All the arguments have been had, multiple times; what do the motivations behind our involvement with the Tomb Raider franchise tell us about our perceptions of gender equality and progressivism? Does the incremental intangible sophistication and overt desexualisation of the main protagonist over the years mirror the changing attitudes in society, or has society forced these changes within games and the gaming world? Or was it just the scope of realism afforded to developers through technological advances? Perhaps the early cartoonish incarnations of Lara Croft was one big, long, post-modernist joke, and the character created, in part, to rile those who obsessively (and therefore pointlessly) raged against forms of cheap female objectification?
You’ll be aware of these arguments; they may or may not have merit, but, well, who cares? I mean, it’s a fucking game, man. The suggestion that anyone would be aroused by a heavily pixilated, unnaturally proportioned figure is odd, but then again we live in a post Jessica Rabbit world that has Bronies in it. So, yeah, maybe some are, but where’s the harm? Whatever floats your boat, I suppose.
Anyway, such debates miss the true strength of the Tomb Raider games, and the reason the franchise has succeeded, namely its ability to combine combat with engrossing narratives that necessitates the player match the inquisitiveness of the character’s legend and finds gratification from using the old grey matter to solve the game’s puzzles. At its best it managed to offer an enticing suspension of reality by combining fanciful elements of future-esque technology with old world mythologies, think a sophisticated Harry Potter-esque world, only without a sanctimonious and myopic author lording it up on Twitter like some rotten embittered has-been.
It’s been over a decade since I last played a Tomb Raider game, so comparatively this second game of the reboot (technically within the Lara Croft timeline it’s a prequel – hence the name) contains multiple drastic enhancements. Improvements in graphics and physics are par the course in this era of games. Still, I’m playing the game in 4K with the settings on medium and well, the detail of the landscape and the characters is impressive despite having been gaming at a 4K resolution for months now. It’s the attention to detail too; clothes rip, Lara’s skin gets cut, bruised, dirtied and bloodied, and her clothes fray. Lara’s movements are fluid and her physical capabilities (not only her measurables) are somewhat realistic; she can no longer hold her breath for three minutes, and she can’t break the Olympic long jump record from a standing start. Then again, just to repeat, this is a game. It would be no fun if Lara accidently fell off a ledge twenty feet up only for the game to say abruptly – game over – Lara’s got a sprained ankle, no more climbing or rappelling for three weeks.
What makes Rise Of The Tomb Raider great is the addition of integrating survival activities and tactics to its successful formula. It forces you to be inquisitive to survive – over and above what even a hardened fan of the series would normally be. You can’t survive and complete the game without doing at least some of it. You need to gather resources (collecting salvage metals and animal skins, as well as gold coins to buy crafting tools) to build and improve/acquire weapons and pouches which increase the amount of ammunition you can carry – you can also loot dead opponents, another nice feature. You’re also rewarded with improved survival and combat skills, this incentivises searching all the crevices, nooks and crannies the game offers. There’s nothing worse than the thought of missing a reward or a secret, because that means you’re not playing the game properly. This elongates the game, making it seem longer than the directly associated campaign events and missions would be if you played them without distraction.
Hunting for animals, in particular, is quite good fun. If you’re a wildlife lover this game might not be for you, as Lara is certainly no WWF member. Eventually, more egregiously, you gain the ability whereby the rough locations of ‘exotic animals’ (in certain cases that’s a euphemism for endangered these days), such as Bears, Boars, Stags and Snow Leopards, appear on the map. There’s something very ‘White Hunter Black Heart’ about encroaching into a Bear’s den and choosing how to antagonise and kill it. All I know is John Huston would’ve approved of such vanity hunts, and within this fictitious realm of diminished consequences so do I. Mind you, if you agree with Germaine Greer’s assessment that Steve Irwin and his like was/are asking for it by brazenly trifling with nature for sheer self-aggrandisement, you’ll be glad to know that the larger animals are quite dangerous and or difficult to kill. All of the death sequences at their hands, sorry paws and teeth, are visceral (and yes I’ve seen them all now). Seeing Lara’s throat being ripped out by a Bear is significantly more gruesome than the effect of a long fall (which you see from a distance), being shot by a Trinity henchmen (collapsing with a groan as it fades to grey), being impaled on spikes, or getting caught in a strong water current which pulverises her against the rocks.
Lara is tiny, comparative to the other characters. Even other female characters seem to tower over her. Some may see this as an unnecessarily cynical modification of Lara’s stature to engender sympathy within the player for her character sans her skimpy attire, but clearly she, and the game, is an analogy of how small Mother Nature can make humans when we’re stripped of the many technological advances that sees us often thrive in inhospitable climates and terrains. What Lara’s eventual Pocket Rocketness certainly does do is aid the game’s narrative, as, at the start, her youth and diminutiveness is part of the reason her adversaries take her for granted. She looks and sounds like a naive girl, and they hope she is, however her confidence in combat grows the better she (and you) become at it. In particular I loved one sequence, and was completely surprised, when she attacks a squad of eight or so (I too much fun gunning them down to count) Trinity stooges, and one of them shouts ‘take her down’, to which she replies, ‘come on then, come and try’. Not very lady like, but it’s clearly a signal that her naivety’s been replaced by self-belief. Plus, it reminded me of Dad’s Army’s Lance Corporal Jones’ exclamation ‘that they don’t like it up ‘em’. In fact, the only thing that would’ve topped this quip is after Lara had finished them off there was a cut scene where she said something equally dismissive along those lines.
As with most games, shooting, or rather free aiming, is far quicker with a mouse than the gamepad. Sadly, if, like me, you’re on a gamepad, but use a mouse to free aim, the default controls compromises the use of special rounds of ammubition. You could of course change the button to left trigger instead of right in the options (so you could still use the left mini-stick to control Lara’s movements whilst shooting), but I’ve gotten used to this configuration now. However, as with all games, every other action; moving, jumping, climbing, etc is far more intuitive on the controller. I had a go at climbing a rock face on the keyboard and it was pure misery, also, those chaotic, and brilliant, quicktime cinematic sequences where you have to move quickly as ice and rocks are falling, and pathways are crumbling all around you, are nigh on impossible to complete on an unintuitive port designed for typing. Overall, the ‘Survivor’ setting, which is the most difficult of the difficulty settings (and this is the only setting I’ve tried), manages to successfully straddle the difficult line of being neither too easy nor too hard.
Many of the levels are openish world and challenges and side missions can be done in any order (or not at all), but why wouldn’t you? Unless you’re desperate to conclude the game’s story sooner, but that would be a waste. Usually the narrative in most games is secondary to the gameplay, but in Rise Of The Tomb Raider it’s important, as Lara’s past is inextricably linked with her current quest, and wanting to understand that is key to understanding what’s going on. Finding the documents littered over the levels from various figures and eras, with their differing motivations, further fleshes out the story. Even better, thus far, having only completed half of the game, there has been one completely unpredictable twist during one of the cut scenes, hopefully there’ll be more.
I only have a few mild criticisms of the game – first, there aren’t enough puzzle tombs. There are nine in the game. It’s called Tomb Raider, give me more. So far I’ve only done four. They all posed their own challenges, and while the solutions for some presented themselves easier than others, one in particular had me stumped for a good solid hour. It’s a satisfying irritation which makes you question your own intelligence, followed by relief as you feel the inner warmth of sheer vindication develop when you finally solve it, or, in certain cases, get the timing right.
The option of any DLC content is a nice, but at £7 each for what are two side missions seems a little steep, and why couldn’t there be DLC puzzle tombs? I reckon those would’ve been very popular. The other quibble is semi-related, the unlockable rewards, particularly the trading cards thingy, is an idea incorrectly executed. Why cards? It seems gimmicky at best, petty extortion at worst. It’s doubly frustrating for those of us who go looking for the challenge of the game’s highest difficulty immediately, from start to finish, only to discover that these unlockable rewards and certain advanced settings have been oddly conflated as extras. Why not just have these in an advanced settings menu, or the others as in game rewards/collectables? For example it would’ve been good to turn on Lara’s susceptibility to the cold (‘frostbite’ gradually losing heat – meaning you have to return to a base camp periodically) on or off before I started my current save game.
But there is no such thing as perfection, and you don’t need any of these garnishes anyway, this game is challenging and interesting enough, as is its story, so no one who plays Rise Of The Tomb Raider can have any significant problems with it. It not only pays homage to the game’s considerable legacy, but this edition of the reboot has improved its template for future releases.