Uncharted Tombs: How Tomb Raider Can Learn From Uncharted

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The reboot of Tomb Raider hits a lot of high notes, but it still trails compared to Uncharted.

For reasons both obvious and unfair, the recent reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise has been compared very closely to the successful Uncharted series. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why – both games center on fearless explorers and treasure hunters, who have a rich history and backstory that indicates they were meant for this life. They both travel to long lost ancient cities in search of priceless artifacts, only to learn that some big evil villain is after the same thing, and they want it for nefarious purposes. Their mission changes from collection to prevention, as this supernatural power that’s been kept hidden from the modern world could, if in the wrong hands, spell doom and despair for the world. Then there’s the practical stuff – both games are third-person, action-oriented games, they each feature a healthy amount of platforming, and both rely on exposition-heavy dialogue to convey their stories.

Where the comparison becomes a bit unfair is that Tomb Raider, an iconic franchise central to the history of the video game industry, is still trying to find its identity, whereas Uncharted is unburdened by the baggage of reboots and icons, and has already established what an Uncharted game is and does. Typically, this compare-and-contrast exercise would end here – Tomb Raider needs time to figure out what it is and how to be successful with that formula, and Uncharted can keep doing its thing. However, with the release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, developer Naughty Dog has definitively said goodbye to Nathan Drake, Sully and Elena, leaving a long-lost civilization-sized hole in the gaming industry. With the success of Uncharted 4, it’s clear that gamers, myself included, are eager to continue travelling around the world in search of mythical artifacts. The reboot of Tomb Raider is in the perfect position to fill that void, and in some ways it has already improved on the formula while also beginning to establish a unique voice and tone. But there are many lessons developer Crystal Dynamics can still learn from Uncharted, a franchise that started out inconsistently and stumbled more than it ran.

Be Like Drake

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If a developer is going to take lessons from any franchise, they could do a lot worse than Uncharted, and not much better.

If I could envision the equivalent of video game hell, it would be a world where every game followed the same cookie-cutter format, even if the template originally started out as a great game. Individuality, diversity, trying new ideas – all of those make any art form great, and seeing the same thing over and over again gets dull very fast. That’s not what I’m arguing for here. Tomb Raider needs to be its own game, make its own impact on the industry. But great developers know to borrow elements from other great games, and incorporate them when it makes the most sense.

Tomb Raider is clearly inspired by Uncharted, and that’s a good thing. Both feature over-the-top set pieces, both see their heroes make gigantic leaps of faith, literally, just barely clinging onto the ledge that leads to certain death below, or glory and fame if they can pull themselves up. When looking at a franchise to emulate, Tomb Raider could do a lot worse, and not much better. Uncharted 4 sold very well, as did its predecessors, some of them even named game of the year for their respective years. It’s not as if the genre has worn out its welcome – Naughty Dog is only ending the adventures of Nathan Drake so they can tell other stories. This leaves the perfect opportunity for Crystal Dynamics to own this space, and there isn’t a better candidate for that than the iconic 1990s heroine, who is poised to usher in a new era of diversity and equal representation.

But that 1990s heroine needs to be updated for a 2016 audience, and to some extent the first two games in the reboot have worked toward that goal. But there are other areas the game could improve, taking in the lessons Uncharted learned the hard way.

A Quick Study

As video games become more cinematic, and more story and character-driven, it’s no longer enough to have a few flashy cutscenes and some decent combat. Developers need to balance story exposition against engagement, while also developing characters and providing a connection between these fictional characters and the real gamers playing them. The next Tomb Raider game will need to focus improvement on four key areas, ones that allowed Naughty Dog to elevate Uncharted above all the other action titles on the market.

Less Watching, More Playing

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Unique, interactive set pieces are what separate standard action titles from the greats.

Combat is not lacking in the new Tomb Raider titles. Lara Croft has plenty of chances to stealth kill enemies with her bow, or fend off bears with a shotgun. But the moments that stick out, the unique action scenes that cannot be replicated again in the game, are kept away from the player in carefully crafted cutscenes. Early in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is at her home, and a masked intruder breaks in and attempts to kill her. Instead of partaking in an intense close-quarters struggle, the player simply watches, controller out of hand, as Lara fends off the intruder. It’s a pretty cutscene, but cutscenes are a dime a dozen, and this one offers little in regards to the player connecting with Lara. Instead of providing another opportunity for Lara and the player to survive all threats (big and small) together, the player simply watches, disconnected from the action.

These are the moments, as Naughty Dog learned, that need to be seized upon. The first Uncharted made the exact same mistake – in one scene, Nathan and Elena engage in a car chase through the jungle. The player is at a mounted machine gun, and must keep the bad guys off them by shooting at them. Things seem to be going well – the pair manage to escape, but not before the road suddenly ends and they find themselves dangling over a cliff. But instead of this being a continuation of the gameplay, the game switches to a cutscene, and gamers watch as Elena conveniently ignores the laws of physics and pulls Nathan back up into the car as if he were a pair of car keys.

This was one of the biggest issues facing the title, and Naughty Dog took steps to correct it. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the game opens up with Nathan, yet again, dangling off the side of a cliff. But there’s no Elena, and this time it’s a train and not a car teetering off the edge. The player must guide Nathan up the side of the train car before it disconnects and crashes down below in a fiery explosion. This moment stands out because it is both a unique action set piece, and the player is in direct control over it. The Uncharted franchise would continue this practice through the rest of the titles, creating some of the most memorable sequences in contemporary gaming.

Unfortunately, not too many of these moments occur in the new Tomb Raider titles, which is a real shame given how great the combat is. More of these moments will help elevate Tomb Raider into a must-play experience, much in the same way Uncharted was when it ended its run.

A Smarter Hero

As a supposed expert historian and treasure hunter, Lara is a real dolt. She sets out on these quests with noble intentions – to clear her father’s name and prove these lost civilizations and artifacts did indeed exist. Doing so requires a level of intelligence that the player is told she possesses, but in practice is one she seems to be lacking. Lara seems to piece together the story along with the player, and knows just as much about these mysteries as the player does. She never leads the player on a journey, never establishes herself as an authority figure. This makes it difficult for the player to take her seriously – she seems to be along for the ride, clueless as to what’s going on around her. This may work for protagonists in certain situations, but it’s not appropriate in a game where the main character relies on her knowledge to navigate these ancient worlds.

Naughty Dog was wise to make Nathan Drake an expert historian – he’s clearly done his homework, and when he ventures into these lost cities, he knows enough to help him figure out what really happened and where the treasure really lies. This knowledge that he shares with the player may be a bit expository, but it helps establish him as someone the player can trust – Nathan is an authority figure and we the players can feel safe following his lead. This allows players to easily connect to him, and makes his flaws all the more glaring and relatable. He may know nearly everything there is to know about Shambhala, but it comes at the cost of putting his closest friends in danger – a struggle that is compelling only because of the expertise Nathan has.

Naughty Dog has faith in the stories of Nathan Drake, and channels that through the main character. Crystal Dynamics needs to follow their lead – a smarter Lara will lead to an authority figure players can connect to, and will enable them to explore any flaws Lara may have as well, making her even more relatable.

Give Lara Some Friends

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Lara Croft needs a companion to share in her adventures, which will help develop the story and raise the stakes.

Throughout the majority of both Tomb Raider titles, Lara makes painfully obvious observations aloud, saying them to no one in particular. Some of these observations are fine – Lara jumps in cold water and remarks how cold she is, which helps provide feedback to the player and also adds to the immersion that Lara is in a harsh environment that can be as lethal as any enemy with a gun. But to better explain the story, and to better explore Lara’s humanity, she needs someone to talk to.

Throughout the Uncharted games, Nathan almost always has someone to talk to, which not only provides an avenue for some witty, funny banter (also known as character development), but enables the player to better explore the story and Nathan’s humanity. These characters become just as important to the story as Nathan – trying to imagine a version of Uncharted without Sully or Elena is depressing, as they’re responsible for some of the best moments in all four games.

I’m not saying that Lara needs a sidekick, but she needs interesting people to talk to during her adventure. Rise of the Tomb Raider makes an attempt at this – in the beginning of the game, Lara is accompanied by her friend Jonah on her expedition. However, the pair are immediately separated, and it’s not until very late in the game that they are reunited. And once they are, for some baffling reason they are separated again. This results in a character so memorable that I had to search Wikipedia to find his name, despite playing Rise of the Tomb Raider for 72 hours.

Nathan Drake didn’t become one of the most beloved characters in modern gaming all on his own, and neither can Lara Croft. By giving her someone to talk to, the franchise can build up memorable characters around Lara, while also providing another avenue to explore the story and Lara’s character.

Ignore the Outside World

This may seem like nitpicking, but every time it occurs in Tomb Raider, it completely takes me out of the moment. Early on in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is seen sifting through a pile of papers, one of which happens to be a fictional newspaper. The front page story of this newspaper? A story on the disgraced treasure hunting Croft family. This is front-page news in England, which means that Rise of the Tomb Raider exists in a world where the comings and goings of historians and treasure seekers are more important than politics, the economy and foreign affairs. This is somehow even more ridiculous than Lara surviving an avalanche just a few scenes later, and it comes across as a cheap shortcut, an attempt to place Lara’s struggles into a greater context. But shortcuts like this stick out when so many other aspects of the game were approached with a great deal of time and attention.

One of the underrated elements of Uncharted that I came to appreciate is that the games clearly exist in the real world, but they remain isolated from it. Nathan Drake does his own thing, as do his enemies, and rarely does the outside world intervene – they are witnesses to the action, and although it affects them, it doesn’t become front page news on newspapers around the globe.

I sincerely hope that Tomb Raider drops the real-world tie-ins, even if they are short and brief. It’s far too jarring, internally inconsistent and unnecessary. The outside world seems boring when compared to the lost cities Lara is exploring, and these games needs to stick to what’s fascinating and not get bogged down in the doldrums of reality.

Standing On Your Own

If it sounds as if the new Tomb Raider games need serious improvements, let me clarify that these are excellent games in their own right. Although they could be more than that, Tomb Raider is already improving on the formula, while also carving out its own identity, which will help it as the franchise moves forward in Uncharted’s place.

Superior Level Design

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The linear level design of Uncharted is great, but a balance between linear and open world design works best for this genre.

Many developers seem to be obsessed with open world gaming these days, but it’s refreshing to see games like Uncharted stick to linear level design that is well balanced and refined. That said, developers should always be balancing what has worked in the past while also looking forward. This is where Tomb Raider shines – it strikes a balance between the linear levels of Uncharted and the open worlds of just about every other game.

Each level in Tomb Raider is semi-open – there are story-related sections that the player must battle through, but they can backtrack and revisit earlier levels by simply going to a bonfire and fast travelling back to any previously completed level. This does, on occasion, present an illogical scenario, where Lara can magically travel back to a section of the world that was connected to the main area via a bridge that collapsed the first time she ventured across it, but this is a rare instance where Crystal Dynamics was wise to ignore logic. Revisiting locations allows for players to explore the world more thoroughly, which presents an opportunity for developers to add to the canon or include more engaging content in areas that would otherwise be ignored or discarded. The Soviet Installation in Rise of the Tomb Raider serves as a hub for not only the story, but can be revisited with tools acquired much later on in the game to unlock more of the area, as well as some interesting side quests. Most impressively, Crystal Dynamics is able to tell a linear story in an open world, and the level design is largely responsible for that accomplishment.

Meaningful Side Quests

In most open world games, side quests are little more than a checklist of chores to complete for a reward – the chore itself is rarely compelling or adds to the world in any significant way. But the side quests in Tomb Raider not only add to the world, but are compelling and fun. Collectibles almost always add a detail or piece of backstory to the world – in this case, the lost cities in both Tomb Raider titles are ones that people have accidentally stumbled across for decades, meaning that Lara can unearth correspondences from pre-World War II soldiers all the way back to Greeks seeking out long lost treasures hundreds of years ago. These collectibles do far more than simply provide a to-do list – they expand the world, and encourage exploration.

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The optional tombs in the new Tomb Raider games are some of the high points.

But the side quests that stand out the most are the tombs. These large, elaborate puzzles are sort of like mini-temples from The Legend of Zelda series – they test the player’s intelligence and observation skills, while also forcing them to use all of the tools they have acquired throughout the game. At the end is a reward that grants a new skill or enhances an already obtained one, but these tombs are so cleverly designed that even without a reward at the end they would still be worth playing. Better yet, they are all optional, which means that they aren’t shoehorned into the story – they exist in the world naturally.

Compelling Combat

Comparing the combat of Tomb Raider to that of Uncharted, it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics improved on the formula. It’s not that Uncharted’s combat is bad – it’s very good run-and-gun, cover-based gameplay, but it hasn’t evolved much since the first entry in the series. Guns are lying around everywhere, as are ammo and grenades, and the player is encouraged to pick it all up, use it all against the new swarm of bad guys, and move on to the next room, where more guns lie conveniently behind more cover.

Because of the semi-open world level design of Tomb Raider, the combat cannot be are linear as it is in Uncharted, which forced Crystal Dynamics to make a combat system in which the player was forced to use all of their tools at their disposal, as well as the environment, to engage the enemy. Combat is much more intense and up close – Lara can jump from a ledge onto an enemy, viciously killing them by plunging her knife into them. Or she can pick them off from shrubs and bushes, one at a time, with either a silenced gun or her bow. There’s a variety to the combat that is simply lacking in Uncharted, and it makes every encounter Lara has feel all the more intense and satisfying when properly executed.

A Strong Sense of Survival

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Tomb Raider throws Lara into harsh environments, and when she survives them she is stronger and better for it.

Where Tomb Raider really makes its mark, and where it finds its own identity, is in the sense of survival. Lara isn’t simply surviving against enemy attacks, she is surviving in a hostile world, against wildlife and the climate. From the beginning, Crystal Dynamics portrayed Lara as someone who will struggle mightily against the challenges in front of her, and her defining character trait isn’t so much in how she deals with those struggles, but in the fact that she overcomes them. Lara is a survivor, and she is not afraid to back down.

Of course, Nathan Drake has to survive some tricky situations, and there is also the fact that both Nathan and Lara sort of put themselves in these scenarios in the first place, but Nathan is defined by the power he exerts while overcoming these obstacles. This is common, as the traditional male power fantasy is what propels most games forward. By casting Lara as a survivor, Crystal Dynamics is able to explore this male power fantasy from another angle, one that I personally find to be far more relatable and intriguing. I don’t always need to play the badass that kicks down the door and uppercuts the villain off a ledge to their doom. I enjoyed playing as the person who, before she could confront the bad guys, had to first build a fire, stay warm and carefully plan her attack. This isn’t to say that Lara is weak and isn’t a badass – if stealth fails, Lara more than holds her own in a fist fight, often with some very brutal results.

More Adventures to Come

Crystal Dynamics should be applauded for the great work they’ve done rebooting one of the most iconic franchises in video game history. Lara Croft is back to being a dominant force on the landscape, and this time her adventures and characterization are better suited for a wider audience. But it would be a shame if the valuable lessons Uncharted provided would be lost as the franchise comes to an end. There’s a lot Tomb Raider can incorporate from Uncharted while still maintaining its own identity. Crystal Dynamics is on the right path, having improved on the combat and level design. Here’s to the next Tomb Raider standing toe-to-toe with the best of the Uncharted franchise, and to more ancient cities and tombs being explored in the coming year.