Monday, February 21, 2011

The New Tomb Raider

Recently I made the comment on Twitter that “the best posts are the unexpected ones”. When I made the remark, I was thinking about this post, not because I was doing it but because I wasn’t expecting to be writing about the new Tomb Raider*. You might remember that a while ago I expressed a desire to respond to the various articles and posts that resonated with me. This didn’t eventuate -- in some respects it did if you include my responses to the R18+ debacle -- and instead I went on to write about other things. Well with this post I’m rectifying that and I begin with a response to Game Informer’s recent reveal of the new Tomb Raider as part of their cover story for their January issue.

Tomb Raider is intended to be a reboot: of the multi-media franchise we’re already familiar with; of the approach to the game as well as how it is played and designed; and of Lara Croft herself. It’s this latter decision that will receive the most attention, Lara’s sex appeal a product (literally and figuratively) of prominence in the past and the first thing associated with her and the Tomb Raider franchise. Her new look in this new game, combined with the new motivations that define it, will be the subject of much scrutiny as more is revealed in the coming months but for me, more interesting will be her new characteristics.

Girl’s Got Character

Lara is young, potentially naïve, and eager to get out from underneath her parents’ shadow. Fresh out of university she’s ready to prove herself in the world and embarks on a voyage to a remote island in the search for lost relics. As per every story that is set up like this, tragedy ensues and Lara, along with her fellow archeologists, find themselves stranded. What follows makes up the game but, more importantly, the events and mishaps along the way -- plus how Lara deals with them -- will define the new title, the experience it provides and our perception of Lara as a whole. She has the potential opportunity to go from industry icon and sex symbol to a person we care about, a person who is real, and a person who is our friend. Much like Elena Fisher or Chloe Frazer from the Uncharted series or Alyx Vance from Half Life, Lara could become someone we love rather than enjoy, only this time in playable form which could directly affect the impact of each moment and outcome. That’s not to say Lara wasn’t an endearing character in the past, just that her status in the industry transcended any attachment individual players felt or had for her. Survival appears to be a key focus of this new title and as such, Lara’s mortality will be more obvious than other games. Mis-time a jump or don’t react quickly enough to falling debris -- even by only milliseconds -- and Lara could die or be extremely injured, changing the dynamics and pace of the events that unfold. What this will mean in conjunction with the well established gaming convention -- reloading after death and resuming your progress -- remains to be seen. Obviously, it can’t be like Heavy Rain where death is -- or can be -- final, as Lara is the primary character and without her, Tomb Raider wouldn’t be Tomb Raider, but even so I hope the emphasis on survival equates to a realistic and meaningful impact on the experience purely because if it does, it’ll be much easier to resonate with Lara’s plight and indeed, her story. Time will tell.

A New Adventure Awaits

More interesting, for me, is how the new game will actually play. The Tomb Raider name brings with it certain expectations such as acrobatic maneuvers and exploring deep labyrinths in the hunt for treasure. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series -- partially inspired by miss Croft’s adventures -- has gone on to lofty heights, raising the bar while Tomb Raider struggled with tradition and a lack of direction. According to Game Informer’s cover story, the new Tomb Raider is going down a different path with its gameplay, adding some of the set-pieces that made Uncharted so popular, as well as emulating -- perhaps ironically given Uncharted’s repurposing of mechanics and style from Tomb Raider -- the variety in play styles (platforming, combat, etc.) and carefully considered pacing. Interactions with NPCs seem to be more important, actions seem to be defined by circumstances and overall everything appears to be intended to improve what a game featuring Lara Croft can be like -- as opposed to one which uses her name to make a quick buck. Basically, it seems like developer Crystal Dynamics cares this time around, which should bode well for the moments in game where we are trying to flee a pursuer or we are timing our button presses under pressure (think Uncharted 2’s train climbing opening sequence), making the overall adventure exactly that, an adventure, and not just a tour to locations that, while visually spectacular, are anything but.

All in all the Game Informer preview got me excited for a Tomb Raider game -- a series I’ve only ever had a passing interest in previously -- and intrigued as to how Crystal’s new approach to everything, from Lara herself to the adventures she lives through, will redefine our expectations of what it means to play a Tomb Raider game. Will it match or outclass Nathan Drake’s escapades? Probably not, but then, Lara always was quite the individual.

*As for why it took so long to actually get this posted, the word “Notch” should give you all the clues you need.


Alli893 said...

Your mention of Lara's sex appeal reminded me that there may not be a Lara model to promote the franchise anymore. While the use of an official model was very unique to the industry, I'm glad that this franchise is taking a different direction. We all know that sex sells, and giving up this powerful marketing tool is quite a move. I may be biased by my gender when I say this, but I'd rather see Lara presented in a mature and strong way, rather than objectified as a sex symbol.

Steven O'Dell said...

Alli893 -- I think the article in Game Informer mentioned that one of the first things they got rid of with the reboot was the idea of having an official model to market the game, so that's already positive news in the sense that it highlights the kind of attitude Crystal Dynamics appear to be taking with this new game. They do, however, also discuss Lara's sex appeal, suggesting they still wanted her to be sexy but in a more subtle, dare I say it human way rather than the overtly sexualised version we've seen in the past. They want to use her naive and perhaps immature nature (since she's younger in this game) as traits that define her sex appeal, not her proportions or apparel. If this eventuates in the final product then that's a positive direction to take, but that sex appeal is still a focus at all could also be, potentially, a little disconcerting.

I guess time will tell!

Anonymous said...

It seems like you didn't play Tomb Raider Legend, Anniversary, or Underworld. If not, I recommend you remedy that sometime.

Steven O'Dell said...

Anonymous -- I did, in fact, play Tomb Raider: Legend though you are correct about the other two titles. I have them sitting here in my collection but, for whatever reason, I just haven't gotten around to them yet.

I actually linked to a post (when I talk about some of these titles being "tours" rather than adventures) in this one, where I discussed Legend a little bit. Admittedly it doesn't focus specifically on the game and what I say in that old post is more observations than any meaningful criticism (or whatever), but I have played the game so I have seen some of what Crystal Dynamics have done with the series ever since they took over.

But you're right, I really do need to get onto playing the other two, particularly before this new game comes out next year. I'm especially interested in playing Tomb Raider: Underworld as I've heard some positive things about it.

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