The Tomb Raider series has always incorporated combat in some capacity. From shooting dinosaurs in the original Tomb Raider all the way up to engaging entire armies over the course of the reboot games, Lara is no stranger to death and destruction. The reboot series in particular has made extensive use of combat in its entries, turning Lara into a combatant capable of overwhelming teams of fully-trained and equipped soldiers. It’s a stretch, but then the Tomb Raider games have never been about being 100 percent realistic. Even so, one can’t help but wonder if the series might be better-off without it, fun and exciting as it is.
The combat in the most recent Tomb Raider games is quite fun. Sniping enemies with the bow has been satisfying ever since the series was first rebooted in 2013 and there’s there’s something about quietly eliminating a roomful of enemies one at a time that just never gets old. Combat in these games works well, but this success has also split Lara into two separate characters whose differences cannot be easily reconciled.
On one hand stands researcher Lara Croft. This is the woman whom the game introduces as the true tomb raider. She’s the one desperately trying to piece together the mysteries of the past, solving puzzles, climbing around tombs, translating ancient tablets and trying to stay one step ahead of the sinister Trinity organization. She’s a strong, intelligent and driven woman who cares for her friends and always carries a strong moral compass with her. She’s a character with easily understood motives and who’s generally likable and fun to adventure with.
On the other hand, however, we have expert combatant Lara Croft. This woman shows no mercy to the enemies that cross her path and she seemingly has no qualms whatsoever about dispatching them, often doing so brutally. She’s perfectly comfortable blasting them apart, stringing them up, throwing them off cliffs or even just stabbing them with her climbing axes for doing little more than their existing between her and the path forward. She’s totally calm about it too, to the point where if she weren’t the main character of this story, she’d probably be the villain. She might as well be a different character entirely for all the similarity she shares with her non-combatant self.
For their part, the games mostly ignore this. The instant combat is over, combat Lara departs and researcher Lara returns to exhibit a horrified reaction to the mutilated bodies in the next room. It doesn’t exactly work per se because the disconnect between the two characters is never actually resolved, but it smooths things over enough that the story can continue without the player getting completely hung up on it. Still, one can’t help but think that these games might have been stronger overall had they not placed so much emphasis on the combat.
Again, the combat in recent Tomb Raider games is fun and Crystal Dynamics is to be commended for how well it works, but it’s never felt necessary. The most interesting part of these games has always been exploring their environments and tombs. The expert level design and wonderful detail underpinning these elements has always made getting to the next one an exciting prospect, so much so that the combat can sometimes be regarded as an unwanted interruption. This combined with the dissonance the combat has created within Lara’s character leads one to wonder just how necessary the combat is to the overall experience offered by the series.
Combat in the recent Tomb Raider games occupies a strange place in the series. It’s fun and well executed, but often not to the point that players would choose it over solving the games’ tombs and exploring their beautifully-rendered worlds. The player’s capabilities within the combat are varied and satisfying, but enjoying them requires a character that exists outside Lara’s normal persona. Modern Tomb Raider wouldn’t be what it is without its excellent combat system, but perhaps it might become even better if that system is de-emphasized in favor of more tomb raiding in the next entry. If that’s not viable, then perhaps Lara could at least react to the things she’s forced to do. It’s disorienting having to play as two versions of the same person, after all.