Rise of the Tomb Raider
Review first published on The Australia Times - Games Magazine Vol 3. No 23
Lara Croft is one of gaming’s most enduring characters, it will upset many to learn that my first exposure to her was actually in the film. I adored the absurd Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie, it came right at my height of interest in sexy girl power, spurred on by other film adaptations of questionable quality such as Charlies Angels. Despite loving the movie I never actually played a Tomb Raider game until the reboot in 2013. Even with some noticeable flaws, I really enjoyed the first one and has been waiting anxiously for a chance to play the Sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Rising would certainly be an improvement for poor Lara as the past game saw her fall, a lot. The heavy reliance on set pieces of sliding and avoiding death traps with quick time events (QTE) wore thin for me. I had a chance to talk briefly with a member of the PR team at PAXAUS about the game before its release to find out more about, mechanically they said it was very similar but had a lot of changes in regards to the story and Lara’s character. Having now played through the campaign I certainly do see there is a lot more confidence not only to the character but to the story as well. I was even happier to find that the mechanics, while very similar had been tightened up considerably. As well as saying a complete farewell to the sliding death trap QTE’s.
Which isn’t to say she doesn’t occasionally fall, structural integrity in ancient tombs has always allowed for dramatic falls and impressive set pieces. The game takes place in Syria and Siberia, and offers a surprising amount of variation in landscape although you will spend most of your time around ice and snow. . You move through the decaying architecture or Byzantine cities and Soviet Mining Facilities, to the natural vistas through climbing, jumping and grappling. The climbing felt like a great improvement to me, with the camera only occasionally sending me hurtling to my death. The game hold back on a number of its special abilities including arrow bombs and climbing arrows, which is good and the progression felt incredibly natural. Until it got closer to the end and the game had to stuff a lot in too quickly.
Swapping between platforming to fighting moves smoothly and there is a greater range of ways to dispatch unwitting enemies. The death toll continues to be impressive for Lara, and the game does still delight in an occasion graphic death, spikes if you fail to notice a bobby trap remains its favourite. Combat felt challenging but rarely felt unfair, the difficulty continues to ramp up and unlike the last game you do feel some need to explore and gather materials for upgrading your gear. Check points are also incredibly frequent and often placed as markers in battle before reinforcements come. While the small cut scenes may turn annoying after enough views it’s far less so than having to start combat from the very beginning. It also allows you to more easily change your technique, however the game definitely encourages you to take stealth and environmental kills when they are available because you may have thought there was only one guard left… but you were mistaken and unless you can find cover to heal you’re going to very quickly become overwhelmed.
One of the main complaint’s I had against the previous game was that it was so very linear, there felt absolutely no real need to go searching for the small tombs to get meagre upgrades. Rise of the Tomb Raider has not only made the upgrades more important but has also made the tombs far more engaging, the optional challenge tombs and general exploration was a delight for the game, and is probably going to cause me to replay through it. Small details in the logs you can find, the main villains keep their records but you also get other stories, hints of other adventures or characters you’ve never met. A Byzantine warrior travelling with a Mongol Horde, a telecommunications expert who asked too many questions, a Trinity Solider twisted search for self-meaning. This additional exploration, the different possible approaches to combat gives a much wider feeling to the game even if it is still a very linear narrative.
The Challenge Tombs usually have rewards of a new skill, found in glorious ancient texts… that Lara Croft then proceeds to leave open to the elements ensuring its quick destruction. Fans of the series will be happy to hear that Lara continues her record of being the worst archaeologist ever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say some of the scenes hurt me deep inside my Ancient History degree. However she certainly isn’t in it for the history this time, or at least no other history than her Family’s. Rather than stranded on a mystical island, Lara is going on the quest that claimed her Father’s reputation. She is going to prove her deceased father right, and find the proof on the immortal soul.
I was certainly excited to see Lara take charge and really be proactive in the story, at the same time I was hoping it would be more her story and less her dads. That said the narrative is in place to move beyond that, her father’s disgrace is something she needs to move past so that she can start creating her own name. I’m more interested in what comes after this arc then seeing this this arc itself but I felt they handled it well, and as I said she was unquestionable a lot more confident in her abilities and her motivations. She is not just fighting for survival this time, she has a clear goal and a clear enemy. No longer does she hesitate or fear the blood on her hands in dialogue, something that always worked against the combat mechanics in the first game. Lara does however fear the loss of her campaigns and friends, helping to humanize her amidst the violence. Trinity now takes place as main enemy, while only mentioned briefly in the 2013 game in side dialogue or lost logs, the organisation has brought Konstantine to Siberia. It funds and organises the search, and has apparently existed since ancient times. By then end of the game we still know little about the organisation itself, but with the two final cut scenes (including one after the credit) we can see the series is positioning them as Lara's great nemesis.
Konstantine as the main villain of the game works well, he’s dedicated, smart and ruthless. You don’t have many interactions with him, and while there is another villain he is the one you have the final boss fight with. Unfortunately the boss fight itself is a little disappointing, which narratively makes sense. He is just one man and the toughest fights have all been against armed groups. And it would no doubt have been misplaced in the story for him to suddenly possess super strength, even if his gun does far more damage than any other weapon in the game.
Rise of the Tomb Raider has fairly lofty ambitions for its narrative; while the mythical or spiritual has always been part of the Tomb Raider story. After all why go after an artefact when you could be going after an artefact that has the power to destroy the world in the wrong hands. Rise of the Tomb Raider, appears to not only want to use these elements but also delve into their implications a bit further, at least that’s how the narrative begins. The questions of proof or a soul, immortality and the word of god are all introduced. By the end it feels they lose focus, while I do always love games that push themselves there is something to be said for doing a simpler story well than over reaching and failing. Despite the ending feeling a bit of a letdown in terms of narrative, it is incredibly strong in regards to character and left me satisfied as well as keen to play more.
Currently Rise of The Tomb Raider is only available on the Xbox One, but will be coming out on other platforms in a timed release. It was also released on same day as Fallout 4, one of the most hyped games of the year, these two factors are probably going to lead unfortunately to poor sales, at least to start with. Already it’s done far worse than Tomb Raider 2013 in terms of pre-orders and starting sales; and since Rise of the Tomb Raider was considered a failure in sails I hope this will be turned around once the other platforms are open for purchase. It was a really enjoyable game and I am very keen to see where the series continues from here, here’s hoping Tomb Raider continues to rise.
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