One of the things I really enjoy about video games is that they satisfy a wanderlust people have for travel and adventure. For instance, while exploring the open world beauty of a fantasy game like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, you also get the chance to be a badass warrior (or even a cat-person or reptile) and fight dragons. These kinds of games offer real escapism from ordinary life.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing the 2013 Tomb Raider: The Definitive Edition on my Xbox One. It satisfies that wanderlust in a very unique way, because not only are you in a fresh landscape with lots to discover, you’re also a young woman who is totally relatable. No more being the Dragonborn or Master Chief or any other sort of “chosen one” — in Tomb Raider, you’re just Lara Croft, a young woman on a mission that went very wrong, who is now forced to fight for her survival.
The 2013 Tomb Raider does a fantastic job of reimagining the kick-ass heroine Lara Croft from older games (and movies, and comic books). This is an origin story, which presents Lara as younger, part of a larger team, and somewhat out of her element when she has to survive on her own. She often talks herself through situations, saying, “I can do this,” when something scary comes along. One of my favorite moments is after she hunts a deer for the first time and, approaching the dead animal, says, “Sorry.”
Kelly M. makes an excellent point in her post “10 Things I Love About the Rise of the Tomb Raider Syria Demo” that Lara’s constant self-talk can get annoying. This is especially true when she’s giving you hints as to how to proceed; sometimes you just want to discover things for yourself. I didn’t notice this when I played the game, but it’s true that the game is heavily narrated — maybe even over-narrated — considering that Lara is by herself so much of the time.
Even small bits of game programming show off how vulnerable Lara is. She reacts realistically to the environments she encounters, leaning on cliff walls so she doesn’t fall and shivering in the cold. I love how she sometimes trips over things and gives a small gasp as she catches herself from falling. These things make her easy to relate to.
I also enjoy Lara’s nerdy side whenever it comes out. Throughout the game, you can discover hidden locations, such as tombs and temples tucked away in caves. You also pick up artifacts as you happen upon them. Lara is always excited to find these things and comments on them. These discoveries feel secondary to survival, but you do get to play budding archaeologist in this way. As the game progresses, you learn that Lara’s discoveries about the people who lived on this land are actually very important, considering the place is now full of maniacs who are trying to kill Lara and her party.
The landscapes in Tomb Raider are stunning. Forests, jungles, mountains, caves, and even some snowier environments make every chapter of the story a refreshing change of scenery. Lara does occasionally backtrack, so you get to know the land pretty well. For instance, you may spot an alter you lit an hour or two prior and realize you’re back on that side of the mountain, just seeing it from a new vantage point as you move along.
Weather also plays a big part in the setting and mood of this Tomb Raider game. For instance, the rainstorm makes Lara’s tracking of a pack of wolves feel more forbidding. And later, after she fights her way through a run-down building in the snow, she makes her way to the top of a radio tower and sees the sunlight again. Time also passes from night to day, and things feel different depending on that lighting and atmosphere.
To traverse these landscapes, Lara discovers new means of navigation. She climbs rocks, shoots arrows into ropes to create zip lines, and more. This keeps things fresh.
I’ll admit I had some trouble with some of the QTE-style sections of traversal. Or maybe I should call them “escape” sections. Lara is constantly facing near-death situations and just barely scraping through. I struggled with a section where Lara is swept down a rushing river with waterfalls; when I failed to avoid an obstacle, the game shows Lara being impaled by the spike she runs into. It was a little gruesome and disheartening to see that over and over as I kept trying to make it through that section.
In any case, I love seeing Lara’s excitement when discovering new locations. Some of the temples and caves she enters are breathtaking. There are also puzzles to perform to find all of the treasure inside; for instance, in one temple, Lara has to close shutters in a specific way to influence the windflow, which allows her to jump on a swing and make it to the platform above.
If anything, I wish the game’s balance leaned more toward archaeological discovery. Instead, this is a game of survival and combat — which makes sense given the premise of the game and what Lara is going through in this origin story. But I’m looking forward to what the next game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, has in store with Lara acting more as an explorer than just a girl thrown into survival mode.
Fighting and Survival
Tomb Raider is a game of survival. Lara feels incapable at the beginning, but her confidence grows as her survival instincts, curiosity, and moral reasoning come into play.
As the game progresses, you gain points to use on gear upgrades and new survival skills. These are presented in a very linear fashion — you can choose which weapon you want to upgrade and which skill set you want to level up first, but you pretty much have to go in order. Stick with one skill set for too long, and the game forces you to level up the other to proceed.
Lara upgrades these skills and weapons at Basecamp. You find these basecamps all over the place — usually in between big sections of gameplay. I really enjoyed this, because it gave me a breather from survival and combat. Lara also narrates the latest of her adventures or surroundings here, providing useful background as you’re in the menus choosing how you want to level up this time.
Lara’s weapon arsenal is pretty dangerous. Starting off with a simple bow and arrows, she learns to set fire to the arrows for added damage (or explosions), while also finding firearms like a pistol and a shotgun. These come in handy in different situations. While the game rewards stealth in many areas — Lara can distract enemies with a well-placed arrow against a wall, and perform silent takedowns if she sneaks up behind them — there are also places where it’s just a wild shootout, and there’s no way around it. At those times, Lara pulls out her shotgun and fires at everything that moves.
Some of the combat sequences are totally explosive. By that, I mean things are sometimes exploding all around Lara as she fights her way through an area. It can be surprisingly hard, no matter what difficulty setting you’re playing on. Cover is sparse in some places, too. I enjoyed the places where I could employ some stealth, but there are other sequences in the game that force Lara to face large groups of heavily-armed enemies.
I also enjoyed the wide variety of armor options Lara has, including a classic 1920’s archaeology suit, climbing gear, and — my personal favorite — an archery outfit. These clothing options are purely for style, with no stats attached to them to make Lara stronger at anything. However, I liked being able to giver her a new look once in a while, just for fun. As superficial as it is, I enjoy the opportunity to express myself a little in the game via these outfits, especially since Lara is already a developed character (i.e. this is not an RPG).
Throughout the game, you can activate Survival Mode to see the world in black and white, with key points highlighted. These can be enemies as well as loot crates or artifacts. I triggered the mode regularly in new areas, first to spot enemies and later to make sure I didn’t miss anything important in the landscape.
I’m still in the process of playing through the game in preparation for Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s November release. But so far, there’s something really satisfying about playing a character I can relate to, in a world that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous.