Curiously nerdy posts.
As I’ve alluded to, I play a lot of games in my spare time. It’s one of my major hobbies, and definitely up there with reading and writing. It’s only fitting that I write about them sometimes.
More and more, I’ve taken to playing games on my PC. Last week marked the third summer sale I’ve participated in, and I grabbed a number of games that had ridiculous markdowns. One of the games I grabbed was the new Tomb Raider, for a grand total of $12.49.
Without mincing words, I can say that the game is brilliantly done. I can’t find a lot of things I don’t like about it, honestly. But the whole time, the gameplay reminded me a lot of another series that is quite popular on Playstation 3… that being the best selling Uncharted series. Both games have a lot of similarities… in both games, you do a lot of climbing, platforming, shooting bad guys, and solving puzzles (that admittedly aren’t that difficult) in ancient tombs. It’s kind of a full circle comparison, really, since Uncharted took what the original Tomb Raider games did, and improved it.
But there’s a difference. In Uncharted, I played those games through sort of laughing with it and at it, not unlike watching a summer blockbuster. I couldn’t take it seriously, from a storyline standpoint. In many cases, it felt like the storyline was there just to give the main character something to climb on and bad guys to shoot at, rather than an integral piece of the game. Whereas with Tomb Raider, not once did I see a reason to belittle it. In fact, it gave me that oh so rare feeling of immersion… like I was right there with Lara the whole time, skulking through the woods with a bow and arrow, hunting animals to survive, and trying to figure out why my ship had wrecked in a mysterious storm.
What’s the difference? Simple. The story. Come on, you saw that coming.
In Uncharted*, you play as Nathan Drake, a man who claims to be a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, the legendary privateer in Elizabethan England. As the game starts, he is tracking clues to prove that Drake actually faked his death, and then went off to seek El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. Just as he is making his discovery with some proof he finds of this, he is attacked by pirates, and a rival treasure hunter who is also after El Dorado. If this sort of sounds similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s sort of meant to be. It has that same approach to the action, the tone, and the dialogue. Except unlike Indiana Jones, Nate isn’t some archeologist yelling “It belongs in a museum!” to treasure hunters who want it for profit. Nate is a treasure hunter, just like them. He’s a guy who wants to use his knowledge to strike it rich. So while the game progresses to a point where Nate stays on to battle the bad guys because it’s the right thing to do, at the beginning, his motivations are purely driven by profit.
*I picked the first game, specifically, for a couple of reasons. Storyline wise, it introduces the character, just as the new Tomb Raider does by rebooting the series. And also, typically in a series of games, the first story is almost always the strongest one anyway.
In Tomb Raider, you once again take control of Lara Croft, one of the truly famous heroines of video game history. But here, she is a recent graduate student, taken along on an expedition to find the lost Kingdom of Yamatai off the coast of Japan. By her own urging and suggestions, she persuades the crew to search to the east, inside of a nasty storm system called the Dragon’s Triangle, instead of west, as the established archeologist in her group wants to do. Predictably, their ship gets caught in a nasty storm, and is wrecked off the coast of a mysterious island. Almost immediately, she is separated from the rest of the crew, alone on a hostile island. She isn’t there because she wants to be. The storm put her there. And her goals shift from trying to find the kingdom of Yamatai to something far more relatable: survival. The most primal of motivations, and something that anyone could understand. The gamemakers immediately give her some sympathy, which is a very nice change from the “ridiculously rich and hot archeologist who does this for fun” character Lara is in the previous games. For all we show, she still does come from a ridiculously wealthy family. But here, on a deadly island? All the money in the world can’t buy her safety where we find her. Just that bit of sympathy, and empathy for the character’s mission makes the game so much more interesting to play for me.
Both games employ a bit of the supernatural. In Uncharted, you gradually find out that El Dorado isn’t actually a city… it’s a large golden statue. One problem, though… it’s cursed. In fact, Nazis in World War 2 tried to use it as a weapon, and instead doomed themselves all to a terrible fate worse than death. That same curse pits you against these feral grey zombies that don’t look much different from the infected in I Am Legend. It’s an interesting twist, and one that forces Nate to find a way to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
In Tomb Raider, you quickly find out that even though their ship wrecked, Lara was right. The Kingdom of Yamatai was indeed to the east, in the center of the Triangle. Problem is, the legends of a Queen that could control the weather itself, and storms down upon her enemies hit a little too close to home, as they find a cult obsessed with the queen, and also with finding her a successor. Also, every rescue attempt that comes for them meets an unfortunate end at the hands of powerful storms that appear from nowhere. Gradually, you find out that none of the stories Lara and her friend Sam recount are legends. They are, in fact, real.
The difference here? In Uncharted, none of the supporting characters die. The closest we get to this is when Nate’s friend Sully gets shot by the villain. However, the “something in my pocket took the bullet” trick saves him here. In Tomb Raider, the main cast is whittled away like a horror movie, as different situations and terrible atrocities on the island claim them, one by one. Some of them die bravely, some of them die due to their own stupidity. That’s life. But with each one, Lara slowly feels more and more despair. After all, it was her hunch that brought them here. So, fair or not, she feels responsible for all of them.
Characters don’t have to die to make a good story, or a good game. But it surely does help to create a sense of peril, which is definitely a good thing for the tone of any game that deals with supernatural killing machines.
But it’s a game. Doesn’t the actual playing part mean something too?
So glad you asked. It does. Even the gameplay reflects this too. In Uncharted, you do a simple “hide behind cover, shoot everyone until you move on” mechanic anytime you run into bad guys. In Tomb Raider, you get pretty much the same thing. The difference is that sometimes, the game lets you become a hunter, and stalk your enemies quietly instead of playing action hero. I can’t even say how satisfying it was to sneak through a dark forest, slowly whittling down a patrol by headshotting them with arrows, one by one. I could see any Hunger Games fans having fun fulfilling their Katniss fantasies by doing this as well.
But it’s the climbing part that really struck me. Nate can climb seemingly any surface and scale any mountain with his bare freaking hands. Lara, on the other hand, has her limits until you get an item that helps her… an axe, which also serves as a climbing pick, a multipurpose tool, and a weapon if you feel like meleeing. It kind of reminded me of the old book Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, in how it was used for almost any situation where she needed a tool to progress. I don’t know, I just spent so much of Uncharted thinking “Wow, there’s no way it should be possible to climb this.” Tomb Raider does run into the same problems sometimes, but at least it gives Lara tools you’d actually need to scale cliffs.
Lastly, what about character development? At the beginning of Uncharted, Nathan Drake has a reporter, Elena, who he flirts with as he does his research and exploration. At the end, after he has saved the day, they both behave exactly the same way, except that now they have the hots for one another. Logical progression, but you don’t get any feeling that the characters have changed during their ordeal.
In Tomb Raider, Lara starts as that scared, victimized virgin from every slasher horror movie you’ve ever seen or heard of. She runs from everything, she hides from everything. The first time she kills someone (which was by accident). you get the feeling she would’ve puked, if the gamemakers were comfortable showing that. But slowly, her situation hardens her. In fact, about 70% through the game’s story, she turns into a badass. The cultists get to be afraid of her, and you hear her scream angrily at them “That’s right, run! I’m coming for you!”. And somehow, it’s believable that if someone was lucky enough to live through everything she’s seen, they would act like that. By the end of the game, she’s gone from a reserved, bookish grad student to a full fledged explorer badass. That’s a character arc for you.
I probably sound like I’m being paid to advertise Tomb Raider, and I’m sorry for that. It just struck me how much more fun, and how immersed it got me as opposed to a game that is extremely similar. The difference, as always, is the story told. Tomb Raider simply has a better one.
That’s the power of story, my friends.
Tomb Raider: *****
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