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Tomb Raider single-handedly justifies franchise reimagination.

To get it out of the way, Tomb Raider is a technical masterpiece. Crystal Dynamics has completely outdone themselves on pretty nearly every level with this game. It is not flawless, but most masterpieces aren’t. Still, I give it this label because if it is a perfect iteration of its genre. We might call this genre the “action platformer” in which combat mechanics are as important as spectacle, scale, and yes the mechanics of movement across digital environments. It is hard to make a creative platformer. It is even harder to make a shooter or action game that feels new and interesting. Tomb Raider is not a product of an attempt to reinvent anything other than the franchise itself, representing a symbolic rebirth for a new generation of gamers.

Borrowing liberally from the Uncharted series and repackaging many now-mainstay game design concepts (upgrades and “skill” progression, otherwise known as “RPG elements” being a good example), there aren’t a lot of people out there who are going to say that Tomb Raider suffers for being derivative. However, I would argue that trying to bring an established set of conventions up to the maximum level of quality is as worthy a goal as trying to invert, subvert, or otherwise alter standard formulas in the pursuit of novelty. Ergo, Tomb Raider is not a novel game on the level of its actual gameplay. What is fresh and exciting about it is that it takes all these familiar things and executes them with mastery. Sometimes “good” is the only goal that matters, and Tomb Raider is all about “good”.

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Get used to seeing Lara get her butt kicked. She gives back as good as she gets, though.

Being a franchise reboot, Tomb Raider goes back to retell Lara’s origin story. Given that she’s a bit of a super hero, in the Batman-has-no-powers sort of mode, this makes sense and is definitely informed by the recent glut of origin-based superhero films. Lara’s origin is that she’s an assistant to an archaeological personality who has done for his field what Steve Irwin did for zoology. The guy is a douche, but Lara’s tightly-knit group of fellow crew members all seem to basically know it.

During a storm, their ship runs aground on a mysterious island in the middle of the mysterious “Dragon Triangle”. This is a Far-East version of the Bermuda Triangle. They are looking for a lost pseudo-Japanese civilization called Yamatai. One of the crewmembers, Lara’s college buddy Sam, is a supposed descendant of the legenderay Sun Queen Himiko, ruler of Yamatai and said to have supernatural powers like (dramatic cue) control over weather.

The island, it turns out, is definitely Yamatai. Built over the ruins of the pseudo-Japanese society is a patchwork of additional ruins, artifacts, and makeshift towns built up over hundreds of years by visitors running the gamut from World War 2 researchers to frequent castaways. The island’s current inhabitants are a cult of all-male survivors called the Solari. They are led by Mathias, who wants to restore the Sun Queen and finally escape the island. It’s truly impressive what these guys have gotten up to but they are a merciless threat and Lara must constantly survive their traps, fighters, and the rickety nature of their structures in order to save her crew and get home.

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Pictures do not do the beauty of this game justice.

The first and most striking feature of the game is its visuals. It’s become sort of old hat and distasteful to talk about the quality of graphics in a game. This always happens toward the end of a console generation, as most developers settle for what seems like the upper echelon of what the hardware (and their artists) can achieve. Late stage console games always get interesting, though, when the developers try to push that hardware in unexpected ways to achieve unexpected quality. Tomb Raider‘s textures are impressive. They are definitely the best the X-Box 360 is likely to achieve, or at least they look that way to me. The PC version probably looks even better.

This is not why this game’s graphics are so impressive.

I keep telling people that Tomb Raider is all about the lighting. The reason why its environments, lush in all we can expect in terms of detail and hand-made authenticity, are so great is directly due to what CD has accomplished with lighting. It is literally everything in this game’s visual presentation. Just telling you this will not be emphatic enough of a statement for me. You have to see it for yourself. If it doesn’t impress, I don’t know what to say.

And this is the first claim for where Tomb Raider demonstrates mastery.

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I wish hunting was a bigger part of the game.

Level design in Tomb Raider is yet another good example of mastery at work. This game has intricate levels smartly paced between constricting, claustrophobic buildings, caves and tunnels, and wide open spaces where Lara’s various athletic skills and helpful tools become vitally necessary. This is a game that knows players are used to a formula of gameplay that will begin to repeat itself and get stale. We play games and say “oh this is the climbing part, been there and done that”. Eventually, we become numb to these sequences and they just feel like obligatory check boxes on the path to completion or enjoying a story.

Tomb Raider harnesses all the other elements of its production: mechanics, art, design, and its progression system to keep that fatigue from ever occurring. Or at least, from occurring too soon or too often. In other words, Tomb Raider‘s mechanics develop in such a way that there’s just about always something new or interesting going on, big picture or small, with “platform sequence #58”. You get swept up in the flow of it. Game flow is a nebulous concept, but it’s the game equivalent of reading a book you can’t put down and realize 6 hours have passed, or of a movie so engrossing that you forget you’re watching a movie at all.

Tomb Raider is a game made up of spurts of sublime game flow, broken into chunks so as to keep the player digesting even as they dive into the next one. A lot of this is owed to the intelligent level design, the deft balance between exploration and plot-requisite linearity.

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This game is an exemplar of the empowerment fantasy.

The other way this flow is achieved is in where the game chooses to be abstract and “gamey” and where it adheres to realism.

Lara’s appearance changes throughout the game to reflect the beating she’s taking and her constant brushes with fire, barbed wire, and the very ground itself. This is the game’s concession to the fact that Lara actually suffers injuries (including a minor impalement, if there is such a thing) that are more or less shrugged off for the sake of gameplay. I was impressed that, occasionally, Lara would suffer a fall or other pain that would limit her physical abilities temporarily. These are scripted events but I definitely appreciate it, as well as the way the necessity of rest is represented in camps, the game’s inherent way of breaking up the flow. So there’s a balance here where they don’t want the injuries to be too realistic, but they don’t want to ignore that all the shit Lara goes through takes a toll. By the end of the game, she is physically and emotionally scarred and you feel every step of that.

Another dimension of the flow comes in one of the game’s major themes: empowerment. The early action in the game is light on combat until the horrific sequence that prompted all the bombast and backlash that Tomb Raider “is a rape game” just because it includes an allusion to sexual assault. This caused CD to act stupid and say stuff like “players will want to protect Lara” which definitely undermines the actual content of this game, which is generally empowering for either sex and specifically empowering for women and not in a “I am Lara’s big brother helping her out” sort of way. The player embodies Lara as much as he or she would do with any strong-voiced video game character (as opposed to Mary Sue characters). Refreshingly, there are no love interests and Lara saves men more than she is saved by them. Also refreshing is the lightness with which the game touches on the loaded, subtly controversial idea of the female heroine. This idea, and the battles being fought over it, are quickly becoming more heated and visible. I think that it’s fitting that Lara’s origin story game is about empowerment when she is probably one of the first video game heroines that skewed to an older crowd.

It also helps that this game rejects Lara’s status as a sex symbol first and replaces it by making her a strong protagonist that happens to be female. This should be lauded on all sides of the gender equality debate since it not only normalizes female empowerment, it doesn’t do so with soap-boxing. Tomb Raider is not an obstructively political game. It is not didactic or preachy. It’s subtle but still political. Case in point: all of the human enemies Lara fights are men. She is betrayed by men, attacked by men, etc. But so too are all the male video game characters in action games. There’s no sense wherein Tomb Raider is militant feminism. It’s the light, normative type that assumes men want a good empowerment story just as much as women, and that they care far less about the main character’s sex than do the armchair psychologists that fill suits in studios and say things like “games with female protagonists don’t sell”.

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An example of the open, multi-layered levels.

As a snapshot of how Tomb Raider‘s empowerment narrative works, let me submit my favorite moment in the game. Throughout the early parts, as I mentioned, the game is light on combat but death and violence are treated as far more significant than in the usual game. Lara is horrified by her killing of the man who has tried to rape her, and even sheds tears over it. As she progresses to having to fight off others, eventually arming herself with a bow and various guns, she goes through a very human, very rousing progression of fear, uncertainty, and even reluctance before she’s finally had enough. Lara has procedural dialogue where she will react to things in the environment as you play, including enemies. At first she says things like “wait, stop” or “I don’t want to fight” or “leave me alone” but she becomes progressively hardened against the Solari thugs who have attacked her and her friends and subjugated them to violence, torture and death merely for being there. Eventually, Lara becomes aggressive and defiant. This clicked for me when you first get the grenade launcher and the enemies run form you, reacting to the new and destructive weapon Lara is wielding. “That’s right you bastards, I am coming for you!” she cries. I am paraphrasing, but you get the idea. By this point, Lara is not only competent (as she is throughout the game), she is empowered not only by the tools to protect herself but her willingness to use them. This may seem grim or glorifying violence, but it works metaphorically as a narrative of overcoming one’s fears and the obstacles of a hostile, external world. Simply put, Lara becomes a badass and you feel this more organically than pretty much any game I could name. The harmony between the mechanical progression of skills and weapon upgrades and Lara’s characterization are my favorite of the astonishingly good things about this game.

Speaking of the action sequences…

One thing I don’t hear mentioned much is that Tomb Raider has some of the strongest and most interesting AI I’ve ever seen. The enemies always feel like a challenge and behave intelligently, reacting not only to Lara’s weapons but whether she is fighting defensively or aggressively. In other words, the enemy AI reacts to the player in a fluid, lucid way. There’s no “hostile switch” where they just charge at you and there’s very little of the meat-grinder elements of many shooters, both third and first person. It helps that the set pieces and environmental obstacles/aids are so varied, making most of the fights feel fresh and interesting even when you’re pretty sure you’re going to win.

While some have criticized the stealth aspects (mostly that there should have been more of it), I appreciated that the line between avoiding detection and getting caught is subtle and escalation to full-out firefight always felt natural to me. In most games with stealth elements, there’s a powerful urge to “reload” if you fuck up a stealth sequence. In Tomb Raider, I never felt this need. It could be due to how fun combat was, how invested I was in the story, or just that ephemeral flow working its magic. Or all of the above. Either way, an unusual thing for me in any game with stealth elements. I suspect this goes for most people.

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Sometimes there are far grosser looking things waiting for you in the sludge.

If I can point to any particular weak element, it’s probably the somewhat flimsy characterization everybody else has. The game is so focused on Lara that most of the other characters are fairly one-note. Most of them are likable and this counts for something, but I think the story could have been much better with a little more focus on the villains and the friends Lara is bent on saving. They all get nice moments, but they lean on tag-lines or somewhat embarrassing stereotyping (Jonas, the ambiguously ethnic guy, is “spiritual” of course). That said, I appreciate the modern feel of a relatively minor character, Alex the obligatory “nerd”. He has a tattoo and a clever graphic T. This may be a bit one dimensional in its own way, but at least it’s not the sniveling poindexter of yesteryear. Plus, Alex gets a pretty nice heroic moment.

Where Tomb Raider is weak on secondary characters, it is propulsively strong on its primary one. This means that the story is not some black sheep weak point like it so often is in otherwise strong games. Instead, it’s just not as good as it could have been which is not a particularly damning criticism when the game simply emphasizes another element of its storytelling more than the other. Could they have spent more time on other things? Yeah. Would I preferred it if they had? Definitely. Does it really hurt the game? Mileage, it gonna vary.

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You do get more out of the characters if you find their journals and read between the lines. Roth and Reyes are a good example.

All in all, I was pretty surprised that Tomb Raider is as good as it is. It seems like video games are a far more friendly environment for reboots and restarts than movies, but there’s tons of love in this game and you can tell every second you play it. Crystal Dynamics would have sold copies even if they decided to target this game exclusively at 15 year old boys and nostalgic grown-ups who liked it when Lara was just tits with guns and a posh accent. Instead, they showed a remarkable sense of inclusiveness and sensitivity in bringing Tomb Raider to the futuristic world of 2013.

Some are not going to be as taken with it as I was. They will feel like it is just Lady Nathan Drake or something, but I have played the Uncharted games and the many smaller titles that were inspired by the way it revolutionized both platforming and third-person shooting by fusing them into a single hybrid. Tomb Raider is the culmination of this fused genre, a masterwork entry that will define it from now until the next benchmark comes along.

Expect a flood of games to try and capitalize on the formula Tomb Raider has largely perfected. Expect more Tomb Raider games. I just hope they make them with as much love and harmony and sense as they made this one.

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