Steven Poole really misses the graceful, capable old Lara Croft
How do you solve a problem like Lara? As I belatedly play through Tomb
Raider, the 2013 reboot, it feels as though she is a piece of character IP which is too potentially valuable — and with too much historical goodwill — to abandon. And yet no one seems quite sure who she should be, even in 2016, 20 years after her first appearance. In 2013’s game, Lara Croft is reimagined as a young, scared, vulnerable woman — until, of course, she settles into her role as heroine of a mass-murder simulator, blowing up hundreds of men and taking especial delight in sticking arrows in their knees, or an axe in their faces.
The courage of some of the writing in this version of Lara Croft’s creation myth is not matched by much courage in design. Lara gets a fabulous ranged weapon, the bow, but the game makes sure enemies don’t spawn until you get up close. Eventually it’s all spam attacks by bulletproof wolves, grenade launchers against hordes of armoured men, and simplistic single-path ‘exploration’. Oh, and too much of the worst kind of rubbish in any game — QTE instadeath sequences.
This Tomb Raider, then, is yet another symptom of the depressing Unchartedisation of everything. The Uncharted games have been so successful in their weird combination of likeable matinée star in the cutscenes who becomes sadistic mass killer in the game that nearly everything, no matter how serious or ‘mature’ ( The Last of Us) now follows the template. Particularly jarring in
Tomb Raider is the cutscene in which Lara is made by the writers to do exactly what the game has spent hours teaching you not to do – voluntarily revealing herself to an entire troglodyte army of weirdo cultists in a cave and so getting rightly caught. (Luckily, in this kind of bad-movie game, getting caught doesn’t really mean any more than escaping with ease almost instantly and then having to find your weapons again.)
And yet Tomb Raider has glorious moments – when Lara arrives at a new vista on the island, or when you figure out the clever one-mechanism trick in an optional tomb. The awe and spectacle of this game’s navigation-puzzle environments still thrill, but the designers didn’t trust them to take more of the game’s weight. They should have done. Of course, our Lara was always a photogenically twin-pistolled killer, but what the early games knew was that its glorious spaces were often all the more awe-inspiring for being eerily deserted.
The new tablet offshoot, Lara Croft Go, on the other hand, gets a lot of things right about the iconic aesthetics of the series. The cavernous drips and wind surges on the soundtrack remind you that the early Tomb
Raider games were, among other things, masterpieces of atmospheric sound effects, which occasionally became terrifying in themselves – even though Lara was climbing up, as it might be, into the lighting rigging of an opera house all by herself and had no particular reason to feel scared. The new game’s beautiful semi-flat art style for its isometric puzzling also leaves the figure of Lara herself – classically outfitted in blue vest and shorts, with thigh-holsters – pleasingly blank. The very first screen of Lara
Croft Go has Lara drop down to hang off a ledge, and the elegance of this one animation has all of Tomb Raider in it. Or nearly all – it is a shame that this Lara can’t jump. The jumping in Tomb Raider – that thrill of thinking you might not make it and then just catching a ledge, which the reboot, to its credit, preserves – is some of the best jumping in videogames, up there with Mario and Miner Willy. Like Hitman Go before it, in any case, Lara Croft Go turns out to be mainly about following set routes and deliberately ‘losing’ moves to get past obstacles; and like the previous game I ended up feeling as though I was playing just another elaborate tile-sliding puzzle.
The old Lara, of course, could not only jump but somersault, hand-stand, and swandive at will. From the very first Tomb Raider games, she was never a particular woman but a dynamic fulfilment of our fantasies of grace. The murdering was always incidental. Lara Croft is the avatar through which we navigate around beautiful environments with gymnastic ease. She was less a person, more a dream of physical mastery and freedom. These days, in a time when it’s ever more difficult to tell the difference between an Assassin’s Creed, an Uncharted, or a Rise Of The Tomb Raider, we need the real Lara Croft back more than ever.
It feels as though Lara is too potentially valuable to abandon, yet no one seems quite sure who she should be
Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy 2.o is now available from Amazon. Visit him online at www.stevenpoole.net