Friday, May 06, 2022
Last month, Tomb Raider custodian Crystal Dynamics confirmed the development of a brand new chapter in Lara Croft's journey, powered using Epic Games' impressive Unreal Engine 5. Mulling the news, I was perturbed by the notion that the series will apparently continue down its current path, leaning increasingly into the cinematic, moving ever further away from what made Tomb Raider so unique in the first place. What I really want is for Tomb Raider to return to its roots, do away with the gunplay and wanton violence, for something more nuanced and compelling. Granted, the series is set to embrace the established timeline, connecting new and old, but surely this is a golden opportunity to go back to basics.
Rewind to 1996, when the very first Tomb Raider launched for the original PlayStation, SEGA Saturn, and PC, charting the exploits of upper crust explorer Lara Croft. The experience felt lonely, Croft a solitary soul scouring networks of subterranean secrets, unravelling puzzles, carefully traversing buried, forgotten ancient civilisations, and plundering the relics that lay within. Encountering a human was a tense and nerve-racking moment, having only ever dealt with marauding wolves and bears, or irritating bloodsucking bats – in the recent Tomb Raider games, Lara is a one-woman army, having more in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch from Predator than the posh explorer born into excessive wealth.
Her driving force in the newer titles seems to be an obsession with completing her father's work, while in the original game, her goal was to dig up an artefact called the Scion at the behest of Natla Technologies, a corporation that harbours nefarious designs for the MacGuffin. It was a simple premise, but, ultimately, the story didn't matter all that much. Original TR developer Core Design imbued Lara's inaugural adventure with an unparalleled atmosphere, managing to convey more than its crude polygonal visuals otherwise allowed. And while the graphical fidelity has given Crystal Dynamics a more vivid playground in which to drop Ms. Croft, something integral has been lost in the process.
Using the technological grunt of Unreal Engine 5, one can only imagine the wonders the studio could conjure. A move away from action and gunplay would be all the better, enabling you to soak in your surroundings and explore at your leisure, rather than steaming through with a shotgun, or silently slitting the throats of soldiers, enjoyable as that was in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Sadly, it appears that Crystal Dynamics has no such plans, the developer stating that its aim is to “push the envelope of fidelity and deliver the high quality cinematic action-adventure experience that fans deserve from both Crystal Dynamics and the Tomb Raider franchise”. The thing is that the original games were fundamentally platformers, not cinematic action-adventure games - a subtle but important distinction.
Is this what fans deserve, or even want, though? With 2008's Tomb Raider Underworld, it felt like Crystal Dynamics had something of a grasp on what the series should be, having cut its teeth on Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The reboot followed in 2013, and inexplicably made every one of its tombs entirely optional. Rise and Shadow doubled down on cinematic action, seemingly in an attempt to keep up with Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, which arguably does a better job at being a Tomb Raider game than actual Tomb Raider. Those games feel like rip-roaring matinee adventures in a similar vein to the Indiana Jones flicks. By comparison, Tomb Raider feels dark and dour, intent on making its indomitable Lara broken and bruised, as well as self-serving and reckless – in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, lest we forget, she pilfers a dagger that initiates the end of the world. She probably should have left that well alone.
Despite the urgency of Shadow's storyline, centred as it was, upon the END OF THE WORLD, open world hubs with side quests also made no sense whatsoever. Why would Lara busy herself with such trivial matters when the apocalypse looms close on the horizon? Like the rest of Crystal Dynamics' recent Tomb Raider output, Lara's escapades would benefit from a more focused narrative thrust, which would mean dispensing with the boring and unnecessary hub areas, or choosing a narrative through-line that doesn't hinge upon something quite so pressing. Tomb Raider doesn't require such high stakes; it's quite enough to be promised precarious thrills and a glistering fortune, rather than being confronted with the imminent expiration of the planet and all life as we know it.
I should caveat all this by expressing a certain fondness for Crystal Dynamics' new Tomb Raider trilogy – Lara's reinvention as a scrappy survivor was an interesting direction for the character, and each game delivered an accomplished adventure, with excellent traversal mechanics, some decent puzzles, and outstanding visuals. Where they fell short, I felt, was in making Lara relatable and generating a sense of awe-inspiring wonder. Shadow of the Tomb Raider arguably fared better than its two predecessors, but nonetheless failed to unfold in a truly satisfying manner that gave Lara the payoff she deserved, having been dragged through the dirt and committed countless bloodthirsty murders.
And, so, contemplating yet another action-adventure in the same vein, it's difficult to fathom why Crystal Dynamics fails to understand the enduring appeal of classic Tomb Raider, especially having remade the game fifteen years ago. Perhaps it's a hard sell these days (and Square Enix has been vocal about even the new games “failing to meet expectations”). Maybe most players want unrelenting action in their Tomb Raider games. One can only assume that the numbers have been crunched, and a quieter, more slow-burn experience just doesn't set the cash registers ringing these days. Having now been acquired by Embracer Group and released from the aegis of Square Enix, could the developer reassess its relationship with Lara Croft and Tomb Raider? Or will Crystal Dynamics, quite literally, stick to its guns? I know that I long for the Tomb Raider of old, but does anyone else? It could be that, much like Lara in the original game, I'm alone, stranded in a catacomb long lost to history. Maybe I'll stay here. It's nice, cosy, and familiar. I suspect that we'll never again see a return to the spirit of the Tomb Raider games of old.
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