The recent reboot of Tomb Raider is quite fun, a cross between the driven set-pieces and adventure gunplay that Uncharted and Max Payne 3 brought to the table (after previous iterations of Tomb Raider fell short) and the more open-world exploratory/survival mechanics of the Far Cry and Just Cause series. The compromise is such: you can’t go wherever you want, and missions are as linear as anything you’ll find in a cover-based game like Gears of War or God of War, complete with constant and predictable waves of enemies, but as with, say, DmC, you can travel back to any previously explored sector and explore. This isn’t especially encouraged — there are only a few instances where your current tools won’t be good enough to unlock everything in your first pass through an area — but it’s nice to have the option to pick your own pace.
However, now that the core gameplay of Tomb Raider has been so neatly polished, my attention is called to underlying concepts of the genre as a whole that just don’t work or are overrated. Remember, you can enjoy something and still wish for better.
1. Don’t Humor Me: Full Control, or None At All
Remember that scene in Skyfall where James Bond uses a power-lifter to bridge the gap between two trains, leaps across, and then stylishly adjusts his cuff links? It probably took dozens of shots, post-production work, and stuntmen to get that right, and don’t get me wrong, it looks amazing. CGI can nail that sort of eye-catching action just as easily (look at Advent Children, and that was eight years ago!), and for when you’ve absolutely got to tell a story, cut-scenes are the way to go. However, games like Tomb Raider attempt to walk between these two worlds, forcing you–the player–to take control during incredibly scripted scenes, where you run across a breaking bridge from a horde of gun-toting islanders, slide down a cliff as the wreckage of a plane flames past you, or glide between trees as you base-jump down the side of a mountain. This may be a video game, but that doesn’t meant it can’t at times surrender to a purer cinematic experience, especially when the outcome of my actions doesn’t matter. The game doesn’t continue if you fail; you die and reload, and this button-pushing bone that I’ve been thrown ends up being more insulting than effective, slowing the story down with each new death that a dodgy camera angle, cheesy one-hit kill, or confusing direction brings. (At least the punishing Stuntman series told you what it wanted you to do.) Imagine that scene from Skyfall again: instead of thrilling to the final product, you have to sit through every single take. That’s less impressive and enthralling to say the least, and while games should provide the player with as much agency as possible, there’s nothing wrong with using a solid cinematic cut-scene to convey narrative or segue from level to level.
2. Less Is More
Here’s a lazy solution to AI restrictions: take your existing enemies, increase their health and damage output, and then throw more of them into the mix than ever. If it weren’t for games like DmC, which actually creates new move sets for its bosses (at higher difficulties) and “remixes” the composition of each wave so as to provide a less-predictable and more adapt-on-the-fly challenge, or Dead Space, which has you learning how to most efficiently disable the various necromorphs while simultaneously accomplishing other tasks, such laziness might not be so apparent. But as used in Tomb Raider, combat is simply that thing that breaks up an otherwise peaceful journey from point A to B. It never feels special, unique, or particularly interesting; though your weapons can be upgraded, the difference between piercing arrows, incendiary shotgun rounds, and magnum bursts from your pistol is rather negligible. Whether you’re on a boat suspended in midair, the windswept gates of an ancient palace, or in caverns reeking of toxic gas, you’ll be hiding behind the nearest object and going for head shots. God of War: Ascension just got slammed for the difficulty of its “Trials of Archimedes” section, in which endurance rather than skill is tested, but in truth, most adventure games are guilty of this trait. In truth, more games ought to aim for what Batman: Arkham City achieved in its showdown with Mister Freeze: because he adapted to each type of attack, besting this foe relied more on creativity and the unique features of your entire arsenal rather than on the same old cover, fire, rinse, and repeat tactics that have been plaguing the genre. Gunplay, because it is so active and manic, offers the illusion of gameplay, but in truth, it’s repetitious filler. Getting crazier with your arsenal, or going for achievement-filled arcade action, as with Bulletstorm, may address certain issues, but at heart, every pixel of a game should feel as compelling as the next.
3. We Didn’t Want To Code That
Nothing holds a game back more than a mechanic that’s been deliberately disabled so as to save the designers time. In this case, the fact that Lara Croft apparently cannot swim is bizarre and frustrating. Out of the many things that Tomb Raider gets right, it’s obviously been crippled in that she never has to swim her way out of a sinking ship (though she finds herself in two of them) and that all of the optional tombs are conveniently only half flooded. When I’m playing a game, I don’t want to be thinking of the corporate decisions, only the creative ones, so while I may understand why so many of the puzzles are solved in identical ways (each new mechanic requires additional labor), I don’t appreciate it. There’s only so many times one can create a zip line or make one object swing into another before you’re no longer playing a game but grinding through work. In the most ideal of games, once you’ve learned a skill, you should immediately begin mastering a new one, and while this may build on your previous experiences, it should feel fresh. This basic tenet shouldn’t apply only to puzzle games like Braid and Antichamber: your action/adventure games should constantly feel as if they’re testing you, not running you through the same paces. Swimming is just the most logical of new experiences that would’ve expanded the limited (albeit solid) actions available to Lara.
As I said earlier, this reboot of Tomb Raider is good, excellent at times. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand better; advances in technology shouldn’t just create better looking games, but more inventive ones, games that stand apart from films, rather than as their own semi-interactive movies. In retrospect, there’s little in Tomb Raider the game that would not have been better achieved by an equally scripted Tomb Raider film.