It can be a bit difficult to talk about the new Tomb Raider without also talking about Uncharted. Naughty Dog's PS3 series has always had a lot of Tomb Raider in its DNA, and Crystal Dynamics' new Lara Croft adventure has clearly been taking notes from Uncharted.
The two games are as interesting in their differences as they are in their similarities. So, Kirk and Patricia decided to crack them both open and see what treasures lay within.
Spoilers: This conversation has some story spoilers for the ending of Uncharted 3, but keeps Tomb Raider spoilers to a minimum.
Kirk: Hello, Patricia! Okay. We've both spent the last week or so raiding tombs. It's time to talk about this game some.
Patricia: Yes! Or, well, I've spent more time shooting people than raiding tombs, but, you know.
Kirk: Ha. Right. Certainly one thing that sets this game apart from its predecessors. I should say here that I've finished the game, but I'm not sure quite where you are in the story.
Patricia: Lara just decided that nobody can leave the island. I think she may be losing it a little!
Kirk: She may well be. Or... is she the only one who hasn't lost it?? DUN DUN DUN. Okay, on to the thing we're really gonna be talking about here-this game as compared with Tomb Raider, as well as with Uncharted. Any general thoughts?
Patricia: I think it's interesting that both games deal with legacy, though to a different extent. Tomb Raider has some nods to Lara's parents, who I assume also raided tombs and whatnot? And she grapples with actually becoming that type of Croft in the game. Drake has something similar, only—spoilers I guess? He's not actually a Drake—he's an orphan who takes up the Drake name, as we saw in Uncharted 3. But it's still important to him that he lives up to that stuff…but as a fantasy. He's escaping reality.
Kirk: Huh. I hadn't thought about that parallel, but it's true. That kind of ties in with the superhero mythos that Crystal Dynamics and Naughty Dog have used when creating Lara Croft and, to a lesser extent, Nathan Drake. That's actually something that both series have added in later games. In the first Uncharted, Nathan Drake was little more than a roguish adventurer, as I recall. Similar to how in the first Tomb Raider, Lara was just sort of this badass chick. It wasn't really until Uncharted 3 that Naughty Dog decided it was worth digging into his backstory. And, to be honest, I wasn't all that interested even when they did. I do find myself interested in Lara's journey in this new game, moreso than I ever was in Nathan Drake's, but I'm less interested in the idea of what her father did, and her legacy and all that. I'm more caught up in the moment to moment. I don't buy all that "You're a Croft, you just don't know it" business. I almost think I'd prefer if she stopped talking about her father and just focused on surviving.
Patricia: Yeah I wish she stopped talking about her dad so much, especially if her mom might be THE Lara Croft?
Anyway, I think this one of the main differences between Uncharted and Tomb Raider for me: Uncharted feels more deliberately thrilling, something that's designed to be escapism for the player and not just Nathan Drake…and naturally, Tomb Raider, by virtue of being a video game, is also escapism, but it's not the same sort of escapism. Tomb Raider feels painful to play! Lara is not having a good time.
Kirk: She sure isn't. And yeah, the games have very different tones. But hey, okay, before we focus too much more on the differences between the two games, let's talk about the similarities. Because there certainly are some, otherwise we wouldn't be comparing them at all. Look at the cycle here: Tomb Raider set the template-do some exploring, do some shooting, solve some puzzles. Then, Uncharted took that template and fine-tuned it for the modern era-do some exploring, do a lot more shooting, focus more on the shooting and make the whole thing a super-slick cinematic experience. When Underworld came out, I could sense Crystal Dynamics reacting to Uncharted but not quite being ready to create that kind of game yet. And now, with Tomb Raider, they've effectively lifted whole chunks straight from Uncharted, and even improved on the template in a number of ways. So we go from Tomb Raider to Uncharted back to Tomb Raider. The circle is complete.
Patricia: Ah, that's interesting. This is actually my first Tomb Raider, so I've never experienced the franchise as it used to be! Still, it's pretty obvious that the sensibilities of modern Tomb Raider are a reaction to Uncharted. Do you feel like that's a good thing, has it improved the Tomb Raider franchise? When people talk about "modern design" it's not always a positive thing.
Kirk: You know, I think it's good and bad. I like the Uncharted games, particularly Uncharted 2. I like them for what they are—charismatic, stylish and generous cinematic adventures. But while they lifted the general layout and approach of Tomb Raider, they don't feature nearly as many puzzles as the old Tomb Raider games did. Uncharted games are a lot closer to Gears of War, honestly, than to Tomb Raider. Take the two most recent Tomb Raider games: Underworld and Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Underworld was a surprisingly cool game-it had what might truly be the most nonsensical, convoluted story I've ever seen in a video game, but beneath that junk lay some interesting, ambitious puzzles. The puzzles would span entire levels-you'd be riding your motorcycle from one area to another, moving a massive statue here in order to get a second statue in a whole other area to rearrange itself.
Meanwhile Guardian of Light is one of the most purely enjoyable co-op games I've ever played, and it's just loaded with great two-player puzzles and bonus challenges. So, playing the new Tomb Raider, I'm highly aware of just what an influence Uncharted has had. The new game features a mere smattering of puzzles, and they're all comparatively simple, even the optional side tombs. That's a disappointment. I understand the complaints of those who say that this "isn't a Tomb Raider game," even while I think that statements like that miss the point somewhat. But regardless, Uncharted's influence is a constant, pronounced presence.
Patricia: Oh, are some people saying it's not a Tomb Raider game? Wow.
Kirk: Well, you know. Like, "people." It's a thing I've heard.
I'm surprised you like Drake's journal—I hate that thing!
Patricia: Anyway, yeah, I can't say I play Uncharted for the puzzles—they're nice to have to add flavor I guess, or as a reminder of what the game is supposed to be about (treasure hunting).
Kirk: Though if I had to choose, I'd say I prefer Tomb Raider's examinable treasures over Uncharted's less fleshed-out baubles. A small distinction, I guess.
Patricia: Yeah I liked that! It felt L.A. Noireish. The simple puzzles in both Uncharted and the new Tomb Raider didn't bother me much though, but I've also been weaned on these modern design practices. It's a shame Tomb Raider didn't feature more complex puzzles, since both games don't really convey the archeologist side of the adventures, eh? Tomb Raider's puzzles are still more complex than those in Uncharted, but Uncharted knows how to package it a little better—I love Nathan's journal thing, even if sometimes tells me to put the square peg in the square hole.
Also, raiding tombs—and therefore doing puzzles—is mostly optional in Tomb Raider. Which seems weird to me given the name of the franchise.
Kirk: I was initially kind of happy to hear that the tombs were optional, since I figured they might let the game have its cake and eat it, too. When I talked with the game's creative director Noah Hughes back during a preview, I kept trying to get a sense of whether the side-tombs would scale in difficulty and eventually include the sorts of stumpers that past games had. Unfortunately, they don't, really. (He did mention that they went back and forth on the "Tomb Raided!" thing that shows up at the end of the tombs, since they weren't sure if it was too off-tone). I'm hopeful for some sort of more intense puzzle-room DLC, but it would've been nice to see more puzzles included with the main game.
I'm surprised you like Drake's journal—I hate that thing! I like all the little notes and touches like that, but I dislike how it so obviously gives hints as to how to solve the puzzles. Those puzzles so often rely on their own set of rules, where Tomb Raider's puzzles rely on physics. I vastly prefer the Tomb Raider approach.
Patricia: Oh no, I like the journal because it's pretty—I don't like that it gives me the answer. But if I was trying to figure out some archeological puzzle in real life I'd figure I'd probably have to crack open a few books or something, you know? So it lends itself to the theme.
Kirk: That's true, and in that regard, it's nice that Drake keeps a journal. One of the weirdest shortcomings of Tomb Raider are those ridiculous journals that you'll find lying around, where Lara's friends articulate their innermost desires and then… leave them on a table somewhere.
Patricia: Yeah—some of them, I was willing to believe. Like okay, MAYBE this historical figure just happened to leave this here and I found it, okay, whatever. But my friends sure left their musings in the most random places. Why is Reyes' letter to her daughter found by a mountain of body parts deep inside a cave?
Really though, both games aren't actually about treasure hunting, eh? It sets the stage and some of the conflicts, but most of what we spend time doing is either shooting people or climbing stuff.
Kirk: That's true. Both games go to great lengths to show their characters doing research or relying on book-learning, but the actual game parts are less "Dr. Jones" and more "Indiana Jones."
Patricia: The feel with the action is different, too. Most of the time gunfights/action in Uncharted felt like they were happening on a playground—I was excited to have them happen, they were usually crazy and cinematic.
Tomb Raider isn't like that—or at least I didn't get pumped when enemies appeared. I dread other people. Which probably has to do with why the game feels better when there aren't other people around, as Evan mentioned. Also, I don't feel like Tomb Raider quite has the hang of the cinematic approach like Uncharted does, even though it has plenty of "run/barely escape explosions" sequences.
Kirk: That's true. Crystal Dynamics does a good imitation at points, but they can't match Naughty Dog's ambition or chops, not quite. One of the most remarkable things about the Uncharted games, particularly Uncharted 2, is how often they'll have you engaging in shootouts in the most unlikely situations. For example, the sequence a third or so into the game, where Drake is hanging on a sign and has to quickly hop around it while pulling out his pistol and keeping out of reach of enemies—great, enjoyable stuff. Tomb Raider may lift the camera-techniques, action-packed platforming, and cinematic style from Uncharted, but they never manage to replicate Uncharted's creative mixture of platforming and shooting. Though I'll say they more than make up for that by having stealth that actually works.
On to the platforming and traversal. How do you think it stacks up?
Patricia:Tomb Raider and Uncharted also feel different there. Uncharted makes a point to make you feel like you're on an epic adventure; you climb crazy, larger than life stuff. With Tomb Raider, it's more of, I need to get here, so I need to traverse this area. Necessity. That's a whole lot of Tomb Raider, really. You kill people out of necessity, too.
I think it's interesting that when climbing, Lara relies on her axe. Drake climbs with his bare hands most of the time. Then again, Lara relies heavily on tools in general: you can see the radio, the axe, the torch and whatever else she's carrying on her body. It sets Lara up as a survivor that makes the most out of her situation even if she's not originally cut out for it. By comparison, Drake is already the hero who does rad stuff on his own.
Kirk: That's a good observation. I prefer Tomb Raider's platforming to Uncharted's, when it comes down to it. I love what I'm getting to do in Uncharted games—you know, "Oh my god, I'm climbing along a series of crates as they tumble out of a crashing airplane!" But really, Uncharted's platforming is way too linear. Drake can't just climb up onto anything, he can only climb up onto certain, approved ledges. Lara, meanwhile, can go pretty much anywhere in the environment. Combine that with her tool-set, and you've got something that's much more like Arkham Asylum's environmental navigation, rather than Uncharted's thin, almost faux-traversal.
Patricia: Ha, I wonder if it's the gamer mentality of looking for the most efficient routes that made it difficult for me to realize just how open Tomb Raider's environment is. It's like I can only see one path.
Kirk: And then there's the way it feels, which is a word I've noticed you keep using. We're talking about a lot of granular differences between the two games, but I think the biggest one comes down to that word. Tomb Raider feels different to me, and that's largely because I can really feel for Lara, I get a sense that this world has a real impact on her.
When she jumps, she lands hard. When she falls, she lands harder. When she's injured, she limps. When she tumbles, she's out of control. I think that one of the great successes of Tomb Raider is how thoroughly they've allowed their protagonist to inhabit the world they've created. And again, this is something they've taken from Uncharted and improved upon: I still remember when Nathan Drake first walked past that burning train car at the start of Uncharted 2 and held his hands up to shield his face from the heat. Tomb Raider takes that moment and multiplies it.
You've mentioned to me how you think Lara's vulnerability makes this game feel different from Uncharted, and I'm curious to hear a little more about that. How do you think Lara herself feels different from Nathan Drake?
Patricia: You've definitely hit on something in regards to Lara: I actually care about her, and that's helped by the design of the game. Man, she looks terrified sometimes, you can tell stuff hurts—and that's great. Not that she feels that way, of course, but that the game manages to make you empathize so much.
I don't really care about Nathan by comparison. I mean, it's interesting, and Uncharted has the better cast/is more charming, but I'm not like, agonizing over the trials that Nathan faces.
I'm glad you brought up that scene in Uncharted 2, because that's probably the best part to compare to Tomb Raider—we see Nathan at his worst. He's hurt. He's vulnerable. That's all of what Tomb Raider is about. But it doesn't feel believable in Uncharted, I'm not wincing when Nathan is like that.
And that vulnerability is at the heart of Tomb Raider, it's coded into even the smallest things. One of the strongest enemies holds a shield up in Tomb Raider, for example, and you have to let him get close and take a swing before you can shoot him—you have to let yourself be vulnerable, in other words.
But you know what they say, vulnerability is actually strength. I mention that since I don't want to make it sound like Lara is helpless or whatever. She's a badass through and through, but you watch her grow into it. So then after you—or should I say I—spend the entire game dreading encounters, and you get to the part with the grenade launcher and she's screaming back at her enemies, telling them she's going to get them...man, what a major, major moment of triumph. I've never felt that way while playing Uncharted. Lara feels like a person I've watched grow. Nathan....might be heading in the same way eventually, judging by the end of Uncharted 3, but it's nowhere near Lara's growth.
Kirk: It's remarkable, isn't it? How good it feels to play a game where the main character has a real, definable arc? Sure, other games make you start with nothing and eventually get more powerful. But it's executed so confidently here, and taken to such extremes. It's effective. And without spoiling anything, I'll say that they don't mess up the pacing from start to finish—there are peaks and valleys, but as I made my way to the final encounter, I couldn't help but think back to the girl at the beginning, whimpering as she pulled a piece of rebar out of her side. I really did feel as though I'd watched her come a long way, and few games do such a good job of blending mechanical game progression with story progression. I think that might be the thing Tomb Raider does best, actually. And, interestingly enough, I thought that Uncharted 3's attempts to do something similar with Drake were a big part of why the game fell flat.
Patricia: Maybe it's just that I felt that Uncharted 3 was an absolute mess, but it feels like Tomb Raider has taken the torch back. I think it's the superior game. But! So, I'm not finished yet, and that moment I spoke of earlier—when Lara gets the grenade launcher? It made me feel like it was Tomb Raider's transition into the type of game Uncharted is.
Kirk: "I'm coming for you all!" Kind of self-indulgent, but enjoyably so.
I'd kind of rather she wasn't the same type of hero Drake is, if only because there's less complexity in that setup. Also, eff guns. The bow is where it's at.
Patricia: Like it was becoming more about confidence, about mowing enemies down, about being the undeniable hero of the adventure. I know they can't keep harping on vulnerability forever—like, eventually she has to grow, right? But I can't help but wonder where Tomb Raider goes from here. I'd kind of rather she wasn't the same type of hero Drake is, if only because there's less complexity in that setup. Also, eff guns. The bow is where it's at. I'd say I look forward to Tomb Raider getting a hold of Uncharted's cinematic angle, but I kind of feel tired of that sort of game.
But you're the one that's actually finished the game: what do you think, are you hopeful of where Tomb Raider can go? Heck, which game do you like better? We've spent this entire time comparing the games, after all. I'm sure people are curious.
Kirk: I guess that, given our headline, we do have to declare a preference here. Though I really do like both games, I think that Tomb Raider beats out Uncharted (even my beloved Uncharted 2) in enough areas that I do prefer it. Which isn't entirely fair, given that Tomb Raider lifted so many tricks from the Uncharted playbook in the first place. Really, both series are awfully good, and seem to exist in symbiosis with one another. With Naughty Dog wrapping up the (decidedly not Tomb Raider-y) Last of Us, I'll be interested to see what they do with Nathan Drake on the PS4.
As for Tomb Raider, I do feel a bit curious about where the series can go from here. We've had our origin story, and it's over—and as the ending punctuates, this story really was about the "birth of a legend." But now that the legend has been born, are we really going to immediately make Lara more of a confident—and less interesting—Nathan Drake-type? I actually doubt that'll happen. Lara may be more confident than she was at the beginning of the game, and may have taken some significant steps towards weapon-wielding badassery, but she's not quite Rambo yet. She can handle some armed goons coming at her, but all the way to the end, she fights in a hardscrabble, improvisational way that should scale up really well for sequels. I doubt we'll start the next game with her hanging tied up, upside-down in a cave, but I also doubt that the inevitable sequel will have her immediately swinging in, dual-pistols blazing. The folks at Crystal Dynamics are smart—they know they've hit on a formula that works, and that that formula relies on a more human, more relatable Lara Croft.
That said, believe it or not, Tomb Raider has got me wanting to replay Uncharted 2 again. So maybe I'll do that and get back to you.
Any final thoughts on the comparison? Why do you think bows and arrows are so awesome? Do you think we're beginning to see the "Bowification" of the modern action game?
Patricia Ha, the "bowification" of games...well, bows are awesome because we like to glorify anything that doesn't scream technology, since we have such a thing about how tech is making us lose our way (or something). I can go on for ages about this but I'll finish with saying that anything that is one shot, one kill tends to be awesome by default.
I hope you're right about Lara. I don't want to see Lara as Rambo (...Lambo?) I am fascinated by the idea of there being an active back and forth between Tomb Raider and Uncharted, and I'm definitely kind of sitting here going FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. But only because they're both excellent games that will only get better because both Crystal Dynamics and Naughty Dog can't rest on their laurels; they can't risk the games becoming stagnant. And to be honest, that's sort of how I felt about Uncharted by the end of 3—it felt like more of 2, only not as well-made. Competition can only be a good thing.
Kirk: I hear you there—it's worthwhile to compare the games, but in the end, it's just nice to see Crystal Dynamics come back into this thing swinging. And if Naughty Dog can return the favor, then hey—more good games for us. For Tomb Raider, I do hope we get to see some better puzzles, both in the sequel and in the inevitable DLC. And I hope that the next Uncharted game takes some notes from Tomb Raider on characterization and focus, and can manage to open the game up somewhat, too. And maybe add a bow and arrow. I could see Nathan Drake doing some serious damage with a bow and arrow.