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Throw Them Bows

2012 was the year of the bow. According to Giant Bomb, there was such a massive influx of games that featured bows and arrows that it was impossible to ignore. Hell, even Amazon got in on the joke. There was Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3 (granted, it is from 2013, but bow-centric marketing started long ago), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and dozens more that highlight the art of archery. Wreckateer, the XBLA title from Iron Galaxy, was pretty much just about a single bow.

I’d been thinking about writing this for a while, but Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton wrote up a piece about bows this week. It talks about the quality of an assortment of modern video game bows including Assassin’s Creed III, Crysis 3, Skyrim, and Far Cry 3, but there’s one I want to talk about in particular and that’s Tomb Raider.

For all its flaws, I really, really, really like Tomb Raider. I think it’ll be another week or so to get past the reactionary phase of playing a great game to determine whether or not I truly loved it, but Crystal Dynamics reboot of the classic franchise just might be one of my favorites for the generation. Lara Croft in this game is fantastic (writer Rhianna Pratchett did a terrific job humanizing what used to be a 13-year-old’s sexual fantasy) and she plays like a tuned-up Ferrari, but the highlight of the game is definitely her signature bow.

Throughout the course of the game, it transforms both literally and figuratively. You will be able to use found parts and salvage to upgrade Lara’s starting weapon, going from a bundle of sticks she snatches from a tree-bound corpse to an Olympic-calibre instrument of simplistic projectile death. But you will also go from using it for hunting wildlife for sustenance to using it to traverse wide open chasms in the mountains to solving puzzles to straight-up murdering fools.

Perhaps starting out using the bow as a non-human killing device is key to my love affair with the weapon. I barely remember the actual cutscene where Lara approaches a downed deer and uses an arrow to finish it off, but I do remember how I lingered about in that opening area killing rabbits and crows and things. It was a different experience than when I hunted in Assassin’s Creed III because I was so enamored with the idea of using my athletic prowess to catch up to animals and ending them with my hidden blade. It was different from even Far Cry 3 because the things I hunted were far too dangerous for a mere arrow (explosive rounds were often the solution).

Let alone the fact that Lara is instantaneously capable of handling a bow, Tomb Raider stuck me with this thing and it made my very first non-directed actions in the game extremely personal. I immediately associated all movement and goals with destinations at the end of a road that only an arrow could drive. Non-bow-related skills became nonessential. I was all the way in.

The bow itself, though, also has a large impact on why I love it. You pull the left trigger to bring it up and then the right trigger to draw the string, releasing your right index finger when you want to fire. The longer you pull back, the stronger the shot will be—to a point. Hold too long and Lara’s aim will shake, her arms and fingers tiring from the immense strain the taut system exacts on her muscles. Eventually, the entire operation poops out and you’re out. This gives the mechanic a seriously realistic feel; it mirrors exactly what you would expect to happen with such a primitive, non-compound bow. It also parallels what you are experiencing within the game: your aim begins to tire as well, a tracked target delivering diminished returns over a quick, well-timed pull.

Releasing the arrow, too, is supremely natural. With both triggers actuated, you simply release the left trigger and the arrow is quivered. It reminds me a lot of the first Assassin’s Creed‘s control premise where each button controlled a single part of your body like your head, each arm, and your legs. The left trigger controls the bow arm and the right trigger controls the string arm, so when you release the string but not the bow, it fires. Release the bow, however, and not the string and you release all the tension in the string as the bow encroaches on the base of the arrow. It’s a simple but effective metaphor that serves to empower and simplify the player’s action.

Of course, firing the arrow is only half the equation. What happens when you hit something is the other half, and enemy reactions to the bow are simply sublime. I was never one for the gore porn style of horror films like Saw and Hostel, but I do demand commensurate reaction from my actions in video games, even if that means being a little macabre. So when Lara lets loose an arrow into a bad guy, I want it to feel like it should, like some dude just got three feet of wood and metal through the chest.

The sound when you nail someone in center mass is perfect. You feel the thunk more than you hear it, though truly your ears are the only things receiving any meaningful input in that regard. It’s a thwip, fhhhwww, thunk and the guy is reeling. These are sounds you’ve probably replicated a millions times with just your mouth when you played cowboys and Indians or pretended to be the Green Arrow or retold your take on Robin Hood, and to finally hear it accurate recreated as if they delved deep into your mind and came back with a WAV file of your childish notions of audio design.

Then, when the arrow does make contact with someone, it looks just so incredibly right. It’s not an overdone effect like when you blast someone with a shotgun in the game (it’s cartoonish, but it works), but instead it is subtly appropriate. Or at least as subtle as you can get when a razor-tipped rod shuttles into a dude’s eye socket at 130 mph. There’s just the slightest hint of a delay, suggesting that the reactions to a death blow is more cerebral than physical, which seems accurate given the total force of an arrow is nowhere near enough to physically knock someone down. But the way the head snaps back and the body crumples. Jeez it’s perfect. It gives the bow such a deadly feel without turning it into a string-mounted laser like in Crysis 3.

And once you start using it to ignite flammable gas and hook up zip-lines and pull down structures, you develop an all-encompassing relationship with the bow. It’s not just for hunting and it’s not just for killing. Instead, it’s for getting you out of a jam. It’s for getting you places you can’t get yourself. It’s a security blanket that gets you where you need to go. For Lara Croft, it is always the year of the bow.

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