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

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge