Rise of the Tomb Raider is the best action-adventure game of this generation, a game that effortlessly balances great gameplay with puzzles that feel more naturalistic than artificial. As if that weren’t enough, the levels are awesome, exploration is a blast, and the game’s great at encouraging a sense of completionism. There’s just one problem: Lara Croft is boring.
I had hoped Uncharted 4 would be awesome. Instead I got bored, drifted over to Doom, and didn’t look back until a few weeks ago, when I picked up Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and started playing the first Uncharted game. I’m not really a fan of any of Naughty Dog’s games—their enemies suffer from the cardinal sin of enemy design, their guns are boring, the encounters rely too heavily on waves of enemies, the combat arenas are almost never interesting, and the games take way too many opportunities to take your camera away and make you look at things to wow you instead of just letting you play. But you know what? Nathan Drake is cool. I wish Lara Croft were cool.
Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider both suffer from the same problem of Everything Is Serious All The Time, and Lara herself is so serious that Heath Ledger’s Joker could probably write his doctoral thesis examining why. Both Tomb Raider games present themselves as origin stories, with Lara as someone coming to grips with being a survivor and doing cool stuff.
The problem is that everything was sort of relentlessly awful. Lara would get stabbed in the throat and start gasping like she was the lead actress in a torture porn. She’d wake up in a pool of blood and corpses and (understandably) freak out. Tomb Raider had some character development—there’s a moment where she readies her bow and is all “I’m coming for you,” and the dual wielding pistol moment at the end of Tomb Raider felt like such a satisfying payoff that Rise of the Tomb Raider disappointed in that regard.
While Lara is certainly more confident, she never really feels like she’s ready to go kicking anyone’s butt. She makes jumps that I, as a mortal human being, would never so much as attempt, and she scales cliff faces that would give even Batman a scare, but when it comes to dialogue and stuff, she seems to have just one speed, which never, ever changes, and she’s so fixated on her father—who we have never met, therefore having no idea why she cares—and his legacy that she never feels as if she owns anything.
She never jokes, never laughs and says “wow, haha, I can’t believe I survived that.” Indiana Jones was cool in part because he had a sense of humor; where’s Rise of the Tomb Raider’s “shoot the guy with the sword” moment? Sure, there are many guys with swords you can shoot, but it’s never played for any effect other than “oh no, another peril to overcome.”
Rise of the Tomb Raider acts like a roller coaster, but the emotional tenor is so rigidly consistent throughout the game that it’s like a roller coaster on a track that has no peaks or troughs. The narrative features a sort of bland intensity from beginning to end, punctuated occasionally by moments of tragedy or fright.
It’s why I can’t connect to this rendition of Lara Croft, and why I enjoyed the previous version so much, even if Rise of the Tomb Raider is mechanically a far superior game. I don’t relate to her at all. She’s a boring person; there’s nothing to connect or relate to. I don’t know her dad, so I don’t know why she’s obsessed with his legacy other than “he’s her dad,” which doesn’t mean anything to me. This is a common story problem known as “assumed empathy.” Good fiction proves why you should care; bad fiction assumes you will.
Even Angelina Jolie was a better Lara Croft than this, and the scripts she had to work off with were horrible, but at least her Lara was cool in some situations, clever even under pressure, genuinely terrified when terrifying things were happening, and so on. I could relate to and admire that Lara Croft, because she was significantly more human than Rise of the Tomb Raider’s dull version.
Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t bad because what is there is bad, it’s boring because that’s all there is to it. Lara is a nice person who does scary things and is like “don’t worry, I will help you out,” but there’s never a cocky eyebrow tilt or a joke or any moment of anything else. For a game to be a roller coaster, it has to be an emotional roller coaster. All the dramatic moments in the world mean nothing if your protagonist reacts precisely one way.
I’m excited to play the new zombies mode this fall. Rise of the Tomb Raider is genuinely one of the best action-adventure games ever made, and I can’t wait for even more fans to be able to play it, but I’m tired of this version of Lara. Where’s the confidence? Where’s the swagger? Where is just one moment of humor?
Add that, and the Tomb Raider games will finally be perfect.
COMPLETELY OFF TOPIC, BUT WHY IS LITERALLY EVERY NPC IN THE GAME A WHOLE HEAD TALLER THAN LARA?