Published on May 8th, 2013 | by Liam Dean2
How Tomb Raider sets the gold standard for series reboots
“Reboot” isn’t necessarily a word that people greet with much enthusiasm. Everything seems to be getting rebooted these days, from TV shows to video games. The worst culprits are the incredibly unimaginative people from the mythical land of Hollywood, who seem more than happy to ruin our fondest film memories to make a quick buck. Their lack of creativity and occasional disregard for fans of the originals have left us with many naff substitutes such as Planet Of The Apes, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Wicker Man. Seriously, what were they thinking when they cast Nicholas Cage in that movie?
But, we’ve also had plenty of good movie reboots as well. The truth is that for every Pink Panther there is a Dredd to counterbalance it. The same is true for video games too. It’s never the case that all re-imaginings of our favourite things turn out to be bad. Sometimes the planets will align and we will be magically gifted with games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, DmC: Devil May Cry and Twisted Metal. All of those games had both positive and negative aspects, but they also had elements that fans of the original series could enjoy in some nostalgic way. But whilst those games were very good, it is my personal belief that the new Tomb Raider reboot by Crystal Dynamics sets the standard for all future reboots.
Tomb Raider has, for me at least, always been a series that was about problem solving first and foremost, platforming second. The first three games on the original PlayStation were one of the only game series – apart from the Oddworld games – that I can remember getting my father to play with me growing up. He was never really interested in games before he played Tomb Raider –and he rarely has been since — but there was something about those intricate, complicated tomb puzzles that appealed to the problem solver inside him. Pretty soon he decided to give it a go for himself, and very soon after that he decided to get me to read the walkthroughs to him that came as part of my Official PlayStation Magazine subscription. Hundreds of hours and several cheat guides later, a man who was never interested in games previously had managed to battle his way through three sizeable action/adventure classics.
An addiction factor like the one the first three Tomb Raider games had surely has to count for a lot in terms of games design. It was quite a disappointment then when the next few entries in the series seemed to deviate from the rewarding mechanics that the first three had established. The fourth game, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation was actually a good continuation, and only really suffered from failing to bring anything new to the table. Tomb Raider: Chronicles, on the other hand, was far too short and had some dubious control issues. By the time The Angel Of Darkness rolled around at the end of 2003 for the now well-established PS2, everyone had the right to expect great things from developers Core Design. Alas, the tired mechanics and terrible control scheme were still present, and if anything, had got more noticeable.
It was only in 2006 when Crystal Dynamics took the helm of the beloved franchise that things started to really turn around for Lara. Tomb Raider: Legend was a game that not only re-established the series’ meticulous attention to detail, but that brought something new to the table; updating the gunplay and platforming to create a more acrobatic and precise feeling Lara Croft than anyone had ever seen. Perhaps still on a high from the glowing critical reception, Crystal Dynamics even went on to release Tomb Raider: Anniversary the following year – a remake of the original game that not only equalled, but also surpassed the original according to game review sites like Gamespot. It was quite a surprise then when Tomb Raider: Underworld –the next game released by Crystal Dynamics in 2009 — failed to live up to the hype the new series’ developers were generating, releasing with poor ports, dodgy camera angles and tired combat ideas. It seemed that the familiar problems that had marred the series in the past were beginning to rear their ugly heads once more.
Instead of continuing in the downward spiral older entries in the series had been known for, Crystal Dynamics chose to do something that was quite unexpected and actually took a break from making Tomb Raider. The four year gap was the longest stretch of time the series had ever had between instalments, and it gave the team some much needed breathing space to take stock and revise their strategy. Fans of the series found other games to attach themselves to in the meantime, not least the brilliant Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Assassin’s Creed II that released in 2009 and 2010 respectively. They were games that seemed to have something new to bring to the action adventure genre, and even more interestingly, they seemed to have borrowed elements from Tomb Raider in order to do it.
It was easy for Crystal Dynamics to feel jealous of these new contenders rising to take Tomb Raider’s crown. Uncharted 2 had amazingly lush aesthetics that were immediately reminiscent of films like Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, with gunplay and platforming on hand to back it up. Not only that, but Assassin’s Creed II had secret tomb sections that would feel at home in any Tomb Raider game, and interesting sandbox-style exploration to boot. Instead of choosing to ignore these obvious design improvements, Crystal Dynamics chose to take inspiration from these games just as they had originally taken inspiration from Lara’s adventures.
The net result of this development hiatus was the 2013 series reboot simply named “Tomb Raider” – a rebirth of the series that took inspiration from the aforementioned games to produce a wholly different kind of beast, but one that still felt very authentic to the Tomb Raider legacy. It’s a game with huge action set pieces, large open levels, wonderfully tight combat controls, precise platforming and – most importantly – an abundance of tombs to solve and secrets to collect. Not only that, but it has a story that, whilst not entirely original, gives Lara a more realistic and less overtly sexualised persona. It’s a statement that Tomb Raider is trying to move boldly into the 21st century, whilst also giving fans of the original series something to be excited about.
The new Tomb Raider has such a defining personality of its own that other games in the genre may once again look towards the series for inspiration in their own future instalments. The danger is that what we will end up with eventually is a never ending series of feedback loops, each franchise feeding off the successes of its competitors to create more and more refined hybrids of the original concepts. On paper at least, this may seem like a good thing for the gamer, but it’s actually the opposite of what Crystal Dynamics should be looking to achieve. The new Tomb Raider reboot has succeeded precisely because it is its own game and because it doesn’t ape other games in the genre too heavily – including games from its own series. We can only assume that Crystal Dynamics understands this, and that future instalments in this new rebooted series will strive to set themselves apart from each other, avoiding the design pitfalls that Tomb Raider has fallen foul of in the past.
This magical balance of managing to move forwards into a new generation of games design whilst also respecting fans of the original series is a near impossible feat, and one that I feel all other series reboots should seek to achieve. It’s not as easy as simply redesigning a character to have a chic new look and a spiffy new graphics engine though. A superficial gesture like this is exactly the reason that so many reboots fail, and Crystal Dynamics have learned this through bitter personal experience. In order for other up and coming series reboots to succeed, they must first look at the successes and failures of similar games in their genre and redesign their gameplay accordingly – from the ground up sometimes. Now, if only the new Thief reboot can get it right, we can all move into the new millenuim as quietly and painlessly as possible.