The Tomb Raider series has had a bit of a turbulent past – some high peaks, and very low valleys over its 20+ year history. The original game was a stand out when it was released on the O.G. Playstation system in 1996. Bringing to life a buxom, globe trotting female equivalent of Indiana Jones traversing through fully realized 3d dungeons full of traps, puzzles, lurking beasts, and of course plenty of booty (Another word for treasure, you adolescent rubes.)
In the following years, the series fell into a bit of a lull with mundane repeated yearly releases (*cough* Ubisoft, EA ) crafted to satiate the demand of a public who were ravenous for more adventures starring the impossibly proportioned Ms. Croft. Even though these sequels were not up to the standard of the original, success breeds repetition, especially in the entertainment business. Sales of the series and the popularity of Lara herself, in the mid to late 1990's indicated that a powerful new mainstay franchise had been born – films, action figures, comics and spinoff video games for everyone, and for better or worse ‘Tomb Raider’ would become a household name.
The films came and went, and a deluge of game releases for a myriad of gaming systems produced sequels of varying quality, quickly over saturating the market. By the early 2000's the public began to lose interest, as the team at Core design were never able to re-capture the magic and innovation of the original game. Sales and mainstream popularity declined until gamers began to associate Lara with other antiquated video game mascots, so desperately trying to rekindle public interest and resurrect their glory days (Bubsy 3-d anyone?). Like so many before her, Lara's time in the spotlight began to fade. It was time to re-think the Tomb Raider franchise, and in 2008 development for an untitled reboot for next generation consoles was underway. Down but not out, the Tomb Raider brand was a sleeping giant, laying dormant and biding its time until it was given the opportunity to ‘rise’ to prominence once more.
And Rise it did. 2013's reboot; simply titled 'Tomb Raider' was a critical and commercial success, plucking Lara out of the hall of the forgotten and once-loved video game characters, and placing her firmly back in the limelight in front of a new generation of gamers. Crystal Dynamics (who had been developing the series since 2006's “Tomb Raider: Legend”) had found the blueprint they were looking for to re-introduce Lara Croft to the next generation of gamers, a game in the style of the popular 'Uncharted' series. Uncharted, developed by Naughty Dog, was famous for its exciting action sequences, jet setting exotic locales and for modernizing much of the original model and theme used for Tomb Raider in the early 90s. The team succeeded; the reboot was unanimously praised for its stunning visuals, intuitive traversal, lavish set pieces, film quality writing, as well as a grittier, more believable narrative. And then there was Lara herself, swapping her 1960's Barbie-esque figure and millionaire-playmate persona for a properly proportioned human females body and the ability to learn, grow and mature as a real character throughout the course events in the game. It was a proven recipe for success executed to a T, and the team remained committed to delivering a strong experience for the sequel, which was announced shortly after the originals release.
That brings us to the main course: how was the follow up? Were they able to continue the character growth we saw taking place in the last game without loading up on melodrama? Did they listen to the fans pleading for more actual tombs to raid and less bullet sponge enemies to soak up digital ammunition? Does Lara still take a gruesome spear through the throat every time she takes a wrong turn?
The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes. Now that doesn't mean the game is perfect or that I didn't have issues during my 20 hours with Rise of the Tomb Raider, but overall it is a wonderful follow up to the original, both in spirit and execution. Nathan Drake should be proud.
I don't mean to give the impression that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a second tier Uncharted, quite the opposite in fact. The visuals and sound are outstanding, even with the Xbox one struggling to maintain the 30fps frame rate at 1080p (it dipped below 20fps multiple times during key scenes.) Every game mechanic in ROTTR is improved; Laras pick axe crunches satisfyingly as it digs into the ice that she frequently scales on her journey, erupting clouds of snow and ice particles into the frosty air as she goes. Jumping, swinging and climbing all feel tight, fluid, intuitive and fair, if not exactly original. The newly expanded inventory system makes use of gathering items found in the environment to craft needed tools, weapons and skills. It is reminiscent of the crafting system used in The Last of Us and feels fleshed out in a way that encourages world exploration without making it feel like a chore. Lara is able to create arrows, special ammunition for firearms, bandages and explosives out of items she finds hidden in the environment. Adding an element of time management and strategy, Lara cannot carry infinite ammunition – and as such often has to craft needed ammunition on the go or in the middle a fight. The system the game uses to employ this feels second nature and never interfered with my enjoyment, in fact, I often felt like an action hero ducked down out of enemy sights, fumbling to reload the ammunition I so desperately need. You can also explore areas to find items that mark hidden destinations on your map, upgrade your weapons, learn new languages to reveal secrets as well as retrograding your equipment to reach new areas as the game progresses.
If there's one area of the game to improve upon, it's the combat. Lara starts with a bow and arrow, and over the course of the game finds a pistol, an automatic rifle and, surprise, a shotgun. While the selection of weapons is not terribly original, they all feel suited to different situations and perform well enough. Cover shooting is the name of the game here, and the automatic 'stick to cover' system works, but just barely as it’s far too easy to accidentally leave the safety of cover in the middle of a firefight without meaning to. Red Dead this is not. The hand to hand combat, though serviceable, feels loose and janky, and often gives the impression that Lara is aimlessly swinging at random enemies with her pick axe rather than targeting one enemy and focusing on them. Once you master the dodge and dodge kill skills in your ability tree things become a bit more refined, but there are no tutorials or visual prompts to explain how this system works, at least not that I found. I assume Lara uses her pick axe as her main hand to hand combat weapon because the developers felt that having her fist fight a bunch of armed guards may come off as a bit silly, and in theory I agree. But why not start the game off with a cut scene of her training? Or competing in any kind of martial arts tournament? It would serve to push that story forward and give players a sense of power and prowess when engaged in unarmed combat. So then just steal the batman combat and chuck it in there, right?! Ok, so that might be an overly simplistic solution, but you get the drift, it seems like something could be done to improve the fluidity of the hand to hand combat system, and I hope that's a focus for the next title in the series.
The action sequences in general are very chaotic, and during scenes where multiple waves of enemies attack it has a tendency to become a game of “roll away from the enemy until you get to a clearing, then turn, shoot, and resume rolling”. This was especially frustrating in some of the closed off areas where there were cliffs and drop offs that could easily be rolled into, sending Lara to an untimely death. Luckily the game saves every time you pick up an item, so very little progress is lost. Overall the combat needs some work, but it’s still fun, just not up to the polish of the other areas of the game.
The story is pretty much what you would expect for a big budget movie style title, there is a strong foundation, a couple of memorable characters and one or two prerequisite plot twists. The script does rely heavily upon coincidence and the ability of the player to ignore some inconsistencies, but overall does what it needs to. The voice acting is well delivered and never took me out of the experience, even if some of the dialogue is a bit corny. One interesting way the story progresses is through the various camps that Lara finds in her adventure. At any one of the 30+ camps in the game you can craft large amounts of ammunition quickly, upgrade weapons, items and abilities, as well as fast travel to any other previously discovered camp. What struck a chord with me is that each time you find a new camp and utilize it, Lara sits down and starts to narrate, essentially reflecting on the events that have transpired in the time since her last rest at a camp. Executed flawlessly, this is a strong way to emphasize both the personal growth that Lara is experiencing, as well as the scope of events taking place over the course of the game, without forcing it all down your throat via cut scenes. Other games could learn a lot from this style of supplemental narrative, i found it added a lot of depth to Lara's development and additional motivation to progress through my adventure, without seeming overly contrived.
The things that truly make ROTTR stand out are in the details. Once Lara finds the combat knife (mostly used for stealth kills) she pulls it out automatically when you get within stealth kill range, indicated by the sharp, satisfying sound of a blade slipping free of its sheath. I loved it every single time. Another mechanic that I feel this game executes better than any before it, are the escape sequences wherein the surrounding environment is caving in and crashing down as you frantically attempt to escape your doom. It does tend to feel coincidental that EVERY ancient city Lara steps foot in is one loose stone away from crumbling down around her, but if you don't stop to think about them too hard they make for some incredibly intense sequences that will astound those watching and leave the player in awe, feeling like they just got the fuck out of dodge in the nick of time.
The exploration is my favorite part of the game, and is handled very competently. Similar to the last game, the map is all connected through a series of passages, caves and open areas. The difference in the sequel is that these open areas have been fleshed out and expanded, feeling more like sectioned portions of an open world map one might expect to find in a Farcry title. There are secret caves and passages to find, animals to hunt, hidden items and secondary quests to take, and a total of 9 hidden tombs that each play out as a complex puzzle to solve, with the player receiving a stat-altering artifact at the end of each one. I never personally found these puzzles too challenging, but they are satisfying and rewarding to find and complete. The promise of these hidden ancient areas kept me searching the world throughout my adventure, and will no doubt keep me coming back to find the last 2 I have not uncovered. On the note of re playability, Square Enix clearly spent time polishing this game nicely and although there is no multiplayer mode included, there is a replay mode where extra challenges and items can be added to levels to be uncovered for points, a time trial mode where best times can be improved upon, and a few other small surprises. This game, like most, has a seasons pass available for $39.99 CAD. Personally, I think its a poor value as it includes a few outfits, a survival play mode and one chunk of story DLC – Baba Yaga (John Wick anyone)- the temple of the Witch. That’s not a lot of value. Luckily, you can purchase the Baba Yaga and survival gameplay modes separately for $10 each, which is the route I recommend taking.
Overall, this game is suited to those who love the action/adventure genre, and especially to those who were fans of 2013's Tomb Raider or any of the Uncharted games. As coined by Jordan Mowat, this is definitely a “do the thing” game – as the course of action is heavily predetermined, and you as the player must guide Lara through it. If that turns you off then look elsewhere for your thrills, but if your still with me, then this is one adventure you will not want to miss. I spent 20 wonderful hours with Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I expect to spend another 4-5 exploring as of yet uncovered optional tombs and the Baba Yaga DLC. The game is out now for Xbox one, Xbox 360, PC and is coming to PS4 Q4 2016.
RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER - "AN ADVENTURE YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS"
XBOX ONE, XBOX 360, PC
20 WONDERFUL HOURS