Still Playing: Tomb Raider

Echoing another icon of British pop culture, Little Britain’s Andy Pipkin, my first – and recurring – thought leaping and bounding through Crystal Dynamics’ latest Tomb Raider was: “I don’t like it.” I didn’t like the plot contrivances, the noise and relentless assault of the elements and the enemies. More than anything I didn’t like the faux-realism. There are only so many times I can see Lara clutch a gaping wound after escaping death in a way only Ryu Hayabusa could pull off that my bullshit-detector rings deafeningly loud. Lara’s feats of strength and stamina in Tomb Raider’s campaign at times make the Angelina Jolie films look like Nanook Of The North or the original game look like a survival simulator. Yes, even with that big block-headed T-Rex on your tail.

This new Tomb Raider is gorgeous, a technical triumph no doubt, but on my maiden playthrough the sweeping, lens-flared vistas and jaw-dropping scenic reveals felt hampered by visual indicators and pop-ups telling me all about the gamification of what I was doing. XP rewards, unlockable galleries, new base camps and item upgrades… so much information when the game-world was trying to tell me its own nuanced story of twisted history and torturous terrain. And as I breezed through the shootouts I yearned for the original Tomb Raider and its sequel, with their unforgiving jumps and geometry that harked back to Jordan Mechner’s original Prince Of Persia and where the body-count wasn’t so… Schwarzenegger.

I also yearned for the quietude of Core’s originals which, for me, were games of solitary exploration, so subtle and plodding that the audio cues to mark an achievement would send shivers down the spine where this new incarnation sent reverberations down the speakers with its Hans Zimmer-inspired drums and strums. For me Lara’s adventures – yes, even those rather joyless, pad-smashing jaunts through Angel Of Darkness – were action adventure titles with an emphasis on physical athletic challenge and button-press timing. This new vision, in its main story mode, strongly skews the balance towards action and ante-upping set-pieces and the ‘new’ button-press timing is all about the QTE window.

So why am I still playing Tomb Raider?

Because it gets better, much better, when the shooting and shouting stops and you revisit Yamatai having cleared the campaign objectives. It’s a new place, free of the fog of war, for you to uncover missed artefacts and raid secret tombs. It’s a place of wonder, bewilderment, gory memories and of a most poignant paradox for a game about literal and meta-game resurrection: it’s old but also new, like Lara herself. Perhaps this was the developer’s intention all along: to build into players a ‘memory’ with a rapid-fire succession of set-pieces and near-death experiences. Delivering enough action and pulse-pounding chases to fill an entire lifetime (or ten) and then send you back to that very location free from the man-made dangers – of both plot and machineguns – to revel in the pure, simulated nature. If I’m right on this reading, then Tomb Raider isn’t an over-active, over-eager action game; it’s a REKAL Incorporated-style shot of deranged, hyperactive nostalgia to be slowly, strangely digested as you’re plunged back into the depths of the world for a second time.

Creeping through the undergrowth without concern for crazed, cussing henchmen is a revelation. The physics of the game, free from the restraints of gravity-defying set-pieces, feel fresh, more real and regal as you traverse the map seeking out tombs and treasures. This is as close to open-world Tomb Raider as you could hope for, delivering on the illusion proffered by the originals; the illusion of being both lost and in control, free but also bound by the rules and limits of a solidly designed set of mechanics and a finely crafted world. Free from the narrative, the tone of Tomb Raider is vastly altered, too. The atmosphere is conjured by the gameworld, the crooked mountain peaks and swelling ocean tides, that were crying for attention behind all that stat-tracking and itemisation info before. The world, not the writers, begins to speak. Gone are the game’s aspirations to follow the filmic tones of its inspirations – which breathlessly and astonishingly manage to take in everything from The Descent to The Poseidon Adventure, Apocalypse Now to First Blood – and here is the real story: one of a strong, lone hunter in the wild, quietly discovering the ancient secrets of a past more descriptive and fleshed-out than her own.

I’ve always found a beautiful irony in Tomb Raider’s ability to delve into pseudo-complex ancient narratives while withholding that of its own star, and now Lara’s first true story has been told, her relatively blank canvas and stare animated, there’s no going back.

Personally, I would have savoured the opportunity to play the game like this from the start, to dive cold into this new, uncharted world without the travails of the campaign and the pre-history of the character etched on my subconscious. The developer has offered two unique experiences in Tomb Raider, catering to two tastes – the linear action crowd and the more exploratory, investigative mind – but one takes a definite, chronological preference over the other in the new Tomb Raider package. My joy at what’s tucked away inside its latest achievement is outweighed only by my concern that others, with a memory of Lara similar to my own, might miss out on this alternative, more spiritually faithful take on Lara’s legacy rather than have Crystal Dynamics remember it for you, wholesale.

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