Trig­ger Happy

Steven Poole re­ally misses the grace­ful, ca­pa­ble old Lara Croft

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE

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

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