Why The Tomb Raider Franchise Isn’t Beyond Saving
After the disappointing sales of Tomb Raider Underworld, the Crystal Dynamics team realized that Lara Croft was in trouble. They took a hard look at the video game landscape and came to the conclusion that they needed to re-work and re-imagine every aspect of the franchise or risk becoming irrelevant. The developers chose to destroy a character they spent fifteen years creating to pave the way for the biggest gamble in their company’s history: a Tomb Raider reboot.
When done correctly, the reboot is a powerful weapon in restoring a franchise to its former glory. While television has introduced the world to remakes of Charlie’s Angels, Hawaii Five-0 and Smallville, video games have been reluctant to bring their icons back to their origins.
Wisely, Karl Stewart, the Global Brand Director of Tomb Raider, has found inspiration in the greatest reboot of all time, Batman Begins. “We found that people didn’t feel emotionally attached to Lara,” said Stewart. “[Director] Christopher Nolan took Batman and basically made that character culturally relevant. The first part of that movie was about breaking Batman down. Then he finally dons the mask, and you get why he does what he does.”
Jim Gordon: You’re just one man?
Bruce Wayne: Now we’re two.
Tomb Raider needed fresh eyes on their upcoming project to avoid the pitfalls of their latest efforts. Harnessing the support of industry giant Square Enix and sporting a powerful new game engine, the early returns have been promising. Too often a trailer can showcase a vastly difference experience than the finished game but Tomb Raider’s early videos have been nothing less than impressive.
To improve the combat mechanics they brought in Hardy LeBel, who cut his teeth on titles such as Halo and SOCOM. Next, they added the talented Rogelio Olguin to create a lifelike environment for Lara to explore. New blood means new ideas and direction. Olguin, LeBel and the rest of the staff need to push Crystal Dynamics out of their comfort zone and breathe fresh air into a franchise that has become stale and predictable. Every one of the features that the series has relied on in the past needs to be challenged in order to create something truly special.
Henri Ducard: Are you ready to begin?
Bruce Wayne: I-I can barely stand…
Henri Ducard: Death does not wait for you to be ready. Death is not considerate, or fair. And make no mistake: here, you face Death.
The E3 gameplay demo begins with Lara held captive in a candle lit room, deep underground. As she fights to claw her way to the surface, she passes an ominous corpse chained to the wall. The beauty of this sequence is in the mystery of her predicament. When Lara’s actions and environment tell the story, it immerses the gamer in the experience. Tomb Raider‘s writers must fight the urge to explain what is happening through narration and let the action drive the plot
The developers decided to incorporate a survival horror theme to the reboot and stamped the game with the first mature rating in the franchise’s history. To maximize the effectiveness of the darker tone, Crystal Dynamics needs to ramp up the difficulty level and nerf Lara’s physical abilities. If she gets stabbed by a spear, don’t just knock off a slice of her health bar. Show the pain and terror that comes from a physical assault. It’s vital that the player develops a strong sense of empathy for the character for the reboot to succeed. Without this emotional bridge, the tone of the game will shift from an emotional journey of fear and discovery to an experience that provides little more than shock value.
Stewart has been touting this personal connection as the game’s main selling point since its announcement. “Every single situation that we mapped out in the game from day one was about, if you’re going to take that emotion and that experience how can you really bring it to the point that the player feels like ‘whoa, holy shit. I’ve never felt that before.’” Making Lara Croft human could be the trump card that separates Tomb Raider from the rest of 2012′s blockbusters. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics need to develop a story and atmosphere that distinguishes itself from becoming an Uncharted clone while matching their biggest rival’s emphasis on effective gameplay mechanics and cinematics.
Two of the biggest questions that surround Tomb Raider involve the combat mechanics and replay value. While performing back flips and shooting duel pistols at a Tyrannosaurus were entertaining ten years ago, it is going to make the current generation of gamers roll their eyes. Assuming that Crystal Dynamics is serious about making Lara more grounded, the mechanics need to reflect this new direction.
To create an environment where the player wants to experience the campaign multiple times, Tomb Raider needs to embrace the strategy of incorporating hidden areas around the island. This feature will drive the player to actively explore all that the environment has to offer instead of mindlessly running toward the next mission. If the developers decide to incorporate hidden artifacts, it is imperative that they create satisfying rewards for the player that makes the effort worthwhile.
Henri Ducard: The training is nothing. The will is everything. The will to act.
Remember in Metal Gear Solid when it was required that the player hammer the triangle button to save Snake from breaking during interrogation? It brought the player into the head of the character through a creative use of button control. Crystal Dynamics has already confirmed QuickTime events for Tomb Raider, which have the possibility to be exciting or pointless depending on their integration. Taking notice of games like Heavy Rain will help to create motions that are relevant to the action on screen.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne created his reputation through hard work and thinking outside the box, not from battling supernatural villains. The movie worked because it created a dark and gritty real world setting where the viewer truly believed in the plausibility of Bruce Wayne’s actions. Lara’s mysterious island can be menacing and dangerous without the need for cursed monsters and supernatural weapons. It is infinitely more rewarding to have her accomplish goals through resourcefulness and logic then by blasting an enemy with a mystical laser.
Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have an opportunity to take the gaming world by storm if they can complement their gorgeous visuals with a game that has both heart and substance. If the final product can build off the magnificent trailers and provide a thought provoking and emotional journey for the gamer, Tomb Raider is going to be the best game you play all year.