I desperately wanted to hate this game.
I've hated Tomb Raider since it arrived in the mid-90s. First, I hated the phoney hype. Sure, it was interesting that the lead character was a woman – that hadn't been done before – but Lara Croft was hardly Emmeline Pankhurst, no matter what the writers at Face magazine claimed to believe. Even worse, though, the game was boring. I detested the plod of the story, the endless scrambling around in dark tunnels and the mind-numbing puzzles, and the Lara Croft character made me cringe, frankly, with disgust: grown men drooled over a collection of pixels arranged into a pretty shape, as the designers made her ever more pneumatic in each sequel. It was as creepy and sad as manga porn. Tomb Raider has always been, for me, a dull platform game tarted up in a Wonderbra.
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But the latest Tomb Raider – the 2013 "reboot" as the PR people would have us call the game – stamps all my prejudices into dust. For the first time in gaming, we have a believable woman as a lead character. In Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls or most of the other bestsellers, the default character is always a man, but you can play as a woman if you wish. In Mass Effect, the storyline gets a wee tweak if you choose to play as female, but all that really means is you get a bit of a lipstick-lesbian cut-scene between the femme Commander Shepherd and one of her crew mates. This didn't really strike a blow against the male hegemony in gaming, in my view. It was a bit of an insult to the many women and girls who play games and expected a sensible representation of a female lead, not some spotty teen's wet dream.
However, Lara in the new Tomb Raider is wholly believable and free from the faults of male fantasy and male gaze. Vulnerable, ballsy, scared, angry, charming: she's a three-dimensional human being and even better than most attempts to create a male lead. Perhaps only John Marston in the classic Red Dead Redemption has more pull when it comes to making the player really feel for the lead character. In the new Tomb Raider, we are back at the very beginning of Lara's story: she's a young graduate on her first archeological expedition and this is the story which changes her into the gun-toting, wall-climbing, ass-beating icon we first met nearly 20 years ago. It's her coming-of-age.
And quite a story it is – for it is the story which sets Tomb Raider up for Game of the Year, and we are only in March. At times, it feels like it owes much to Tobe Hooper's 1970s' horror movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In some early scenes, a lost and terrified Lara has to find her way through an underground maze which we soon learn is some kind of cannibal lair, littered with human bones and weird graffiti.
Within 15 minutes, she is a bloodied, dirty, screaming, hysterical mess. Forget the pristine skin and effortless wiggle of earlier Laras. This one channels the character of Sally, the archetypal last-woman-standing from Hooper's classic. She's a survivor, not a sex symbol. The game then turns into a very dark version of the deliberately strange TV show, Lost. Lara and her team are trapped on a hostile island and have to escape. They aren't just facing some indigenous flesh-eaters, but a group of sadistic paramilitaries up to their own nasty investigations on the island.
In earlier Tomb Raiders, Lara was forever wasting baddies with her pistols and Uzis, but in this new game, it takes a good few hours – or a few days, in terms of the narrative of the game – before she first kills. We are in survival-horror territory, not the repetitive run-and-jump realm of the platform game.
And that first killing is shocking. The player has rooted for a terrified, inexperienced young woman to do her best to survive in a cruel wilderness when suddenly she is confronted not just by death at the hands of a brutal captor, but possibly rape as well. The first kill leaves Lara as horrified by herself as the player. Nice girls don't kill, and she is a good person in this game.
What's even more emotionally affecting are the scenes in which Lara dies. Seeing my heroine murdered in front of me made me genuinely upset. So much for the people who say computer games promote violence: a game like Tomb Raider makes a player positively hate violence – at least when it happens to Lara.
The issue of violence is the one glitch in the storytelling. After facing down the horror of her first act of killing, Lara metamorphoses too quickly into an avenging angel. Rather than slowly build the character into a ruthless assassin, driven to extremes by escalating fear and jeopardy, she starts popping baddies in the head with the relish of a mafia hitman.
If she's not throttling, she's burning, or drilling arrows through the eyes of guards.
Still, the death count is low in comparison to most games, and Lara retains her humanity, vulnerability, self-doubt and depth rather than just becoming another digital murder-machine. And so we follow her from green young woman to the heroine of her group – the only one able or brave enough to take up the task of getting them the hell off the island.
This self-effacing Lara Croft really is a bona fide original – for me she is the first true heroine of computer games, and at last worthy of her star on San Francisco's Walk of Game. Her authentic femininity is what makes this game. If this was a male character in the lead, well, the game would be good, but with a heroine front and centre, it is a masterpiece that I'm delighted to have finally fallen in love with after a courtship of just 17 years.