Tomb Raider is one of those franchises that became synonymous with video games as a medium in its heyday. From aiding the PlayStation‘s rise in the mid-90s to the Angelina Jolie movie property in the early 00s, Lara Croft made her mark in a big way. However, it’s 2013 now and although the series has steadily continued, the lustre the brand once carried as a cultural focal point has long since diminished. Since Crystal Dynamics took up the reigns in 2006 the studio has looked to reset the brand for a new audience. Firstly by testing the water with Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light in 2010 and after with the forthcoming re-imagined franchise reboot, simply titled; Tomb Raider.
Prototypes, Archetypes and Archeology
On Feb 12, Crystal Dynamics held a Presentation and Q& A session at Bafta. Part advert, part behind the scenes look, we were treated to a story of reinvention courtesy of Crystal Dynamics, Studio Head; Darrell Gallagher, Creative Director Noah Hughes and writer Rhianna Pratchett. Lead through the journey from inception to looming launch it was most importantly a mission statement as to why they pushed the redo button on a brand that has sold over 35 million units worldwide.
As an early development video plays showing an early model of Lara performing lots of acrobatic parkour. Even though there is an insane amount of parkour in games and that includes the early Tomb Raiders themselves, but this definitively is Assassin’s Creed brand parkour. Swallow diving, hook clinging, wall springing type parkour. Not what one would expect from a newbie ship wreck survivor. Moving through the slide show we see Lara shoot Spider-Man type ropes as if possessed with Bionic Commando‘s arm or Link’s hookshot. Later, she’s riding a horse around rolling landscapes à la Epona. Finally we see her carrying and guiding a small child through treacherous terrains in scenes that scream Ico and Metal Gear Solid 2. It’s no wonder these things were all cut. If Crystal Dynamics were aiming for a fresh approach, then none of these things exemplify that. What’s left out can be as important as what was put in and this presentation was a clear reminder of that. Whether Tomb Raider has enough original thoughts to set itself apart or not though remains to be seen.
Now we reach the launch ready Tomb Raider. Lara’s looking all Hunger Games and scrambling around that scattered Aeroplane beach-scape from Lost. Her climbing, parkour and swimming is responsive yet displayed and paced realistically for her novice persona. We are told rather sheepishly that the bow and arrow look was decided before the Hunger Games came out. It doesn’t really install a sense of creative originality into the game as it’s said in front of a large projection of Lara’s muddied face submerging into swamp water in an exact re-enactment of the iconic scene from Apocalypse Now. Later she’ll emerge from a dirt mound and gasp the air in a shot by shot moment from The Descent. Creating a game that’s a clear product of it’s cultural environment and influences is no bad thing by any means. Influences give a foundation from which to build and there are plenty here to recognize, despite the cherry picked one or two that the developer actually publicly acknowledges. This is a game however and so it’s the other games that influence Tomb Raider that players care about. It’s how strongly the consuming public feels these influences in the game and receive them, that will shape or destruct the title.
Place in the World
To conclude the presentation, Crystal Dynamics shows some of the trailers that the public can expect around the Mar 5 release date. Plunging into the frothy sea during a stormy ship wreck, wading through claustrophobic caves by fading torch light, and questionably out running a flaming plane that is trying desperately to crash into a sprinting Lara. These highlights show what hopefully the game will be. I cross my fingers for this daring and edgy emphasis on ‘relentless survival’ to be the fresh pivotal focus of Tomb Raider.
“Let’s do this!” exclaims Lara during the one of the trailers. In fact, she says “Let’s do this!” 3 times in the same trailer (about once a minute), so… whatever ‘it’ is, she’s really gunna do it! If that isn’t cliche’d enough then remember this is an advert for a game from last year, so, of course Dub Step is now happening all over this footage. After all, how are gamers supposed to know if anything is good nowadays if it doesn’t have synchronised footage slowdown to correspond with every “WOB WOB WOB VOOUUUMMBB” sound spazzing out of the advert. Good one guys, box ticked.
It’s those boxes being ticked, which looks to be the worst thing about Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider is unique in the way it influenced a plethora of games in the action-adventure genre. However, it now ironically finds itself too readily influenced by these progenies. Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Batman Arkham series are all there in Tomb Raider’s execution. Rather than expect something more or new, Tomb Raider appears (at least in the early builds I’ve played and the trailers available) to coast by on the tropes existing in the seasoned AAA’s of the new school. Basically, Tomb Raider is shaping up to be a greatest hits of all the games it originally influenced. A property that’s just mimicking and hanging around the place never to progress like Screech from ‘Saved by the Bell: The New Class’. That’s the view so far at least, when Mar 5 rolls around and everyone gets to play the full game there’s hopefully a bigger picture to Lara’s legend.
Back to its best?
Tomb Raider has already weathered a publicity storm en route to release. Net denizens waggling fingers, clutching pearls and braking their monocles over early trolling trailers depicting scenes of implied attempted sexual assault. Fanboys and girls raging over the controversial hand holding that they believe will carry the player through quicktime events and button prompted puzzles rather than the good ol’ getting lost and jumping into a wall for 40 minutes in Tomb Raiders of old. Toys are already out of the pram, but all publicity is good publicity, right? It’s the journey since announcement that has made this one of the most anticipated games of the year and without it, let’s be honest, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of a song and dance being made about Tomb Raider.
I feel there are efforts that could have been made to better the game. Where’s the Wii U support? Too costly an endeavour or too lazy to do it? It is a game with a Bow and Arrow, a Batman style ‘survival sense’ radar map and throwing weapons. Can’t help but feel those experiences would rock when experienced through the GamePad or Wii Remote plus. Who knows what may happen in the way of future ports. Although shown a number of images from Casino Royale and Batman Begins and given the advert by Crystal Dynamics, can this reboot actually be considered a purely artistic decision or in reality depend on a more financial impetus. With the brand stalling and the current climate seeing plenty of talented developers going under, the cynical reality is that this game will invariably be make or break it for Tomb Raider and most likely, Crystal Dynamics’s helming of the brand. Clearly a reboot was deemed the best shot at saving an increasingly irrelevant and tired out brand rather than a creative brainstorm born from aesthetic preference.
I want Tomb Raider to succeed. I want the game to live up to it’s own hype about a fresh new departure for the series and a new experience for fans old and new. However, if the acceptance of a reboot ultimately relies on familiar game tropes of other AAA Games doing the rounds then honestly, I don’t see the point. It may as well be entombed.