Crystal Dynamics gives the AAA third person shooter a new sensibility beyond Uncharted’s linear set pieces: character-driven horror adventure.
Wolves stalk out of the dark with glowing eyes. The game is bold enough to directly reference not only Aliens – the obvious film to turn to when telling a story about a woman turning into an action hero to be protective – but The Descent. The later film’s heroine takes a notable plunge into a pool of gore and blood, as does Laura. Pivotally, these moments both come in the third act and cement the characters as newly born; baptized by blood, they are fully committed to violence.
Players should be careful to note that it’s exactly the opposite of the ludonarrative dissonance Uncharted’s Nathan Drake always faces after he kills (literal) thousands but is unable to shoot one person in a climatic cutscene for moral/plot reasons: Laura’s first kill makes her vomit, the next few hours she fights hesitantly based on need, and by the end she’s blowing away dozens at a time while actively taunting them to fight her.
The narrative simply isn’t about Laura feeling bad about killing. Some will argue it should be, but pleading for a deeper understanding of the people who uphold a violent (and non-violent) patriarchy, as the game’s villains do, is for limo liberals. Had Tomb Raider excused patriarchal evil, it would excuse any opposition to it and turn us into Zizek’s “malevolent spectators.”
Like good horror, Tomb Raider melds genre with gender. The island that Laura and the other researchers wash up on is inhabited only by men. From remnants of Nazi bases and ancient Chinese tombs, they built their mishmash society; any women on the island are ritually killed in hopes that it will allow them to make it free of the Bermuda Triangle-esque island. It doesn’t preach the evils of patriarchy – it is those evils.
Laura repeatedly gets treated like a child by the islanders and by the head researcher she works under, a respected academic who willfully gives her up to the islanders and dismisses her conclusions – reduced by the end to cowering behind Laura, who takes command of the scene. Infusing the horror action with Chinese matriarch figures and an all-male cult with feral soldiers that snarl (just like the actual wolves that pop up in the game) heightens Tomb Raider over fun-but-simplistic Uncharted.
Naughty Dog should be worried: aware players will notice that Uncharted’s combat lacks the depth Tomb Raider’s sheer number of options presents. Do a sliding kick into a man’s knees, stab him with an arrow, shoot him with a bow, crack him with an axe, throw dirt in his eyes, scramble on all fours around someone to run up another enemy’s back, etc. etc. etc.; the majority of encounters can be stealthed through with a bow and axe, or you can run in guns blazing; do you like to use normal arrows, or set fires with the explosive kind to corral enemies?; the major areas feature varied paths all designed to create ambushes.
Combining the familiar with familiar gives Tomb Raider, paradoxically, its own identity. The climbing/shooting of Uncharted are melded to Arkham Asylum’s overall design (areas are locked off until Laura gets new tools, unlockables tied to in-game challenges, the melee combat chaining) and the original Tomb Raider’s puzzles. While pedants will dismiss Tomb Raider as AAA garbage, the more serious-minded will find joy in its diverse gameplay and character-orientated story.