by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
Expanded from my weekly column at Next Generation, and posted on the game’s release date.
Something that people keep bringing up, yet probably don’t bring up enough, is that the first Tomb Raider was a damned good game. The last few levels were thrown-together and buggy; still, at the time it was Lara and Mario. Lara was your 3D update to Prince of Persia – all atmosphere and exploration. It had a snazzy, strong female lead, when that was unusual. (At the time, I had a friend who wouldn’t stop complaining that the character was female. He couldn’t understand why they’d made such a dumb move, since the rest of the game was so good. Go figure.) The game felt fresh and new, and – right or wrong – just a little more sophisticated than what Nintendo had to show.
Then, immediately, Core and Eidos started to listen to the fans. They listened to the media. Posters on the original Tomb Raider message boards kept complaining of a lack of thumping music. They kept asking for more human opponents to blast away, instead of these stupid animals of the first game. They wanted more and more outfits for Lara. And of course, there was the whole “nude code” business.
So a year later, there’s a sequel with the same engine – fair enough – with most of these concerns addressed. It was less interesting, less atmospheric, less intimate than the original game. Still, not too bad. Then a third game, and a fourth, and a fifth, with barely an update to the game engine – since, hey, who has the time for that with a yearly schedule – and less and less focus on what made the game so appealing to start with. The game became the Lara Croft franchise, and everything else became secondary to her new look, her new abilities, her new weapons – because these are the things that fans yammer about, so therefore this was the feedback that Eidos got.
It’s telling that, when the movie came out, its title was “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” – and that they picked then-nerd-crush Angelina Jolie to play her. By then it was all about the fetish, all about the iconography of marketing. There is, of course, a saturation point to everything – as any competent marketing executive could tell you – and this was about it.
Though the movie wasn’t that great, it did all right due to its novelty. When a second movie came out and was even worse – well. Why bother see it? When the much-hyped tie-in game came out and bombed both critically and commercially, Eidos blamed it on Paramount’s poor promotion with the movie; when the movie bombed, Paramount filed suit against Eidos for poor promotion with the game; Eidos’s shareholders threw a fit, Eidos almost got bought out by everyone under the moon; Eidos turned around and blamed Core for all its woes; and everyone else rolled his eyes and continued to play Half-Life 2.
Of course Core can’t shoulder all the blame; the game was clearly shoved out the door before it was finished, so as to tie in with the movie – resulting in one of the more notorious collection of bugs in recent memory. Guess where that pressure came from.
Breaking it Down
Still, enough is apparently enough. In a final much-publicized move, Eidos took the franchise away from its creators (actually, most of the original team was long, long gone) and handed it to Crystal Dynamics – probably the most highly-regarded subsidiary that Eidos has yet to close down. That was about three years ago; since then, all we’ve heard are much the same promises as Eidos has offered for every other Tomb Raider game: “It doesn’t suck now! See, it has so many new features that were popular in other games last year! And look at Lara’s new outfit! But she’s not just a sexpot; we’re taking her seriously this time, as a character.” None of it really told us anything.
This time it might be more than hyperbole. What it seems Crystal Dynamics has done go back to the framework of Tomb Raider 2 and to break it down, analytically. The result is a new gimmick: a sort of grapple device that the player can use to grab stuff and to swing around. What this does is bring the focus back to exploration, and make that exploration more exhilarating than ever. Of course in true Zelda fashion, there are only certain surfaces the grapple will work on, allowing all manner of cute puzzles. Still – sarcasm aside, this element is kind of brilliant in that it draws directly upon the nature of Tomb Raider, as a videogame, and enhances it in a way nothing has in any of the other sequels to date. Also to aid the exploration are doodads like binoculars, a flashlight, and a Metroid Prime-style scanner (which again brings the focus away from Lara’s ass and back to the environment).
Reviews nitpick a few fair issues; still, the overall response seems to be a huge sigh of relief. Maybe it’s not the best game in the world, or all it ever could be. Still – it’s not terrible! Take out the lame driving sequences, and maybe focus less on the boring combat (especially with human targets), and you’d have a winner. The theme that keeps coming up is one of nostalgia – that, for the first time, someone has managed to recapture what makes Tomb Raider interesting. And that sentiment is itself interesting.
It’s not like it was ever that hard. All it took was for Eidos and Core to not get distracted – by fans, by the media, by their own success. They’ve got a series called Tomb Raider, that’s about exploring dark and foul holes in the ground in search of untold treasure. So great; how do they make that more interesting? By focusing on the environment, and the player’s interaction with it – or on the lanky figure standing between the two?
In retrospect, maybe my friend was right; if Lara were a guy, maybe Tomb Raider would have been a much better series. Still, what would we have learned?