The following is a review of the 2018 film Tomb Raider initially composed for my personal newsletter. It has been lightly edited for a broader audience, but should still be interpreted predominately as me expressing my personal thoughts on the film rather than a foolhardy attempt at “objective” evaluation.
Video game movies have an impressively awful track record, particularly with critics, and if early reviews are any indication it’s unlikely that this film-based-on-a-game-inspired-by-a-franchise will break that record. However, good grief does it try. Alicia Vikander’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal, selling the evolution of young Lara Croft from curious twenty-something adventurer to hardened killer in two hours arguably better than the game it’s based on ever did. Beyond that, the film’s most polarizing components will likely be the numerous set pieces it lifts from the game: from shipwrecks to deadly rapids, spike traps to ice axes, Tomb Raider feels at times like a sizzle reel for the 2013 game. And while that is great for someone like me who loved the game, it may be off-putting for those with no prior knowledge of Lara or who are not keen on the recent direction of the franchise.
I saw Tomb Raider opening night, and shortly after getting home I posted a photo in support of the film. That unwavering and immediate support has made me acutely aware of subsequent negative reviews and makes me feel somewhat compelled to defend the film against them. Because whether or not it is a “good movie,” I really loved Tomb Raider. What I’m most wrestling with is how we ought to judge adaptations, particularly of games — source material with dozens of hours to develop characters and plotlines, and which are as much predicated on player interaction and mechanics as they are vehicles for story. I think it’s fair to question the wisdom of even making film adaptations of games. But if they are going to exist, on what merits should they be judged? Do we evaluate them as films — which, of course, they are — or on the basis of their fidelity to source material, even if it resists linear, hands-off presentation?
I also think it is perfectly fair to question whether Tomb Raider would have been better trying to tell its own brand new Lara Croft story rather than explicitly drawing on and re-presenting scenes from a game. That may have alienated strong fans of the games, but those fans may well be alienated anyway by the places where the film takes liberties and significantly departures from plot points in the game. Yet catering to cinematic audiences — that is, people who will see Tomb Raider because it’s an action movie or because they loved The Danish Girl, not because they like or know anything about the games — almost requires this to be an origin story, and it’s hard to argue for a complete reworking of Lara’s origins after she has so recently had them reworked multiple times.
And so we go with an adaptation that borrows heavily from the game without duplicating it, with enough preface material to establish the general things that make Lara who she is: her rebellious spirit, her antagonistic relationship with the family wealth, her physical prowess, her clever personality. And then it’s a speedrun: finding Yamatai, facing and escaping capture, acquiring weaponry, and attempting to thwart Trinity. The pacing is brisk to the point of jarring, and leaves little room for nearly any of the other characters to breathe. Which is a shame, because a decent supporting cast certainly had more to offer than it had a chance to give here. On the other hand, this may have been a blessing, because the sidelining of everyone else in order to focus on Lara almost (almost) justifies the absence of some of the most memorable and effective characters in the 2013 game, especially Sam and Jonah.
Ultimately, Tomb Raider is working under a lot of pressure. It’s trying to relaunch a franchise still memorably (if winkingly) associated with Angelina Jolie; refreshen an already-told origin tale; and condense a sprawling exploration-driven experience into a tight, brief plot; all while juggling the difficult task of turning a happy-go-lucky college-ager into a survivalist in an under-120-minute window. And while it’d be dishonest to say the film succeeds at everything it tries to be, I think it’s also important to ask what else it could have done with so many boxes to check.
Alicia Vikander pours her Oscar-winning heart into this performance and I have no doubt that, if given the chance to thrive in a film untethered by the obligations of a daddy-issues origin story, she (and the Tomb Raider franchise) can breathe new life into a dusty genre whose most recent offerings have included Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a surprising amount of Nicolas Cage, and whatever that disaster with Tom Cruise was supposed to be. I desperately want to see future Tomb Raider movies, and so critical reception aside I am really pulling for this one to pay off at the box office. Meanwhile, if you like the games at all, if you like Vikander, or if you just want a fun popcorn flick packed with action and adventure (if not much else), go see Tomb Raider this weekend.
Let’s get the full disclosure part out of the way up front, shall we?
I love the new Tomb Raider.
I’ve never played a previous Lara Croft game.
I have 100% campaign completion on Normal, am going back through for my Hard playthrough, and recently bought a few cables so that I can play multiplayer with voice chat over PSN.
Nothing I’m about to say precludes my resounding recommendation that people go buy and play this fantastic game. It tells a great story, it’s set in a breathtaking environment, has some fantastic, memorable music, and is just a ton of fun, particularly if you’re the sort of person who feels compelled to find and collect anything that causes an incomplete fraction to pop up on your screen when you find one of it.
But in the wake of news of “disappointing sales” and a flood of unhappiness and ranting following the announcement that no single-player DLC is planned for the game, I think it’s worth looking at what happened and considering why.
The number one problem I have with Tomb Raider is that it is too easy. I say that not as a long-time fan who misses the challenges of older games, but as a platformer aficionado who has tackled extremely challenging and hazardous tombs in, say, several Assassin’s Creed games over the years (tombs which aren’t even fundamental to the franchise’s story or branding) and found that the most difficult moments in Tomb Raider were a cakewalk when compared to other games it can’t help being held up against. I had to work far harder to achieve full campaign completion in pretty much every other platform/exploration-driven game I’ve ever played (going back to PS1, say).
That’d be alarming even if this weren’t called “Tomb Raider” and if the franchise’s core fanbase hadn’t fallen in love with the challenge of each tomb. So while I think any fans who pass on this game because of its representation of Lara are simply making an incredibly ignorant decision, the fans who pass because of the lack of challenge? They have a point. It may be a great game, but it isn’t the type of game they wanted to play, not the type of game Tomb Raider used to feel like.
So here’s my “review.” If you played Tomb Raider for Lara, pick this up. If you played Tomb Raider for the sense of mystery, discovery, and adventure, pick this up. But if you played for puzzles that could stump you for hours, and if your sense of achievement is tied to the difficulty of overcoming extreme challenge? Then maybe this isn’t for you after all. And I think the extent to which that may apply to a lot of people who loved Tomb Raider in the past is rather sad. But beyond that, I can’t think of many reasons not to play this game.
While all that may seem a bit unrelated to the backlash over DLC, it honestly isn’t tangential at all. The campaign established a great toolset and delivered progressively harder tombs as Lara combed Yamatai, and I don’t think I was the only fan who not only hoped but took for granted that a “challenging tombs” pack was going to come out sometime soon. We were prepared to pay extra money for the challenge that was blatantly missing from the game. And then we found out it wasn’t coming…ever.
I attended the Tomb Raider panel at PAX East this weekend and the difficulty of the game (or lack thereof) was brought up. Crystal & Square recognize the outcry, and acknowledge the more rudimentary challenge level of this game. While what was said doesn’t necessarily excuse them (or the lack of DLC), it’s worth mentioning here. Two culprits were pointed to, each with its own merit.
The first is the tone of this Tomb Raider in contrast with past games. 2013’s Tomb Raider is rugged and real, powered by emotion and character rather than action and diversion. The story maintains a rather constant urgency and that’s a tone which is difficult to maintain even in the best of games. While diversionary romps through hour-long tombs may make sense for Ezio (especially if he hasn’t reached the next narrative waypoint to guide the story along), Lara is in a very present battle for survival and rescue. In terms of “gamey” mechanics, it simply wouldn’t make narrative sense for her to meander off into dark and dangerous dungeons while her best friend is in real danger of being sacrificed, or while she herself has not developed an affinity for crypts as of yet and would just like to be home in a warm bed. Sure, as the game goes on we begin to see the “old” Lara surface and a confidence emerge which ensures future games will have to up the ante. But in terms of this story? Extensive tombs really just wouldn’t have worked.
When you consider past Tomb Raider games, you’ll notice more of an emphasis on fun and fantasy, elements which while not absent from this game are definitely (and intentionally) subdued. Seldom does a moment arise in the new Tomb Raider where your suspension of disbelief is broken: Yamatai feels real, the danger feels real, and part of you wonders if that dangerous island isn’t actually out there, amassing shipwrecks and downed planes and populated by a manic and lost cult. Every tomb feels like just that: a tomb, a place actually used by real people who had a real purpose for the environment. The challenge of traversing it feels practical because it wasn’t created to be challenging, it just became challenging as traditional footpaths and the like eroded and decayed over time. In much the same way as a person who drops a ladder needs to find another way down from the roof, Tomb Raider‘s challenge isn’t overtly gamey. It makes sense contextually.
One panelist pointed out how in previous games the difficulty stemmed from mechanics like having to pull a lever in one room which seemed disconnected from the door that lever opened in some other room. We’re used to this in games, but if you think about it, no actual person would ever develop a system that complicated for getting into a room. Believability and difficulty are ever at odds in these tombs and in this particular case, with narrative in mind, I actually appreciate the thought that went into the design of each one.
And the second point, which is so obvious it’s almost surprising, is that you didn’t need to use survival mode to get through the tombs. I’m sure there are SOME people out there who figured everything out easily enough without that aid, but anyone who complained that the tombs were too easy after having used such a blatant newb-friendly crutch should re-evaluate whether the game lacked challenge because it was inherently too easy, or because they opted for the path of least resistance. The goal of this reboot was to open the door for a new generation of players to a franchise which had become stagnant and rather esoteric, and to the extent that accessibility precluded forced difficulty, the onus may be said to be on players for challenging themselves if the standard experience proved too simplistic. This mirrors my own thoughts on Final Fantasy XIII‘s auto-battle system: sure, I wish the fighting had been more complex and demanding, but I could have chosen to mix up my fighting and made battles more interesting of my own accord; my decision to do otherwise can’t really be laid at Square’s feet.
So perhaps you can understand and appreciate why the game’s core tomb set was easier than it might have been. But that level of forgiveness is trumped by the absence of DLC — an admittedly more “hardcore” product insomuch as casual players aren’t likely to seek it out — and the knowledge that people who wanted to buy more Tomb Raider content in the spirit of the original Tomb Raider were deemed less worth developing content for than the ostensible multiplayer crowd definitely stings.
This, then, is the second major issue I have with Tomb Raider, and that’s its focus on multiplayer. Now like I said, I look forward to playing multiplayer. I have heard decent things about it, and it sounds like it’s got an interesting twist on the typical formula. But the fact remains that no one is going to buy Tomb Raider on the basis of it having a multiplayer mode, robust or otherwise. And while the people who do play will obviously need a fresh supply of content to keep them hooked instead of wandering off to play other games, it seems a bit more balanced approach would have been appropriate.
I’m not going to repeat the (now trite) complaint that single-player games are having multiplayer shoehorned into them and that development costs are being taken away from making a better single-player product because of it. There’s some merit there for sure but I don’t think the issue with Tomb Raider was that not enough time was spent polishing it. If difficulty is my prime concern and it can be explained for non-resource-related reasons, then obviously something more is at play.
In this case, it may simply be the failure to recognize that reigning multiplayer champions like Halo and Call of Duty are simply not going to be usurped. Variety is great but the popularity of such stalwart mainstays suggests that the reason people keep buying and playing them is more to do with how they don’t change than with how they do; familiarity, rather than freshness, seems to be driving those mind-blowing sales.
So to come along and expect, as Square clearly did, that a game-changing multiplayer might make Tomb Raider more of a hit — and to back that assumption by developing multiplayer-exclusive content — seems a rather foolhardy decision. And it’s a shame, because you know they realize that too. A cursory glance at the backlash reveals a rather clear message: We don’t want more multiplayer. We didn’t even really want it in the first place. And the money we would have given you gladly for other content, you’ll never see, because you’re not making that content.
Tomb Raider is a great game, and hopefully the beginning of an extraordinary new life for the Lara Croft franchise. It would be tragic for the “poor” sales to preclude further games with this level of excellence being made, and on that basis alone I reiterate my encouragement to go buy yourself a copy. But I sincerely hope that, now that the origin story has been told and a “survivor has been born,” Crystal and Square learn from their mistakes here and deliver a follow-up which will live up to the bar they’ve set while thrilling the disgruntled fanbase that just wants to be forced to think a little harder. Just cater to the masochists and introverts.
As I mentioned in my more personal blog, this year’s PAX was rather low-key, a fact I attribute to its position at the dying edge of this console generation and exacerbated slightly by my own lack of a Windows or Linux personal computer. None of that, however, precluded my enjoyment of the weekend, and I thought I’d share my personal convention highlights: the few games, panels, and standout moments which comprised the non-friend-driven highlights of this year’s PAX East.
Panels are always a bit of a gamble at PAX. Often it’s a high risk, high reward system whereby you sink an hour or two into line-squatting and hope that the hour-long panel pays off. Some people decide up front to skip out on panels altogether, but I like to go for at least one a day.
Of course, you can’t always get into all the panels that look interesting, particularly if they’re anywhere near the same time. I’d have loved a chance to sit in on Cliff Bleszinski’s storytime session but by the time I got onto the show floor on Friday I realized I should have been waiting upstairs in the main theater line from the very beginning rather than the expo line. So after a cursory stumble through the expo hall, I headed upstairs to the next panel I’d wanted to hit, Square-Enix’s Recreating an Icon: The Talent Behind the New Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER.
It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that a panel devoted to a franchise once known for trademark misogynist character animation was comprised entirely of women, from the community management side to animation to lighting to localization. Between the panel and a video featuring author Rhianna Pratchett, a wide scope of topics was touched upon, not least of which being the sexual assault fiasco that erupted prior to the game’s release, the difficulty of the puzzles versus their more organic/accessible (rather than arbitrary/gamey) design, and why the Shanty Town is so darn hard to navigate (it used to be impossible). While hardly the most riveting moment of the weekend, it was a friendly and invigorating start to my PAX, and a good segue back into the gaming world coming off the tail of last week’s marathon rush to 100% campaign completion.
Saturday’s doorbusting didn’t go quite as planned, due to a later-than-it-should-have-been start and having to park in the frigid and tempestuous overflow jetty lot (I instagrammed a picture of the lengthy line waiting behind me for the not-frequent-enough shuttles to bring us warmth). Thankfully the main blip on my radar was an early afternoon panel called Behind the Music of Blockbuster Video Games, which featured a surprisingly robust list of participants (though sadly not all of the ones listed in the app were present; most notably Garry Schyman). Having purchased Jason Graves’ Tomb Raider soundtrack on the drive up to Boston, I was pleased to see he was not one of the dropouts. The discussion itself was pretty varied: each composer’s background, games worked on and their relative success or failure, favorite scenes scored, reactions from non-gamers when they explain what it is they write music for. I’ll be honest: I don’t know a lot about music, and I haven’t played a lot of the games these gentlemen have scored, but hearing the thoughts behind people with the thankless job of making the music of Call of Duty memorable was actually really cool, and means I’ll be opening my ears a little more next time I go down to play something I assume is a little shallow.
Yet it was Sunday’s Gearbox panel which will take the prize for most entertaining (and, crass as it may be, rewarding) panel. While the Tomb Raider line received temporary tattoos which could be worn and flashed in return for a copy of the hardback The Beginning comic that came only with the Best Buy preorder version of the game, and while several lucky attendees of the music panel received a free CD, Gearbox participants were showered with prizes, including a myriad of pins on the way into the theatre, a chocolate coin wrapped in a gold SHiFT Key foil, and colored cards for a chance to win what would later turn out to be a lottery for overstocked Loot Chest swag.
Though anyone up on their gaming news likely already knows that was announced at the panel, the fact that Gearbox chose a fan event to unveil so many new things is strikingly refreshing. A new level cap, new weapon tier, and new playthrough were announced as a forthcoming DLC which would be grandfathered into the already value-packed Season Pass or sold for the reasonable price of $5. The fourth campaign DLC got a sneak peek trailer complete with 100% more Tiny Tina and great Vault Hunter cameos. And a new character, who looks insanely (no pun intended) fun to play, was unveiled, demonstrated in the most hilarious of fashions, followed up with by an even more insane demo reel, and then, just as we were about done with all that, we were told that Gearbox was giving everyone in the room that character for free (so…that’s $10 more saved just for being in the right place at the right time).
On top of all the swag, however, the real perk was just how enjoyable the Gearbox crew is. They demonstrate a sincere love for what they do, and even candidly played off the heavily negative response that their recent Aliens: Colonial Marines has received while trying to discuss their ongoing support for it in as succinct and damage-controlling a way as possible. When the panel’s start was delayed due to the need to fill the room, Mikey Neumann ad libbed his way through random audience participation and Randy Pitchford came out to perform a couple card tricks in front of the camera. Maybe there were more enjoyable panels in this weekend’s lineup? But consider me a skeptic.
I’ll be honest. There weren’t too many games that got me excited this year at PAX East. I saw a lot of decent stuff but very few things made me feel like I needed to sit down and try them out. But there were a few that did make me pause (sometimes for excessive periods of time).
The first of these was the impossible-to-miss upcoming MMO from Carbine Studios called Wildstar. I don’t play MMO’s. I don’t have a PC. But after standing there gazing like an idiot up at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of trailers (they had a handful, and I watched them all), I was about ready to go build one. It’s not that the game looks ground-breaking (maybe it is? but i wouldn’t know). It’s not that I was blown away by the graphics or the gameplay possibilities or anything of the sort. It’s just that it looked really fun. It had a great personality. The two ever-battling sides were immediately recognizable and relatable. The various species and specializations distinct and engaging. And yeah, the art, I liked it. It’s not for everyone, it’s a bit exaggerated, but it was perfect for me. I watched a lot of Wildstar and at the end of the day I can honestly say that if I had a PC, I’d definitely be looking to give it a try.
Potentially my favorite game of the show was one I’d seen a blurb about in some magazine a month or so ago and had actually created a note on my phone specifically to remind me to go find out more about it: the gorgeous and inspired Contrast from Montréal-based indie developer Compulsion Games. Part Portal, part Braid, part Bioshock, and bursting with whimsy, the game is easier seen and felt than described. It focuses on a little girl and her mysterious magical friend — whom you control — who possess the ability to transfer at will between her physical form and her shadow — adding a new dimension of depth to devious platforming puzzles as you navigate both obstacles and the shadows they cast. It looks great, it feels great, and, with a completely original score ripe with jazz, it sounds great. After speaking at length with several of the developers I confidently told one that he couldn’t get it on Mac or a console quickly enough. If Contrast were available today I would already have purchased it. Seriously. Go check it out.
The only other developer I made such a bold declaration to was the guy who put me in front of a camera after my twenty-minute (and well-earned, might I add, considering the 2+ hour wait) demo of Supergiant’s newly-announced project, Transistor. Shocked that such a fun experience still had another year of development to go before its projected released, I flat-out told the man “if this were released tomorrow, I would buy it.” Once more inspired by jazz, but of a different bent, Transistor switches up Bastion‘s signature narration by adding a second character but keeping the omnipresent voice. Players control a woman I know only as “Red,” the lovely singer whose voice opened the demo over top a written exposition I was loathe to advance out of fear that advancing it too quickly would make the incredible music end prematurely (seriously, I sat there when the music ended waiting just to make sure it was over). She wanders over to a massive sword-like weapon sticking out of the corpse of a man — led there by the voice that seems to come from within the weapon itself. It seems she has tragically lost her voice — and he, his body.
Transistor looks to be an intriguing blend of action and turn-based RPG, with abilities requiring time to charge and then an attack-mapping system which allows you to freeze the action and carefully plan out your various attacks and even get behind cover, triggering increasingly-impressive combos before the enemies can properly react (but then it’s back to running for cover as you wait for your power to recharge). Supergiant teases a rich world filled with mystery and revelation, and our gruff narrator’s voice screams noir against a tragic cyberpunk world. It’s hard to explain how less than twenty minutes of a nascent game can justify waiting hours on one’s tired feet, but suffice to say, Transistor did just that. Bastion won the company all kinds of respect, and I firmly believe Transistor will outdo its predecessor. Too bad we’ll have to wait a year to find out.
It’s funny how I always seem to be behind the times when it comes to trends. Everyone has been playing League of Legends for seemingly forever, but not me. I tried it very briefly but that was a mostly failed experiment in dual-booting. Once more a victim of the not-having-a-PC affliction, I turned a blind eye to Riot’s sensational hit and assumed that was that; until of course they announced an open Mac beta and I immediately downloaded it and got a new character too. For those so-inclined, my name is WORDSLING3R, and I have Ashe, Annie, and Twisted Fate. My wallet is terrified of what might happen if I let myself truly embrace this game.
Anyhow, no matter how you feel about MOBA’s, one thing is very clear about League: they have incredible artwork. And it was just my luck that as Friday afternoon began to take its toll on me and I no longer had any clear idea why I was still on the expo floor, I happened upon the tail end of a cosplay show and paused as I was told that three major employees of the company — artists and animators — would be doing a Q&A session while simultaneously designing a new player skin from scratch. I imagine a few others stuck around when that skin turned out to be a beach-themed Leona.
What unfolded before my eyes over the course of three days — because coming back to watch their progress each day became a necessity — was nothing short of magic to my I-can’t-even-draw-stick-figures-properly non-artist eyes. What began as a completely blank .PSD gradually evolved into smudges, rough lines, clear shapes, a woman, and then a colorful, shaded, and shadowed piece of art. And while all this happened on the large screen above the stage, the three presenters — Michael Maurino, Katie Desousa, and Mike Laygo — took turns juggling questions from the audience which leapfrogged all over the place: League lore, design, art, skins, animation, office habits, and working in the gaming industry in general. You got a real sense of passion on both sides of the microphone: people who loved working on this game, and people who loved playing it. And those groups weren’t even slightly mutually exclusive. You hear often of game devs who want nothing to do with the game they work on, but Riot’s employees come across as genuinely enthused, people who can’t wait to actually use the new skins and champions they spend their weeks putting together. It’s a contagious passion: it kept me coming back throughout PAX, and it has me quite ready to really put that open beta to the test. And if they ever release a collector’s artbook of some sort, may God have mercy on my budget.
Cosplay & Conclusion
Somehow, somewhere along the way, some people with extremely misplaced and inflated egos called cosplayers “lame.” But in recent years I’ve been blown away by how ridiculously untrue that is. The talent and dedication that these artists — let’s call a spade a spade — put into their craft is humbling. Sure, there are the few who “didn’t even try,” whose ensemble is more fittingly called homage than cosplay. And yes, there’s the occasional cosplayer (typically, though not always, female) whose outfit seems to have been designed with the specific intent of wearing as little clothing as humanly possible. But aside from the few bad apples, cosplayers are a diverse and talented crowd, and I saw some magnificent displays over the course of my three days. Silly old me decided this year it’d be worth not hauling around my DSLR, so my iPad was made to suffice. It worked well enough, a few blurry or missed shots notwithstanding. For the most part, cosplayers were the only thing I felt worthy of photographing this year. Below is a small gallery consisting of most of the ones I managed to capture.
A handful of fulfilling panels, a smattering of great games, and charming folks to photograph in between. These things are the PAX experience I chose to embrace, and in retrospect I have no regrets. I may not have pulled the largest swag bag, played the most games, or gotten professional grade shots of every cosplayer I wish I’d photographed, but all in all I’d say I did alright. As I said in my earlier blog, PAX is so much more than a gaming convention. But for a gaming convention, it sure was awesome.
Despite being a general improvement over last year’s show, Spike & GTTV’s annual Video Game Awards cling tightly to juvenile and damaging stereotypes about gamers and their industry. Continue reading →