Ten years ago this month -- July 2003 -- the Tomb Raider series hit its lowest point. Angel of Darkness may have taken a step forward technologically, springing forward from PlayStation to PlayStation 2, but fans or critics had little positive to say about the game itself. Paramount Pictures even sued Eidos over how crummy Angel was.
Fast forward a decade and Tomb Raider is still in trouble. The series' big-budget reboot launched a few months ago to critical acclaim and the strong sales -- but even so, it's being regarded as a flop due to that big budget. It seems like a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't: Angel of Darkness was built by a small team at Core Designs who lacked the resources to make good on their ambitions, while Tomb Raider 2013 was assembled by an army that created the product they intended at an unsustainable cost.
In between these two anchors, the adventures of Lara Croft have seen their ups and downs. Current stewards Crystal Dynamics took over for Core Design after Angel of Darkness and propelled the series into the current generation with much-lauded Tomb Raider: Legend, but their follow-up titles received less and less interest over time. Crystal has created remakes, sequels, strange experimental spin-off games, and now a total reboot, but it seems almost as though Tomb Raider is cursed: Both the series' developers made a couple of strong entries followed by chaos and disappointment.
Jeremy Parish, Senior Editor:
Is Tomb Raider cursed? Does the series concept simply have a short shelf life? Or is there something else at work here? USgamer, I put the question to you all in the purest Seinfeldean terms: "What's the deal with Tomb Raider?"
Pete Davison, News Editor
I used to -- well, probably still do -- have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Tomb Raider. Right from the first game, I immensely respected what the developers were trying to do, but I rarely finished them. They always just ended up being too long or too difficult for my clumsy dexterity, and they'd become ultimately frustrating, particularly due to the glacial pacing of the narrative progression in the early titles. I was interested in Lara as a character -- she was the first female protagonist I'd ever played as, to my knowledge -- and I wasn't getting to find out enough about her through the game, save for the fact that she grunted a lot, could do a handstand on the edge of rather square rocks, and that she didn't like falling long distances.
I have completed two Tomb Raider games to date: The first one, and The Last Revelation, which is, what, the fourth one? The former I did out of sheer British stubbornness; the latter was for one of my first ever paid writing assignments, where I had to write a walkthrough for the now-defunct UK magazine PC Zone. The latter experience left me never wanting to play another Tomb Raider ever again, or at least for a significant period of time.
I wanted to like Angel of Darkness, though; I felt I was about ready to give Lara another chance by then. Angel of Darkness sounded like an attempt to push the series forward with new characters and a greater focus on storytelling. Unfortunately, the controls -- which had always been hideously clumsy on console versions of the game -- were just appalling, leaving the game nigh-unplayable for me, and adding another mark to my mental "Tomb Raider Games I Haven't Finished" chart. I haven't played another entry in the series since -- though I would like to play the recent reboot, and I did pick up that insanely good Tomb Raider Pack deal in the recent Steam sale, so I'm certainly not saying I'll never let Lara into my life again; she just hasn't had a lot of allure for me in recent years.
Brendan Sinclair, Contributing Editor
I have even less experience with Tomb Raider than Pete. I remember being impressed with the first one when it came out, as it was the first 3D action game I remember where you had a character running and jumping around vast interiors. But that meant it had a lot of the same problems as other early 3D games. It was tough to gauge distances, the camera was an issue, and sluggish controls seemed to prioritize animation over responsiveness. But those kind of problems come with being a pioneer.
Ordinarily, I'd have been thrilled to try a game that seemed so fresh and new, but something about Tomb Raider never clicked. The combination of Indiana Jones and sex appeal didn't work for me. It was not a case of two great tastes that tasted great together; it was two great tastes that tasted like a cynical marketing ploy together.
Despite Lara's longevity, the series has never managed to shake that impression in my mind. If I want the fun of Indiana Jones, Uncharted does it better. And if I want sex appeal, there's no shortage of that in the gaming industry either. Once the novelty of 3D action games wore off, the Tomb Raider series just seemed superfluous.
Mike Williams, Staff Writer
I have even less Tomb Raider experience than all of you! The recent release of Tomb Raider is actually the only game in the series that I've played. Brendan mentions that Uncharted provides more of the Indiana Jones-style fun that he's looking for, but Uncharted was the reason I picked up Tomb Raider. In the trailers and my short hands-on, the game struck me as an Uncharted clone of sorts, which gave me a chuckle because I always assumed Uncharted was a Tomb Raider clone. So color me surprised when I felt that Tomb Raider actually outdid Uncharted a bit.
The game straddles the line between open-world and linear, reminding me of the Metroid series when it's all said and done. Semi-open levels all connected together every which way, and gaining new abilities allows you to find new paths and secrets in older areas. It all came together in a solid little game with a bit of stealth action, some RPG bits, and some gorgeous graphics. I even turned on the AMD TressFX thing that had Lara's hair swishing back and forth like real hair, until it occasionally glitched and left her bald.
Brendan mentioned Indiana Jones and sex appeal, but I feel the series has moved away from that a bit with the new Tomb Raider. Lara definitely needs some cold weather outfits, but the over-the-top sex appeal that categorized the earlier entries is mostly gone. The cutscene camera throws a bit of male gaze your way, but Lara herself is well-realized. And it's not light-hearted, if anything I'd say the game takes more inspiration from the film, The Descent. It's a story about survival that mostly works well, even if there's a dissonant note between Lara's early aversion to killing and the actions you can take directly afterward.
So what's wrong with Tomb Raider? Nothing. I think the latest game turned out great. The real question is (prepare for tangent!): what's wrong with Square Enix? The publisher expected Tomb Raider to sell 5-6 million units worldwide and the game actually sold 3.4 million units, which is quite reasonable for a series that's slid down over the years. Whichever analyst told them that 5-6 million was doable should probably be shown the door.
Taking a stab in the dark, I'd pin more of Square Enix' losses on the dark hole that the development of Final Fantasy XV and Final Fantasy XIV. My guess is if you separated out the Western and Japanese sides of Square Enix, the West would be doing a lot of the heavy lifting in console development while the Japanese would throwing money away in that same sector. Mobile is probably the Japanese side's largest success story.
Square Enix should aim at around 3 million in sales for future Tomb Raider games and budget accordingly. I'm of the mindset that another entry building on what made the reboot great could match or exceed sales of the original. If the series can't survive at sales of 3 million, then perhaps Square Enix should just call it a day.
I just want to point out that Square Enix acquired Eidos from great financial distress, and as Mike suggested, is now relying on that company's brands (Deus Ex, Thief, Hitman, Tomb Raider) to bolster its own flagging fortunes. This doesn't seem like a sound strategy.
Jaz Rignall, Editorial Director:
At the risk of further bringing down down the USgamer Tomb Raider appreciation average, I have to also confess that I've never been a fan of Ms Croft. While many people raved about the first game, it just didn't capture my imagination. Didn't like the controls much, the camera view was somewhat annoying, and the mix of puzzles and action just didn't quite do it for me. It's not that I think it's a bad game - it's just like one of those massively popular songs that just never quite gets your toes tapping.
Since then, I've dipped into the series occasionally out of curiosity, but each and every time I've stopped after my first session and simply not felt compelled to return - I've always had something else I'd prefer to play. The latest game is by far the best so far, and that certainly piqued my curiosity, even though I'd largely already written it off before I played it. I was surprised at how polished and put together it seemed. It really did tick all the right boxes for me, but... it also felt derivative - like an Uncharted series knock-off, that didn't quite have its charm and emotional connection. So once again, it just couldn't quite pull me in, even though I could see why so many people really enjoyed it.
Jeez. I really sound like a misery about the series, but what can I say? Its chemistry just doesn't ever seem right for me.
OK, so I guess I'm the weird one, then. I went into 1996's Tomb Raider not really expecting to like it -- I found the Jessica Rabbit-like caricature of a woman on the box to be frankly repulsive -- but I was instantly hooked once I booted it up. To my very pleasant surprise, whatever juvenile sensibility motivated the game's cover had nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of it, which very much proved to be a huge, engrossing adventure that worked for me for the same reason I enjoy Metroid: One woman on her own against massive environments that inherently posed far more of a threat than the creatures within.
Where Tomb Raider's recent problem is too much money being invested, its trouble used to be that Eidos and Core didn't invest nearly enough in the series. Which seems baffling, considering just how much money it must have generated. But no, they kept the same small team hammering away at the same clumsy engine while other landmark franchises of the PlayStation era -- the Resident Evils and Final Fantasies -- showed tremendous improvements with each iteration.
I've always kind of felt Tomb Raider lost its way from the first sequel, which began the trend of emphasizing Lara-vs.-human combat over Lara-vs.-puzzle-environments. I was honestly a bit gutted when I realized the reboot, for all the interesting things it attempted to achieve, had young Lara racking up more human kills in your average single gunplay sequence than in the entire first game.
I think there's still the germ of a great franchise here, but like with so many other big games its creators need to stop trying to walk timidly in the footsteps of the blockbusters and strike out in its own direction. In this case, that direction was laid down years ago quite neatly. I'd love to see a Tomb Raider than makes exploration interesting again, rather than one that treats the environment like a bother to be Assassin's Creeded past en route to the next scripted shoot-out. And surely the team that can strike that balance is one small enough to eke out a profit with sales of three million, but one big enough that it doesn't end up stuck in Core's old rut….
Cassandra Khaw, Content Editor:
Hey, Mike! Hope you don't mind me taking your "person who has played the least Tomb Raider" crown from you.
Seriously, though. Growing up, I had ready access to the entire Sierra Games library, but the Tomb Raider games were kept out of my reach. I suspect it might have had something to do with my mother not wanting my dad to get his hands on them, in extension. Either way, I never really made personal acquaintance with Ms. Lara Croft but that didn't stop her from existing in the periphery of my life. She was alternatively both an uncomfortable sex symbol, one discussed with varying degrees of tact, and one of the first few female characters empowered enough to do all of her own stunts. (Samus, I think, does the "strong female lead" thing far better, but that's another story.)
I'm onboard with Mike about much more of an actual person Croft has become with the latest one. The over-the-top sexuality feels mostly gone. She remains delightfully attractive, sure, but is now possessing of realistic dimensions. The questionable attire is missing, replaced by, yet again, attractive yet realistic apparel. Croft's scruffed up, made to bleed, dragged through the mud: she looks more like an action hero now. Minus perma-roided musculature structure. If all the stuff I've been reading about her is any indication of things, Croft's more of a real human being these days.
Even if everything else is apparently going down hill, they may have gotten this aspect right, no?
To go back to the Uncharted thing for a moment, I always felt that Uncharted did what Tomb Raider probably wanted to do from the very beginning: Tell an exciting adventure story with an interesting protagonist. For me, the Uncharted games have always been about the banter between Drake and his companions rather than the jumpy-shooty parts of the gameplay; Tomb Raider has always been the inverse, and I think that's often been to its detriment. Sure, it might be a better game, but it doesn't help define Lara as a character. And given that marketing for the original game made a huge deal out of the "Starring Lara Croft" bit, you'd think they'd have wanted to make more of that. It's strange that we haven't really had a chance to see that until the recent reboot -- I think Angel of Darkness perhaps wanted to go in that direction a bit, but it ultimately didn't do many things right.
I think the problem with trying to define Lara's character better is that she was conceived as a cipher, and anything you do to flesh her out is effectively changing her nature. She began life as a male character but was, in the creators' own words, recast as a female midway through because they wanted to look at a "sexy bum." Lara's personality basically consisted of "unflappable; jumping; climbing; exploring; sarcastic; shooting; stealing loot." Five of those traits are action verbs, one of them doesn't lend itself to much character depth, and the last ensures all her dialogue takes the form of quips.
Honestly, I don't know that I need Lara's character better defined. Video game scripts are so absolutely awful on the whole that I tend to like characters who exist as an avatar a lot more than the ones whose creators try to make them into "real" characters. For every Carl Johnson (GTA: San Andreas) or femme-Shepard (Mass Effect), you have hundreds of Nico Bellics (GTA IV) and Samus Arans (Metroid: Other M). The most recent take on Lara was generally well-written, but it came at the expense of insane narrative dissonance. Hey, here's a trembling young Master's candidate in archeology. Now that she's killed a deer, she can take down hundreds of heavily armed men twice her size, sometimes by brutally stabbing them in the neck. Right on, Crystal Dynamics. That's how I spent my college days, too.
I think the term "downhill" to describe the series is a little unfair; it's more that Tomb Raider has strayed from its roots, and its creators have forgotten what once made it unique. I would argue that Lara Croft isn't what made it unique; or at the very least, not the Lara Croft they've been fobbing off on us over the past decade. I'd love to see the series get back to its real origins and focus on exploration and discovery, like in the early days. If Crystal HAS to fashion the series in the shape of a guaranteed blockbuster, why not drop the desperate desire to be Uncharted But With A Girl and draw inspiration from series that have more in common with the essence of classic Tomb Raider -- Skyrim, Assassin's Creed, Dark Souls, something like that?
I think the series can still bring some exploration next time. All the relevant bits are there. They have a new Lara Croft, they've dispensed with her origin, and the game is roughly structured to allow for exploration and discovery. Crystal Dynamics just needs more tombs and ruins to explore, like Far Cry 3's hidden nook and crannies. In fact, I'd love to drop Ms. Croft in a third-person game structured like Far Cry 3, preferably without the heavy White Man's Burden overtones from that title. Make it happen, Square Enix.