Tomb Raider (2013) Review — Sympathy for Raider Vengeance

Let’s move on from an anime centered on a reactionary male angster to a video game centered on a reactionary female angster, shall we?

With the new Tomb Raider out on the Xbox One as well as its upcoming PC port scheduled for release sometime next year, I thought now was a perfect time to see what the big deal was regarding the first installment of this reboot and whether or not it was the franchise-saving revival that the series desperately needed or another attempt by the AAA industry to take what was once unique and make it bland across the board. Not that I’d have a point of comparison, as I’ve never played any of the Tomb Raider games before this. My PS1-era days were limited to Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, and whatever crappy Digimon games I could play because of my love for the franchise at the time, and I never watched a single Youtube video that showed the actual gameplay either. I’m aware of the series’ reputation of course, namely centered on Lara Croft being to teen males in the 90s what Emma Watson was to teen males in the 00s, as well as its overall stagnation and the awful tank controls. But why bother bringing up old history regarding a game that needs to stand up on its own regardless of circumstance, especially when you’re being written by the daughter of the great Terry Pratchett?

As I’m sure most of you know by now, this reboot is focused on Lara back when she was just of the age to drink legally in the United States and how before she became the cold hard bitch most gamers know her for, she was a wide-eyed idealist until one of her archaeological expeditions landed her on an island run by mad men. Forced to become the female version of Nathan Drake in order to defend herself in a sort of While She Was Out-manner, players must guide Lara through the harsh jungles, ruins, and mining facilities scattered throughout the island in order to reunite her crew and get back home safely. And you’ll notice one thing I didn’t mention is in this thing are actual tombs. Because there’s only like seven in the whole game, they’re all optional, and they’re piss-easy to solve. So that whole stupid “reboot with the same title as the original” thing this game does makes even less sense than when Sonic did it. But whatever. A little false advertising never hurt anyone besides people with the mental capacity of a ten-year old.

Having played the entirely of Uncharted’s Nathan Drake Collection not too long ago, it didn’t take me long to master the gameplay considering Uncharted took most of its gameplay mechanics from Tomb Raider and now it’s all come full-circle. So of course, that means a lot of platforming and scripted action set pieces, along with our main character getting the ever-living shit kicked out of her before getting a second wind and shooting back. There’s also the quick-time events, which was one thing I was glad to be rid of by the time Uncharted’s sequels hit and was annoyed when they showed up here because the timing on them sucks ass. Remember that “controversial rape scene” where if you miss the quick-time event, it turns out the villain just wanted to choke Lara to death? Let’s just say I never looked it up beforehand.

Tomb Raider has a bit more of the Ubisoft open-world feel to it though. You can warp between certain campsites and you’re encouraged to revisit sections of the game with new tools in order to discover secrets. And also like Ubisoft open-worlds, the game gives you too much shit to do with a lot of it being unnecessary. Lara gains new skills throughout her adventure by spending experience points at camps, and you gain said point by progressing through the story, raiding tombs, hunting animals, and finding eggs. But the gains from the last two are so miniscule and you’ll earn so much just from following the mostly linear paths alone that they might as well have not included that mechanic and all and spent more time on giving us meatier tombs to go through. And it’s not like the skills are too hot themselves. The combat ones are generally worth it, but the exploration ones are pathetic. By the time I’d need a skill that allowed me to find all the optional tombs, I’d already have found ’em because the game alerts you to their presence if you’re within ten miles of one.

Nevertheless, the gameplay was fun. And of course I’d say that considering how fun I find those Uncharted games. Aiming is fair, the stealth sequences give me a decent rush, and the set pieces are cool whilst being worked into the narrative reasonably well, even if it gets a little overwrought at times with how much the universe hates Lara. Although I’d argue her situation is a little more reasonable than Nathan Drake’s considering how many enemy encounters the game tends to shoehorn in despite the fact that any reasonable person would prioritize getting out of the sinking ship first and killing the man with the indestructible hair second. What also helped was making her wear a mountaineering jacket once I reached a campsite so that I could take her climbing a pole in the middle of a snowstorm more seriously. Hell, the final boss fight takes place in a snowy environment. Lara’s default outfit being a tank top is hard enough to take seriously as is without putting her in an environment that even Nathan Drake couldn’t get through without help.

If I had to make a choice between this game or the Uncharted series, I’d have to give the edge to Tomb Raider and not just because I’m a straight male. Because to put it bluntly, I like Tomb Raider a lot more when I get to do some free-flow platforming and explore environments, and I like it quite a bit less when I have to navigate Lara down a water slide whilst avoiding pieces of wood that will you give some really absurd M-rated death scenes if you get within three feet of ’em. In other words, the segments that are more reminiscent of Tomb Raider are more fun than the ones that are more reminiscent of Uncharted, although I do admit to laughing whenever Lara gets into fist fights with dudes that treat her like a guy. No really. There’s this one really big dude with armor on a ship who upon seeing Lara, gets into a defensive stance and basically taunts her to hit him the same way you’d taunt a bare-knuckle boxer, which makes me wonder what sort of opponents the guy faces in his spare time.

It’s a good thing the gameplay is great and the absurd bits are humorous, because (again like Uncharted), the story isn’t really the game’s best aspect. Tomb Raider doesn’t really mesh Lara’s humanity with “the numerous times this game forces you turn her into a one-woman army that makes me think there was a mix-up at the enemy soldier academy and right now there’s a bunch of street-level thugs threatening Jessica Jones with the safeties still on their guns” very well, but even if you ignore that aspect, the fact of the matter is that no matter how you summarize it, Lara’s journey just consists of her having to learn to wield weapons in order to survive whilst coping with the loss of her friends in the process. There is nothing that happens to her in this game that resulted from her own actions, and all that came out of her destroying the mythical god at the end (like all archaeological video games, there’s some vaguely explained voodoo behind what’s really going on) was learning how to trust her father and becoming a colder person who experienced loss. Not exactly the sort of character writing that’s going to become a critically acclaimed instant-hit when put on Netflix, now is it?

Jessica Jones is considered one of the best female superheroes of this age because she makes mistakes and said mistakes fuel a large portion of the conflict between her and the main antagonist in that show. Lara’s relationship with the main villain here is mostly a bunch of shouting matches largely fueled by the latter being a delusional idiot. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Lara comes close to being a female version of Kirito from Sword Art Online at times, despite the fact that Kirito’s skin is so perfect that he wouldn’t know what dirt was if he fell into a pile of feces. Lots of people like her, the ones who don’t eventually come around, and she eventually becomes strong enough so that she can yell triumphantly at an entire ancient army of samurai before blowing their heads off when they charge her because you never bring a blade to a gun fight. And less we not forget her having to save the Japanese female love interest at the end. At least Nausicaa paid for her Mary Sue nature with her own life…only to get revived in the end, so I don’t know why I made that comparison.

I’m going to weakly attempt to salvage a justification for it anyways by saying that despite my issues with both products centered on female characters trying to survive in the jungle, I like Nausicaa on the whole, and Tomb Raider gets a similar judgment as well. It accomplished what a reboot should do and got me interested in a long-running universe I had no experience in whilst also having enough for fans of the original to not complain about as well. I’m looking forward to when the sequel arrives on PC, and hopefully discover that the game isn’t just a gateway for another bland, AAA, money-pumping franchise like Assassin’s Creed ended up becoming ever since the second one blew our minds. Or what Tomb Raider was like before the reboot.

Minor Quips

  • Who wants to take bets regarding whether the reboot film is better or worse than the Angelina Jolie one?
  • I’m surprised I was able to finish Jessica Jones over the weekend what with everything else I had going on.

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