“Now Lara, take aim, and fire this vaccination arrow through the heart of coronavirus…”

tomb raider

Tomb Raider (2013)

Well, quite a start to the decade we’ve had, eh? Hindsight on 2020 isn’t going to be very fun. Right from the start of the year there was trouble. Sure, some of it was a holdover from 2019, but I’m waiting for some positive news for 2020 here and I just ain’t getting any. First, the Australian forest fires really started to reach, well, I better not say boiling point. But even the poor old koalas, not normally given to movement if they can avoid it, started to run for cover perhaps as a form of lazy protest.

Then there was more silly buggers between the United States and Iran, with the Land of the Free killing a top Iranian general by drone. To add a nice bit of further unrest to your already depressing January, a commercial plane was shot down in Iran the week after, but nobody seems to want to talk about that anymore.

It hasn’t been the only aviation disaster either, since we lost Kobe Bryant and daughter in tragic circumstances, a terrifying helicopter crash – yet another reason, as if I needed one, for me never to set foot on one of those things. In amongst all of this, it seems that after the worst, most prolonged will-they-won’t-they since Ross & Rachel, something called Brexit finally occurred. Or maybe it didn’t, or maybe this is still only Act 4 of a 50 Act drama.

And then, just when we all thought we were safe to resume ignoring the news, a little tinker known as the coronavirus reared its spiky head, and we’ve been unable to talk about anything else. The people that do start talking, tend to start coughing as well so we have to give them a swerve.

I’m careful not to date these pieces too much with events, current or future – a journalist I am not, and it’s nice to have evergreen work. But it looks like coronavirus (or COVID-19 if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) can reasonably be called a seismic event. It’s gotten pretty grisly in the north of Italy, and the US and UK have set themselves up for some pretty rude awakenings. As of now, I’ve been happy enough with the Irish government’s response, but we haven’t gone into any full lockdown just yet, and that’ll be when the real test of mettle begins.

But I tell you, talk about social distancing, I’m at home now and it’s beyond belief how many people seem to want to walk the dogs or go on family walks or have poncy picnics. It’s like the old teenage paranoia all over again – are these people all having parties without me? I’m one of the lucky ones in that I can work from home, and really my routine doesn’t change much.

Stay at home and amuse myself there? Great, and I’ll eat as much as the supermarket can provide as well, thanks very much. I’m too sheltered, you know, and I’m certainly not your man if it’s a supermarket hoarding rush and it’s all come down to the last sliced pan. Then it’s a vicious fight to the finish with Ballyer Auld Wan, who hides considerable strength in her arms as she swings shopping bags down on top of you. No, I haven’t got the stomach for that kind of fight at all.

So that’s 2020 then, a short period of time spent lurching from one disaster to the next. Reminds me greatly of Tomb Raider 2013, a reboot of a world-famous franchise starring she of the triangular boobs, Lara Croft. As her chest got bigger and pointier, her games got more and more mediocre, until it finally warranted that reboot up the bum. Hence we have what immediately looks like an Uncharted clone for PS3, PC and Xbox 360. But spend a bit of time with Tomb Raider and you’ll learn that it’s got a lot more strings to its bow than that.

And in a self-congratulatory way, I’m quite glad I mentioned the bow because it’s probably the most fun weapon to use in this, an action-thriller game with a few horror elements thrown in, plus some stealth if you want it. It takes fresh-faced Lara, 21 and gorgeous, and puts her through an almost sentient island full of fresh hell. Like many third-person games of this nature, it takes quite a few cues from Resident Evil 4. The whole concept is borne out of the Uncharted games. And for the final piece, you’d really have to liken it to the Rambo game you’ve always wanted to play. Never thought you’d see someone draw a comparison between an all-action American male and an awfully posh English girl? Think again.

Tomb Raider’s a tale of mystery, suspense and indeed, Lara’s first murder – you’ll swiftly go on to do a thousand more, via your bow, a pistol, a machine gun, a pickaxe, all your usual staples. In between all that there’s some bookish history lessons on 17th century Japan, delivered to you by the relics and documents you find off the beaten path. You can take down enemy soldiers with a bit of sneaky cunning, which is great when you get that chance because the game does suffer from a bit of that Uncharted rubbish where getting snared by one soldier means everyone gets alerted to your presence and mobilised in nanoseconds. You also start to get the old jelly-firing guns from Uncharted, later in the game.

But guess what, the bow solves both these problems, being able to one-head-shot enemies as quietly as you like, with Zelda-style Fire Arrows as well if you want them. Honestly, the bow solves everything, and I simply love using it in this game. I’m a lot better with a bow in Tomb Raider than I am in real life, I can tell you that much. As in, when I’m not accidentally pointing a loaded bow at my pals behind me, I’m almost apologetically releasing the arrow with such little oomph that it lands softly on the floor rather than getting buried into the awfully big target I was aiming at.

When Lara’s not getting down to gunplay or bowplay with enemies, or speaking with her fellow stranded islanders in the midst of a moderately engaging (though very predictable) plot, the poor girl is just getting thrown about from one spectacular mess to another; if it’s not houses burning down then it’s cliffs collapsing or helicopters crashing or wolves attacking and all before she’s had a chance to sit down and rest. Oddly prescient, then, of year of our lord twenty-twenty. Some of the antagonists even look properly virus-ridden. Frankly I’d call Tomb Raider one of the most exciting games I’ve ever played. Sometimes the action seems non-stop, and you’re always compelled to keep playing on to the next quicksave camp, and once you’ve reached that, you get that “just one more action sequence” feeling that’s hard to shake.

I do like Lara’s characterisation in this game, I must say. Obviously this is an origin story, her first adventure, her first kill, her first lesbian encounter, all that lark. It would have been easy and braindead to go down the feminist, men-can’t-hack-it route. Don’t get me wrong, she’s definitely a bit too much of a superwoman at times – with the jumps she pulls off she’d be far better off in the Olympics – but why is it that some feminist portrayals seek to make the female character openly dismiss what men can do?

The best thing you can do for your female protagonist is to just let her do her thing and rise above stupid gender comparisons. That’s why Samus, Joanna Dark and Chun Li are so celebrated (Metroid: Other M doesn’t count). With 2013’s nu-Lara, Crystal Dynamics have created a proper example of a strong female protagonist, and I mean that in the least patronising way possible.

This feminist victory might be waylaid a little bit by more than a few well-positioned camera shots of Lara’s still-ample chest, sometimes wet. But then, that’s what Tomb Raider’s known for, and long-time fans would’ve been up in arms if they made her an ironing board. So you can’t win there, can you? Anyway, we needed something to cheer us up, because we’ve had one hell of a year so far.

27 March 2020

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