Lara Takes A Level in Motorcycle Abuse
I’ve always liked this cutscene: it walks a nice line between being action-packed excitement and completely over-the-moon ridiculous. Lara’s heroics here may seem a bit unlikely, but they’re not completely implausible, which is really all I ask.
I have to confess that I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable with the way this FMV begins though; not only should Lara know better than to head directly into the sun without sunglasses (which we know she has), but it looks like someone’s about to jostle her chest when she gets grabbed. Now, I’m not casting aspersions on the moral character of the Cowboy, Skater Kid and Shotgun Man; I’m sure they’re perfectly nice henchmen who
don’t go around groping pretty noblewomen all day, err probably. But the artists made her boobs so incredibly huge in these cutscenes, it’s kind of hard to avoid; you’re probably in danger of elbowing this Lara model’s boobs if you’re anywhere within ten feet of her.
The dialogue from everyone but Lara has always seemed very stilted and strange to me though; there’s weird slang (since when is a backpack called a “lunch box?”), and Natla’s comment about Larson “sucking wind” sounds to me like they wanted to leave it ambivalent as to whether or not Lara actually killed him. Why? He’s dead, Jim.
However, I do very much like the fact that Natla directs her thugs to kill Lara IMMEDIATELY upon receiving the scion; that places her in a high tier of video game villains, a.k.a. the practical ones. I also find Lara’s escape reasonable; the henchmen obviously weren’t prepared to kill her immediately, and their confusion gave her the few seconds she needed to make a run for it; I can accept a narrow escape much better when the scene isn’t dragged out, as these things often are.
Naturally, this all leads to a daring motorcycle dive, and waking up in Natla’s Mines without your pistols. I have to admit, as inventive as this twist was at the time I kind of wish that losing your weapons had not become an institution in subsequent games, because it rapidly became predictable and tedious.
Natla’s Mines: Source of “Bad Tomb Raider Questions”
I’ve been dreading getting up to this level for a while because if I write down what’s going on here in general terms- the surprising weapon loss, transitioning from the mundane world of the mines to the sultry, lava-soaked inferno where the Atalantean pyramid lies, the three (!) mini-bosses- it sounds absolutely brilliant, however in practice I always find it mildly excruciating to play.
Why excruciating? Well, there’s entirely too much repetitive running back and forth in the beginning, entirely too many sudden traps that can kill you easily far between save crystals, too many oblique puzzle solutions, and perhaps most importantly, the overall logic of Tomb Raider starts to break down for me here.
What does this mean? Well, for example, when going through the elaborate puzzle that enables Lara to reclaim her pistols, I find myself thinking “Why did they put the pistols in an empty house suspended over the mines? Why didn’t they just put them in a safe or something? Furthermore, why would they move these three fuses to such ridiculous and arbitrary places?” These are Bad Tomb Raider Questions, or questions you start to ask when the game isn’t suitably immersive to make you feel as though you’re part of a living environment, but just an automaton that has to put item A in slot B to progress.
Now, you can make the argument that every level is a possible source of Bad Tomb Raider Questions (and for people who aren’t willing to buy into the fantasy world the environments suggest, they probably are); the “logic” behind a lot of these puzzles is questionable to the extreme. However, I want to make the point that the modern environments in the Tomb Raider games- of which Natla’s Mines is the first, and perhaps the best example- suffer from this much more than the tomb-based environments.
The thing with tombs is they are actually supposed to be puzzles; how many real-life tombs actually contained traps and puzzle elements I don’t know, but even if the idea of the trap-filled tomb is 95% fictional, I’m going to assume that idea came from something real. Tombs are puzzles constructed by people who didn’t have the technology to create electronically-locked safes with security cameras to protect their precious stuff. When you go through a puzzle in a tomb, whether it’s “realistic” or not, it always makes sense on a very basic level; this is something that was designed to keep people out, except, perhaps, the rightful heir; the reason why there’s a solution at all. The puzzles have a reason for being.
Then, you get up to Natla’s Mines, and you just have to start wondering why Natla- who is the CEO of a TECHNOLOGY company, I might add- doesn’t just put Lara’s pistols in a really nice safe somewhere. Or, why any self-respecting mine operation would be set up the way these mines are, with fuses hidden in rocky crags behind boulders. The answer, of course, is that you’re playing a video game and these are obstacles very deliberately placed in front of you; it’s not that we didn’t already know this, but having it made so obvious has always kind of broke the magic of the game for me, just a little bit.
Introducing The “I Have a Job!” Principle of Tomb Raider Pixel-Hunting
Confession time again: This was the first, and if memory serves, only level that caused me to break down and call the Eidos Hotline to figure out what I needed to do next.
For those that don’t remember those dark days before widespread internet, Tomb Raider actually came out before most people had online access in their homes- I don’t think we even got a dial-up connection until two or three years after I first played the game (in fairness, I could have found the solution online at the library at my school, but I wasn’t that smart back then I guess.) Anyway, without easy online access and no way to drive to a bookstore and buy a strategy guide, the only alternative for me was to call the Eidos Hotline, which featured a silky-voiced narratrix basically reading a pre-recorded walkthrough over the phone.
The catch: The Eidos Hotline cost like $1.95 a minute. It was an awkward moment when my parents became aware of this.
Still, I don’t necessarily regret calling the hotline, because I’m not sure I ever would have beat the level without it. After looking for a way to get the third fuse off of the conveyor belt for days, I finally threw down my controller and said “Dammit, I don’t have time for this, I have HOMEWORK!” and gave in. The hotline revealed the location of the hole in the ceiling in front of the motor (before the fight with the Cowboy guy), which featured the lever you needed to pull to get the third fuse. Relieved, I got the third fuse and retrieved my pistols…only to get stuck in the golden-colored hallways towards the end of the level. Another $1.95 was quickly spent.
Still, that was years ago, right? I have like ten years more gaming experience now; surely, my playing of the level went much more smoothly this time around?
Not so much; I remembered there was an annoying switch tucked away somewhere that was hard to find, but I didn’t remember specifically where it was, and ran into the exact same problem my teen-aged self did. Unwilling to check every pixel to find the solution, I threw down the controller saying “Dammit, I don’t have time for this- I have A JOB!” and looked up where it was. I also encountered a problem in the golden hallway area, although not the exact same one from years ago; I’m not sure if that makes it any less embarrassing.
While I know plenty of gamers have gotten through those sections without needing help of any kind, I still think they’re both annoyingly random- I always miss that hole in the ceiling because it looks like it has no business being there, and you can’t see it unless you specifically look up from under it. And the ending section with the gold blocks is just general-purpose annoying.
Now, if I swore off walkthroughs and just was willing to analyze EVERY SINGLE ROOM of the level every which way, yeah- I eventually would have figured this out by myself. And maybe, after several hours, that would have been a uniquely satisfying experience. However, I just can’t afford to do that; after all, I have a job.
If there was some kind of award for “The Most Out-of-Place-Room in a Videogame Ever,” the inexplicable skateboard park featured in this level would take the gold. I mean, can anyone think of any vaguely plausible reason why this is here? It’s not even like it’s an area in the mines where it might be cool to skateboard, it’s a literal skateboard park…with lava.
I think it’s time for another one of my experimental Tomb Raider theories: I think Skateboard Kid is Natla’s son. I think he was like “Mom, can we put a skateboard park in the mines so I can have fun in between beating up all of the miners?”, and at first she was like “No, that’s asinine,” but he kept whining, so she eventually gave in. It’s completely arbitrary and stupid because it’s the result of an arbitrary boy’s whim.
Now you might think “Hang on, Karen- saying Natla had a son is kind of a big deal! Wouldn’t she be kind of pissed that Lara shoots him? Like, to the point where she might actually mention it later?” I doubt it- remember, our Natla is very into the dark side of Darwinism, as we shall soon see in the next level- if he couldn’t survive, well in Natla’s opinion that means he didn’t deserve to survive, right?
That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it until someone comes up with a better reason why there’s a skate park in the middle of some kind of industrial mineral mine- so in other words, forever.
It’s a great feeling when you finally get Lara’s pistols back and move on, ready to kick tail and take names like a proper tomb raider again, however I think that moment is only so satisfying by virtue of the beginning of the level being so damn annoying. Therefore, the best part is more likely when you leave the mine area proper and get to the river of lava, and realize just how deep this particular rabbit hole is about to go.
In case there was any remaining doubt, the three fuses puzzle in its entirety is just too irritating for words. Having to go back and forth across the small lake a dozen times, flipping randomly-placed switches, feels like a parody of a tomb raider puzzle. The most nasty bit of it is the conveyor belt, since it looks for all the world like Lara should just be able to stick her arm in there and grab the stupid fuse already. I actually like the ambiance of the lake area a lot, which mitigates my issues with the beginning of the level a bit, but still…arrrrgh.
Rating: Three Uzi Clips Out of Five
This is a tough one; based on just how much is going on in this level, and how incredibly creative, ambitious and daring it is, it could be five-uzi clipper material. The execution, however, does not live up to the ideas the way it could, and should garner a significantly lower rating. I figured I’d pick three as a kind of average of those two considerations, although lord knows, with the frustration this level has caused, maybe I’m being too generous?
All the combat I can usually take or leave, only now we’re in some bizarre hell dimension and Tomb Raider becomes some pretty amazing nightmare fuel, and for reasons mostly intentional.
(Screenshots in this post have been taken with permission from Katie’s Tomb Raider Screenshots.)