The internet, for all its splendour and doorways to the world, has completely ruined the art of keeping a secret. Long gone are the times where you would buy a game based purely on how you felt about the series or how many demons were being depicted midway through the beheading process on the cover art. Every single exciting title – from one dollar to sixty – is mercilessly dragged through the preview PR procedure, feature bulletpoints carefully managed for maximum digestibility, until the actual game is almost an afterthought. It’s a double-edged sword, but with both edges cleanly slicing away your satisfaction – either the game cannot live up to your expectations, or it is clearly painted as something you’d never, ever play. Halo 4 was a recent victim of this. Speaking as someone who lapped up Halo 1-3 and adored ODST, Halo 4 made a dull hollow thud, even after the preceding cacophony of exciting previews, web episodes and…Mountain Dew cross-promotions. The dire Aliens: Colonial Marines even showed how preview gameplay sections can be a total fabrication. More tellingly, the main reaction to the release of Temple Run 2 a few weeks ago wasn’t anything to do with the gameplay, but more about the fact that it had been released with zero warning or fanfare, a singular reminder of what it felt like to find a new Spectrum cassette on the shelves. The internet is the antithesis of surprise.
However, very rarely, there is an exception. Sometimes the collected previews can put you off so much that the review of the finished game is something to be savoured, our inner schadenfreude preparing to feast on the low number at the end as justification of our pessimism. Then, when all the reviews in fact paint a different picture, the most wonderful thing happens:
You realise you were wrong.
Tomb Raider‘s path from all-conquering Playstation icon to industry joke has been as rocky and treacherous as any of Ms. Croft’s signature tombs. Toby Gard’s original vision of a cocky, adventurous Indiana Jones analogue – female purely as a sales strategy – became as outlandish as the breasts that came to symbolise her. The tingling pleasure of being lost with only your wits to help you through ancient puzzles – punctuated by fighting the odd leopard or, you know, T-Rex – was soon lost as each sequel shifted more towards combat against entirely average evil European henchmen. Core’s final series entry, 2003’s Angel Of Darkness, was an entirely unsuccessful attempt to drag Lara into a more serious, darker focus amidst a broken game of shifting abilities and forced combat. Lara’s popularity took a downward dive onto rocks, leaving a screaming, crumpled mess at the bottom.
A few years later, design duties having been ripped unceremoniously from Core’s hands, the responsibility to push Lara back into the limelight was passed to Crystal Dynamics. Their reboot, 2006’s Legend, is actually one of my favourites in the series. There was still entirely too much combat, but the joyous feelings of emerging at the top of a forest waterfall, or pushing the final piece of a gigantic spacial puzzle into place, had been placed back where they belonged. It was met with good reviews, as was the cleaned-up version of the first Tomb Raider, Anniversary. Unfortunately, 2008’s Underworld was less successful. CD fell into the same trap that had ensnared Core towards the end, which was to add unnecessary darkness in a bid for greater realism. I enjoyed Underworld to a point, even if the puzzles at the end went on too long, but it all felt so gritty and joyless. It finally seemed like there was no way to make a Tomb Raider game that could still capture that old adventuring spirit whilst ticking the boxes for what the men in ties decided the gaming public wanted. Uncharted filled the gap for linear Indiana Jones emulation, and Lara, once again, shifted backwards into irrelevance.
And that’s where she lay until publishers Squire Enix decided that there was still money in the banana stand. What do you do with a once-classic figure who had drifted far from her glory days? Reboot. Again. The collective sigh could be heard from all quarters of the internet, not just because of the decision’s inevitability, but also from those that remembered the good old days and knew that poor Lara was being lined up for another critical mauling. First reports didn’t help matters – young Lara, innocent and vulnerable, stuck on an island with evil all around. It all felt like a marketing exercise based on teenage fantasy surveys. There seemed to be increased focus on the two sides of the franchise that were not required – more darkness, more combat. Gameplay scenes showing cover-based shooting. Lara bound and hanging upside-down in a torture cave, screaming and yelling and groaning with every cut, bruise and fall. A furor when one dev mentioned we would have to save her from “rape”. Lara, in the process of being re-re-invented, seemed to be something that could no longer be connected with the words “tomb” and “raider”. It seemed to be a steady, unstoppable slide down to review disaster.
However, there was a twist in the tale. The reviews emerged, over a week before release (an oddity in these days of tight embargoes), and they were all largely glowing. In fact, they seemed to unanimously agree that, past the first third, it was something very special indeed. Their evidence all pointed towards the same vital aspect – the return of desperation. This, for me, is gaming’s secret, magic, rare ingredient.
I’m sick of invulnerability. I take no pleasure in running headlong into a field of enemies, having just learnt how to hold a gun, and clearing it out with no problem at all (I’m looking at you, Far Cry 3). Hiding while bullet holes heal Wolverine-like and my vision changes from blood-red to you’re-fine-now grey is just ridiculous. I don’t need perfect realism, I just need to not be broken out of my immersion by a college boy expertly using a sniper rifle (HELLO FAR CRY 3 HOW ARE YOU). This works both ways, though – in Halo, in the glorious Vanquish, I am a super-soldier tank-wearing human, but the enemies I face demand brains as well as brawn. Running and shooting at the Covenant, on Heroic or Legendary, will soon result in a dead Chief.
The Uncharted series receives a great deal of criticism about its linearity, how the player really only has minimal control over the unfolding narrative. This is true, of course, but it’s not the whole story. What really makes Uncharted is the expertly managed feeling that your avatar is only just getting through each engagement, the skin-of-his-teeth kind of storytelling that served the good Indiana Jones films so well. The writing, animation and set-pieces – particularly in Uncharted 2 – combine to create a righteous Boy’s Own adventure that frequently leaves the player gasping. My highlights both involved jumping – leaping across the internal walkways of a tower, avoiding gunfire and rocket launchers, and later diving between speeding jeeps, white knuckles grasping for traction on each narrow landing. Pure cinema thrills. Also, the first Motorstorm is superior in its series as it perfectly captures this same sense of clinging on, this time to the handlebars of your motorbike as you burst out from the surrounding carnage. The sequels left it out, and suffered as a consequence.
This sense of desperation against greater odds can also work from a first-person perspective, usually the mainstay of bulletproof mantanks. I loved the second half of EA’s 2010 Medal Of Honor reboot as it dared to do something that Call Of Duty would never attempt – it rounded you up in a disintegrating mud hut, encroaching enemies on all sides, before making you run away for your own survival. It’s a shame that the shockingly bad sequel, Warfighter, wasn’t brave enough to follow this lead, instead pandering back to the needs of the CoD demographic (and failing miserably in the process). Mirror’s Edge played with the idea of a vulnerable free runner actually being more burdened by a gun than without, highlighting the way you had to use your agility to escape the situation (at least, until the forced combat). The final chapter of each Left 4 Dead episode is a mad rush for the finish, hopelessly outnumbered with only your co-op friends to help you through.
Intense difficulty can also create the kind of desperation that is sharp and addictive. In recently playing the wonderful Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Dead Or Alive 5, I was reminded of the adrenaline thrill connected with the need to watch enemy attacks and react accordingly. There are little things more satisfying (in gaming, anyway) than being hopelessly beaten down and still emerging victorious thanks to some well-timed blocks and parries. This is further intensified when, in something like Geometry Wars or Super Hexagon (which I’m increasingly convinced might be the perfect game), you smash through your personal best and just hang on, instincts controlling your fingers while your heart screams in slow, breathless beats.
How does this link to Tomb Raider? By all accounts, it’s all down to Lara. She turns from shrieking, terrified girl to stalking hunter with bow in hand, until the end of the game apparently hints at the cocksure raider we know and love. However, it is we that shape her new skills and share in her vulnerability, her desperation to survive in the face of so much danger. There is still a clear line between combat and exploration – to the slightly irksome point that tombs are “optional” – but both are designed to their respective strengths. The combat pushes Lara into silent use of the bow, the exploration has vistas and physical puzzles that will delight all old-school fans. There are a few negative points, but critical feedback has turned the new Tomb Raider into something entirely tempting and exciting, and all because Crystal Dynamics decided to focus on the pure fear of a young girl alone in the jungle, the odds so stacked against her that it’s almost not worth fighting.
Some recommended reading: