Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Oxenfree - Review

Developer: Night School Studios
Publisher: Night School Studios 
Platforms: PC (version played), Xbox One, PS4 (TBA)

I suppose when you say that a game was developed by former Telltale and Disney employees, you have a preconceived notion of what to expect. And in this case you'd be right; Oxenfree is a charming, story-driven game with branching dialogue options and some admittedly gorgeous animation.

In fact, Night School Studios are so confident in their writing and visuals that they comprise almost all of the game. It's game design stripped back to its barest essentials, focusing on the emotional connections of its main characters to carry you through to the end credits.

The story follows Alex and her group of friends as they visit an island somewhere off the coast of the USA. Formerly a bustling tourist spot, it's now desolate, making it the perfect place for teens to escape to, and, in this case, plan an overnight party.

Night School Studios sets up a very specific tone right from the get go, carefully nabbing traditional horror movie elements with the group of five being pretty much the standard slasher movie quintet; you've got the stoner, the final girl, the prom queen and so on. Where Oxenfree tries to throw a curve ball into this predictability is in how the characters are written.

Everything about Oxenfree is low-key, characters mumble on about various topics as you guide Alex along trails or have her clamber over cliffs. Dialogue options will pop up every now and then but the game never stops in order to have you respond. Don't click anything and Alex will simply remain silent.

It makes for a remarkably realistic flow to conversations, making the dialogue in, say, a Telltale game or a modern Bioware title look robotic by comparison. Click on a topic early and you'll even interrupt whoever was talking.

The fact that Night School Studios manage to achieve this all whilst maintaining a chilled, laid back approach is genuinely fascinating. Oxenfree, much like its protagonists, is carefree and doesn't want to be tangled down with ridged rules or structure and its gameplay reflects this, this isn't a game bursting with puzzles or collectibles. It's there to be immersed in.

Naturally, things go wrong for Alex, and, after a brief introductory section, she unwittingly unleashes some kind of entity onto the island. It's a novel monster concept too. For once it's not zombies and neither is it some generic monster. Instead, it's some strange entity that creepily warbles and wails into the radio, or ominously appears in an otherwise innocuous photo as a pair or glowing red eyes…

From then on Oxenfree works effectively as an adventure game, as you navigate the island trying to find Alex's friends and stop whatever is now haunting the group. Areas are interconnected and the level design makes the whole place feel like a real place rather than just a game level. Gameplay itself is pared down to basically navigating Alex around the screen, occasionally using her radio to tune into a particular frequency, and talking to other characters.

It's here where my opinion of Oxenfree is conflicted. On the one hand, it's approach to the genre is commendable and its execution is impressive. Trips to and from locations are used as character moments, with Alex accompanied by one of her friends (who it is typically coming down to earlier dialogue choices).

There's a genuine attempt to really invest in the characters here. As they're put under increasing pressure, backstories get revealed.  One of the group has been to juvenile prison, another resorts to getting stoned whenever he's under any stress. And the way Alex responds is entirely up to you, all whilst having a genuine impact on the outcome of the story.

Likewise, the whoozy 'synth score sounds like something out of a John Carpenter movie. There's concerted effort here to evoke a particular time and mood whilst paying homage to the classic horror films off the past decades. The bright, almost neon-infused colour scheme, also plays heavily with the 1980s retrowave vibe. In short, this is a game where there's a great deal of craft going on, and it's impressive to simply sit there, play, and soak it all in.

Ironically, its Oxenfree's horror elements that seem the least fleshed out. Even by the end of the game the threat is weirdly abstract and under explained. Eventually, the creepy ghosts give way to time travel and a vague sense of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Yet, even then, the threat goes nowhere and struggles to build into anything tangible.

Likewise, the game's slow-paced, almost mumblecore attitude, whilst perfectly capturing the everyday life for your average teen, almost goes overboard once the monsters begin to make themselves known. Characters continue to spit out quips, react with confusion and questions rather than fear. You can't help but want to shake some of these characters and go “fucking ghosts!” as they continue to wander around with vague unease before dropping another joke.

It leads to a frustrating disconnect with the characters. For all the quality voice-acting and solid dialogue I never felt connected to Alex and her friends the same way I did the casts in Persona 3 & 4. Just like Oxenfree, the Persona games contrast everyday life with the supernatural but there I felt a much greater investment with the characters. Alex and her friends almost seem too clever for their own good, too sure of themselves. This crops up in a lot of modern writing I feel, and not necessarily just video games, either. The need to present every teen character as some smart, world-weary soul inevitably backfires and robs them of some of their realism.

The pacing suffers from an imbalance too, after a stodgy middle section that has the group wandering around looking for each other, there's a sudden rush to conclude things as the ghosts change from being a vague threat to some impending doom in the space of a few minutes. It shunts the game into its climax forcefully, and, for a game that's otherwise been languid and slow-paced, it only highlights this fact all the more. There's a vagueness to the threat in Oxenfree that doesn't always help it, we're never quite sure of the stakes are here, what could really go wrong, and so it can make it difficult to care.

These issues don't make Oxenfree a bad game. Far from from it. In fact, what is does right it really nails down, it's rather that its focus seems to be on the wrong points. It has a supernatural plot but that's also the weakest part. It has strong characters, but undermines them by having them react rather poorly to the horror that they encounter.

Of all the games that I've reviewed recently Oxenfree definitely seems like the one that various people will respond to differently. No doubt some people will find its approach refreshing and its plot satisfying rather than hazy. And that's certainly fitting, after all, there's a number of different ways that things can resolve and no doubt everyone will respond differently to each conversation.

For me though, the whole game is great to look at, impressively made, but also weirdly shallow and inconsequential. There's a nagging sense that Night School Studios didn't actually want to tell a supernatural story, but simply a drama about high school kids. After playing Oxenfree, I can't help but think that was the case.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Game of Thrones - Review

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3, Xbox One, 360, PC, Android, iOS, Mac

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the TV show. You've been warned. 

In terms of Telltale’s recent back catalogue, adapting Game of Thrones to their trademark gameplay is arguably the most challenging task they’ve done. The Walking Dead, Tales from the Borderlands, Minecraft: Story Mode, all these series have the benefit of having worlds that make it easy to inject new stories and characters into. Even The Wolf Among Us was able to get around that by simply being a prequel.

Things aren’t so easy for Game of Thrones, it’s an ongoing series and, more importantly, it’s dominated by its popular cast of characters. That’s something that Telltale simply can’t get around, and they can’t have you playing as the actual cast of the TV show, so they do the next best thing; give you suitable replacements to play with.

Telltale’s series follows the plight of House Forrester, a smaller house allied to House Stark. At the beginning of the series, Walder Frey has just betrayed the Starks, leading to the infamous Red Wedding scene. 

That’s another surprising thing about Telltale’s adaptation; it demands much more from the player. The Walking Dead could be enjoyed regardless of your knowledge of the TV show or comics, same goes for the other series they’ve released. Not so here, this game requires you to have watched the show or read the books to even have an inkling of what the hell is going on. It’s perhaps obvious that familiarity with the source material is necessary to enjoy the game, but, unlike Telltale’s other series, this is also a game much more tied down and attached to the show and books that have spawned it. 

So, after the Red Wedding, the Forresters are left without any support and are at risk of falling apart altogether. The Boltons and their new allies in the region, the Whitehills, are closing in, making one demand after another.

It’s in the midst of all this politicking that you’re left to control your characters. That’s right, plural. Similar to Until Dawn, Telltale have you directing multiple characters throughout each episode in order to mirror the breadth and scope shown in the TV show. 

Again, it’s interesting to see how you play when left with multiple characters. Do you have them work towards a mutual cause? Or, do you “role-play” them as you’d imagine they’d act?

The writers seem acutely aware of this too, with each episode testing your loyalties to one group or another. House Forrester and its family might be the main characters, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be in agreement. Within the first episode you’re tasked with meeting out punishment to a guard that’s caught stealing. There’s multiple options and, no matter which way you decide, someone is going to react badly to how you behave. 

Each of the characters you play in Game of Thrones roughly correlates to one of the main stories found in the show. So you have several members of the Forresters trying to take care of House Forrester in Westoros (i.e. The Starks). There’s the black sheep of the family, who’s been banished to Essos (Daenerys). There’s the eldest daughter who’s serving Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing (The Lannisters), and last off there’s the loyal squire to the former lord, who quickly finds himself being sent to the Wall (John Snow).

It’s here where Telltale play it safe, too safe. Without touching on particular spoilers, each of the character’s arcs so closely ties to the TV show’s characters that it risks simply becoming a cheap copy. Gared Tuttle, for instance, who’s quickly sent to serve at the Wall, mirrors John Snow’s journey so closely that he might as well be John Snow.

Likewise, it comes as no surprise when Tuttle abandons the Crows in order to help his family back home. Sure, you can (sort of) protest the idea, have him value his vows, but ultimately you’re forced along the narrow track the game’s writers provides and the similarity to the TV show just makes this all the more apparent.

It’s a little reminiscent of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in that the game is so intent on reproducing the bits you like about the source material that it never really has a voice of its own. Gared encounters some wildlings, the head of House Forrester has a physical injury meaning he can’t fight as well, someone gets beheaded, and so on. It’s like a laundry list of “things you like about the show” and the game rarely deviates from this mentality. 

The greater scope also means that the writers struggle to have the choices create the same emotional meaning. It’s not that difficult for the player to abandon the Crows, or make Margaery’s life difficult in King’s Landing, if it means helping the Forresters. They’re the ones we spend so much of the game’s runtime with that the other relationships that the game seems to want to have you worry about seem superficial or flimsy by comparison. At one point Garad says “I’m a Crow no more”, when John Snow said that it had weight, we’d been following him for hours of screen time. For Tuttle, he’s barely said his vows before he’s running off.

All of this culminates in a game that’s bitty and episodic, not to mention suffers from a weak climax that lacks the emotional punch and satisfaction of Telltale’s other games. The choices, rarely seem to have an impact on future episodes; everything unfolds and you barely feel in control of any of it.

I suppose that’s par the course for these kind of games, it’s less the choices and their ramifications and more why you made a particular choice at that time. Sadly, Game of Thrones descends into a damp lacklustre ending that seems more intent on setting up the next season than it does provide a satisfying conclusion to the events in season one.

It’s frustrating, because, for the opening few episodes, things seem promising. Everything might be a little overly-familiar but playing politics in King’s Landing is just as fun as it ought to be, and the cameos add just the right amount of authenticity (complete with their actual voice actors, not sound-alikes) without being overbearing.

If you’re a rabid fan of the show/books then there’s perhaps something to be gleaned from here, even if it seems trite and trivial at times. If you’re looking for Telltale at their best however, this isn’t the game. For all its attempts at being a suitable companion to George R. R. Martin’s tale, unlike what they did with The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones simply fails to escape from the show’s shadow. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

That Dragon, Cancer - Review

Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Ouya

I planned to write something about dread or how video games craft a sense of horror and dread sometime this week. I wanted to discuss how good horror games use their gameplay in order to disturb the player and create that sense of terror.  

That Dragon, Cancer feels like that at times. Based on the real-life events of Ryan and Amy Green, the game deals with the emotional turmoil that they encounter when they discovered that their youngest son, Joel, had terminal cancer.

That Dragon, Cancer genuinely conjures up feelings of dread. It’s not a game that you want to play at times, moving through painful scenario after painful scenario. Hearing a child scream in pain after vomiting up everything he drinks, listening in on a family’s inner thoughts as they attempt to, in some way at least, come to terms with the fact that their son will no longer be around.

Rather than have you playing first-person as a character, That Dragon, Cancer instead casts you as a loose observer, floating in and out of each of the game’s mini-scenarios. In one moment, you’ll be at the eye-level of a lake, watching this family throw pieces of bread to ducks, in another, you’ll be sat in a hospital room, listening to the steady “blip-blip” of a nearby IV drip. 

It’s an appropriate way to handle player interactivity. You feel like an intruder on a family’s personal experience of grief when playing That Dragon, Cancer. Whether it was intentional or not, there’s a weird sense that you don’t quite belong as you play, that, even the game itself, not just the Green family’s grief, is somehow completely their own and not to be intruded upon.

The whole experience is incredibly dream-like, with the entire world designed to look almost like statuesque wood carvings. Throughout most of the scenes, pitch-black trees and bundles of thorns sprout out of the ground or bob around along the surface of the water. A metaphor for death, perhaps? Or grief, maybe? Possibly both, occasionally, the bundles of thorns will vibrate and divide like cells – a clear visual reference to cancer, but also a strangely disconcerting image in those early scenes.

Whilst the game's visual aesthetics are no doubt impressive, its sound design is no less important.. Audio plays a huge part in the game (it even recommends using headphones), with snatches of conversation echoing around you as you walk through silent hospital hallways or click at a new message on a mobile phone.

Despite all the visual and audio emphasis, That Dragon, Cancer is still a game and interactivity plays a huge role in the story it’s trying to tell and the emotions it wants to convey. In fact, the most powerful moments involve the game using “traditional” gameplay mechanics in order to hit you with the actual situation that the family is going through. 

At one point, you’re left to race Joel around the ward in a makeshift cart, complete with gleeful giggling from the little boy and exaggerated car noises from his father. It’s a charming scene with you guiding the cart, hitting “power-ups” as you go. Power-ups, that, whilst you’re playing, seem completely useless. It’s only when you finish the race, and the game displays the victory screen, that it hits you with the gut punch. All those power-ups you’ve collected are then displayed on the screen; they’re the near endless list of drugs, with impossible to pronounce names, that Joel is taking to keep him alive.

These are arguably the stronger moments in That Dragon, Cancer when, for brief moments, it bares its teeth and comes at the player with a little bite. So much of That Dragon, Cancer is about the player gliding from one scenario to another that these moments are a real jolt to the system and brutally effective.

If the interactivity is arguably the game’s greatest strength, its written segments are certainly its weakest. Ryan Green’s narration typically punctuates each scenario and, whilst obviously heart felt and brimming with emotion, can seem overwritten and in a few cases awkwardly forced and verbose. Perhaps that’s the point; that it’s impossible to convey through language how you’re truly feeling when you’re in a situation like this. Still, for a game that so often lets you make your own emotional connections, moments like these can feel like a sledgehammer by comparison, as the game suddenly hammers home how it wants you to feel. 

The game also takes something of a right turn into different territory during its second half too. Whilst the initial story is about a family’s battle with cancer, the latter half turns into a story about faith, or rather, the battle to maintain it. The Green family are devout Christians, and many of the later scenarios deal with them attempting to keep their handle on God, love and heaven even in the face of death.

No doubt this will lose some of the audience. Perhaps for those that don’t have faith it’s harder to make a connection here, as the game seems to veer off to explore this other aspect of the Green family’s battle.

Still, it makes for a powerful penultimate scene in a church, which I won’t describe here since it deserves to be explored for yourself. It’s a powerful scene, and easily one of the strongest moments in what, during its latter half especially, can be something of an uneven game. 

Ironically, for a game that’s so self-consciously art-house, That Dragon, Cancer’s best moments are where it subverts traditional gameplay elements, and uses them to tell its story. Likewise, the weaker moments come when it tries too hard to be poetic, rather than simply letting the visuals and the gameplay take control.

That Dragon, Cancer is no doubt an important game, not least as an example of art-as-therapy. It uses its brief two hours in a unique way to craft a genuinely original and brutally moving experience. It’s not perfect, and there are indeed stumbles, but it’s the kind of game that’s important to see in gaming as a whole, and some of its moments are likely to stick in your head long after you’ve finished playing.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Fallout 4 - Review

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One (version played) 

The real battle in the radioactive wasteland is one of inventory management. Really, it’s been a consistent problem in every Bethesda game, and, whilst not game-breaking, it’s still the most baffling thing to have to raid through upwards of five different menus just to find where I put a roll of duct tape.

Seriously, where did I put that piece of duct tape? I need it. No, I don’t necessarily need it, but the settlement I’m building up does. They need to be able to defend themselves, so I’ve tasked myself with setting up some rudimentary defences. Ah, there we go, stuck up a new defence tower. Wait, no, I didn’t mean to move the water pump. Now every one’s going to die of thirst…

Fallout 4’s biggest new feature is that of settlement building. Like 95% of modern games, it’s tasked itself with adding crafting mechanics to its litany of other gameplay elements. Post-Minecraft game design posits that every big-budget game should have things to build, regardless of what genre you’re playing. Every game should have its own Lego set. 

Fallout 4 jumps into this hard. After a brief hour or so it thrusts you into your first settlement, with the opportunity of rebuilding it. Not only that, the very story and themes that Fallout 4 plays with are about rebuilding things. If Fallout 3 was about exploring the sorry state of a post-nuclear world, then Fallout 4 is about making it something better.

It’s baffling then, that this system should be so vague and obtuse, not to mention made all the more frustrating thanks to the game’s cluttered inventory management. For such a major focus of the game, Fallout 4 offers very little explanation of how to manage settlements. It wants you to be excited and to care about rebuilding things but offers you no advice on how to do so, as well as give you the option to ignore it entirely. My first few hours of Fallout 4 were used wrangling this system, trying to understand how it works and what I needed to do to get the most out of it, only to find later on that the benefits were virtually non-existent and my time spent on it little more than a distraction.

When looked at from this angle the game’s story beats and overall approach begin to make more sense. In Fallout 4 it’s almost impossible to play as a bad guy. In fact, it’s impossible to be anyone other than the character that Bethesda have provided you with, complete with half decent voice actor. The dialogue wheel, a somewhat simplified version of Mass Effect’s conversation wheel, replaces the typical list of written responses. 

The story this time round sees Bethesda crib ideas from a number of different places, least of all themselves. Just as Fallout 3 had you traipsing across nuked out Washington D.C., Fallout 4 has you doing the same across New England, only this time for your son. As the story progresses, various factions crawl out of the woodwork similar to Fallout: New Vegas. The Brotherhood of Steel quickly make their presence felt, rolling in on giant airships, suited up in power armour, whilst the Railroad keep themselves firmly out of sight, shuttling away any synthetics they can help into hiding.

It’s here where Fallout 4 begins to stumble a little. Whereas there’s no doubt that the world itself is impressive, and certainly still the star attraction in a game that can soak up untold hours, the people that inhabit it can seem like self-contained chunks of gameplay, rather than all interacting within the same cohesive world. All of the game’s factions, for instance, rarely come into conflict with one another, until the game dictates it during the main quest’s climax. 

Oh, we’re told that the Institute (the closest the game gets to a straight-cut “bad guy” group) has no regards for Synths but we rarely see that until the final hours of the main storyline. The Brotherhood of Steel will come rolling in on airships, but they’ll stay politely contained at the police station for the most part, until you come calling them.

Which, perhaps leads into what’s possibly the biggest criticism that can be levelled at Fallout 4; it’s barely a role-playing game. Gone are the different character builds and dialogue options, the very things that allowed you to craft a unique character. Much like Skyrim, if something could have been streamlined or removed it has been.

Unlike Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas available perks are dictated by the “tier” that each of your SPECIAL stats are at. For example, should your strength be at one you’ll only have the first perk available on that list, should you have more points invested in that SPECIAL stat, then more perks deeper down that line are available. 

It’s disappointing then, that the perk system seems so…bland. Like Skyrim there’s little personality to be had amongst the different abilities on offer. Some are so downright pointless and situational that they serve no purpose half the time, whilst generic “good stuff” perks, such as damage resistance and increased damage output, are so obviously the best options that practically any build is going to want them. 

This is compounded by the game’s approach to quests. Just as the rest of the game has undergone a streamlined approach, so too has the missions that you’ll play through. Practically every objective involves killing things or collecting something. Granted, it’s difficult to keep quests varied in a game of this scale, but the overall effect is a game where kill counts reign supreme whilst nuanced storytelling takes a back seat. Only once during 20+ hours of gameplay did my silver-tongued charmer manage to talk his way out of a fight.

Rarely in Fallout 4 will a quest spin off in a direction you weren’t expecting; that thrill of getting swept up in events beyond your control is a thrill that beats through the heart of almost all of Bethesda’s games. Here, you tick off the objectives one by one and then collect your reward. 

All these slightly mild disappointments are made all the more frustrating because the game genuinely looks good. Gone are the bland sludgy browns and faded greens that dominated Fallout 3’s colour palette. This is a vibrant, sometimes colourful game.

It plays well too. Not perfect, mind, there were moments when random body parts of fallen enemies gained rudimentary sentience and began crawling across the floor. In another bizarre moment an important character suddenly grew elongated limbs; I guess the radioactive wastes were having a bigger effect on him then I thought.

Yet, jokes aside, it’s a major improvement when the console version no longer feels like you’re trudging through mud once you encounter more than two or three enemies on screen. Whether you’re using VATS, or simply shooting at things in first-person, it feels responsive and tactile in a way the previous games never managed given the hardware and engine limitations. 

However, when the best thing you can say about Fallout 4 is that it runs well and looks nice, you can’t help but get a sense that somewhere the heart and soul of the series has been ripped out. Fallout 4 is a dense, sometimes fascinating adventure, but one that’s also dominated by bland watered down gameplay and simplified mechanics. The focus here makes for a game that’s less “an RPG with shooter elements” than “a shooter with RPG elements”.

Now I have to go, there’s been an attack on one of my settlements; they need me to help. Only now, my power armour has gone missing (it’s now separate from your regular armour and comes with its own upgrades, which is a neat addition), one of my settlers has taken off with the whole thing thinking she can use it.

So that’s what I get for building these people a new home. I give them food, even replace their water pump that I carelessly erased from existence, only to have them take off with by best bit of kit to go and kill a few bandits.

Now, where did I put that duct tape...?

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Rise of the Tomb Raider - Review

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox One (version played), 360, PC, PS4 (TBC)

2013’s reboot of Tomb Raider was a fresh start for gaming’s leading lady. Gone were the clunky controls of earlier games, the bullet sponge enemies and aging mechanics. In its place were modern gameplay conceits: cover shooting, collectibles and free-roaming locations.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the Tomb Raider reboot was the focus on horror. Whilst not a horror game per se, it had all the trappings of one. The opening ten minutes are an almost direct reference to the British horror classic The Descent, and that film’s tone and visual style remained a constant influence throughout the game.

It’s somewhat disappointing then, that Rise of the Tomb Raider seems to take a step back from this approach. The horror of killing, the pools of blood that Lara had to swim through, all that is gone in favour of a more Indiana Jones approach. More specifically, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

This time around Lara is on the hunt for the lost city of Kitezh. The events of the last game have given her a hunger to hunt down the supernatural and so she turns to her father’s notes, only to find out about the legendary lost city.

There’s a slight Lovecraftian element here (searching for Kitezh drove her father mad and ruined his reputation) that the game fails to draw more upon. In its stead is the typical high adventure conceit of Indiana Jones or Uncharted.

Still, the game starts off well enough. An opening chapter in some sun-scorched ruins in the middle of Syria is a nice contrast to the snow, ice and frozen wilderness that make up most of the game. Mechanically, things remain the same as they did before; it’s a game comprised primarily of relatively easy platforming that has you exploring gorgeous landscapes and trying to find every shiny thing possible on the map.

Perhaps the most expanded element of Rise of the Tomb Raider is the amount of collectibles. Almost every locations will have numerous items, trinkets and doo-dads to pick up and root around for. Likewise, the crafting system has undergone something of a minor makeover. It seems every game needs to sort of crafting element these days, post-Minecraft, and Tomb Raider is no exception. This time around arrows must be crafted by collecting feathers and breaking down branches, it amounts to little more than pressing “A” but at least makes an attempt to contextualize Lara’s survival in a brutal wilderness using the game mechanics.  

Likewise, combat retains that rugged scrappy edge that it had in the previous game. There’s a good deal of The Last of Us influence this time around, with Lara capable of crafting home-made bombs on the fly when she’s in a tricky situation. Similarly, stealth, and planning out your attack method are given greater importance. There’s a touch of the Batman games here too, with canny players being able to scout out each combat encounter in advance, provided they’re quiet enough.

Yet, it’s the size of the areas you explore, rather than the enemies, which makes the biggest difference to how the game plays. Whilst still ostensibly a linear adventure game, Rise of the Tomb Raider makes the most of new hardware to expand the scope of its locations. Several areas throughout the game are vast. Certainly not The Witcher 3 big, but definitely bigger than you’d likely expect.

These locations allow Crystal Dynamics to slow the pace down, alternating from the frantic set-piece moments indicative of the Uncharted series, to a more sedate relaxed pace, where you can wander around different locations, scavenge the land for resources and poke around underground caves, maybe even explore a tomb or two.

Of course, it’s never too sedate. Locations are filled with wildlife, from tiny rabbits through to bears and mountain cats. Unfortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s wildlife elements are never anything to write home about, they essentially act as nothing more than an extension of the game’s obsession with collectibles; they even have the same glowing aura that items or letters have when you activate Lara’s sense.

What these open areas do help with however, is the game’s Metroid-lite approach to upgrades. Throughout the game Lara acquires rope arrows, a survival knife and so on, with many locations ripe for frequent returns as you slowly expand your collection of equipment.

Sadly, these minor changes to the game’s core structure don’t hide that it’s one of the safest sequels in recent memory. The decision to jettison the horror vibe of the previous game is frustrating, given that it’s replaced with nothing more than the typical Indiana Jones type of quest.

This would perhaps be forgivable if the game gave us a memorable plot or interesting characters but it doesn’t. Lara is frequently on her own throughout Rise of the Tomb Raider. The only returning character is Jonas (who, thankfully, is not quite the same lazy stereotype he was in the previous game) and any further references to their previous adventure on Yamatai are relegated to collectible diary entries and recordings.

It’s a major disappointment that the writers don’t do a better job blending the plot here into what happened on Yamatai. Like I said earlier, Lara’s quest to find the city of Kitezh is driven in part because of what happened on the island but other than that the two games share very little relation. There’s little progression of her personality, from one game through to the next.

It makes Lara’s character growth, something that the previous game placed quite a lot of emphasis on, seem flat and empty here by comparison. With fewer characters to interact with, Lara is left to simply mutter solemnly to herself every time you reach a new camp fire. There’s no Drake, Sully and Elena here, just a bland character who goes from one portentous monologue to another.

The villains likewise, suffer from being equally lacking. Without going into spoilers, they amount to religious fanatics on a quest for eternal life, and when the final battle with their leader amounts to a helicopter battle (complete with three hits and he’s dead), you really begin to question some of the game’s writing and design choices.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a visually impressive adventure that, for those who enjoy obsessively scrounging up items and scurrying up cliff-faces with a pick-axe, will no doubt find enjoyable. As a sequel though, it’s incredibly lacking, barely evolving the mechanics from the previous game in any conceivable way and offering a story that fails to explore its main character.

With a post-credit scene already hinting at another sequel there’s no doubt more for the new and improved Lara to endure. If the series wants to continue to evolve however, Crystal Dynamics will have to be a little more like their game’s protagonist and dare to be a little adventurous.