As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it may contain spoilers.
Tomb Raider is about a lot of things. It’s about survival. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about loyalty, friendship, and faith. It’s about insanity and fear. It’s about perseverance. It’s about other abstract nouns. But despite being about a lot of different concepts, Tomb Raider never manages to make them coalesce into a single, unified message. The game lacks a thesis statement, a raison d’être. There is really nothing at its core. Tomb Raider is an empty vessel – an enjoyable, exciting, undeniably well-made vessel – but an empty one nonetheless.
But before we discuss the emptiness of the vessel, let’s discuss the vessel itself. For starters, it’s absolutely gorgeous: a stunning technical achievement that on higher graphical settings, stands head and shoulders above its peers. Sunlight glints off wet rocks. Insects fly across the screen. Lara Croft’s ponytail swings back and forth in the wind.1 But the game’s beauty isn’t due solely to polygons and technical wizardry; it also features some stellar art direction: towering mountain vistas; ancient temples; lush evergreen forests; and meticulously-detailed wreckage. The colour palette is a little drab for my tastes, but I can’t deny that it’s consistent, and it fits with the game’s dark, grim tone.
It’s a good thing that the environments are so detailed and well-designed, because I spent a lot of time exploring them, hunting for artifacts and loot. I know that searching for these items may seem like a pointless task to some players, but I enjoy it; it reminds me of the collect-a-thons of old. Tomb Raider is unapologetically a video game, not an interactive movie or “narrative experience.”
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its fair share of setpieces. Lara will often go tumbling down hills in an avalanche of scree or barrelling down rapids, desperately trying to avoid sharp crags. They’re exciting, but all too often, they give way to frustrating quick-time events, the failure of which results in instant death. Unfortunately, setpieces are much less thrilling on the fifth attempt. For the most part, though, Tomb Raider gives the player quite a bit of freedom to navigate the environment at his or her leisure with a full complement of well-honed traversal mechanics. Ziplining, for instance, is way more fun than it has any business being. Moreover, Tomb Raider’s platforming isn’t totally scripted. It’s possible to mistime a jump and fall to your death (which I did an embarrassing number of times). The relatively free-form platforming adds a sense of challenge that is absent from games where traversal is as simple as holding down a button. (Assassin’s Creed, I’m looking at you!)
On the other side of the gameplay coin is Tomb Raider’s combat, which is surprisingly robust, challenging, and satisfying. At first, you start off with nothing but a bow and arrow, but eventually you acquire a pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle that doubles as a grenade launcher. None of the weapons supersede the others, and I found myself switching between all four, even late in the game. Firefights constantly kept me on my toes. Sure, there’s cover, but you can’t just hide behind it and wait for an opportunity to strike. The enemy AI is damn stubborn, and they’ll constantly lob Molotov cocktails at you to force you out of your position. What results is a frantic scramble, full of dodging, jumping, and mêlée attacks, all while you try to sneak in a headshot or a nifty finisher for an XP boost. Other games that feature third-person shooting would do well to take note.
However, as well-made as the vessel is, it’s not without its flaws. The most glaring is the fact that it just doesn’t know when to shut up. The XP pop-ups are fine, because they’re non-intrusive, but god damn it, Tomb Raider, I really don’t give a shit if I’ve unlocked artwork in the gallery, okay? Couldn’t that information simply have been summarized with a little icon? It didn’t need to hog so much screen real estate. Some reminders are even more intrusive. The game encourages exploration to search for artifacts and salvage (which you need to upgrade your weapons), but if you stray off the intended path or spend too much time exploring, the game reminds you to press Q to use your Survival Instincts, i.e. to point out your objective marker. Jeez, let me take my sweet time, Tomb Raider! Finally, and most irritatingly, Lara would often blurt out the answers to puzzles, usually after I’d solved them, but before I’d executed the solutions. Hilariously, she ended up sounding like a nagging spouse or parent. I mean, don’t tell me to take out the trash when I’m in the process of taking out the fucking trash. Even worse, some puzzles solutions required quite a bit of manual dexterity to execute, so I’d have to hear Lara repeat the same fucking hint over and over and over again. I felt like yelling, “I’m getting there, Lara! NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
Nonetheless, a few flaws notwithstanding, Tomb Raider is an exceedingly well-made game. It’s mechanically sound and graphically astonishing. It’s fun to play. Its exploration appeals to my innate sense of curiosity. So what’s the problem?
It all goes back to the much-ballyhooed origin story of Lara Croft, the one where she goes from survivor to heroine.2 The pieces are all there: I understand how Lara evolves as a character over the course of the game, and that progression is sensible.3 But I don’t understand why that progression matters. As far as I can tell, it exists only to serve itself. And that’s fine, to an extent. But almost everything in this game’s narrative (as well as large parts of its ludonarrative) exists to serve Lara’s journey. That journey is about a lot of things – friendship, sacrifice, survival – but it doesn’t really say anything.
Not every game has to have a profound thesis or reveal a deep truth about the human condition, but when so much of a game exists in service of a central element, one would expect that central element to have some substance. And here, it just doesn’t. Tomb Raider’s plot is the most basic, perfunctory “birth of a heroine” story imaginable. The characters are well-drawn, and Lara appropriately engages the player’s sympathy, but there’s nothing more to it than that. As I played the game, this became more and more apparent to me, and I started to question why I was even playing it in the first place. I don’t mean to say that I was unaware of what kept me playing it. After all, jumping was fun. Climbing was fun. Shooting was fun. What I mean is that I didn’t understand (and still don’t understand) what developer Crystal Dynamics wanted me to get out of the game, aside from “fun” (and a screenshot of Lara wading through a pool of human blood). What was Tomb Raider trying to tell me? What is its raison d’être? Because as far as I can tell, the game’s purpose is to relate the origin story of a fictional woman who serves no other purpose than to be the central character of her own origin story.
Thus, Tomb Raider’s narrative is an Ouroboros, a cycle of self-justification that never justifies itself to the player. The vessel that is the game ends up feeling empty as a result. That vessel presents a fun, highly thrilling adventure that marries the excitement of cinematic gameplay to the unfettered freedom of exploration. Just don’t think too hard about it.
(Note: Tomb Raider also has a multiplayer mode. It’s fun and well-made, but it’s shallow and hardly worth commenting on in detail.)
1 I’m talking about the regular hair-rendering setting here. The new TressFX setting isn’t worth it. It cut my frame rate in half, and moreover, it looks like someone plastered an old Windows screensaver to the back of Lara’s head. I’m happy that AMD is pursuing more realistic hair-rendering tech, but it’s not ready for prime time. ^
2 I won’t delve deeply into any of the controversy surrounding the marketing of said story here. Suffice it to say, some of the marketing was absolutely shameful and in no way reflected the final product. In particular, the trailer that hinted at sexual assault was a complete misrepresentation of the scene in question. (The bad guy was actually preparing to strangle Lara to death, not rape her.) I wrote at length about the controversy here, but Rab Florence has a more recent take on it at his blog. I don’t fully agree with him about the game’s story, but he’s spot-on about its marketing. ^
3 At least, it’s sensible to me. Others will doubtlessly opine that Lara was too quick to turn into a remorseless killing machine, and while I think that’s a valid complaint, that development didn’t bother me. I saw the fact that she got over her aversion to killing so quickly as a reflection of her desperation and resolve. What actually bothered me was that by the end of the game, she was yelling, “Take that, you bastards!” almost as if she was enjoying herself. I don’t know whether to pin that on Rhianna Pratchett’s writing or on Camilla Luddington’s performance. ^