Little more than an unrealistically-proportioned male fantasy in her original 90s incarnation - a polygonal sex object randy teenagers were desperate to see in the buff - it didn't come as much of a surprise when Tomb Raider and Lara Croft’s stock began to fall dramatically during the early-mid 2000's, as a raft of lacklustre sequels and ill-conceived movie tie-ins failed to build upon the flawed foundations of these early titles and simply couldn't keep up with an ever-maturing medium.
It was a sad turn of events for a series that, despite the crass portrayal of its leading lady, was beloved by many.
Tomb Raider 2013 and its equally impressive sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider may not have been entirely original narratively or mechanically, borrowing heavily from Naughty Dog's Uncharted series - well, turnabout is fair play, as they say. However, in a younger, less experienced Lara Croft, the rebooted franchise had one of the most compelling and original protagonists of recent times.
A new and improved Lara for a new and improved Tomb Raider
No longer the cock-sure, tank-top-wearing heroine of the earlier games who'd leap around levels like a heavily-caffeinated circus performer gunning down everything that moved with all the emotional detachment of a serial killer, Lara was naïve and uncertain, yet resourceful, resilient, and determined. A complex, well-rounded character whose actions carried a perceptible emotional weight, lending a degree of authenticity to her experiences that, as great as Nathan Drake is, wasn't present in her PlayStation-exclusive rival.
Nate could plough through a battalion of faceless mercenaries and, even with the stench of his enemy's sweat and fear still burning in his nostrils, indulge in a spot of light-hearted banter with Elena or Sully as soon as the danger had passed; punctuating their plans for the next leg of the journey with the kind of glib remarks James Bond would be proud of.
At no point over the course of his five adventures does Drake show any remorse for the people he kills or exhibits any kind of psychological trauma as a result of his sanguinary style of treasure hunting. In fact, the only time we saw anything approaching an introspective or troubled side to his personality is when his marriage is on the line or he starts dwelling on the consequences of failing to stop his latest megalomaniacal foe from using the ancient artifact he seeks to take over the world.
He's still one of the most charismatic and eminently likable characters of the modern era: the video game equivalent of Indiana Jones (another adventurer who doesn't seem the least bit perturbed by the myriad lives he's ended). Likewise, Naughty Dog remains a standard bearer for narrative excellence in video games. The crucial difference is that Lara's experiences, specifically the way she processes and reacts to them, is more recognizably human and therefore that much more believable and rewarding for the player.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes combat to the next level
What does all this have to do with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I hear you ask? Well, based on the gameplay demonstration we saw at E3, it seems the liquid smooth character arc I've spent the last few paragraphs celebrating has suffered a rather jarring bump.
In ten-short minutes of gameplay, we see Lara dispatch about a dozen enemy NPCs with the kind of ruthless efficiency you'd expect to see from Ezio Auditore or Agent 47, not a young adventurer with a passion for history. She silently slits the throat of one unfortunate mercenary before retreating into the underbrush, for example, sets a group of three alight with a conveniently-placed jerry can full of petrol, and, in one notable scene, channels her inner predator and strings up another faceless goon in the jungle canopy.
The uncertainty she displayed in comparable combat scenarios from the previous two games appears all but gone, which, admittedly, makes a certain amount of sense given her recent experiences. The issue I have is Lara no longer seems to view violence as a distasteful but necessary part of her job; something ugly and traumatic she takes absolutely no pleasure in.
Now, I hope I'm simply reading too much into a short section of gameplay that was no doubt chosen specifically to entice players into parting with their hard-earned cash when Shadow of the Tomb Raider releases on the 14th September. And that, in the finished article, developer Eidos Montreal works hard to contextualize sections of extreme violence like the one described above, whilst also revealing some semblance of the emotional impact Lara's actions have on her psyche.
However, it worries me that Eidos opted for this level of lethality in the first place: I mean, why couldn't Lara simply render her enemies unconscious or avoid them altogether, instead of thrusting a dagger into their throats or burning them alive?
So, while Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks every bit as deep and entertaining as Senior Game Director Daniel Chayer-Bisson promised from a mechanical standpoint, I'm more than a little concerned that Lara's development has been derailed in the process, turning her into just another action hero.