First, the new Tomb Raider is half off on Steam, right now.  Get it.  Are you getting it?  What is wrong with you?

What should we call this game?  TOMB RAIDED?  OK then!

What should we call this game? TOMB RAIDED? OK then!

I’ve played about six hours so far, which the game tells me is 23% complete.  The basics of the TR franchise are doing completely terrible archeology, in the form of jumping athletically around ancient ruins and destroying ancient mechanisms, with an occasional murder along the way.  Combat in Underworld was pretty unserious, as shown by the mechanic of Lara automatically targeting the nearest enemy.

In the reboot it’s very serious.  You have to aim… hell, you have to aim (RMB) then fire (LMB), which is tricky if an enemy is closing on you.  Enemies will jump out at you, or throw fire grenades, or have bulletproof shields, and you can get taken down quickly, so it can be intense.  (At the same time, they’re very supportive, in their own way.  They’ll shout out “She’s killing us all!” or “Watch out, she’s a good shot!”  Which is a nice change from “I never liked that Catwoman bitch.”)

The Big Thought behind the reboot is that Lara is no longer the frigid, double-pistol-wielding wiseass of the earlier games– she’s a young girl who’s hurt, terrified, and has never killed a human being before. Plus, they’ve taken the opportunity to redesign the character– even in Underworld she had this weird elongated face.  Now she’s rather cute:

There is no medicine mechanic, so I don't know how that wound healed up

There is no medicine mechanic, so I don’t know how that wound healed up

All this might be challenging to the Cheeto-fed machistas who seem to make up the most vocal fragment of the gaming market, but I think it’s refreshing.  It can be fun to play a superhero who makes everything look effortless, but I like the way the new Lara reminds you that what’s she’s doing is hard and scary and it hurts.  And how she has to talk herself into trying new things.  And how she says “I’m sorry” to the first deer she kills.

Plus, you know, heroism is about what you do, not what you feel.  As it happens, I’m reaidng a book about war and battles right now and you know, outside of glorifying propaganda, soldiers are scared.  They learn to function with the constant and well-justified fear, but it doesn’t go away.  Lara’s fear means she’s a human being.

There was some controversy before release because one developer talked loosely about an attempted rape scene.  Perhaps they changed it, because there’s nothing like that.  There’s a point where Lara is trying to sneak past a bunch of insane cultists who seem to be massacring an entire village.  One of them captures her and touches her; if you do nothing, however, he kills her.  So it’s an attempted death scene.

And it pissed me off, because it was a complete mystery how to get past it.  The screen tells you to press F– I pressed the hell out of F and watched Lara getting strangled about a dozen times.  She also moved on to the next bit of fight a couple times, seemingly randomly.  I could not figure out what the damn game wanted me to do.

Finally I did, with the help of some Internet comments.  Feel free to print this out and paste it near your screen:

  • Some concentric white circles appear on the screen.  The outer circle is shrinking.  When it reaches the inner circle, that’s when you mash F a few times.  A red icon appears, but if you press F then, it’s too late.
  • This happens at least one more time.

There are a couple more bits to the fight, which are a little unclear in my memory, but also easier to figure out.

It’s a really annoying mechanism, which they use in a few other places.  Developers, please don’t do this “press a key at the exact right moment in a cutscene” thing… or if you do, at least give accurate instructions.  There’s a couple other baffling minigames… e.g. at one point Lara has to tune a radio, and there is just no feedback on what to do.  (For reference: hold down right arrow till something happens.)  The best I can say about these sequences is that they’re pretty rare.

The game often takes control of the camera… on the whole this is probably OK, as it makes the experience more cinematic and can show off some of the game’s lovely views:

Build a little enclosure around the ladder?  Why?  What could go wrong?

Build a little enclosure around the ladder? Why? What could go wrong?

But also, frequently, the gameplay merges seamlessly into cutscenes, and this can be confusing.  Many games distinguish the cutscenes visually (e.g. by adding black bars above and below the scene), which at least tells you that you can’t walk around or shoot anything.  Half-Life 2 is famous for having scenes play out while you retain full control, though admittedly this works better with a protagonist who never talks.

Ah, while I’m thinking about weird things… there’s a scene where Lara makes a big show of using her last match… to build up an already roaring fire.  This is one of several elements that sometimes make it seem that the developers were trying too many things and couldn’t keep it all together.  That early deer kill, for instance, is preceded by Lara saying she’s hungry and making it a whole objective to Find Food.  She was shipwrecked less than a day ago, so it really shouldn’t be that much of a crisis, but fine, it looks like the game will make hunting food a gameplay thing.  Only it doesn’t– after the deer scene, it doesn’t come up again.

The game does keep throwing new things at you; mostly this works and adds variety.  You play for something like an hour before getting any weapon, for instance– which is actually pretty neat.  Several hours in, they give you a “rope arrow”… I’m not quite sure how an arrow with a rope tied to it can tie a knot, but it does, and it gives you a new mechanism for extending your parkour, so that’s all good.

Also neat: you often have a choice in how to approach enemies (or in how to climb up somewhere).  It’s not exactly a stealth game, in that you still kill them; but you can snipe from afar with arrows, or sneak up behind someone and do them in, and this approach has advantages over going in guns blazing– such as not alerting all of their buddies.

I also appreciate how there’s cover, but no cover mechanic.  If you approach a low wall or crates, Lara will crouch down automatically.  It makes complicated cover mechanics as in Deus Ex look awkward.

There is an XP mechanic, so that you can upgrade Lara’s skills and weapons.  You can theoretically specialize as Hunter, Survivor, or Brawler, but some skills only unlock slowly, with the effect that you pretty much have to spread out your skills.  So I don’t know how customizable the game experience is; maybe it’ll be clearer later in the game.

Bottom line, it’s really well done.  I’ve only played one previous TR game, Underworld, and I liked it but it was definitely a toy– a very artificial world with predicaments and characters at a James Bond level of camp.  Sometimes a move into more irony (as in Saints Row) works; but sometimes making it more real, more gritty, more intense is the right thing to do.  It was hard to put down and I’ve got work to do right now, but I’m anxious to get that done so I can go back to being Lara.