A psycho-killer with puppy dog eyes: why the new Lara Croft doesn't work

What Crystal Dynamics have attempted with the Tomb Raider is about as convincing a character study of a reluctant hero as painting a frowny face on the front of a tank.

So here it is. The new Tomb Raider. Critically it has been a huge success and why not, the game looks good, the game plays well, it’s polished, it has a start, middle and end. The graphics are nice, the controls work, nothing to complain about surely.

If you like cover shooters.

Because that’s what it is now. It’s a cover shooter.

People were worried over the course of the game's development about the direction that the character of Lara Croft would go in. Would we see vulnerability exposed and exploited? Would we see her develop from gaming cheesecake into some sort of feminist icon?

No. We would see Lara Croft change, very much so, but the change that has come is not so much to her image and character in the superficial sense, rather it is the more direct and practical change that occurs when a game adopts a different genre.

Lara Croft is now Marcus Fenix.

This change occurs quite early in the game. A grubby-looking Russian drags Lara out of a shed and, if unchecked, throttles her. You can stop him, via a Quick Time Event, and after a struggle Lara shoots him in the face and looks a little sad for a moment. Not as sad as him, of course, but he’s a rapey Russian cultist which puts him somewhere on the scale of evil between Vlad The Impaler and the scary green wiggly monsters on old Toilet Duck adverts.

From that moment on Lara is a relentless, unstoppable, killing machine. Whether she’s strangling people with a bow, hacking them down with a climbing axe, clubbing in their skulls with rocks, or just straight up shooting them, she takes to the life of the killer with gusto. So far so fun, but it’s not so much the killing that seems jarring, but it’s the inability of the enemy to kill her.

Now let’s be clear, this is not a criticism of the game's difficulty. Rather it is a criticism of the approach the game has taken. When you’ve got a big muscle-bound freak of a main character wearing as much armour as a Presidential limo the You-Shoot-Me-I-Shoot-You ebb and flow of a cover shooter feels natural. A slender young woman - who seems to develop debilitating injuries faster than the entire Arsenal first eleven when the plot demands it - suddenly having the ability to walk off a shotgun blast doesn’t fit so well.

But this is the new shape of Tomb Raider. Lara approaches the island and its challenges with all the subtlety of a shark in a phone box. There are nods to the legacy of the original games, but these take the form of tightly-scripted sequences like a ride through some rapids or running across a collapsing bridge, or perfunctory games of "spot the ledge and press A". The puzzles, the platforms and the actual raiding of tombs? That’s relegated to the status of optional side quests.

Whether Lara’s reboot paints her as a believable female hero or a role model for women is not something I feel compelled to comment too much upon. But it does seem that the developers want to have their cheesecake and eat it too. This is not 1996. The idea of a woman as the protagonist of a violent action game is no longer causing monocles to pop out in alarm and moustaches to curl and uncurl in agitation among gamers. We've seen several other female video game heroes now (granted, usually in games where you've an option for main character gender) and seeing Lara playing the "I'm just a little girl lost in the big scary world but I'll rise to the challenge" card ever five seconds really doesn't gel with a character who can wipe out a room full of heavily-armed cultists with just a little axe.

The female Commander Shepard could punch a guy out for having a nervous breakdown. Did she have to whimper next to a campfire about it afterwards? No, she’d go and have sex with an alien. Within the first half hour of Mirror's Edge, also written by Tomb Raider's lead writer Rhianna Pratchett, the main character Faith has kicked a bunch of policemen off a skyscraper. A female character in Skyrim will have probably killed about a dozen assorted animals and bandits and will be clothed in their skins and eating their sweetrolls while Lara is still dealing with the emotional fallout of shooting Bambi's mother. If they do make a follow-up to this game I hope they give Lara her brass ovaries back. Her lack of self-awareness towards her own lethality and fortitude is almost comical at times.

Having a character who doesn’t seem cut out for the life of a super commando, and who then proceeds to not act like a super commando, would be something comparatively rare. What Crystal Dynamics have attempted with the new Tomb Raider is about as convincing a character study of a reluctant hero as painting a frowny face on the front of a tank would be.

It would be dishonest to say that Tomb Raider is bad, it isn’t, and it would be an unfair appeal to tradition to complain that it is unlike the original Tomb Raider games, because change can be good. Developers don’t have to make every game a carbon copy of the one that preceded it. But change, good change, requires creativity.

What Tomb Raider has is a crushing over-reliance upon a combat system and a tone of action that is completely at odds with the heroine at its heart.

The cover shooter is not an inherently bad concept and indeed some games have introduced elements of it to great effect. There is a gritty, desperate quality to a good cover shooter; your character hunkered down, trading bullets, rounds whipping this way and that. GTA4’s cover system, coupled to the lethality of the combat and the almost tangible feel of the game world adds a whole extra level of verisimilitude. Gears of War is the game that really popularised the trope and it implements it with elegance uncharacteristic of a game that also introduced the world to the idea of a chainsaw bayonet.

However what games developers seem to have not realised is that just because a feature works well in one game that does not mean that it needs to become ubiquitous. Game series like Max Payne, which originally relied on a dynamic, bullet-dodging lead character, are reduced by cover systems into staid, tedious hops from one waist high block to the next. The Rainbow Six series started out demanding skill and precision, you had to drop the bad guys quickly or they’d kill you, your teammates, any hostages they might be holding on to and maybe a puppy. In the most recent iterations you can hide behind a wall, stick a brew on, maybe stick your gun round the corner and shoot off a few rounds, if you’re bothered to, nobody minds either way really.

When you take a game like Tomb Raider and you make it a cover-based shooter comparable to a Gears of War or Max Payne 3, you’re not necessarily making a bad game, but you are limiting what that game can be, not to mention exhibiting a chronic lack of creativity.

Creativity is not a dirty word, even in the brutal world of the gaming industry. Indeed creativity seems to be something that gamers want more of not less. The crushing failure for EA of Medal of Honour: Warfighter and Dead Space 3, both near perfect examples of games dumbed down to an almost protoplasmic level, are clear signs that the lowest common denominator is a lot higher for gamers than people might think. Call of Duty is often derided for many reasons, but whether it’s changing the setting or bringing in Nazi Zombie co-op bonus games you can see that they are at least trying.

People will look back on the original Tomb Raider games because they were something different and largely something done well, perhaps not to all tastes, but notable. The remake will doubtless trigger a few sequels and maybe it will go in new and more interesting directions from this rudimentary start, but if Crystal Dynamics don’t dig deep and bring something genuinely creative to the series then it is hard to imagine it ever having the sort of impact the original games did.

The new Lara Croft.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

DON HOOPER/ALAMY
Show Hide image

As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage