15 December, 2015

Review – Rise of the Tomb Raider

You wouldn’t believe how many times Lara forgot to jump over spike pits, drowned in depths of submerged caves, and had murderous run-ins with woodland predators who exhibited an unhealthy fascination with her throat, over the course of this review process. No, I totally was not the one at fault here; my gameplay was flawless throughout, but feel free to donate whatever ancient Byzantine coins you can spare to her recovery fund…

Review Rise of the Tomb Raider banner

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Lara Croft’s back with more voluminous hair and practical clothing than ever before! What’s more she’s not impelled by fear, or being battered by unwashed feral men and the unforgiving elements alike; no, Lara’s grown up, she’s driven by her thirst for knowledge, and there’s no situation she can’t take in her stride.

In Crystal Dynamic’s 2013 game simply titled, Tomb Raider, Lara found herself shipwrecked on an island that was hostile in every conceivable way, and a few inconceivable ones too. Over the last two years I unwittingly came into possession of at least four, quite possibly five copies of the game for various platforms, but it wasn’t until just a couple of weeks ago that I actually played it to completion. Had that game released this year, it would have stood a good chance of being my personal game of the year; while I can understand the misgivings some have towards how game treated Lara, I found the whole experience refreshing; violent and uncomfortable, but refreshing. With that, all my previous disinterest in Rise of the Tomb Raider vanished like parchment held to an open flame, I simply had to play and review this title before any such game of the year conversations could take place.

Rise of the Tomb Raider geothermal valley

Rise of the Tomb Raider exposed, almost immediately a flaw in the 2013 Tomb Raider experience, a flaw I hadn’t noticed, because it had been years since I had lasted played a Tomb Raider title. In fact it’s quite possible that the last time I had ran Lara off a cliff was on the PlayStation 2. 2013 Tomb Raider lacked the wide-eyed sense of exploration, of historical wonder and path-finding that defined Tomb Raider, and indeed other PlayStation 2 era action-platforming titles that informed so much of my childhood. Those games were not wide or open rather they were unswervingly linear, just as much of 2013 Tomb Raider is and parts of Rise of The Tomb Raider are, but in those titles Lara was venturing; encountering and overcoming new environments and ancient traps. 2013 Tomb Raider possessed elements of that, but behind every interaction, every footstep was the threat of the island dwellers – historical discoveries were only ever window dressing, Lara’s survival was the challenge. Rise of the Tomb Raider has a little of that early on, but within the first hour I was solving water puzzles, which loosely translates to be pummelled by a warm torrent of nostalgia for an experience I hadn’t consciously been aware of.

Without revealing too much of the plot, Lara’s on the hunt for answers to a mystery that ruined her father’s reputation, and eventually, his life. She’s not alone in her search, though those who pursue that same mystery are certainly not her allies. They’re called Trinity, they are in essence Dan Brown-inspired religious nutjobs, with a vast reserve of hapless mercenaries, who coincidentally have a fetish for red emergency flares. The Trinity forces are led by one particularly warped gentleman called Konstantin, who considers himself to be ‘chosen’, his path preordained.

Rise of the Tomb Raider trinity attack

The story is fleshed out by scrolls, journals, narrated by the people who penned them, and artefacts, described by Lara. Unlike many games, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s ancillary texts are fascinating to me. They aren’t written as if directed to the player, they feel authentic and tell several different side stories, all in their own way related to the main plot; a Trinity mercenary’s dawning comprehension, a Soviet commander’s isolated dispatches, a Byzantine knight on the hunt. I found myself drawn to the environment’s hidden pockets of history, in an attempt to gain greater insight into how the mystery impacted so very many different people, fortunately there is an abundance heralding from more than one of Earth’s eras.

The environments are as beautiful and perhaps more varied than 2013 Tomb Raider’s, certainly boasting a level of detail and richness beyond its predecessor, an impressive feat given its increased open-world nature. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s world reminded me of Dragon Age Inquisition, a game I spent days exploring, though this title’s areas are significantly smaller, the explorative experiences far denser and more vertical. In its open environments Rise of the Tomb Raider hides optional tombs, these are quite unique in their architecture and constructed around a single different puzzle. The puzzles are usually not too difficult or involved, but I found them extremely rewarding. Each is the most distilled form of that exploration, challenge, and solution loop that I highlighted earlier, and I believe the relative simplicity is part of that loop’s success; frustration would only detract from the awe of gazing at the richness of the spaces and tentatively working through the necessary steps.

Rise of the Tomb Raider ice siberia

Rise of the Tomb Raider expands the gameplay options of its predecessor, but functionally the tools are much the same. The levelling and weapon upgrade systems have grown, but are otherwise unchanged. Primary movement entails miles of interlinked ropes and a healthy helping of scalable walls, Lara possesses a couple of new gadgets, but the fundamentals are as they were. However, two factors elevate the gameplay above that of 2013 Tomb Raider. Firstly, the open world is fully featured and meaningful here; open zones offer side quests, house the aforementioned tombs in addition to other secrets, and moving around them a lot of fun. I never felt rushed like in the previous game, I just wanted to see everything, the open areas aren’t sprawling like other games’, but they are filled with substantially rewards and locales worth discovering. Secondly, the environmental puzzles and platforming, even outside of the tombs, flow in more interesting and varied directions than before. These elements are integrated naturally; Lara uses her skills and gadgets for more than mere traversal in this game. 

Rise of the Tomb Raider dead soviets

My issues are small, but they scar the otherwise virtually flawless complexion of Rise of the Tomb Raider. On normal difficulty, dubbed “Tomb Raider”, or the two levels above, aim-assist is disabled and cannot be re-enabled from the options menu, as far as I can tell. This does indeed make the game harder, the gunplay more jerky and unwieldy, which is a bad feel for a console game; I’m not dying all that often on normal, at least not in gunfights, but I am correcting my aim more than is enjoyable. This may have also been true for 2013 Tomb Raider, but I played on the PC with a keyboard and mouse, so had no trouble lining up headshots.

More significant is the bizarre way the game handles natives; all natives whether Syrian or Siberian speak perfect, modern English with no accent. It’s downright abrasive considering the lengths the game goes to establish meaningful gulfs in cultural identity; Lara even levels up her ability to read different languages by interacting with texts and murals in the environment. It is easily the game’s greatest failure in my eye, because Rise of the Tomb Raider succeeds in translating culture and history so well elsewhere, capturing that which the Assassin’s Creed series does when at its best.

Rise of the Tomb Raider syria ruins

Multiplayer is a little different in Rise of the Tomb Raider, unlike 2013 this game’s multiplayer isn’t competitive, actually you’ll never meet another player; its leader board-driven, though there are more meaningful interactions. Each level, or more precisely area in the campaign is scored and they can be replayed to improve that score, or replayed as ‘Elite’, allowing Lara to retain her skills and equipment, regardless of what she should have at the time. There’s also score attack that introduces additional scoring systems into the campaign, but more interesting is the Remnant Resistance mode, which drops Lara into an open area with squads of enemies and a series of simple objectives to complete. Remnant Resistance matches can be created by other players, who decide their composition and thus the reward for completing them. Lara’s gear, abilities, and match modifiers are determined by cards, unlocked through packs using credits. Credits are earned by playing the game, including the campaign, or of course by purchasing them with real money. I didn’t spend a lot of time with these modes; they certainly add replayability, in an interesting way in the case of the Remnant Resistance. Had I exhausted the open-world side activities and explored all I could, then I may have played more, for what it’s worth, I didn’t find the microtransactions particularly egregious.

As you well know from my incessant gushing and the embedded images, the game looks stunning in all counts, it succeeds on both a macro and micro scale. The environmental construction is sublime; large environments are visually astonishing, whether overlooking them from a vantage point, or picking through the undergrowth at ground level.  But the small areas, the more linear paths that link the larger pieces or the tombs, should not be overlooked either; they’re exciting for quite different reasons. The dusty corridors of catacombs, the crumbling remains of a Uranium mine, or quite simple a flooded section of cave; each is vivid in its own way and equally flattered by the warm light of Lara’s glow sticks.

Rise of the Tomb Raider lara croft face night

However, even the detail of the smaller environments is large in construction, when I talk of the Rise of the Tomb Raider’s micro details we have to look closer, at Lara and the other important characters. TressFX, the humorous but nonetheless impressive technology that powered Lara’s hair in the PC version of 2013 Tomb Raider is back, and quite literally bigger than before. More striking is the animation detail of Lara, particularly her face and the way it reacts organically to her words or expressions, so fine is the fidelity that a smile really does reach all the way to her eyes. Even when just traversing the environment there are small but distinctly human touches, like wringing her ponytail after emerging from water, or the way she reacts to the cold even when clad in appropriate weather gear.   

Rise of the Tomb Raider underground lake stalagmites stalactites

Lara Croft is in practice the worst archaeologist; almost every tomb she enters ends up exploding or rendered otherwise inaccessible, and she actively trades ancient coins, valuable Byzantine finds, to expand her murderous arsenal of weapons. But that actually doesn’t matter you see, because she looks damn cool whatever she does. She’s not all that vulnerable this time round, and I think the value of that development is only felt so strongly, because of how 2013 Tomb Raider treated her. Moreover her past and motives are revealed in a way that complements the evolving narrative, already imbued by the perpetually unfolding audio log side stories. 

Rise of the Tomb Raider review score 5 greatBefore playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, I convinced myself that I wanted a story that would address the indisputable physiological scarring inflicted by the first adventure. This game doesn’t do that, yet I feel overwhelming positive about the new direction of Lara’s portrayal. While she kills a lot more people, the action doesn’t feel at odds with the narrative this time round; the game doesn’t try to sell Lara as helpless, rather it acknowledges her lethal skills. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s flaws are few in my mind, though they do cut quite deep in places, and the game ultimately uses the gameplay systems of its predecessor. That said they are excellent systems and are exploited to far greater effect by this game’s mesmerising environments than they were previously.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a marvellous achievement. It represents a meeting of the parts that made 2013 Tomb Raider so spectacular, with sensations elicited by the series’ roots, and it’s helmed by a stronger, better respected Lara than we’ve seen before.

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