SSPA – Tomb Raider

Having grown up in a Nintendo household, I rarely saw any Sony material. I remember school yard squabbles about N64 vs PlayStation, with neither side really knowing anything about the other. Back then, my only encounters with the PlayStation came from visiting my cousins, or with a neighbor, so I only had a glancing knowledge of the system’s library. Some characters stood out in the commercials and magazines I saw at the time, like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, but besides those big names and some more obscure titles, it was undiscovered territory for me.

In my tween years, my older brother took advantage of the decline of the 5th generation of gaming and bought a cheap PS1 from GameStop, with a small set of top of the line games. This included Final Fantasy 7 and 8, and Tomb Raider 3: The Adventures of Lara Croft. While the Final Fantasy games blew us away with their excellent storytelling and engrossing combat (timeless features regardless of the aged graphics), Tomb Raider was just confusing. There was little story to be seen and almost no instructions, so we spent most of our time getting lost, dying, and starting that same first level over and over. Saving the game was a mystery and the dark graphics made it easy to get lost, and although we expanded our PS1 library, we quickly let Tomb Raider 3 fall by the wayside and eventually traded it among a pile of other titles.

In late 2013, talk of the new Tomb Raider reboot was all around. It was turning out to be a major success and both my friends and family were giving it high marks. Since that first encounter on the PS1, my feelings toward almost every game system had evolved and matured, but there was still a great many mainstay series I had never tried. I didn’t give much attention to the new game, but after a discussion with an uncle of mine, who had been a fan of the series since the start, I decided to give the new one a go. But first, I felt I would need some perspective on the series as a whole, so rather than drop the cost of the hot, new title, I decided to go back to the beginning.

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Story: (contains spoilers)

An atomic test in the New Mexico desert uncovers an ancient relic containing an unknown entity. Decades later, explorer, archaeologist, and mountaineer Lara Croft is hired by businesswoman Jacqueline Natla to investigate an ancient catacomb in the mountains of Peru. Hidden in the caves is said to be an artifact known as the Scion and Jacqueline wants it for her private collection. Lara accepts the job and sets out for the Andes. Once she and the expedition team make it to the site, they are attacked by ravenous wolves. Only Lara survives and decides to go on with the mission.

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After finding the artifact it is revealed to only be one third of the Scion and that it is said to contain unimaginable super natural power. Before Lara can leave the caves, a second group of Natla’s hired men arrive to eliminate the first team, and take the Scion piece. After dispatching the goons, Lara decides to beat Jacqueline at her own game and find the other pieces of the Scion before Natla can get her hands on them.

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The story, like much of the series, is very Indiana Jones-esque. It’s a globe trotting adventure through ancient ruins and a race against time with a well equipped, well armed, criminal organization. The twists and turns are interesting and keep you wanting to see more. That said, there are very few cutscenes. The game prefers to makes good use of environmental storytelling to drive the narrative. Designs in the ruins or the placement of certain enemies tell you what Lara’s getting into or how hotly the bad guys are on your trail.

-spoilers ahead-

The only real set back is that the story doesn’t really have a very satisfying conclusion. Later in the game, it is revealed that Jacqueline was actually an Atlantean priestess, imprisoned for centuries, but freed from her confines by the atomic test at the start. Seeking to destroy the human race to revive her own, she uses the Scion to raise an Atlantean pyramid and summon a race of monsters to ravage the world. Lara pursues her and, using an arsenal of weapons, kills the beasts and destroys the temple, barely escaping while it crumbles around her.

Although this could be a very cinematic series of events, it doesn’t really play out that way. In the last level, you go through a few more platforming challenges, fight some skinned terrors, and enter a room with a boss monster, a large, half-formed, zombie creature, and take it out. Once it’s dead you platform your way out of there. Jacqueline turns into a winged demon and attacks you. She can’t be killed, but her purpose is more to distract you and run out the clock while the temple crashes down.

All of this happens in-game with no pomp and circumstance. Once you leave the level, there’s a brief scene with Lara in her manor and then credits. It’s a little underwhelming. Some say it’s all about the journey, not the destination, but I appreciate the journey all the more if the destination is memorable.

-spoilers end-

Gameplay:

These were the early days of 3D platforming. Super Mario 64 had come and shown bouncy cartoon games how its done and Bubsy 3D had shown bouncy cartoon games how to fail, but Tomb Raider was aiming for a more realistic experience. The series’ gameplay closely resembles cinematic platformers like Delphine Software’s Flashback: The Quest for Identity and Another World, with its focus on precisely timed platforming, but is in many ways more forgiving than most in the genre.

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Using Lara’s superior upper body strength, you must navigate through a series of caverns and ruins to ultimately reach your objective. Ancient traps and crumbling structures threaten you at every turn and instant death is a regular hazard. Lara’s movements are weighty and slow to build speed, a quality that is at first hard to get used to, but I believe adds to the immersion. You have to build momentum to make long jumps and carefully walk to avoid falling off ledges. This game uses the tank like control scheme of most early 3D games. Pushing left or right turns, while up and down move you front to back. This kind of control is cumbersome, leaving you at the mercy of a difficult camera and making quick movements difficult. To mitigate this slightly you can hit a button to make a quick about face to get out of tight areas more quickly.

In many ways the gameplay resembles the controls in the first Prince of Persia games, so much so it was almost perfectly imitated in Prince of Persia 3D. Walking carefully up to ledges and through traps is well known to the Prince, but Lara has some tricks he did not. She can scale certain walls, shimmy along crags, and she can swim. These moves make the gameplay more robust and add an extra layer of creativity in the level design.

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Also like the Prince, Lara is not indestructible. She cannot fall from intense heights and just pop back out of the ground, and she can’t run at mach 5 to clear thirty yard gaps. Falling more than two stories will cause a lot of hurt and while she can jump pretty far, she still needs a good lead of ground to build up to a long jump. Climbing is a delicate process that takes time and care, and small mistakes can lead to major setbacks.

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Navigating a 3D space was very new when the game was first released and part of the challenge for developers was creating a coherent way to play. New players will find the rigid tank controls difficult to get used to. Fortunately, Tomb Raider has a tutorial level set in Croft Manor where Lara runs you through the controls in her gym. This open area tutorial has been a tradition for the series in almost every game. It’s a hands on way to teach you the game without throwing you into the fray and certainly preferable to relying on a manual.

Croft Manor

Combat is pretty simple. While exploring you’ll encounter vicious wildlife, hired thugs, and worse trying to stop you from getting to the goal. To battle them, you’ll have to rely on Lara’s skill as a marksman. Aiming is entirely automatic, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry about aiming at enemies with the low resolution graphics, however the lack of manual aiming means you have to be close to enemies to get your shots in and you can’t choose your target.

Gunplay

Over the course of the game, you will find stashes of weapons and ammo hidden in the stages and on fallen enemies. Each of the guns you find fire differently, with varying levels of power, but they all have limited ammo supplies. To ensure that you always have a fighting chance, Lara starts with twin pistols that have unlimited ammo. They do low level damage, but judicious use of them will save your better gear for harder encounters later on. Overall, combat is not too complex, but it satisfies and doesn’t drag the game down.

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Probably the biggest fault with this title, and a thorn in players’ sides for most of the early series, is saving your game on the home console versions. If you were playing the first Tomb Raider on a PC you would be able to save at any time. Console players on the other hand are restricted to saving only at choice moments. Generally, but not always, after every large scale puzzle or challenging room, a floating crystal will be waiting for you. This will save your game, and if you die, you will be forced to load your game at the last save point. This can be a real pain when you have to overcome a long and hard challenge. Making a simple mistake on a high ledge or failing to kill an enemy in time will force you to retry the most excruciating levels. Another challenge is that you could only have one file in use for every memory card you owned, so if you have more than one gamer in the house, you had better have the PS1 version, because Saturn Back Up Carts are nearly impossible to find these days.

Presentation:

At launch, the first Tomb Raider was part of a deal with Sega to help promote the Saturn. It was a timed exclusive for the console, and generally a must have for that library. However, the more easily acquired and critically acclaimed PlayStation version has become the version most console players think of when this game is mentioned. Some time after my initial play through, I tracked down a copy of the Sega Saturn version of the game for comparison to the PlayStation version.

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(Screenshot from Gaming Palooza Empire’s PS1 vs Saturn Comparison video)

Gameplay and content wise, the games are identical, but they differ slightly in presentation. The Saturn’s less powerful hardware is a bit worse for wear, leaving models with fewer polygons and less detail, but the PlayStation has always had somewhat unstable graphics. In the PS1 version, the environment tends to pop and jiggle as camera moves.

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Although classic pixel graphics have managed to become endearing with time, early 3D polygon graphics have not aged gracefully. You can tell what you’re looking at, but at times it’s hard to distinguish the way you are going from where you have just come from. Switches and keys are placed behind walls and crevices that are difficult to distinguish from dead ends. On the other hand, the pre-rendered CGI cutscenes have the charm of a high quality episode of Reboot. They are few and brief, but they do their job well.

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The game sees you going to several different parts of the world, but it still seems to lack variety in the environments. There are a number of unique set pieces and puzzles but, one dark, brown ruin is easily confused for another dark, brown ruin. They bleed together in your mind after a while, with only a mossy cavern or snowy crevasse to tell them apart. There are some set pieces that stand out, such as the buried sphinx and the unusual fight early on with a T-Rex, but for the rest of the game you’ll notice a distinct lack of dinosaurs.

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I am being a little hyper-critical of this entry. After all, you can’t really expect them to have ironed out all the bugs on their first try, but while allowances must be made for the game’s age, I can’t really overlook some persistent problems. Levels go on for a long time with almost no variation in the environment, and this is made worse by the unfortunate save system on the console versions. Levers and switches blend into the environment and excessively dark caves make some stages needlessly difficult.

But despite my criticisms, not all is doom and gloom. Two of the game’s strongest qualities are the music and the sound design. The score by Nathan McCree is sparse but effective, suiting the awe of the major setpieces, the isolation among the ancient dead, and the tension of sudden action. Because the music so rarely appears, it is all the more emotionally resonant. A sharp sting as a trap surprises you, a gentle melody as an ancient temple is revealed, and even the soft title theme giving a sense of comfort and familiarity all add up to a powerful narrative tool that endured through more than five titles in this series.

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One last thing to discuss has less to do with the hardware or gameplay, but it is probably the most well known aspect of the original Tomb Raider series: the design of Lara Croft herself. She has often been a point of contention when discussing women in games. Any positive points gained by the empowering image of Samus Aran bravely taking on alien hoards Ellen Ripley style were generally lost when the topless promo shots of Lara are brought up. Although she is but one in a long line of gaming sex symbols, her ubiquity with the Sony brand served as another brick that helped solidify the image of gaming as a boys club.

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In terms of her conception, there was nothing terribly sexual from the outset. The original idea for the series protagonist was a male character much closer to Indiana Jones, but the team ultimately decided to go with a female lead. Several designs were considered before landing on the version of Lara we see in the original game. There is an apocryphal story about the game’s lead designer accidentally setting the scale of the 3D model’s breasts far out of proportion just as the head of marketing passed by his desk. This supposedly led them to push for the massively endowed version of Lara; however this story has been called into question over the years, and the more likely scenario is that the team determined that sex sells and that mantra influenced the character design.

When I played these games I was in my 20s and was expecting something more shameless based on the advertising and reputation surrounding the game. Within the games, despite her exaggerated character design, Lara never actually does anything that “fan servicey”. Yes, her outfit is skimpy, she puts on a wetsuit in TR 2&3, and wears a skin tight catsuit in TR 5, but the actual events of the game just have her doing cool adventuring stuff without any sexual overtures and the low resolution graphics confound the “allure” of the character in game. For most of my life, I had thought of the stigma associated with Lara to be somewhat comical, but in missing the cultural impact of the character in the series heyday, I find that I failed to grasp the impact such a prominent face of my favorite pastime had on female gamers and other young women.

I don’t think I’m qualified to speak for those who have had to live with stronger social pressures, so I spoke to some women about their experiences and attitudes towards the image of Lara Croft and how it had influenced their lives. One spoke about having anxiety about her body image growing up immersed in pop culture that idolized action heroes like Lara, and the negative impact it had on her growing up. Desiring to grow up to look like such heroines, coming into adolescence and failing to live up to an impossible standard was a blow to her self esteem and negatively impacted her body image. Later in life she has been able to look back on the character with some humor, but fosters an underlying resentment toward the effect Lara and other pop culture figures had on her.

Another woman expressed her dislike for the old Lara, saying that whatever non-sexualized action there is in the game is overshadowed by her design. It doesn’t matter that she’s not posing for the camera, or making suggestive noises throughout the game, because her appearance is so outlandish that you can’t help but be reminded of it. She also offered praise for 2013 redesign, commenting on the more down to earth look and focus on the character’s journey in the games makes them more than just a series of excuses to ogle her.

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In my boyhood, when these games were at the height of their popularity, the impact of hyper sexualized women in pop culture never affected me. As a child I remember thinking of Lara Croft as a bit of a punchline as friends who owned PlayStations would joke about her crazy figure and since I never played any of them, I didn’t give it much thought. As time has passed I believe that, even though Lara’s design never bothered me personally, I can see how it would make women uncomfortable, and while it does not affect everyone equally, it would be callous to ignore the feelings and concerns of those who were and are upset by it. The current design for Lara is far more realistic and has received praise from gamers of all stripes, and as the reboot series continues, we can look back on the old games with mingled humor and incredulity.

Conclusion:

It is a bit of a chore to revisit, with the growing pains of early 3D gaming on full display, but the issues are not insurmountable and the game has its striking moments. When you are in the zone, a successful run, where you smoothly run through the traps and obstacles is very enjoyable. However the punishment for failure is severe, and in some levels may even kill your enthusiasm to go on for a while. In the end though I think that the experience has been well worth going back to.

Tomb Raider was a series I knew more through infamy than fame. Infamy because of the outlandish marketing surrounding the games in their prime. But they have nonetheless endured over four console generations, a soft reboot, and a hard reboot. With every sequel, Eidos and Core Design introduced refinements and additions that helped etch the series into gaming history, and if you go back to the beginning, you’ll gain some perspective on how far we’ve come since then.

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