Queen of Pastiche: A Tomb Raider Review

TombRaider2013The new Tomb Raider is a time capsule masquerading as a game. In the future, there will be a college professor who will teach a class on video game history and design. He will make a syllabus that has a unit called, “Game Design, 2005-2015.” When the day comes for him to teach this unit to his class, he will assign them only this game, and say, “This pretty much covers all of it.”

Tomb Raider is aggressively hostile to originality in game design. When I try to write a description of what it is and how it plays, it reads like deliberate hyperbole.

For example: this game is a laundry list of every gameplay mechanic popular in the last ten years. Now, you read that, and think I mean that the game is chock full of mechanics, really too many for its own good, and that some of the mechanics feel underused and out of place. And you’d be correct to interpret my statement in that way, but you’re reading too deep into what I’m saying. My statement is simply true on its face: this game is a laundry list of popular gameplay mechanics. A mechanic is introduced, you do one thing with it, and then it is never mentioned again. It’s a checklist for AAA game developmet in playable form. It’s as if the devs created a tech demo showing off, one after another, all of the possible game mechanics they had thought up while brainstorming. “These are the ideas we came up with that we could put in the new Tomb Raider,” they say in their presentation to the producers. “If you don’t like any of them, we can start over, but we think we can build a really fun game out of two or three of these.” Imagine the looks on their faces when a clueless executive turned to them and said, “Yes, this looks good. Add a few more levels, stick in a final boss fight, and ship it.”

Here is a list of all of the gameplay mechanics in Tomb Raider, off the top of my head:

  • cover
  • shooting from cover
  • upgrading weapons
  • gaining and spending experience to acquire perks
  • stealth kills
  • Arkham Asylum style “detective mode”
  • quick-time events
  • regenerating health
  • collectibles that don’t actually do anything
  • third person shooting
  • tacked-on multiplayer
  • leveling up in multiplayer
  • Prince of Persia style platforming
  • Metroidvania style backtracking
  • Assassin’s Creed style dodge/counter melee combat
  • optional side quests
  • Uncharted style cinematic set-piece sequences
  • fast travel between waypoints
  • autosaving every fifteen seconds
  • consequence-free death
  • audio logs (they’re actually journals, but when you pick them up, the character who wrote the journal reads it aloud, so it’s the same effect)
  • physics puzzles
  • that special kind of dirty brown and grey art direction that this generation strives for in graphics

That’s what I can think of in one sitting. The point is, the game heaves with mechanics, and because it has so many it has no time to explore any of them. You enter an area, the game introduces a new thing, you use the new thing in the new area, and then the game is done with it. Gotta hurry up and get ready for the next area and the next thing. Sometimes the new thing you learned is used to open up a side area back the way you came, but only in one or two places, and only for the most useless of collectible doodads.

I can’t really say anything else about Tomb Raider’s gameplay because it so closely mimics its predecessors. Want to know about the melee combat? Go read a review of Assassin’s Creed III, and in your head replace “Connor” with “Lara Croft.” Want to know about the shooty bits? Go do the same with Gears of War (or really any third person shooter in the last six years). Want to know how the platforming feels? Go read both a review of Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia (preferably at the same time, to better capture the spirit of Tomb Raider’s unoriginality).

This game is the Platonic Form of a game designed “by committee.” A man, no longer interested in shadows on the cave wall, looks out into the wide world, and beholds this, the Game of Games. Tomb Raider was a project conceived as a new AAA title, stuffed with every AAA mechanic on the market, focus grouped and play-tested into a fine grey paste, rubbed with a veneer of dirt and mud, and ushered into the market with its Gamestop preorder exclusives and day one DLC, destined for success by virtue of being safe and playable.

And it is safe and playable, I’ll give it that.

This is the part where I talk about the story of the game, but before I do that I have to introduce some ideas and explain my perception of video games as a whole.

Video games are composed of two elements: gameplay and story. Sometimes one exists without the other (Tetris, Dear Esther), sometimes the two exist in more or less balance (Mass Effect, Silent Hill 2). The real test of whether a game truly succeeds, in my opinion, is how well the gameplay and the story connect, how one informs and addresses the other, and the interconnectedness of the two elements. Most games, unfortunately, fall flat on their face in this regard. They segregate their story from their gameplay, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid games are the most egregious offenders in this regard. I don’t think the same people even make the two halves of Final Fantasy games anymore. I think one team makes a battle system and designs levels, and another team writes a story, and then they come together and code the two halves together, not really caring whether the completed whole actually works.

Tangents aside, the best games eschew this bifurcation and instead make a point to have the gameplay compliment the story and vice versa. Unfortunately, very few games have done this, and even fewer have done so successfully. This is why Shadow of the Colossus is the best game ever made: it’s pretty much the only game that perfectly blends story and gameplay such that the two are one and the same. Even Half-Life 2, a close contender, has most of its exposition and “plot” delivered through cutscenes. Cutscenes that let you walk around and throw bottles at people, but cutscenes nonetheless.

Having established the criteria for storytelling excellence, I can now properly convey to you how Tomb Raider completely fails to achieve this.

The overall “plot” of the game is this: Lara and her multiethnic and multi-accented friends are on a boat looking for an island. The boat sinks (because reasons), Lara and Co. wash up on an island (could it be the one they were looking for?), there are crazy cultists on the island, shipwrecked sailors who now worship an indigenous goddess, the cultists take everyone prisoner, Lara escapes, and then kills every single cultist in her quest to level up and maybe save her friends or something. Then supernatural stuff happens, mostly so there can be a final boss fight against a big monster thing.

At its core, the story of the game is about Lara Croft, somewhat prissy archaeology student/person (the game doesn’t say just what she is, only that she does archaeology stuff), turning into Lara Croft, immortal tomb raiding badass. Unfortunately, the game bungles this idea right out of the gate. The opening cutscene has Lara on a ship, then it starts to sink, and all of a sudden Lara’s on a beach wondering what happened to her friends, and then she’s caught by crazy cultists and has to escape. This happens in the span of three minutes. We have yet to meet her friends, we have yet to really meet Lara. We don’t know her experience with outdoor and survival situations. She sounds scared and out of her element, but we have no context to know whether she is prepared to deal with this situation.

As you play the game, Lara finds a camera that belonged to one of her friends. Periodically she watches clips on the camera’s screen, which fill in the backstory and establish the characters. Unfortunately, the only character that matters is Lara, and since these clips come in after the most important moments of Lara’s character development, they fail at their intended purpose. We need to see that Lara is “soft” before we see her becoming tough and turning into a “survivor” (the title the game attributes to her). Instead we see her turning into a survivor, and then go back and see that she was soft beforehand. This inversion ruins the emotional impact of her character arc. We don’t follow her from being weak to becoming strong, we begin with her being strong (or strong enough to fight and escape from her captors), witness her become stronger, and then go back and say, “But look, she was weak before, so this is growth!”

The gameplay, unfortunately, does nothing to salvage this misstep. As I said above, great games make a point to connect the gameplay and the story, so that one compliments the other. If you want to tell a story about a character growing into a strong, capable survivor, you begin with a weak character, and slowly expose the character to situations that require the character to either grow or die, emphasis on the slowly. The setup for Tomb Raider is that Lara and her friends are on a boat, it sinks (or something), and they wash up on an island that has crazy cultists, Lara must fight the crazy cultists, save her friends, and escape the island. In the beginning of the game, Lara gets captured, escapes, and makes her way out into the island forest. She decides that she needs to hunt to find food so she can survive. So you find a bow and hunt down a deer. As it lays dying, Lara apologizes to it and sounds uneasy about what she’s done. (Hunting for food, by the way, is a mechanic that happens this one time and then never appears again). After a bit of exploration, Lara is captured (again), and in order to escape, is forced to shoot her assailant in the head. When she realizes she has killed another human being, she breaks down and starts sobbing, overwhelmed by her situation and her actions.

Now, this should have developed into a character arc where Lara at first hates herself for killing someone, and doesn’t want to kill anyone else, but ultimately she is forced to accept the fact that she is going to have to kill people if she wants to survive. Faced with the choice of kill or be killed, Lara makes the conscious decision to fight, and kill, the cultists, anything it takes to survive and get off the island. Ideally this would take place over several hours, and the true turning point of her character would be the moment she decides to stop running and hiding and takes the offensive against her enemies.

Instead, Lara kills a man, sobs about it, and then proceeds to headshot every single cultist she encounters afterward. No slow build up, no character growth, just an abrupt transition from killing a person in self defense to gleefully putting an arrow in the eye of every cultist on the island. The game doesn’t help this issue, since it awards bonus XP for headshots and gruesome execution kills, encouraging you to be as merciless and vicious as possible.  Rather than the gameplay informing and complimenting the story, the two are in direct conflict with each other, such that the game feels schizophrenic, unable to hold its tone.

So Lara fights her way through the island, murdering everyone in her path, frees her friends, and then supernatural stuff happens. There’s really not much more than that. Oh, there’s more stuff that goes on. Set-piece after set-piece of Lara sliding down hills and escaping burning buildings, but it’s all spectacle for its own sake, nothing that actually matters to the story. The game wants to be a character study about one person’s transformation into a survivor, but it loses track of its goal under the weight of its desperation to be Uncharted 4.

The end of the game is another storytelling failure in and of itself, but I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say it bungles things just as bad as the beginning, and still fails to grasp how to show Lara growing and developing into a survivor, aside from just calling her one, as it does right before the credits in big bold letters. The last cutscene plays, and then “A SURVIVOR IS BORN” flashes on screen. You know it’s true because it’s in all caps.

Nevertheless, on the strength of its gameplay alone, Tomb Raider is a fun game to play. Which should come as no surprise, really. It’s a checklist of popular game mechanics, it has high production values and a welcome degree of polish, and it doesn’t dare to try anything new, so nothing falls flat or fails to work. It does not offend, and it keeps you entertained, but at the end of the day it will not stick with you. It’s popcorn fare, to be consumed and then disregarded. I’m forgetting the game as we speak, and it’s already uninstalled from my computer. It’s a game you might want to pick up as a budget title if you want to occupy a weekend, but you’ll forget it the moment you stop playing it, and you won’t play it a second time.

One thought on “Queen of Pastiche: A Tomb Raider Review”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *