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Saturday, 10 January 2015

Tomb Raider (2013)

Tomb Raider (2013).

The Tomb Raider franchise will be twenty years old soon, can you believe. A franchise spanning twenty years, twelve games, two films, and a comic book series is an impressive one to say the last, especially when you consider that it played a large part in the Playstation's success, and is at least partly responsible for Sony and the Playstation being such big names in the industry now.

Tomb Raider II was one of the first video games I played, and probably the first one that wasn't a point-and-click adventure game. It holds a fond place in my memories - the platforming gameplay, the many interesting and unique locations, the cult-looking-for-a-dagger-that-turns-people-into-dragons story all tickled me pink - which is why I will absolutely never play it again ever, not even if you pay me. 

(Well, maybe if you paid me a couple of thousand quid I might.)

The most recent iteration of the series is a reboot, with a story penned by Rhianna Pratchett, telling the story of Lara Croft as a young archaeologist, when she and her expedition get stranded on the island of Yamatai, ancient kingdom of the Japanese witch-queen Himiko. Himiko's spirit, it seems, has her eyes on Lara's best friend Sam, intending to possess her body in order to rule again, prompting Lara to go on a search to rescue her friend, defeat Himiko, and escape the island.

I would build a summer home here.

First problem with this story: Not a whole lot of raiding tombs involved. It's a minor problem, because despite the name, you are quite frequently not raiding tombs in Tomb Raider games, with your goals instead usually being to stop evil cultists who are raiding tombs for mystical artifacts, and then taking those mystical artifacts and shoving them in a room in your house that can only be accessed with a timed platforming puzzle. 

But in general, the story, while strong, is odd. This is one of the few games where the application of the phrase 'ludonarrative dissonance' - meaning a dissonance between story and gameplay - seems apt, because while the story has Lara being repeatedly beaten down by the environment, animals, people, interpersonal issues, other people dying, et cetera, the gameplay frames her as the expert gunman (and archer) and platformer that people have come to expect her to be. The overall effect - that being one where you can be bitten by a wolf, gored by a tree, and then fall down a mountain, but still get up to go running and jumping and shooting after a short cry - gives the entirely unintentional sensation of watching torture porn, and I wasn't pleased by that.

It's not that the story of a young Lara Croft being forced to learn the survival skills that will later define her, ala Oliver Queen, is a bad storyline. It isn't, and actually, taken on its own the story would probably be the strongest in the franchise. Rhianna Pratchett has done a great job. Nor is it that the gameplay is bad - I actually found the gameplay very fun, especially sniping people from afar with the bow, although there were some problems with it that we'll talk about in a moment. It's just that they mesh together poorly.


My other problem with the story is that I do wonder a little if there would have been the same 'endless pain and suffering to make you stronger' storyline if Lara Croft were a man. I want to say yes - Far Cry 3 does exist, after all - but I have to profess I'm not entirely certain, and that's a cause for concern both for the game and for the video game industry as a whole, although it's not exactly brand new information that video games have a misogyny problem.

(All the constituent mechanical parts that work in favour of a good story are present too. The scenery is beautiful and an excellent example of what modern games can do in terms of landscape; the OST is very well composed and nice to listen to; the voice acting isn't remarkable in the same way that some games' voice casts are, but it's perfectly adequate.)

The gameplay problems I mentioned just now could be summed up just by saying that with all the many, varied and fun gameplay elements provided, the developers seem to forget almost all of them about halfway through. From your siege of the Solarii compound onwards, the game very frequently devolves into cover-based shooting for very long periods of time. During the compound siege especially, I found myself quickly getting bored of fire, and things exploding, and shooting waves of crazed cultists. I also found myself wondering precisely how these hundreds and hundreds of people survived on this very inhospitable island for so long, but then, the 'there really shouldn't be this many of you' problem is one that video game bad guys suffer from often.

What a lovely place.

Really, gameplay, you are letting the side down on this game.

Overall, a very strong game, and an excellent piece of work from Rhianna Pratchett. Certainly not a flawless game, I don't think anybody would suggest it is, and its flaws have been duly scrutinised, because this is, after all, part of a very long and historied franchise, one of the biggest in gaming.

There is a sequel on the way, although I'm not sure exactly when. This year, one would imagine.

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