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Tomb Raider has forgotten how to provide guilt-free murder

When 2013’s Tomb Raider did it perfectly

Shadow of the Tomb Raider - Lara aiming her bow at some enemies in the jungle Eidos Montreal/Square Enix
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a fun game, but as many critics and reviewers have noticed (our own Chris Plante among them), it makes things awkward by pointing fingers at the messy implicit messages of its own genre.

The game makes sure to show the player realistically drawn Mexican and Peruvian communities whose history and artifacts have been plundered and suppressed by cultural and capitalistic oppressors for centuries — but then you turn a corner into an ancient hidden city whose citizens speak decent English and follow a mishmash of pre-colonial South and Central American beliefs. The moments of realism wind up highlighting all the ways in which Shadow of the Tomb Raider ultimately doesn’t want you to take what you’re doing that seriously.

Especially not all the murder.

It’s not hard to set up some simple world-building that allows for guilt-free 100 percent instant murder of all enemies, even in the year 2018. And it’s ironic that Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t manage to do it, because 2013’s Tomb Raider did it perfectly.

Tomb Raider is all about survival. There are no lofty goals, no ethical doubts about whether Lara is blinded by obsession — you’re trapped on an island inhabited only by death cultists, and if you don’t kill them, you and all of your friends will die there. Your ethical maxim is “I deserve to live.” But Tomb Raider goes a step further than that, even. You know the cult of Yamatai is populated by sailors who ran aground — it’s possible that some of those men are survivors just like Lara.

So almost the first thing you do in the game is crawl through the bloody maze of caves that the cult uses as a proving ground. Tomb Raider shows you that all the island’s castaways get tossed into these caves, along with not enough food and not enough weapons. The people who are allowed to join the cult are those who were willing to kill their fellow castaways to survive. Every enemy cultist you encounter is, without exception, a murderer and a betrayer.

In this way, the proving caves accomplish another important narrative goal: They set up a clear line between Lara and the game’s villains. Both parties raid tombs and kill to survive, but escaping Yamatai means nothing to Lara without her friends.

Compare that to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, where, in the name of stopping the bad guys, the first thing Lara does is steal an artifact, which inadvertently murders everyone in an innocent Mexican community. Then she runs off in pursuit of another artifact — exactly the thing that she’s trying to stop the bad guys from doing.

And the bad guys? In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Trinity is all tell and no show. We’re expected to remember the bad things they’ve done in the previous games, but in practice, their exalted leader appears to care more about the innocents around him than Lara does. The handy numbers on my save file say 39 percent, and I haven’t seen a Trinity mook do so much as kick a dog yet. You can’t make your bad guys bad solely through collectible text files.

“Am I doing bad by trying to do good?” is a delicious tension in many games — take the entire Dragon Age series as an example — but when the game’s only method of moving the story forward is killing everyone you come across, it becomes less of a fun tension and more of an immediate concern. Shadow of the Tomb Raider raises that tension by consistently including realistic elements, but doesn’t actually change the major mechanics of its genre to match.

Partly, this is a natural consequence of wanting to increase the stakes and embiggen the setting of the next game in a franchise, and it’s not unique to Tomb Raider. It also happened in Rocksteady Studios’ Arkham games. We began on a small island that was established as inhabited only by convicted criminals (sounds familiar). But by the end, we got a game where we all pretended that electrical force could save an alleged-but-untried-or-even-arrested gang member from being seriously injured in high-speed collision with a tank.

Batman: Arkham Knight - Batmobile in rain Rocksteady Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

This byproduct of escalation was already beginning in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but was mitigated by the game being more removed from actual history. The secret civilization that Lara infiltrated in Rise of the Tomb Raider was essentially “Gnostic Christians with the serial numbers rubbed off” inside a crunchy shell of Russian folklore.

But Shadow of the Tomb Raider casts the franchise in a much harsher light. We watch the real consequences Lara’s quest has on already battered communities. We watch her plunder the mysteries of an ancient civilization to save “the world,” while her actions destroy the the stability of the actual descendants of that civilization.

And when a game makes you think about the consequences of your tomb raiding, you’re going to start thinking about the consequences of your murdering as well. The first time I garroted a low-level Trinity merc in Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Peruvian jungle, I thought to myself: Surely some of these guys are just here for the paycheck?

And it made me miss the days of booting up Tomb Raider to feel like a consequence-free badass.

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