Ever since the massive gaming expo, E3, where the latest Tomb Raider trailer, 'Crossroads' was revealed, there's been something of a media backlash, thanks to the trailer appearing to show the attempted sexual assault/rape of the world's foremost gaming heroin, Lara Croft (and you can see the trailer for yourself here, with the aforementioned "scene" starting at around 2:15. Be warned though, it is a bit gory in places). In it, Lara has been captured by a group of men, and has her arms tied behind her back, as she attempts to make an escape. Unfortunately for her, her escape doesn't go all that well, and she finds herself trapped, in a corner, where she's discovered by one of her captors, who tries to make some moves on her, while she can't fight back.
Lara, being the fighter that she is, manages to turn the event on it's head, and fights back, eventually killing her captor, something which seems to trouble her for the rest of the trailer (and apparently, the game). While the scene itself is certainly a long way from rape, it was possibly a comment from the game's producer that seemed to start everyone worrying. "What happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her. She's literally turned into a cornered animal. And that's a huge step in her evolution: she's either forced to fight back or die." While Crystal Dynamics, the company behind the game, have been quick to try and right things before it all gets derailed, saying that "while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly." and that "Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game", the fact that so many were so quick to accept that actually, this could very well be a main story arc in the game, shows just how far this Tomb Raider's removed from the games that came before it. While there's been no secret made of Lara's sex symbol status, until now, she's always been painted as someone in control, brushing off any advances with a witty comeback or remark - I get that it's meant to be a 'character-defining moment' and everything, but can't help thinking that I liked the old character better - and really don't like where this game's going...
There are few series' I know better than Tomb Raider. Having played every game in the franchise so far (yes, even Angel of Darkness) from start to finish, often multiple times through, I've been there, done that, but haven't quite gone as far as buying the t-shirt. And while I'd usually be over the moon at the thought of a new game - after all, Tomb Raider still holds the record as the only game I've ever pre-ordered - for once, the prospect of a new game fills me with doubt. You see, the powers that be have decided that the iconic Lara Croft is in need of yet another reboot, as the reasons the games weren't selling as well as they should do had nothing at all to do with their length, quality, or glitches, but instead were entirely down to Lara having lost her lustre as a game character. Incidentally, it's worth keeping in mind that this will actually be Lara's fourth "reboot" in as many games - and, in our opinion, it's one that's entirely unnecessary, seeing as the only real problem with the previous instalments, Underworld and Legend, was their length (or lack thereof), especially compared with the marathon that was Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a remake of the original game which, not coincidentally, turned out to be the best game the series has had for a fair time.
When it was first launched back in 1996, Tomb Raider made a name for itself for a number of reasons. A third person adventure game, starring a strong, independently minded female character called Lara Croft, Tomb Raider was like nothing that had come before it. With a strong sense of adventure, playing as young Lara, it was up to you to explore uncharted tombs, risk life and limb, and dodge countless booby traps as you went, in a game which captured the minds of many a female player, and for many, may even have served as their first foray into the world of games. Effectively a female version of Indiana Jones, the Tomb Raider games were, in a word, brilliant - and it certainly didn't hurt that they had an emphasis on brain over brawn, with puzzles waiting to be solved, and dozens of fiendishly hidden secrets to discover.
Known only as 'Tomb Raider' this ninth/tenth instalment (depending on whether you include Anniversary, as it was technically a remake) follows the English archaeologist's 'origin story', from when she was just twenty-one years old and fresh out of University. When the ship she was travelling on encounters a storm somewhere off the coast of Japan, in the mysterious 'Dragon's Triangle' (similar to the Bermuda Triangle), Lara finds herself washed up on a mysterious island. Captured by the island's inhabitants, it becomes a battle for survival that, we're promised, will push Lara to her very limits, mentally, and physically, through a gruelling, knife-edge battle for survival that turns Lara into the fearless explorer she is today.
It'll also be the first game in the series to be rated at an 18, and promises a darker, grittier game with that games industry staple, "visceral combat", and gorier deaths. This is becoming something of a sticking point at Everybody Play HQ recently, because try as we might, we can't see why every developer in the world seems to be rushing to stick increasingly gory deaths into their games. We've yet to come across a single person who gets excited about a game, or specifically decides to buy it because of the gore - yet we know plenty who decide otherwise. Us included. Apparently, the decision to make the move towards ultra-violence was because they felt they needed to "modernise the franchise" somewhat (read: do what everyone else does), and obviously the best way to do that is to make it like every other grim and gory game out there, with buckets of blood, and copious quantities of completely needless violence and blood. Gears of Lara: Croft of War anyone?
Considering 'visceral' comes from the word 'viscera', which relates internal organs and entrails, combat in which I get to see everyone's insides splattered all over the walls doesn't really appeal to me - and I'm exactly sure who it would appeal to. The new game also brings with it the promise of gorier deaths, one of which sees Lara (or her enemies) getting their skulls crushed by boulders, with blood flying everywhere, while another sees Lara fall victim to a nutter who's hurled a scythe, which pierces her chest, and sinks into her heart. The creepiest one we've seen so far, however, has to be where a loon repeatedly stabs her in the chest, before seemingly calming down, moving in close, and creepily closing the now dead Lara's eyes on her behalf when he's finished... It's also been revealed that at some point near the beginning of the game, Lara gets attacked by a wolf - which she savagely stabs repeatedly in the face, as blood splatters the screen. If Lara's flippant tiger slayings of the past didn't rile animal cruelty organisations, these definitely will. To add insult to injury, they've also removed the ability to auto-target enemies which Lara had before - back then, all you had to do was to get your guns out and fire, and she would shoot whichever enemy was closest. Now, you're on your own. And as anyone who's ever seen me play games can attest, I suck at anything that doesn't lock on for me...
From what we've seen so far, the dark, gritty tone doesn't just apply to the content, either - instead, the whole game appears to have been given something of a brown makeover. Gone will be the sprawling jungles, intricate Egyptian tombs and pure white snow drifts - instead replaced by boring brown, black and grey caves, filled with severed heads, skulls and bizarre rituals, at least if the trailers are anything to go by. I'm not sure if it's just me who feels like the combat always took more of a backseat to the puzzles, exploration and collecting trinkets - but for me, Tomb Raider's never really been about shooting things. It's about exploring. I've never really seen the point in this whole 'more satisfying' combat games seem to be obsessed with these days anyway. After all, has it really got to the point now where a game gets judged purely on its body count? And in all honesty, who wants to watch Lara get crushed by a boulder and have her brains splattered everywhere? Especially when you consider the daft woman has a tendency to always jump off things the wrong way and kill herself as it is?
In general, the game also seems to have got a damn sight scarier, too - so much so, for a while after the first concept art had leaked, fans on forums were actually thinking developers Crystal Dynamics had turned it into a horror game reminiscent of Silent Hill and Resident Evil. From what we've seen so far, it seems Tomb Raider's going to create its thrills by filling the game with dark, shadowy corners for enemies to lurk in, with the intention of making you feel like you're never really sure if you're safe. I was bad enough on Anniversary the other day when a gorilla, of all things, crept up behind me in broad daylight - I dread to think what I'll be like alone in a dank dark cave with a bunch of faceless tribesmen.
In fact, it's the intro to the game that probably shows the difference in tone between this and the other games nicely. The game opens with Lara tied up, hanging upside down from the ceiling - a little bit of wiggling, and you can swing yourself through some conveniently placed fire, which burns through the ropes, sending you plummeting into the depths below, right onto large, sharp spike, which goes straight through Lara's side, as she lets out a blood curdling, sickening scream of pain. It's then up to you to hammer a button to get Lara to tear the spike from her side, complete with screams, whimpers and moans, before she staggers to her feet, and begins to stumble around a series of dark caves in an attempt to find her way out. Seemingly, Tomb Raider's slowly turning into "torture porn" - a game where the fixation on watching someone suffer is meant to be its main attraction. It's sad, because there are still glimpses of old in here - a single puzzle, where you need to find a way to transport a series of flaming boxes through a series of 'cages', before shoving them down a ramp onto some explosives to blow apart a gate offer a glimmer of the games of Lara's past - but a couple of the traditional puzzles doesn't necessarily Tomb Raider game make.
Over the years, many things have become staples of the series, from Lara's bottomless backpack, to the many water-based puzzles and vehicle sections - all of which, for this reboot, have now been taken away. Yes, you read right - they've stranded Lara 'Iron Lung' Croft on an island and taken away her swimming ability, so there'll be no more of those raising and draining water puzzles, nor any of those almost entirely underwater levels (such as the original game's Cistern level, and Tomb Raider 2's 40 Fathoms), and definitely no more strolling along the seabed avoiding sharks. As much as those underwater sections used to unnerve me, and as awkward as I found the controls in the more recent instalments, I still find it hard to imagine a Tomb Raider game without them - it just feels wrong, somehow.
Apparently, exploration is still going to be intact though - just again, it'll be a tad different to what we're used to. There's a single camp hub area in the middle of the island, as well as a few base camps you can warp between - and as the main theme of this game is survival, you'll need to collect food and water to keep Lara going. An element of hunting has also been confirmed, involving cross-bowing poor deers and the like, and it wouldn't surprise us if you end up having to set traps for rabbits, eat snakes and possibly drink your own urine, too. After all, if it's trying to be "realistic" in every other way... As for the levels, things actually sound a lot more positive, with you having an entire island to explore however you see fit, as well as having to head back to previously explored areas as Lara becomes more 'experienced' and learns new moves, allowing her to reach places she couldn't reach before. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, as exploring is what Tomb Raider games have always been about - but it's worth remembering, the last game that tried to incorporate some sort of levelling up system/increasing abilities was the abysmal "reboot", Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness - and anyone who played it knows just how well that turned out...
Something which perhaps concerns me even more than the new reliance on gore, creepier atmosphere and lack of swimming is that nowhere has mentioned the secrets/artifacts/relics. Call them what you will, but there's always been loads of hidden pick-ups, and shiny useless items (except in Angel of Darkness, but we don't talk about that one) like dragon statues and golden roses, each accompanied by the official 'you found a secret' jingle, just waiting to be found in far off corners of the level. If I had to choose my favourite aspect of the Tomb Raider games, it would be these, which often went hand in hand with the exploring and experimenting that was at the heart of the Tomb Raider games - I used to seek out every nook and cranny, try different ways of solving puzzles, moving statues around, and spend hours trying to reach areas I was convinced I could reach, if only Lara would leap that little bit further, because maybe, just maybe, there was a secret waiting. One of the games even had a bonus level at the end, if you managed to get everything - which was much better than the story boards, concept art and developer commentaries you get these days. That said, I am quite partial to Lara's different outfits - there's nothing funnier than wearing a bikini on a snow covered mountain...
Tomb Raider is slated as having a March 2013 release date, and will release only on the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - there will be no Wii or WiiU versions, and definitely no 3DS one. Which, if nothing else, kind of sends the strongest message about the audience the new Tomb Raider's aiming at, and how far removed it is from targeting people like me, who've played every game in the series so far. Were the more casual, more female crowd that enjoyed the previous Tomb Raider games important, you'd imagine it'd likely be on their platforms of choice - the Wii, and the upcoming WiiU. Having been seriously enjoying Tomb Raider: Anniversary on the Wii in recent weeks, it's actually really sad to see the direction the series is taking. Bought for cheap during troubled retailer GAME's mega sale, it not only has easier-to-get-my-head-round controls, but also a whole set of 'Exclusive Wii Features'. These range from brushing off engravings on the wall and creating charcoal rubbings of them (either as clues to puzzles or as another collectable), to pick-axing your way through the occasional wall to drawing specific symbols in sand pits instead of having to just flip switches, and more - just nice little touches that add a surprising amount of fun. So many of these could be adapted for the WiiU's tablet controller, too - but then, it's obvious that the new Tomb Raider isn't a game for them, anyway. Puzzles like this would likely bore an audience for whom seeing a 21 year old woman impale herself on a spike is entertainment enough.
I don't mean to come across as a cynical and grumpy old-school Tomb Raider fan (even if I may be one) - but it's worth remembering what made the Tomb Raider series the much-loved franchise it is today. It wasn't known for it's gore, combat and in-your-face-violence - it was about exploring tombs, solving some puzzles, and accidentally awakening some guardian from the past, with everything done at your own pace - not the fast-reaction, button-hammering of today. I even liked Angel of Darkness. Yes it was buggy as hell at time, and some of the things they tried to do didn't work out that well, but it still felt like a Tomb Raider game - not the love child of Saw and Lost like this one seems to be shaping up to be.
There's still a lot of time left until the game launches - and we're fully aware that what we've seen so far could be only a small part of the game's many features. Perhaps there's a Tomb Raider game lurking under the surface, with only the most "controversial" parts having been shown so far to drum up publicity. But if things stay as they are, it's almost scary to think, that as someone who's played, and enjoyed every Tomb Raider game since the beginning, this is the first Tomb Raider game I'm probably not going to end up buying.