Eidos has now made plain its desire to revise Lara Croft and the overall "look and play" of the Tomb Raider series after the latest installment, Tomb Raider: Underworld, underperformed in sales. In a recent BBC article, Eidos tossed around ideas like making Lara more "female-friendly" or giving the whole franchise a facelift in the style of Batman Begins. What's wrong with the series has nothing to do with Lara as a character or the tone of the series, though.
Lara's by no means perfect. Though she's an ass-kicking treasure hunter who relies on her own wits and strength to survive, it's true that she's not the most "female-friendly" character ever devised. Everything about her look is designed for the enjoyment of a male audience - she has a body that would make Barbie jealous and she does most of her treasure-hunting in short-shorts and a tank top. Some might also take exception to the fact that she's an heiress rather than someone who supports herself financially. Still, I have trouble believing that women would suddenly be taken with the series if Croft were a self-made women with a more realistic figure.
Likewise, I don't think revising up the series' plot or tone would suddenly renew gamers' interest in the series. Granted, all the storylines follow more or less the same formula - Lara going off to find some forgotten relic - but there's not many other reasons why someone would go off and raid tombs. The simple, escapist premise is fine and doesn't need to be rethought. It's baffling Eidos would even consider a reboot, though. They've already tried that twice with Tomb Raider by my count. Core Design attempted to make the series grittier and darker with Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness and the game tanked so badly that Eidos took the series away from them and gave it to Crystal Dynamics. Crystal Dynamics' first outing, Tomb Raider: Legend, was a reboot of the series' story and fared better than Darkness but still didn't reach the level of acclaim that the first two games in the series did. Legend's relative success really had little to do with its story, though; in fact, some might argue that Darkness had a stronger plot. Why'd Legend manage to do well, then? Gameplay.
Tomb Raider isn't on the decline because Lara Croft isn't appealing to females or the story isn't developed enough. While either of those criticisms might be true, the real reason people have soured on Tomb Raider is the fact that the gameplay sucks. When it comes to action games, a terrible story or main character can be forgiven if the gameplay is good. In fact, if you were to compile a list of your top ten favorite action games, I would guess that almost all of them have shitty storylines filled with space marines, zombie invasions, and mushroom-popping plumbers. But that's okay, because all a game needs to do is be fun to play. However, the reverse situation - having a good story and characters but crappy gameplay - isn't good.
Crystal Dynamics' second Tomb Raider game, Underworld, sold less than expected (as previously stated) and has a Metacritic score 5-7 points lower than Legend (depending on what version). The reason for the drop-off between the two games is the same reason that the series has been on a decline since the first two installments in the mid-nineties: the sequels fail to improve the gameplay. A sequel might introduce a new move for Lara ("Hey, she can crawl now!") or a new weapon but ultimately the core gameplay of Underworld is the same as that of the original Tomb Raider from over a decade earlier.
While yes, the original Tomb Raider was a success because of that gameplay, you can't skate by on the same tricks for that long without people getting bored. I'm not suggesting that the series change from its traditional emphasis on traversing through forgotten tombs and caverns through a mixture of puzzles, platforming, and combat - I'm just suggesting Crystal Dynamics find a better way to execute this gameplay. Isn't it time to finally make the combat mechanics not suck? Since 1996, all you've had to do is hold down the "target" button, hold down the "fire" button, and then hop around in circles until every bat/spider/wolf in the room is dead. Also, it'd be swell to play a Tomb Raider game where the camera wasn't balls terrible. I've jumped to my death too many times because I couldn't swing the stubborn camera around to show the five feet in front of my character's face. This is the kind of crap that players have gotten tired of - not Lara's unreasonable measurements or the formulaic storylines.
It's worth noting that the BBC article that spurred this rant didn't interview anyone from Crystal Dynamics and the person who first brought up The Dark Knight was actually the Chief Financial Officer of Eidos. It's possible Crystal Dynamics has a lot of ideas for revamping the gameplay for the next Tomb Raider game. Still, Eidos has been with Tomb Raider since the beginning and should know by now that small superficial changes aren't what is needed to revive this series. Hopefully they'll give Crystal Dynamics the freedom and time to implement deep changes to the gameplay, rather than telling them to simply reduce Lara's bust size so they can churn out a new Tomb Raider for next Christmas.