After a fairly long break, I was recently bitten by the tomb-raiding bug again. Having completed and thoroughly loved the Legend trilogy over the past few weeks, I decided to give the 2013-rebooted trilogy a chance against my best judgement. The little I’d seen and heard about it told me I wouldn’t like it, but hey—all those overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam must mean something, right?
Yes. They mean you should never decide what games to buy based on Steam reviews alone, and if you have the chance to get a free demo, do it. Don’t just buy the entire damn trilogy plus a ton of now-useless DLCs just because the whole bundle was on offer for the modest sum of 23.48 euros which you won’t be getting back because it’s too late for a refund. (*takes deep breath*)
Preamble: Rising from the
Tomb Raider has a long history of reboots. Lara Croft died a first time at the end of The Last Revelation, killed off by Core Design developers who didn’t know what to do with her anymore. Their boss wasn’t too happy about a million-dollar franchise disappearing just like that, so he offered them the option to either find a way to bring Lara back from the grave (despite a metric fuckton’s worth of Egyptian temple ruins caving in on her) or follow her right into it. That’s how Angel of Darkness came to be, and it was a total trainwreck, rushed out the door incomplete and full of bugs. It was so bad that it killed the very trilogy it was supposed to inaugurate—and Lara with it, for a second time, although just figuratively.
Lara’s second resurrection was brought about by Crystal Dynamics, with the help of Lara’s creator Toby Gard. The new trilogy they created—comprising Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Tomb Raider: Underworld—was a soft reboot of the series. It disregarded entirely what happened in previous Tomb Raider games, but it featured only minor changes to Lara’s backstory and appearance.
Lara didn’t die at the end of the Legend trilogy, but she kind of did when someone at Square Enix (the current owner of the Tomb Raider franchise) came up with the brilliant idea of rebooting Tomb Raider for the third time. That’s how the survivor timeline came to be—the name probably being a reference to the fact that what’s survived of Tomb Raider into this new timeline is practically nothing.
Tomb—pfft—Raider—mhaha!—2013 in a nutshell
Sorry, I just can’t call it that with a straight face.
The survivor timeline too is a trilogy, comprising Tomb Raider (often referred to as Tomb Raider 2013 to tell it apart from the original 1996 game by the same name), Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While the development side of things was still handled by Crystal Dynamics, reinventing Lara and her backstory was Rhianna Pratchett’s job—yes, the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s daughter.
The first instalment tells the story of a young and inexperienced Lara Croft on her first expedition together with a bunch of other people. Shit happens and they are stranded on a lost, cursed island, where tons of other trapped castaways from previous expeditions basically made a hobby of killing any newcomers. (Unless the newcomer is called Lara Croft, in which case they generally prefer to capture her for no good reason, so that she can break free, kill hordes of them, and repeat the whole exercise ad nauseam.) In the circumstances, Lara needs to adapt quickly and learn to kill to survive, until eventually somehow she saves the day\breaks the curse\something like that. I don’t know all the details, because about halfway through the game I decided I’d rather watch paint dry and uninstalled it, but I’ve still seen enough to have a rather strong opinion about the good and the bad of this series.
I hated this game. But for fairness’ sake, I will say that one of the main reasons I hated it is that Tomb Raider 2013 isn’t the type of game I would normally play. It’s an extremely gruesome cover-shooter heavily focussed on long and tedious combat sequences; when it’s not that, it borders on walking simulator territory, holding players by the hand and telling them exactly which buttons they need to push to get from A to B. As such, it’s a combination of two game genres among those I dislike the most, so it starts off at a serious disadvantage. I certainly can’t blame the game for not matching my personal preferences, but that’s pretty much the only thing I can’t blame it for.
I didn’t find the story particularly intriguing. The game is very slow at telling it, and it does so either through mind-numbingly boring cutscenes about supposedly world-famous archaeologists who for some reason need B-roll about cooking fish, or stupidly long notes that everyone on the damn island has a habit of leaving scattered everywhere. I’m getting Penumbra vibes here, and not just for this: Tomb Raider 2013 features so much gratuitous gore and extreme violence to almost qualify as a survival horror game, except that everything is so over the top that it’s ridiculous rather than scary.
And don’t get me started on the torture porn. To be fair, being shot, hit with arrows, gassed, stabbed, impaled, mauled by wild animals, crushed by rocks, etc, have always been business as usual for Lara Croft, but this game gets a little carried away: impaled through the fucking throat, and we’re shown each and every moment of her agony? It’s almost as though the developers had a thing for hurting her in the most gruesome ways. For Christ’s sake, people, I get that you hate this Lara—I do too—but there’s a limit, right?
I’m no professional reviewer and I’m not really interested in commenting on the graphics (which are generally rather drab and dull, by the way), the sound, or the controls, but I do have something to say about the level of realism (or lack thereof) in the game. The devs put a lot of care into crafting very realistic-looking environments and characters, but this clashes horribly with the utterly unrealistic situations Lara finds herself in.
Okay, I get it. Lara is in the kind of life-and-death, high-adrenaline situation that makes people able to do things they didn’t know they were capable of doing. Still, I have an extremely hard time believing that a twenty-something girl who had never found herself in a situation like that before would so quickly and easily turn into a relentless killing machine.
This isn’t even about whether she is able to cope with murder or not; it’s about whether any of it is even humanly possible. She kills dozens and dozens of grown-arse men, all attacking her at the same time with guns, arrows, knives, etc; and while she did pretty much the same thing in previous games too, in those games she was a seasoned adventurer who’d seen and done the same shit many, many times before. In Tomb Raider 2013, we’re supposed to believe she’s a scared newbie out of her depth, so how the hell is she able to use all sorts of weapons and guns so well right off the bat? She even upgrades them using scrap parts she finds lying around, for fuck’s sake—which, if she actually was a newbie, would be a sure-fire way of having her rifle blow in her face.
Tons of adrenaline pumping through your veins don’t miraculously make you able to fire guns, use parachutes, or do all manner of crazy acrobatics without prior, extensive training. I could buy into her surviving one of all the ordeals she went through out of sheer luck, but her odds of making it out alive of an island where nearly everyone wants to kill her are, for all intents and purposes, zero.
This means that, as an origin story supposed to tell how Lara Croft grew to be the badass we all know and love, Tomb Raider 2013 failed abysmally. To be that kind of story, they should have toned down the combat and all the assorted catastrophes Lara goes through by a lot. As it is, it’s an end story about a girl who got impaled by a rebar straight through her abdomen literally in the first ten minutes of gameplay and bled to death. That’s what should actually have happened when she removed the rebar; instead, off she went merrily running and jumping around, just holding her side while walking to remind players she got a little boo-boo there. I am sceptical you’d be physically able to take a single step with a hole in both your abs and lumbar muscles (not to mention your intestine), but even if you were, the excruciating pain would probably make you keep your arse firmly on the ground.
There are other relatively minor things that annoyed me, most of which you can find in this video and in this one. What really made me hate this game is that it’s passed for a Tomb Raider game when it’s not—not by a really long shot.
Tombs? What tombs?
Game creators can give their games any title they damn please, there’s no doubt about that. However, if they’re going to name a game after a well-established brand, they’d better make sure their choice makes sense. You wouldn’t call Super Mario a tower defence game that has nothing to do with Italian plumbers or mushrooms that make you taller, would you?
Now, traditionally, a game in the Tomb Raider series has two main distinguishing features: a gameplay based primarily on exploration, puzzle-solving, and to a minor extent, third-person shooting; and its main character is, you know, Lara fucking Croft. Not some girl who just so happens to be called Lara Croft; the one and only Lara Croft. The real deal.
Tomb Raider 2013 has neither of these features. (And by what I’ve read\heard, its two sequels don’t either.)
For starters, exploring tombs in Tomb Raider 2013 is entirely optional. They’re actually called “optional tombs”, they’re short levels with one or two rooms tops, they have ridiculously easy puzzles, and they reward you with stuff that you could easily do without. I repeat: tomb raiding in Tomb Raider 2013 is entirely optional. That should explain the picture at the top of this post, and why I’ll be referring to the main character of the game as “Optional Lara” from here on—I literally, honestly don’t have it in me to call her Lara Croft. It’d be like referring to Smurfette as Rambo. (Which, given what I’ve just said about her, sounds weird, but one step at a time.)
If you’re a fan of this game (and haven’t rage-quit reading yet), right now you’re probably complaining that it’s supposed to be an origin story, a tale from a time when Lara didn’t raid tombs just yet. Overlooking the fact that, as said, this game just doesn’t work as an origin story (maybe that of a very lucky mass-murderer; of the tomb raider, not so much), if that was the intent then at least they should have called it Tomb Raider Origins or something like that. They gave the exact same name as the 1996 tomb-raiding-centric game to a game that has virtually nothing to do with tombs or raiding.
Granted, from Tomb Raider II on, tomb exploration was often no longer the focus, either. However, the focus was still the exploration of the game environment, and you’d always wind up looking for some ancient artefact somewhere on the globe, be it in an old, ruined temple or not. Besides, Tomb Raider II and the rest were all sequels to Tomb Raider, the game where Lara actually raided tombs and earned the name. So it made sense that they were named like they were.
The dramatic gameplay difference between anything worth the name Tomb Raider and Optional Tomb Raider should be clear enough already, so let’s move on to my pet peeve: Optional Lara.
It’s not all in a name
The basic idea behind the rewrite of Lara’s character was that she’s not yet the Lara Croft we know. She’s a lot less self-confident, less snarky, and to an extent, less athletic. (The devs managed to hit that sweet spot where she’s not sufficiently athletic to make the game as enjoyable to play as its predecessors, but too athletic for players to believe she’s the noob she’s supposed to be. Bravo.)
In principle, that would be okay. Unfortunately, what Rhianna Pratchett did was take Lara Croft’s character as we knew it, trash it pretty much altogether, and rewrite it from scratch. (The most specific features of the original Lara that survived into Optional Lara are “woman” and “brunette with a ponytail”.) Not at one point did I feel like my gaming companion was Lara Croft. Optional Lara doesn’t look like Lara, doesn’t sound like Lara, and doesn’t behave like Lara. At all. She’s anything but someone who will eventually evolve into the Lara Croft we know.
In an interview with Gamasutra, Pratchett said: “There have been grumbles in certain quarters that we’ve broken her down and taken a strong character and made her weak. That’s really not the case.” Oh, no. It’s actually way worse than that.
Optional Lara is just as bipolar as the gameplay. The game can’t decide if it wants to be a walking sim or a shooter; Optional Lara can’t decide whether she wants to be an irksome crybaby who repeats to herself “You can do this, Lara” well beyond the point of annoyance, or a world-class murderer who cracks open any skulls around with a climbing axe. (I’m hardly the first to complain about the blatant ludonarrative dissonance of this game; even people who liked the game complain about it—see for example here, here, and here.)
In the same Gamasutra interview, Pratchett further stated that “The rich, untouchable, Teflon-coated, British ice-queen isn’t exactly relatable for players, especially in this climate.” Sorry to break it to you, but personally, I could relate so little to Optional Lara as a character that I pretty much sided with the bad guys instead. Not to mention that the entire experience she goes through is so unrealistic that hardly anyone on Earth could possibly relate.
The very traits Pratchett deems to be so unrelatable are so quintessentially Croft that, by throwing them out the window, she didn’t give Lara Croft a reboot—just the boot. What was actually rebooted was her name and the Tomb Raider brand. Square Enix took the fancy sticker and slapped it on an entirely different product hoping to get away with it—which, sadly, they largely did.
This leads to what I think is the most important point. Again in the Gamasutra interview, global brand director Karl Stewart said: “For us as a studio, we’ve looked at where we’ve been, and we felt, well, now is a chance as a studio to put out a definition of our character [Lara, ed] and help evolve it, make it culturally relevant for today.”
Why would they want to do that? If Tomb Raider and Lara Croft really belong to a time long gone (which is highly debatable), let them be and move on. Make the game you feel is relevant for today, featuring the character you think is more relatable for today’s players, and put it out there as its own thing. Putting a character named Lara Croft in a borderline survival horror game with the occasional optional tomb and calling the end result “Tomb Raider” doesn’t make it a Tomb Raider game. Not any more than a character named Samuel Vimes shoehorned into a psychological thriller with the occasional optional carrot makes it a Discworld novel—even if you title it Guards! Guards! (Something that Rhianna Pratchett surely understands.)
The impression I get is that Square Enix wanted to capitalise on their older brand’s fame and milk a bit more money out of the existing Tomb Raider fanbase and the younger players who would be nonetheless attracted by the longstanding popularity of the brand. Maybe they thought this might not happen had they made the new Tomb Raider into its own, separate series that had nothing to do with Lara Croft. (All that would have taken was to literally just come up with a new title and a new name for the main character. No one in their right mind would ever have thought this was a rip-off, because it obviously doesn’t even try to be one.)
I can’t speak to that: in my opinion, the game sucked through and through, and it would have whether they’d passed it for a Tomb Raider game or not. But that’s because I don’t like this kind of game: had it not had that “Tomb Raider” sticker on it, I never would have considered buying it. It doesn’t even qualify as a Tomb Raider game, but it may well be that, as a game of its own genre, it is outstanding and fans of that genre would have bought it regardless of the name it was marketed with. That—and here I’m just taking a wild guess—might have been a gamble that Square Enix wasn’t willing to take, which led to this game usurping a name it simply does not deserve.
Looks like I got a little carried away. Time to wrap this all up.
There are rumours that Square Enix plans to unify the three Tomb Raider timelines. That’s a bloody awful idea if I’ve ever heard one (not least for the many inconsistencies across the three), and you can rest assured I won’t be touching any future Optional Tomb Raider game with a ten-foot pole.
I’d love to see the real Lara Croft make a comeback in a modern, realistic-looking Tomb Raider game that’s actually worth the name, but I have a hunch that’s not going to happen. (Rather, I fear they might be planning pseudo knock-offs of the classic games featuring Optional Lara in gore bath after gore bath. God forbid.) Thankfully, when I want to spend time with my good old friend Lara, I still can. I can join her as she looks for the Scion, battles the Black Flame in Venice, sneaks into secret bases in Nevada, or tries to save the world from the wrath of Seth. Recently, she and I just made our way into Tihocan’s tomb—with a little help from DOSBox.
If you’re a fan of the survivor timeline and are mighty pissed at me for crucifying your favourite game, sorry—it’s nothing personal. There’s plenty of people in the Tomb Raider community who like telling the whole world why they loved the reboot—and by all means, they should. In the same vein, I wanted to share with the world why I hate this game.
If that can cheer you up, I kinda liked the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot that pretty much the entire fanbase rose against…