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Courtesy of Crystal Dynamics

A scene from Tomb Raider, a new game by Crystal Dynamics.

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★★✩✩✩

Tomb Raider

Crystal Dynamics

Square Enix

Released March 2013

For PC, PlayStation 3,
Xbox 360

A couple weeks ago, Nintendo declared that it was going to enforce its copyright over third-party made “Let’s Play” videos, and began demanding ad revenue from the YouTube videos of gamers playing Nintendo games.

The copyright claim sounded excessive to me. I could understand if Paramount Pictures or Warner Brothers took issue with replications of their movies on YouTube, since virtually all of the value derived from such clips would be due to the movie itself, not the person playing it. But games are an interactive medium, and the value of a “Let’s Play” depends quite a bit on how a player chooses to manipulate that medium. At the extreme, sometimes all of the value of watching a game being played is created by the players themselves — no one credits the ancient inventors of chess when two grandmasters produce brilliance on the board.

However, the experience of playing Tomb Raider makes me question the distinction I draw between movies and video games, because at its core, Tomb Raider is really not much more than a long and boring movie, interrupted at times by what amount to annoying DVD menus. A “Let’s Play” of Tomb Raider would be superior in every way to playing the game itself; Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix should get their lawyers on the phone quickly before someone with a copy of the game and frame capture software makes their intellectual property obsolete.

To its credit, Tomb Raider gets one thing right: the graphics are amazing. With the settings cranked up to 11, the game delivers Crysis-quality visuals, and even on low settings yields something reasonably impressive. Of course, given that most of what you look at in the game is the body of a young Lara Croft, the quality of graphics makes one wonder if the game is a merely a thinly-veiled exercise in ephebophilia, to which I think the rational response is: obviously. The game might be swimming in a pool of insipid mediocrity, but no one should accuse the developers of not understanding their target audience.

Everything else about the game rates between average and bad. The gameplay consists of almost nothing but obnoxious quicktime events and a disjointed string of various bland game mechanics, suddenly introduced and then just as quickly dropped. It is ostensibly an RPG, but the only things you can level up are related to the grab-bag of game mechanics, meaning that most of the time you’re just randomly assigning your points to things like “Improved Underwater Basket Weaving,” and hoping that the next section is the water level where Lara has to please an audience of basket critics. At first glance, the game feels like an open world, but it doesn’t take long to realize you’re just traveling on rails for ten hours through a couple dozen levels.

The plot, voice acting, and writing are an improvement over the gameplay, but not by any great stretch. I guessed about 90% of the game’s plot within the first thirty minutes, with most of the rest becoming obvious in the next few hours. The script and acting are fine, but don’t really stand out. It’s hard to connect to Lara as a character, and the game doesn’t present anyone else to get attached to. Sometimes a game gets carried by its gameplay, sometimes it gets carried by its plot — Tomb Raider has the sort of plot that could get carried if it were a fun game, and the sort of gameplay that couldn’t get carried if its life depended on it.

There comes a point in in the spectrum between video games and visual media where it’s hard to distinguish between the two. I don’t think this is a bad thing, but games like Tomb Raider that occupy this point have to contend with competition from movies and TV series that should give them pause. How does the 10-hour Tomb Raider movie compare with, say, the The Hobbit trilogy? How does it compare with the latest season of Game of Thrones? And given this comparison, can you really ask $60 for the game while Mr. Peter Jackson is undercutting you? Does it make sense to spend $100 million dollars to make the game, when HBO can produce a GoT season for $60 million?

Don’t buy Tomb Raider. If you really feel the need to experience it, go watch someone play it on YouTube. But don’t be shocked if Square Enix ads play between acts — this is one of the unfortunate instances in which copyright claims would have substance to them.