to spoil both games -- there isn’t enough of this new character to justify making a new character.  She regularly bounces back and forth between sequences of extreme physical abuse like a pinball.  Because that’s how you wring sympathy out of a character: pound every last drop of blood out of their bodies so that players will bond with her in a desperate attempt to keep her safe.

That’s a gross simplification of the character, I know.  But here’s the thing: even if I use that gross simplification to describe other characters, there’s still something more to latch onto.  Joel Grumpybuns from The Last of Us is a gruff survivalist who opens his heart to his young charge on their way across the country.  Geralt from The Witcher 3 is a wizened and sardonic bounty hunter, but still cares deeply about the people closest to him.  Booker DeWitt from BioShock Infinite is a hired gun with a chip on his shoulder and a job to do, but steadily loses his grip on the situation, his charge, and even his sense of self as he guns down mutant sky-racists.  Nu-Lara is -- to be fair -- a young student plucked from safety and obscurity, and forced to survive.  And…then what, exactly?

Where’s her pizazz?  What’s her arc?  What makes her stand out from everyone else besides a different set of reproductive organs?  I don’t know.  I’m sure if I played the games, I’d have a better answer -- but on the other hand, I’ve been reading responses, comments, articles, and more to the rebooted canon since before the 2013 game came out, all the way up to the present day.  And in that time, I can’t think of anything substantial that’s been said about her character. 

Not her circumstances, but her character.  Well, no, that’s not entirely true.  On one hand, the games have sold fairly well.  On the other hand, I’ve seen arguments for and against Nu-Lara, sometimes in the same space.  On the phantom hand, the Eurogamer review practically confirmed everything I feared from the outset.  Also, despite one of the early trailers suggesting that Lara would deal with lingering issues/PTSD from the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider apparently ignores that entirely…AKA the surefire way to make the character interesting.

So the question at hand is: “How do you create a strong female character?”  And my knee-jerk, reactionary answer is: “Not like this.”

Maybe we need more stuff like this.

Let’s not pretend like the original Lara Croft (across all of the other games, which in their own right saw a reboot at one point) is some great bastion of characterization.  In her earliest form, Lara didn’t do much talking; in the games that followed, she became famous for gunning down anything and everything that stood in her way, just ‘cause.  My understanding is that she was only there for vicarious living; the players may not have gone on adventures, but they could by glomming onto a fearless, intelligent, wealthy archaeologist with superhuman shooting and jumping abilities.  There’s well-rounded, and then there’s God Mode.

Speaking of well-rounded, I guess I can’t ramble about Lara without talking about her legacy of sex appeal.  I probably don’t need to say a word besides “improbably buxom”, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway: legs for days, clothes that wouldn’t fit a toddler, lips not even Angelina Jolie could match, a waist born from decades of corset training, and a pair of chest-beefers that could destroy any given sweater.  It’s impossible to ignore Lara’s scintillating looks, especially since evolving technology led to evolving looks…which the marketing department was sure to capitalize on over the years.  Not that the developers didn’t, but that highlights an interesting point.

Obviously, my knowledge of the franchise is limited.  I don’t know every event of every game.  That’s why I have to ask: were there any points in the old games where Lara was sexualized?  There’s no denying her distinct figure, and Tomb Raider Underworld wastes NO time putting the leading lady in a wetsuit, but was there ever a point where the game came to a screeching halt to clumsily point out she was good-looking?  I don’t know, but I suspect not.  She’s out in the wilderness and tombs and such most of the time, isn’t she?  So it’s not like she has the time or reason to show off.  And even if she goes up against the goons du jour, she’s probably busier taking potshots than flaunting her curves.

A quick sweep of TV Tropes (it’s possible) suggests that outside of some subtle breast physics, there’s not a lot of fanservice in the actual games -- which is weird, considering that Lara’s been both an understood and officially-recognized sex symbol.  So I guess that means the media did all the legwork on the character’s “behalf”.  Well, that, and the marketing divisions behind each respective game…for good and for ill.  Mostly for ill.  I mean, it’s almost as if a bunch of guys in a boardroom decided that they would tell everyone who Lara Croft was, even if it contrasted starkly with the wishes of the actual creator of the character.  Oh wait.

Speaking personally?  If I had to choose which Lara to proverbially follow to hell and back, I’d choose the old Lara.  Why?  Easy -- because one of them is way cooler than the other.  Sure, the new one is more realistic (if we overlook the fact that a well-to-do twentysomething can shrug off getting impaled and buried in an avalanche), but old Lara had style.  She had pizazz.  She had an air about her.  I mean, I’m pretty sure I spent most of my limited time in Underworld doing flips that wouldn’t be too out of place in an episode of Power Rangers; it’s not realistic in the slightest, but it’s still cool.  Conversely, what does Nu-Lara do?  Suffer?  Fall off of stuff?  Survive?  It’s true that you can get a good character and story out of adversity, but there’s always a limit.  The reboot and its sequel have broken that limit, and walked away worse for it.

I don’t want to be that guy, but I have to voice my concerns.  See, I remember the GameInformer article on the 2013 reboot, and it had an interesting tidbit: apparently in a series of tests, the devs found exactly the results they wanted.  That is, they tracked where people’s eyes went when observing Nu-Lara; instead of focusing on her chest, they focused on the eyes.  That’s cool and all, but there’s a part of me that feels like that’s a little misguided.  For starters, the TR games play out in third person, so the player’s going to be seeing Lara from behind instead of the front for a good 80% of the run time…and given what I’ve seen, that offers up MANY chances to show off Lara’s million-dollar backside.

I guess my problem is the same one I’ve had for a while: it feels like there’s this misconception that big breasts = terrible character.  Or, alternatively, sexy character = terrible character.  (So I guess all the women in the real world who actually have big breasts can piss off, eh?)  Nu-Lara is more realistic, but from a casual observer’s perspective, she’s lacking the charm and aura that made the original Lara a video game icon in the first place. 

Sure, she was sexy, but that’s not the only thing that mattered for either the character or the old games.  In the former’s case (in art or in-game), she exuded confidence and control, strength and style, grace and gumption; I did so many flips in Underworld because it made me think “Wow, what a cool character!”  Not “Wow, time to unzip!”  I mean, just look at the box art over the years; Classic Lara’s face shows off focus on her goal, an iron resolve, or a sassy smirk.  She’s ready for adventure.  Meanwhile, Nu-Lara looks like she’s either unprepared for it, or desperate to escape from it.  That doesn’t sound like the most engaging hero.  And justified or not, it’s part of the reason why I can’t summon the willpower to even try to give the new games a chance.

This new reboot is supposed to show how Nu-Lara goes from a beaten-down victim to a world-class adventuring archaeologist.  But every time I look at the latest games, I end up shouting “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” in my head.  I suppose I’m one of those weirdos who’ll take style over “realism” any day.

And that’s about all I’ve got for now.  Well, technically I could still say more on several subjects (and I will at some point in the future), but for now?  I’ll reiterate one last time: I don’t know the TR franchise intimately.  That’s why I’m putting out an APB for you guys to fill in the blanks.  Whether you’re a long-time fan or a new challenger, point me in the right direction.

So let’s hear it, then.  How good is Tomb Raider, really?  Not very?  A classic, ruined?  A modern marvel that absolves the sins of the past?  Trash in any and every era?  Or a masterpiece unrivaled?  Weigh in with anything you can think of.  I’ll be waiting.

Got it?  Then strap on your tiny shorts.  Ready?  Set…comment!

Also, don’t fail any QTEs unless you want your head run through with a spike.  Christ, I can’t believe the devs put that in there.  What the hell were they thinking?

I know I shouldn’t say “well, that explains it” because they were only the publishers, but…well, that explains it.

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