Dear Tomb Raider: Be yourself, not Uncharted
Like many gamers, I grew up on Tomb Raider. I would run around my parents’ backyard as a kid, wearing my best Croftian shorts and pretending to exterminate raptors with my twin pistols. No environment was too hostile and no danger too great for my Lara Croft.
Those qualities were what attracted me to Lara — not her cup size or sexual moans and grunts but rather her bravery and determination. She was completely alone out there; she didn’t have friends helping her find a way out of the jungle, and ledges didn’t shimmer like little fairies pointing the way.
As much as I love Nathan Drake, who for all I know went to sleep every night dreaming of Lara’s adventures, he will never be the kind of hero that Lara was to me.
That’s why I’m disappointed that Lara’s grand debut this spring is more reminiscent of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted than the old series I know and love. She crouches behind low rock walls instead of flipping around like an acrobat. She switches between guns and hand-to-hand combat on the fly and speeds down ziplines rather than searching the environment for natural, traversable paths. As much as this is supposed to be a younger Lara, inexperienced in the ways of treasure-hunting and exploring, I get the impression that she’s become Drake’s niece when she should resemble his great aunt.
When I make the comparison to Uncharted, I'm not just referring to how the developer presents the game. Crystal Dynamics has rebutted that Lara exhibits more “resourcefulness” than Drake ever had, the tone is much darker, and the game features different elements such as area hubs and an ability system.
But Crystal Dynamics is still clearly looking at Uncharted as a template for executing storytelling, gameplay, and even business decisions. It makes sense to. The Tomb Raider series has suffered for years, and Uncharted is in many ways an inheritor of its genes — young blood able to thrive in the current industry landscape. They can still make Lara Lara even if they drop her into Nathan Drake’s world. It’s a move that allows them to focus on a more progressive, modern gameplay system (one that happens to include requisite multiplayer modes, just like Uncharted) and develop her character at the same time. Let’s face it: We don’t have the sort of patience to aimlessly jump and sprint around Venice or Peru like we used to, happily hunting for secrets and levers no matter how long it takes. Like many games that we consider classics, the original Tomb Raider games are still achievements in 3D adventuring, but they’re now outdated forms of level design.
That doesn’t mean we have to eschew Tomb Raider’s signature style in favor of Uncharted’s. Even if this new Lara is as fresh and bold in character as she looks, we won’t attribute the game’s success to her if we’re thinking of Uncharted the whole time and how much its cinematic, lightweight approach has influenced the reboot. That’s not bringing Tomb Raider into the future — that’s admitting it’s incapable of adapting to modern gamers’ needs without undergoing deep surgery and an identity change.
I don’t think that’s true. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light wasn’t a traditional Tomb Raider game, and I wouldn’t want to see the entire series turn in that direction, but it incorporated elements of the original games into a new schematic. It was an isometric, co-op, arcade-shooter version of Tomb Raider with quips that could have been plucked from the nineties along with its reptilian enemies. When you peeled back the layers of its design, you could see the authentic Tomb Raider brand shining through.
So just because Uncharted works well for today’s gamers doesn’t mean that’s the only available route for Lara to take. Once you introduce one gameplay clone, you end up with dozens on the market, and none of them innovate the genre the way they should. I want Tomb Raider to succeed because it’s Tomb Raider, not Uncharted. I want the deep exploration of its past, only streamlined with smart design decisions and tight controls. I want to see Lara struggling to survive not in cutscenes, when my hands are motionless, but in the heat of action, when she’s judging the distance of a jump and debating whether the leap is worth the risk. I want to come around the corner and panic as ferocious animals spring forth from the shadows, forcing me to think on my feet and put Lara’s athletic and problem-solving skills to the test — not sneak around and duck behind cover, analyzing the situation from afar before moving in (that and the Survival Instinct aspect seem borrowed from Rocksteady’s Batman games). Lara never had that luxury in her prime, and she did just fine. She was always in the thick of the adventure as it would unfold, and the player was responsible for every successful daredevil maneuver and nasty fall.
Most of all, I want the exploration and puzzles to be the unmistakable heart of the game. If Uncharted is the new light guiding this younger Lara, then combat and movie-style action is going to trump true discovery. Sure, Drake would find artifacts, but he never went through the trials that Lara did to find them. He never slayed dragons, combated violent monks, wrestled with bears, braved pyramids and mummies, outsmarted centaurs, or evaded Thor’s lightning. How can you find that on one island? Lara traveled the world.
Those moments are what made Lara a singular and timeless adventurer, able to take on anything regardless of how otherworldly the creature or impossible the task. She’s the kind of woman who could make it from Tibet to the Great Wall of China on one tank of gas and rock the opera in a stunning gown. She was pretty amazing.
I want that future for this Lara, too, but following in Drake’s footsteps won’t lead her there. As much as I’m trying to keep faith in Crystal Dynamics' new approach to Lara — and as happy as I am that they’re focusing on building her up as a character — I’m not sure they’re taking the series down the right path. We’ll find out in March.
Follow @wita on Twitter.