Friday, August 28, 2015

Tomb Raider

Video games, especially back in the 80s and the 90s, had a noticeable lack of strong female protagonists. Often in games, the women were little more than quest objectives, meant to be kidnapped by the villain of the hour and retrieved by the player's decidedly male hero. In some games, this was the entire mission. In others, the saving of the girl was a secondary goal. But almost never was it the woman doing the saving. Metroid was an exception, of course, but even then the folks at Nintendo had to trick their players into thinking they were playing as men and then reveal the truth afterward.

Wheeeeeeeeeelie!So it was into this landscape in 1996 that Tomb Raider burst onto the scene, making no bones about putting its players in the shoes of archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft. It's as though it was telling players "You're going to play as a woman, you're going to be a total badass, and you're going to like it." This was a big deal at the time, and really helped push for a new level of gender equality in games. This is all very positive stuff. But none of it speaks to what Tomb Raider as a game was really all about. And unfortunately, when you get right down to it, Tomb Raider is a game that feels like it's not really sure what it wants to be. It tries to be a story-driven adventure game, and it almost succeeds. It tries to be a third person shooter and it almost succeeds. It tries to be a 3D platformer and it almost succeeds. But by trying to be all three at once, it falls short of being any of them. Let me show you how that ends up working out.

First off, the story. When you start the game, you don't even know what it is. You might check the printed manual that came with the thing, but all it tells you is about Lara's background - she was a stuck up, rich English girl who got lost in the wild for a spell, and over that short period of time learned every survival skill in existence. Cool, I guess, but now what? The game opens with an incomprehensible cinematic showing some explosion, then cuts to Lara in some house (Is it her house? Someone else's? We'll never know.) talking to a hick and watching what looks something like a Nintendo DS as she's told about an artifact in South America. And that's it! Next thing you know you're in a cave and the game's begun. What's my motive, man?!

Glug glug.So off you go, cavorting (some might say raiding) through tombs, looking to claim some mythical artifact you've never heard of solely because it might be there. As you go, you'll encounter some of the same characters from the opening cutscenes again, though if I'm honest you will rarely realize that's who they are. These characters mean nothing to Lara as a character and even less to you as a player, and the game doesn't make any effort to change that. So when hick dude ambushes you after you get the artifact and tries to steal it, there's no big sting of betrayal. You almost don't even realize it's the same guy. You're just going "Oh, this redneck wants my loot. I guess I'd better shoot him."

That mindless decision to solve problems by shooting at stuff is a running problem through the game, and we'll get to it shortly. But perhaps the most infuriating thing about the story is this: it eventually gets good! It takes until the final few levels but the story eventually makes sense and it's pretty well thought out and intriguing. But where was that the entire rest of the game? And I don't mean to say the story is boring for a while but then picks up near the end. What I'm saying is that there's no story at all until the very end of the game, when a story is laid out that puts the entire game into perspective. They give you retroactive motivation for clearing the levels you've already beaten. You start to go "Well hey! This all meant something and that's pretty cool!" But wouldn't it have been nice to have that along the way? I mean, you had the material! You clearly planned it out and wrote a decent narrative! Why did you deny it to me for so long?!

Then again, I suppose that even if they did string that story out over the whole campaign, it would have been hard to take seriously. Suspension of disbelief would be destroyed with nearly every room you entered. By that I don't mean with the nature of the enemies, or even the lingering implication that an aristocrat lost in the wilderness with nothing but a will to survive would manage to become an akimbo pistol expert before being rescued. It's the smaller things. It's the way those two pistols have, conveniently, an infinite number of bullets inside and require no reloading mechanism. It's the way the other weapons you find have ammunition liberally distributed around the environments you explore, which of course are supposed to be ancient tombs sealed away for thousands of years. It's the way your tiny backpack can hold dozens of medical packs that will instantly cure you of gunshot and other wounds. When you look at it, these are the conventions of shooter games. While you, the player, think you're playing a story-driven adventure, Lara Croft is 100% sure she's stuck in a shooter game, and she acts accordingly.

Beast brutality.Exhibit A: This is the most typical sight you'll see during your adventures in Tomb Raider. Most combat in the game revolves around Lara finding some kind of high ground, seeing some number of wild beasts down below, and shooting them like fish in a barrel. Nothing is off limits here. No creature is safe. In this picture is one dead lion, a second soon-to-be dead lion, and a gorilla running for its life. That's smart of the gorilla, considering that Tomb Raider nearly put the species extinct. In one level alone, I killed 19 gorillas. NINETEEN! Why are there 19 gorillas in this ancient tomb? And why does Lara Croft, an archaeologist who supposedly wants to conserve things, not even hesitate to eradicate them with deadly force? You could argue that, if given the chance, the gorillas would attack her, but what threat is this guy posing? What's he going to do from 15 feet down in a pit? There's just no call for it.

It's not just the gorillas, either. The more visually astute among you will have seen the dead alligator floating in the water in the picture some paragraphs above. You know how you kill alligators in Tomb Raider? You stand up on a ledge and shoot into the water while they're swimming. Here's some other helpless animals you'll fill with lead from up on high ground: wolves, panthers, rats...the point is that this is basically all you do. The only animals you aren't shooting down at are bats, though that doesn't put them any less on the receiving end of your gunfire. As a player it starts to get a little boring. There's nothing exciting about firing your infinite bullets into a creature that can't even defend itself against you, and it begins to feel like the game is just throwing these animals your way just to keep you busy. You become numb to it all.

Thirsty bear.Say, here's a thirsty bear making its way to a small pool for a refreshing drink of water. Rationally, I know that I'm in the buried ruins of a city and civilization long forgotten. I know that nobody has been down here for hundreds of years or more. I know that somehow, against all odds, this bear has managed to survive in a caged off room that I only just opened. I know that this is the only source of water it's got, and its very life depends on just getting a little bit of that water to keep it going just a while longer. I know that I can simply run through the now open door and continue my quest, having given this bear a better shot at life. I know that, once my quest in this place is over, the humane thing to do would be to find a way to release the bear completely; to let it back into the wild where it can thrive and the balance of nature can be restored.

Nahhh, let's shoot it.

Not even your human enemies can figure out how to exist properly in a three dimensional environment. Case in point: during your entire second mission in the game, which spans several individual levels, you are periodically confronted by a man with a gun. It is never explained how this man continually gets in front of you as you navigate the tombs, or even how this man is otherwise integral to the plot, but that's not the point. The point is that he will appear and begin shooting at you. You must return his fire and hurt him for a while. "A while" is vague, because he seems to be programmed to take a bit of damage and then simply disappear. Once you've hurt him "enough," all you have to do is look away from him, whether by turning around or by putting a wall of some sort between you and him. Then he will just be gone. It's kind of neat, I guess, but here's the problem: his AI is super dumb. SUPER dumb.

What this guy does is run up directly to you, firing the occasional shot, until he accidentally bumps into you. Then he turns around in circles, forgetting what he was doing, only occasionally looking your way again for a quick potshot. So when you hurt him enough, he doesn't always just run off and disappear like a good NPC. More often you have to do that work for him by turning around like you're playing hide and seek with a four year old. And if platforms get involved, you're screwed. I once encountered this guy and sat on my high ground like always, shooting endlessly into his chest. I was surprised at his apparent intelligence when he then came around and walked up the ramp to my little spot to assault me. I figured I'd sit there and exchange some point blank shots for a while; I could always just heal through any damage he dealt me. Except it never freaking ended. Up on that little platform with me standing there, he had nowhere to leave my sight and no idea how to disappear; he was unable to just jump off the platform and flee, and he couldn't remember how to use the ramp anymore. I tried then to jump off the platform myself onto the ground five feet below and give him his chance at escape, but the poor guy's mind was already broken. He was an immortal, forever doomed to spin in circles, confused about how to end his existence. Ultimately I just had to load a saved game.

Atlantis.So we've established that platforms of any height are unassailable bastions of safety - impassable obstacles your enemies cannot hope to overcome. But what about you? After all, when you're not blazing down the latest endangered species on your hitlist, you basically spend the game exploring massive ruins and tombs, and that consists largely of 3D platforming. It would help if that were fun or manageable, right? Well here's the thing - it works, but only if you've done the tutorial. I can't stress that enough. With the tutorial complete, navigating platforms in Tomb Raider is logical and occasionally enjoyable. If you haven't done the tutorial, platforming is an impossible guessing game of jump timing. I was shocked it made that big a difference, but it really did. Of course, I didn't even know the game had a tutorial at first, and that's part of the problem; they just stick it on the main menu with an icon of a Polaroid picture and the label "Lara's Home." What does that sound like to you? A bit of background lore perhaps? Maybe a concept art gallery? Even a guided tour of her mansion? Wrong. Platforming tutorial. Come on!!

Even once you understand the controls and spacing enough to make the game playable, platforming has its rough edges. There's a notable spot where, in order to get a powerful weapon, you must first tiptoe to the edge of the platform you're on, then slowly turn around, then say "Oh hell, here goes nothing" and take a backflip of faith to land in the area with the gun. This shouldn't be a thing. This stuff is exacerbated by the game's camera work which is, in a word, bad. It just does whatever it wants, whenever it wants to. You can't even adapt to it by trying to avoid certain spots depending on the layout of a room. It'll just let you find the place you want to stand, then zoom up right in your face and sit there. You can't control it. Don't even try.

There is a simple pleasure and peace though to be found in just wandering the game's large environments. Even if the camera is bad and the platforming a little finicky, the level design itself is superb. There are numerous times during the game when you'll feel completely lost or stuck, but you always realize deep down that you aren't; you just have to explore a bit more. Try to find a way up to a ledge that looks unreachable. Find a hidden passage in a wall or under the water. Once you hit that "eureka" moment, it's profoundly satisfying. That makes the experience worthwhile as a whole. That, and the fact that if you try to use a key on a lock it doesn't fit, Lara will straight up tell you "NO" in that snobby British accent of hers. For those two things, it's worth the story frustrations, and it's worth the mindless massacre of everything that moves. Heck, as you look above you'll notice we're not even dealing with real animals by the end. The game sort of gives up and just turns into Doom along the way, and that's OK. PETA was probably upset enough with the whole thing as it was. I mean, with everything else you'd killed, what else was even left to surprise you? Dinosaurs?

Rex roar.

All right, I think we're done here.

Bottom Line: 12/20