Tomb Raider is a good game. I’m not quite done with it (damn you, friend-that-just-bought-a-pinball-machine), but I started out liking it and only felt my affection growing with each passing day. There were, admittedly, moments where I felt like it faltered or stretched itself too thin—Conan O’Brien’s “review” highlights one of these parts—but it’s hard to hold those against what is an otherwise well-executed and cohesive reboot of a known quantity.
This isn’t a complaint for me, but I have noticed and agreed with some people pointing out that Tomb Raider also tends to skew a bit closer to the Uncharted series than you would expect. These moments largely fall in the first third of the game, but they’re definitely there. The seminal franchise from Naughty Dog is known for its bombastic set pieces that often include crumbling buildings, speeding trains, and capsizing ships with you placed smack-dab in the middle of them. Built on top of fantastic shooting and climbing mechanics that give you an over-the-top yet grounded interpretation of the Indiana Jones mythos, Uncharted pulls off spectacle with aplomb.
You should know, though, that “grounded” doesn’t necessarily mean realistic. It just means that the characters and situations feel like something born from this world and not one where everyone is built like refrigerators and have chainsaws attached to the end of their guns (not that there’s anything wrong with that). However, Naughty Dog knows they aren’t building a realistic setting for Nathan Drake to explore and fight in. For all we know, all of his muscles are contained within his arms and his bones are hollow like a bird. How else would he be able to jump and climb the way he does?
“Realistic” is what Tomb Raider goes for and, well, ultimately fails at. Realism is when Lara impales herself on a piece of rebar and is rendered immobile by it. Realism is when Lara has to kill a man with her own hands and is visibly shaken by the process. Realism, however, is not what happens immediately following those two events, namely killing shit ton more dudes with an adeptness and ferocity heretofore unseen save for the likes of Kratos.
And Nathan Drake. Along with the Master Chiefs and Kenshiros of the world, Nathan is one of the most prolific mass murderers ever known to mankind. But he started out so human. He was purposefully made and animated to stumble as he ran, not effortlessly glide across the map like some transplanted figure skater. Rocks and ledges and little divots in the ground would cause him to misstep as he ran through the forests and ruins of the world, much like we know we would if we were similarly accomplish travelers.
He would lean into or touch walls and railings. Not even his balance was infallible. He would lament the incessant flow of bad guys impeding his progress and point out the absurdity of his actions. He, for all intents and purposes, was like us if we had infinite upper body strength and a penchant for untreated gunshot wounds.
Aside from the aforementioned leaking bullet-shaped holes in his torso, Nathan is presented to us as a human. He is a human murder machine among a society of other ostensibly human murder machines, sure, but he is still presented as a human within his milieu. It just so happens that everyone else is as trigger-happy as he is. You can see this in the beginning of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves where Nathan infiltrates a museum with cohort Harry Flynn. We are shown right in front of our eyes that Nathan Drake is not a superman. Next to us is someone just as capable as our hero, just not as lucky. Or charming. Or kick-ass. But it shows us that in this world, Nathan is just a regular ol’ dude.
Lara Croft is given similar trappings in this Tomb Raider reboot. She is, by far, the least graceful iteration of the acrobatic archaeologist that we’ve ever seen. Rather than cartwheeling and flipping over gaps and sauntering into battles with tigers and bad guys with guns blazing, this Lara is made to be human. Big falls see her stumble and trip. Rather than scream a bloody war cry as she runs headlong into battle, her voice shakes and breathing quickens as an encounter with even a single enemy looms tall. Even acquiring her first weapon is no easy task. Naked Snake (aka Big Boss) climbed up a tree and grabbed his gear. Lara tumbles back down to Earth.
As far as we can tell, Lara is just as durable as Nathan, though. Despite the three feet of metal piercing her side, Lara still manages to clamber up cliffs and parachute through a seemingly endless basin full of trees like a leafy game of Plinko. She absorbs a commensurate amount of bullets and punches from her foes and she still comes out the other end ready for more. The only difference is that the world that Lara is in—the one we are made to accept that she and everyone else in the game exists and operates within—is made to look as human as she is.
We are not given a Harry Flynn. We do not know that Lara exists in a world made for combat where guns and henchmen flow like wine and other flowing things. Her kills are instant with one-shot initiative. She is hyper-personalized, and thus we apply similar human facades to this largely faceless fodder.
Tomb Raider seems to have had an equal chance at being called Lara Croft and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, each unfortunate event on her maiden expedition being of Lemony Snicket proportions. And that’s something we can all identify with. Her circumstances make her a product of her environment, so from her personality to her aspirations to her fears, we associate those with being human, which is easy because they are all very human in nature. So it’s a sizable departure when she starts killing dudes by the droves.
Nathan Drake isn’t humanized in quite the same way. Through his attitude and interpretation of his predicaments we are led to believe he thinks like we do and acts like we do, but it just so happens that he can do so much more than we can do because he lives in a world where that sort of thing just happens. Jumping off cliffs into a raging river below just sort of happens when you escape from bad guys, just as you do climb a falling train car as you nurse a bleeding tunnel of mangled flesh in your side.
Tomb Raider is still a good game, and those Uncharted comparisons are fair, to say the least, but there’s a facet in that Venn diagram that goes mostly untouched, and that is where Lara Croft and Nathan Drake diverge in their presentation. It’s not just who they are and what they say but it’s also where they are placed and what situations are thrown their way, much like how it’s not just the meal served but the plating and the fancy Top Chef-esque squiggles of deliberately placed sauce that makes the dish. It just so happens that Nathan’s humanity was designed to accommodate his murderous bent while Lara’s was not. We hoot and holler when Nathan runs from an explosion, but we simply pull for Lara’s survival. And then we question why she has to kill 20 men along the way.