CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Video Game Review: ‘Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition’ Delivers Action, Downplays Feminism
CHICAGO – Lara Croft is all about her boobs. I mean, seriously. I don’t mean to be this guy, but if you’re a gamer who was around to play or hear about the initial “Tomb Raider,” the first thing your subconscious brings to mind – most likely – is Ms. Croft’s green tank top and those not-quite-round polygonal boobies. Heck, the second game had a level where Lara runs around in a bathrobe shotgunning dudes. Much like how Indiana Jones is the hat and whip, Lara Croft is her sex appeal.
Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
In today’s day and age, this is kind of a problem. After numerous sequels, sidequels and puzzle games that have attempted to turn the “Tomb Raider” image into something a little more respectable, it looks like the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC reboot of “Tomb Raider” did just that. So it’s a bit ironic then that one of the first major releases for the sexier hardware of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is a remake of that reboot: “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition”.
The setup finds Lara and a team of multicultural, skin tone-only scientists and boat crew stranded on an exotic island. There, mysterious and potentially supernatural storms begin to pile up. These prevent ships from leaving the island and planes and helicopters from landing. Toss in a mysterious, gun-wielding, American-accented, “sun goddess”-obsessed cult and it’s up to Lara and her trusty bow to uncover the mystery and get as many of her crew members off the island as possible – before it’s too late.
Image credit: Square Enix
Thus we have yet another entry in the “stalk your prey” video game subgenre made popular by “Assassin’s Creed,” “Splinter Cell,” “Far Cry 3,” “Crysis 3” and even the “Batman: Arkham” games. The genre is popular for a reason, of course, as exotic locale + stealth + enemies = thrilling satisfaction with every completed objective and silent kill. In “Far Cry 3,” you could take out every command post silently with your bow and a variety of other weapons and tools and you could land headshots, distract guards and unleash wild rabid animals to do your bidding. “Splinter Cell” encouraged both silent and deadly playthroughs where encounters felt more akin to a life-and-death puzzle than a shooter or action game. Even “Crysis 3” with all its super-powered nano-suit glory presented a half-dozen tools and weapons to make stalking and killing your enemy satisfying.
“Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition,” however, doesn’t quiiiiteeeeee reach that level due to gameplay schizophrenia. The game is broken up into “stealth” sections where Lara uses her bow to pick off foes. She occasionally runs up behind an enemy and takes them down with a pickaxe to the dome. You also have “action” sections where you’re required to shoot, dodge, melee and kill until the game decides you’ve downed enough bad guys for a given set piece. There’s also environmental puzzles to solve that have a sort of “The Legend of Zelda” vibe to them, light platforming and spelunking elements and an upgrade system that’s pretty much standard for the genre.
Unfortunately, any time you’re forced to shoot frantically against waves of enemies, you’ll contend with iffy aiming and a camera that goes on vacation any time you want to dodge an oncoming grenade or melee attack. When stealth is an option, the game handles itself much better. Still, some weird checkpointing hiccups will cause you to repeat large sections of a given objective over again if you die. There’s a particularly excellent sequence toward the end of the game where you’re given a wide-open landscape to stalk through and take out enemies as you see fit. These moments are few and far between.
The whole thing just feels perfunctory. Gameplay wise, “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” brings little to the table in regards to new and innovative features. Even worse, it’s missing a couple things that have become staples of the genre. There’s a lack of verticality. There are no trees to climb or cliffs to dangle off while waiting for an enemy to walk by for air assassinations. Once detected, it’s seemingly impossible to hide again as enemies seem to know where you are immediately (even after dying and restarting).
All of this would be mostly fine if the story delivers. In much the same way movies like “Lethal Weapon,” “Rush Hour,” “Die Hard” and heck even “Cop Out” can deliver unique experiences while all painting the same “buddy cop” genre brush, most if not all would be forgiven if only “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” had something to say.
Think for a second what this game could say 18 years removed from the first “Tomb Raider”. How our world has changed in regards to the perception of women, social politics and the increasing awareness of sexism and feminism in literally every aspect of our lives from the workplace to the cinema to our oh-so-very-precious video game consoles.
But instead, Crystal Dynamics punted the ball, and not in the Chris Kluwe way. They were instead content to present a decent plot without much meat on the bone when it comes to subtext or themes or emotional takeaways. And they were happy to ape classic imagery from “Apocalypse Now” and “Indiana Jones” along the way.
The problem centers around Ms. Croft herself. Outside of the way the dialog of the enemies you kill changes from “It’s just some girl?” to “Oh no! It’s the girl!” as the game progresses, there’s nothing presented in “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” that speaks specifically to Lara’s femininity or the specific challenges, dangers and threats a woman in this kind of environment would face.
Maybe that was the idea. Perhaps they wanted to palette swap a typical male protagonist for a female one and see if audiences react differently to a lady going through all the gruesome death scenes, violence and murder a male protagonist would. I know I did. I was embarrassed to play this game in front of my parents – worried they’d wonder what kind of crazy person wants to see a girl get decapitated, impaled, bitten, shot, drowned and splattered for 16 hours.
Then again, maybe I’m old fashioned. On one hand, it’s great we have a strong female protagonist in a game who isn’t wearing two pieces of tape and a cork as an outfit. On the other hand, it feels like an opportunity not only lost but deliberately buried. There’s nothing special about Lara here aside from the fact she’s a girl. That’s not enough – especially considering 18 years ago her claim to fame was being a girl. She’s pretty, well-mannered, smart as a whip, endlessly agile and adaptive and there’s absolutely nothing about her that makes her relatable or interesting.
There’s no depth and no flaws. Despite getting covered in all manner of dirt and blood and grossness, her hair stays flowing majestically throughout the entire game. If Crystal Dynamics did a “Clueless” thing where you started Lara off as a kind of timid, scared and naive person and had her grow into a role where she takes action and is the captain of her own proverbial fate, now that’s a story a person could get behind.
Imagine for a second if Lara was someone like Abby Wambach or on the opposite end of the spectrum a bookish lass without an assertive bone in her body. Perhaps she’s someone a little left of center when it comes to the typical mind’s-eye view of what a woman is or should be. We could understand her struggles, how her crew and friends can’t relate to her for whatever reason and then come to respect her throughout the adventure.
Image credit: Square Enix
Instead, Lara from the start is brave, passionate and willing to stand up to authority. Everyone looks to her for guidance despite her perceived lack of experience due to this being a reboot. Despite the fact that Lara spends a lot of the game covered in dirt, there’s no grit. She’s a Barbie doll with a Beretta. I mean, even “The Hunger Games” features an undercurrent of Katniss using her femininity to her advantage and not being happy about it.
If you haven’t guessed, “Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition” left me cold. It’s a competent piece of entertainment and the graphics are beautiful. The gameplay is solid (if you like combining stealth, action and puzzle-solving and don’t mind having the game dictate to you when you’ll be doing each). On its surface, it’s a well-made game and it succeeds in making “Tomb Raider” about a little more than just Ms. Croft’s endowments. For many gamers, that’s plenty.
But when you think about the game on a critical level, it falls apart. It’s a “modern” reboot stuck in the proverbial past. It’s content to deliver gameplay perpendicular to a forgettable and dour narrative with paper-thin characters. You’ll enjoy this if you are willing to turn your brain off long enough to ignore the mountain of missed opportunities scattered all over the floor in an effort to make Lara Croft something more than her sex appeal.
They succeeded. I don’t know what she is now.
By PAUL MEEKIN