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. 


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