I played Rise of the Tomb Raider for Xbox One this weekend. The demo looks to be the same one available for play at Gamescom 2015, featuring newly-minted Tomb Raider Lara Croft starting out her adventure in the Northwest border of Syria. Following a helicopter ambush that leaves her driver dead, a wounded Lara explores an actual tomb hidden in the cliffs above a city.
The demo takes Lara through dark cave where she beefs up on her new language skills, deciphering ancient Greek text to find new maps and items. She finds a hidden city and does some jumping and ledge swinging to get there, only to realize that an opposing team of evil archeologists may have already beat her to the site. Queue some traps, some cover shooting, and sprinting through the hidden temple as rising water levels attempt to kill Lara.
Rise of the Tomb Raider looks great. It plays great. Playing the demo, I was treated to all the cliff hanging, ledge shimmying, and cave exploring we've come to expect from this off-shoot of the action-adventure genre. Rise of the Tomb Raider looks like it'll deliver on expectations and I'm down with it.
If you've read other previews of this demo, there's probably been a few comparisons to Naughty Dog's Uncharted series. The games are functionally different from what I've seen, with Uncharted 4 focusing on telling Nathan Drake's tale while Rise of the Tomb Raider retains more customization and open-world elements, but the scenes that are used to show off both games at conventions and other industry events look rather similar.
The comparisons between both franchises have been constant and ongoing since Uncharted was first revealed.
"I completely understand [the comparisons], just because this is a genre which is not that widely used in video games for whatever reason--people tend to focus more on science fiction," Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells told Gamespot back in 2007. "This more-realistic, treasure-hunting, pulp action adventure genre really hasn't been tried by that many. So I think just by the very fact that both Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are treasure hunters, there will be comparisons. But beyond that, they diverge pretty rapidly."
"From a character standpoint, Nathan Drake is an everyman who struggles to get by, who you can see on his face that he's stressed out as he's flinching from bullets ricocheting off the cover he's hiding behind, while Lara is the more stone-faced acrobat, perfect landing every time."
"We wanted to make him a more ordinary guy; she really is a completely aspirational fantasy, which isn't a negative thing," former Uncharted writer and creative director Amy Hennig agreed in an interview with PS3 Fanboy. "It's just a choice. She's sort of perfectly acrobatic and graceful. Our guy gets stumbles around, and sweats, gets dirty, swears, and gets afraid, and gets pissed off. Our game is a lot more about that visceral hand-to-hand fighting and gunplay, with a tone that is nothing like Tomb Raider's, which is much more about exploration and solitude in a way."
I'll leave behind the fact that Nathan Drake hasn't been the everyman for a long time. Instead, he's a charismatic Wolverine, whose healing factor allows him to take punishment that would kill a lesser person. Those elements have been incorporated into the new Lara Croft, who's is less aloof and confident than her older counterpart. New Lara is more passionate, she's quicker on her feet with a plan, and she suffers (and survives) a lot more pain.
Of course, this means that new Lara Croft has been compared to Mr. Drake. Crystal Dynamics has also done it's best to distance itself from those comparisons.
"Well, naturally, they're action-adventure, OK, so there's going to be some comparison," Crystal Dynamics boss Darrell Gallagher said in a Square Enix interview. "I don't think we can get away with that. And there are certain things the Uncharted series has done, which is borrowed heavily from Tomb Raiders [of] old. So, again, there's gonna be some crossover. That said, I think when we show the game as a whole-when you get to experience it, start to finish-we believe there's a lot of differences between the two."
"In terms of the gameplay, we have a resourcefulness to Lara, right, that you start seeing in some of the demos we've given, which I think is again a different thing to Uncharted. Also, our game structure. I think we have some wider areas. I think our hubs, which we've not necessarily shown yet. I think they're a really big differentiator. Our ability to re-traverse. The ability system on the island. Hunting. The ability to go and take deer and other animals on the island."
"I guess the comparison I can make is, you can have two summer blockbusters, and they can be big action things, with two different actors and things like tone and mood and story separate the two very differently. I think there's a lot of small differences that actually make the two products sort of stand apart when you actually experience them in full."
Now Lara Croft and Nathan Drake will be going head-to-head. Lara is starring in Rise of the Tomb Raider, an Xbox One exclusive coming on November 10, 2015, while Drake is featured in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, coming to PlayStation 4 on March 18, 2016. This is close enough that for the first time, players can compare one to the other, with the memory of both games still fresh in their minds. This dance of "who inspired who?" will continue on into perpetuity, but we have a moment of time where we can hold up both and see how similar they truly are.
The thing that connects to the two is Lucasfilm's Indiana Jones. This idea of a scrappy archeologist traveling to remote locations and racing against time to discover some lost facet of society has its root in that famous film series. Indy is supposed to be just like you and me - he's just a rural college professor - but he travels around the world at a moment's notice and survives situations that would kill you and I. Lara and Drake are the new versions of Indy, a representation of the love current game developers have for a fan-favorite property from the 80's. The inspiration continues onward.
Indiana Jones himself is a translation of older characters, a mix of old pulp genre storytelling and then-modern filmmaking techniques. Co-creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg came at the concept from different directions, with Lucas wanting to "reinstate high adventure" and Spielberg wanting to craft "a James Bond film without the hardware". Lucas was inspired by concepts from older films like Darkest Africa starring Clyde Beatty, China Sea with Clark Gable, or Rulers of the Sea featuring Alan Ladd. Visually, Indy himself looks to be inspired by Charlton Heston as Harry Steele in 1954's Secret of the Incas.
"'Practically every movie star of the 30's has one movie like this, be it Alan Ladd or Clark Gable or whoever - playing a soldier of fortune in a leather jacket and that kind of hat,'" Lucas told the New York Times way back in 1981. "'That's a favorite period of mine, but it was more the character we were after than the period, although they're obviously both rooted in the same ground. I took that character and put him in outer space and it worked just fine - not the same character exactly, but the same concept in terms of story and entertainment value.'"
Despite the success of Indiana Jones, pulp action-adventure tends to be a genre that lies dead in modern times. We've had occasionally dips into that pond with films like Sahara or National Treasure, but as Naughty Dog's Wells noted above, the pulp adventure is a genre that has largely passed by modern audiences.
Tomb Raider and Uncharted are succeeding in places where films have consistently let fans down in the past two decades. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wasn't a great pulp adventure, but the point is we don't need Indiana Jones anymore. Disney won't let him die, but if he never came back, would we lose anything? Not really.
Nathan Drake and the new Lara Croft have taken that crown (hat?) and run with it. Indy isn't alone anymore. His grandchildren are running off on their own adventures that feel suspiciously similar to his old escapades, but they do so in slightly different ways. Drake is surrounded by his friends and family, taking on all manner of wild situations and having fun doing it. Lara remains alone, using her wits and sheer will to survive.
I miss Indy, but Drake and Croft's success mean he's never really gone. That's why I love them both.