It can be a bit difficult to talk about the new Tomb Raider without also talking about Uncharted. Naughty Dog's PS3 series has always had a lot of Tomb Raider in its DNA, and Crystal Dynamics' new Lara Croft adventure has clearly been taking notes from Uncharted.
The two games are as interesting in their differences as they are in their similarities. So, Kirk and Patricia decided to crack them both open and see what treasures lay within.
Spoilers: This conversation has some story spoilers for the ending of Uncharted 3, but keeps Tomb Raider spoilers to a minimum.
Kirk: Hello, Patricia! Okay. We've both spent the last week or so raiding tombs. It's time to talk about this game some.
Patricia: Yes! Or, well, I've spent more time shooting people than raiding tombs, but, you know.
Kirk: Ha. Right. Certainly one thing that sets this game apart from its predecessors. I should say here that I've finished the game, but I'm not sure quite where you are in the story.
Patricia: Lara just decided that nobody can leave the island. I think she may be losing it a little!
Kirk: She may well be. Or... is she the only one who hasn't lost it?? DUN DUN DUN. Okay, on to the thing we're really gonna be talking about here-this game as compared with Tomb Raider, as well as with Uncharted. Any general thoughts?
Patricia: I think it's interesting that both games deal with legacy, though to a different extent. Tomb Raider has some nods to Lara's parents, who I assume also raided tombs and whatnot? And she grapples with actually becoming that type of Croft in the game. Drake has something similar, only—spoilers I guess? He's not actually a Drake—he's an orphan who takes up the Drake name, as we saw in Uncharted 3. But it's still important to him that he lives up to that stuff…but as a fantasy. He's escaping reality.
Kirk: Huh. I hadn't thought about that parallel, but it's true. That kind of ties in with the superhero mythos that Crystal Dynamics and Naughty Dog have used when creating Lara Croft and, to a lesser extent, Nathan Drake. That's actually something that both series have added in later games. In the first Uncharted, Nathan Drake was little more than a roguish adventurer, as I recall. Similar to how in the first Tomb Raider, Lara was just sort of this badass chick. It wasn't really until Uncharted 3 that Naughty Dog decided it was worth digging into his backstory. And, to be honest, I wasn't all that interested even when they did. I do find myself interested in Lara's journey in this new game, moreso than I ever was in Nathan Drake's, but I'm less interested in the idea of what her father did, and her legacy and all that. I'm more caught up in the moment to moment. I don't buy all that "You're a Croft, you just don't know it" business. I almost think I'd prefer if she stopped talking about her father and just focused on surviving.
Patricia: Yeah I wish she stopped talking about her dad so much, especially if her mom might be THE Lara Croft?
Anyway, I think this one of the main differences between Uncharted and Tomb Raider for me: Uncharted feels more deliberately thrilling, something that's designed to be escapism for the player and not just Nathan Drake…and naturally, Tomb Raider, by virtue of being a video game, is also escapism, but it's not the same sort of escapism. Tomb Raider feels painful to play! Lara is not having a good time.
Kirk: She sure isn't. And yeah, the games have very different tones. But hey, okay, before we focus too much more on the differences between the two games, let's talk about the similarities. Because there certainly are some, otherwise we wouldn't be comparing them at all. Look at the cycle here: Tomb Raider set the template-do some exploring, do some shooting, solve some puzzles. Then, Uncharted took that template and fine-tuned it for the modern era-do some exploring, do a lot more shooting, focus more on the shooting and make the whole thing a super-slick cinematic experience. When Underworld came out, I could sense Crystal Dynamics reacting to Uncharted but not quite being ready to create that kind of game yet. And now, with Tomb Raider, they've effectively lifted whole chunks straight from Uncharted, and even improved on the template in a number of ways. So we go from Tomb Raider to Uncharted back to Tomb Raider. The circle is complete.
Patricia: Ah, that's interesting. This is actually my first Tomb Raider, so I've never experienced the franchise as it used to be! Still, it's pretty obvious that the sensibilities of modern Tomb Raider are a reaction to Uncharted. Do you feel like that's a good thing, has it improved the Tomb Raider franchise? When people talk about "modern design" it's not always a positive thing.
Kirk: You know, I think it's good and bad. I like the Uncharted games, particularly Uncharted 2. I like them for what they are—charismatic, stylish and generous cinematic adventures. But while they lifted the general layout and approach of Tomb Raider, they don't feature nearly as many puzzles as the old Tomb Raider games did. Uncharted games are a lot closer to Gears of War, honestly, than to Tomb Raider. Take the two most recent Tomb Raider games: Underworld and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Underworld was a surprisingly cool game-it had what might truly be the most nonsensical, convoluted story I've ever seen in a video game, but beneath that junk lay some interesting, ambitious puzzles. The puzzles would span entire levels-you'd be riding your motorcycle from one area to another, moving a massive statue here in order to get a second statue in a whole other area to rearrange itself.
Meanwhile Guardian of Light is one of the most purely enjoyable co-op games I've ever played, and it's just loaded with great two-player puzzles and bonus challenges. So, playing the new Tomb Raider, I'm highly aware of just what an influence Uncharted has had. The new game features a mere smattering of puzzles, and they're all comparatively simple, even the optional side tombs. That's a disappointment. I understand the complaints of those who say that this "isn't a Tomb Raider game," even while I think that statements like that miss the point somewhat. But regardless, Uncharted's influence is a constant, pronounced presence.
Patricia: Oh, are some people saying it's not a Tomb Raider game? Wow.
Kirk: Well, you know. Like, "people." It's a thing I've heard.
I'm surprised you like Drake's journal—I hate that thing!
Patricia: Anyway, yeah, I can't say I play Uncharted for the puzzles—they're nice to have to add flavor I guess, or as a reminder of what the game is supposed to be about (treasure hunting).
Kirk: Though if I had to choose, I'd say I prefer Tomb Raider's examinable treasures over Uncharted's less fleshed-out baubles. A small distinction, I guess.
Patricia: Yeah I liked that! It felt L.A. Noireish. The simple puzzles in both Uncharted and the new Tomb Raider didn't bother me much though, but I've also been weaned on these modern design practices. It's a shame Tomb Raider didn't feature more complex puzzles, since both games don't really convey the archeologist side of the adventures, eh? Tomb Raider's puzzles are still more complex than those in Uncharted, but Uncharted knows how to package it a little better—I love Nathan's journal thing, even if sometimes tells me to put the square peg in the square hole.
Also, raiding tombs—and therefore doing puzzles—is mostly optional in Tomb Raider. Which seems weird to me given the name of the franchise.
Kirk: I was initially kind of happy to hear that the tombs were optional, since I figured they might let the game have its cake and eat it, too. When I talked with the game's creative director Noah Hughes back during a preview, I kept trying to get a sense of whether the side-tombs would scale in difficulty and eventually include the sorts of stumpers that past games had. Unfortunately, they don't, really. (He did mention that they went back and forth on the "Tomb Raided!" thing that shows up at the end of the tombs, since they weren't sure if it was too off-tone). I'm hopeful for some sort of more intense puzzle-room DLC, but it would've been nice to see more puzzles included with the main game.
I'm surprised you like Drake's journal—I hate that thing! I like all the little notes and touches like that, but I dislike how it so obviously gives hints as to how to solve the puzzles. Those puzzles so often rely on their own set of rules, where Tomb Raider's puzzles rely on physics. I vastly prefer the Tomb Raider approach.
Patricia: Oh no, I like the journal because it's pretty—I don't like that it gives me the answer. But if I was trying to figure out some archeological puzzle in real life I'd figure I'd probably have to crack open a few books or something, you know? So it lends itself to the theme.
Kirk: That's true, and in that regard, it's nice that Drake keeps a journal. One of the weirdest shortcomings of Tomb Raider are those ridiculous journals that you'll find lying around, where Lara's friends articulate their innermost desires and then… leave them on a table somewhere.
Patricia: Yeah—some of them, I was willing to believe. Like okay, MAYBE this historical figure just happened to leave this here and I found it, okay, whatever. But my friends sure left their musings in the most random places. Why is Reyes' letter to her daughter found by a mountain of body parts deep inside a cave?
Really though, both games aren't actually about treasure hunting, eh? It sets the stage and some of the conflicts, but most of what we spend time doing is either shooting people or climbing stuff.
Kirk: That's true. Both games go to great lengths to show their characters doing research or relying on book-learning, but the actual game parts are less "Dr. Jones" and more "Indiana Jones."
Patricia: The feel with the action is different, too. Most of the time gunfights/action in Uncharted felt like they were happening on a playground—I was excited to have them happen, they were usually crazy and cinematic.
Tomb Raider isn't like that—or at least I didn't get pumped when enemies appeared. I dread other people. Which probably has to do with why the game feels better when there aren't other people around, as Evan mentioned. Also, I don't feel like Tomb Raider quite has the hang of the cinematic approach like Uncharted does, even though it has plenty of "run/barely escape explosions" sequences.