Friday, April 05, 2013

Croft Original

Women face many a tough challenge in the modern world, not least the age-old difficulty of getting men to quit staring at their chest and begin to see them as a real person. Spare a thought for poor Lara Croft whose boobs were so enormous they tended to divert attention from her incredible feats.

In previous games she has evolved to a degree in line with graphics capabilities, developing from her cartoonish origins into more of an animé (basically a higher form of cartoon) creation. The latest Tomb Raider endeavours to flesh her out, if you’ll pardon the expression, as a three-dimensional character in the more important sense and invites us to look at her anew with more grown-up eyes.

Outlandishness, absurdity and exaggeration remain a feature of the action and the world she inhabits, but her physique at least is one thing that hasn’t been pushed to the limits of credibility. As part of a new motif of gritty realism, she spends much of this adventure battered and bruised, wounded, caked in blood and dirt. For all that, she’s a looker. But you’re no longer looking at her like some comic-book heroine, which is quite an achievement on the part of the designers, given some of the stunts she is required to pull in the course of the adventure.

This being a reboot of sorts, a fresh beginning, Lara’s youth mixes an empathetic level of vulnerability with the strength and independence. It works and leaves you more invested in the story. Complete with all those familiar feelings of vertigo and the stone hitting the pit of your stomach when she plunges to her death.

I’m afraid of heights. Why do I play games like these?

This is more or less the Tomb Raider you know and love. Which is to say, it’s both more – and less.

While Lara’s younger, the content is more mature. Grim and gory, with a pretty effective command of suspense and, at times, fear born of more than mere vertigo. Lara’s stranded and, most of the time, alone and with skilfully orchestrated repertoire of mood and meteorology the game captures and conveys that sense of isolation well. Crucially there are also moments of respite and reprieve, which serve to heighten the moments of tension when they spike.

Gritty reality veers way out into Hollywood blockbuster action – and then some – but it wouldn’t have felt at all like Tomb Raider if it didn’t. The developers push that envelope and walk as fine a tightrope on that edge as they dare. And I think they just about get away with it. We are confronted with a story that has its share of the supernatural, after all, so what does it matter if some of the white-knuckle stunt sequences ask that you suspend your disbelief by the fingertips?

It’s fun, fast and exciting, but doesn’t forget to afford a bit of breathing space for some roaming and exploration.

Aspects of the menu interface reminded me of Assassins Creed – and Lara’s ‘instincts’ feature seems to be borrowed from AC’s Eagle Vision. The use of camp sites as bases for assigning skills, upgrading weapons and fast travel points makes sense, as does the acquisition of spare parts from abandoned supply crates dotted about the island. It’s not totally free-roaming, but the facility to return to previously visited sections of the map and hunt for those collectibles is welcome. The combat is fairly straightforward and intuitive, pacey and challenging, although it doesn’t have the swash and buckle flow of the AC games. And while there’s no particular provision for stealth skills as such, the game does at least reward the stealthy approach where it’s an option. Plenty of times, shootouts are your only choice, so be prepared to duck and weave and don’t be conservative with your ammo. Luckily there’s always more to be had from supply crates or looting fallen enemies.

Most of Lara’s unfortunate deaths, I suspect, will come from mini-action sequences which are dependent on very unforgiving QTEs (Quick Time Events), where a too-slow (or even too-fast) button press will be her doom. I might have preferred a bit more margin for error and a wider range of outcomes than failure equals death, but thankfully these are reasonably well dispersed and they do ramp up the tension stakes when they occur. Some even ramp up other kinds of stakes.

Where it principally falls short is in the Tombs Department. Tombs can be found along the course of Lara’s journey, but you’ll discover they involve very little actual puzzle-solving – which was always a prominent feature (not surprisingly) of the Tomb Raider brand. Sure there’s an element of working out routes to the treasure, but each essentially boils down to a single (simple) puzzle and the main challenge in one or two of those (where, for example, the timing of your jumps is everything) lies in the execution. They’re even referred to in the interface as ‘Optional Tombs’.

Which is almost like having Mortal Kombat with optional kombat.

But never mind. The island is, in a sense, one big tomb, where Lara has to negotiate her way over, around and through a number of death-defying and often dizzying obstacles with a nice variety of tools and tricks that she picks up en route.

And the developers have included at least one major puzzle. Namely, the mystery as to why on earth they felt the need to incorporate a deathmatch-style multiplayer feature into a quintessential solo adventure game. More than that, they’ve given it undue prominence, with a third of the game’s achievements and all future DLC dedicated to this multiplayer angle. (No plans for any solo play DLC, folks.) Now, it must be said, I can’t speak as to how good, bad or indifferent it might be, because the truth is it interested me about as much as the multiplayer runaround Ubisoft thought to bolt on to the later Assassin’s Creeds.

Not only does it strike me as a bit pointless and a poor fit, on a purely superficial level gamers don’t turn to Tomb Raider for the chance to play some grizzled sea dog or a tattooed shotgun-wielding cultist. They play it for Lara Croft. And those tombs.

Ultimately, giving the multiplayer a miss didn’t feel like missing out. Quite the opposite. Albeit, the developers might, I suppose, have been free to make their tombs and puzzles a little more elaborate. As it is, it’s an immersive, involving and generally rewarding game.

The franchise has evolved along with its heroine and feels like a worthy 21st-century remodelling of a classic. Similar, in some respects, to the makeover administered to James Bond for the Daniel Craig era, this manages to have its far-fetched action-setpiece cake while eating its gritty ‘realism’, so is more Skyfall than Casino Royale. It feels new and different, but at the same time passably familiar.

And at least it always offers more than a Quantum Of Solace.


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