Rise Of The Tomb Raider is a strange name for a sequel. Rising implies a new beginning. It tells the gamer to expect something new, when really, it’s a continuation of the rising Lara has already done; a more appropriate name would have been, Lull of the Tomb Raider. I jest of course. Perhaps Illumination of the Tomb Raider, or a word describing realisation and clarification.
Lara had already risen in the previous instalment. Her identity was being uncovered: She learned how to handle herself; she realised her father was right all along; and forged companionship with those who believed in her vision. At the end of Tomb Raider (2013) Lara says, ‘I’ve been so blind… so naive. For years I resented my father, doubted him like the rest. But he was right about so much.’ Is that not the rising of a character?
One Year Later: The Same Old Story
At the end of Tomb Raider (2013) Lara unloads her pistols on a madman as he stumbles back and falls from the tower where they were fighting. She rescues Sam (her best friend) from Himiko’s supernatural grip. The storm around the island lifts and Lara escapes with her remaining friends and survivors. One year later Lara finds herself at the base of another snowy mountain.
Lord Croft’s oration in the opening scenes is odd because he’s dead. It sets the scene for the coming game and personifies Lara as a pioneer. In these scenes Lara is shown to be dedicated in her search, but at what cost? Those around her seem to follow her regardless of their peril. Do they fear for her safety, or is it her magnetism that attracts them?
As Lara navigates her way up the snow encrusted mountain with Jonah – arms crossed as though it’s a bit cold – disaster strikes, the screen fades to black and the story flashbacks to two weeks earlier in the murky backstreets of London.
Lara’s struggling with the events of the previous game (set one year earlier) and wants to prove that what she experienced on Yamatai is real, not a figment of her imagination. She’s desperate to prove her father’s work is authentic and deserves recognition.
The story here takes a dip. After an action-packed and genuinely exciting beginning, the existence of Trinity – an ancient sect with designs on controlling the future of humanity – is revealed. These ancient, now corporate world-dominating organisations were token amusement for a short while and they have a place in fiction, as The Da Vinci Code superbly shows, but the concept has worn thin and these malicious companies represent a laziness in storytelling.
The Ghost Of A Memory
Lara finds herself in Syria on the next leg of her adventure. She immediately – after being double-crossed by her driver – and quite coincidentally, stumbles across the opening to a tomb. Why no one else had found it is beyond me. This is where the story really begins. It’s a game of cat and mouse as Lara fights throughout the story to get ahead of Trinity. The memory of her father is featured throughout and it smacks of desperation; a motif that gives Lara an excuse to chase immortal life.
Lord Croft is an interesting character. Instead of the voice recordings, the letters and narrated monologues, it’s conceivable that Lord Croft should have been a character and not a memory; Lara could have found him and they could have pressed on together, in a situation more akin to Uncharted.
One of Uncharted’s strengths lies in the camaraderie of the crew. Lara could have been the fresh eyes her father needed; picking up where he left off, she would take the place of Lord Croft as he follows and occasionally assists her. It would have been good to see him have closure on his research and passed the torch to Lara as Patrick Gates does with Ben Gates.
Player Choice, Right Choice
Players requested fewer Quick Time Events (QTEs) and so the developers removed all but a few instances. In an action game, these moments help propel the story, keep the player focussed – instead of skipping cutscenes – and give the player something to do. Interaction is vital in video games, however menial that may be.
I’ve always enjoyed QTEs, especially when they come from nowhere as I sip a cup of coffee. I end up missing the time slot or press the wrong button entirely and must replay the scene. It reminds me I’m not concentrating; and I’m an ardent stickler when it comes to concentration. The countless hours worked by what can be huge development teams numbering into the hundreds reminds me to pay attention when I’m gaming.
A Pathway To Superfrau
Lara’s adventure is more perilous now she’s being actively hunted. The action increases as her engagement with Trinity becomes more frequent and lethal. The combat in Rise is never burdensome or repetitive though. Weapons have alternate fire modes that increase the versatility of their use and how they can be applied to a specific playstyle.
I stuck with stealth on my playthrough and was pleased to find Lara’s repertoire had improved. You can distract enemies, engage in melee combat to take enemies down and interact with the environment to keep engagement at a distance.
XP can be spent to acquire skills across three skill trees: Brawler; Hunter; and Survivor. I like the use of skill pathways to alter how a game plays; however, I did end up with near-enough all the skills, so what was the point in separating them?
Throughout Rise Of The Tomb Raider, Lara learns new languages that have no real consequences on the game. Scattered about the maps are manuscripts, murals and artefacts. By examining them, Lara’s language skills improve thus enabling her to find hidden coins or survival caches. Items that ultimately don’t matter.
Much of Rise retains the feel of its predecessor. It’s a bigger game, with neater graphics and tighter gameplay. Bigger isn’t better. The size of the maps in Rise increases dramatically; each area is a mini-open-world with things to do. There are side quests; items to pick up; even more materials to gather; crates to break into; and cupboards to root about in. Most of these really don’t matter. It’s needless fluff; Rise is bloated on all the digital assets it consumed during its inception.
Finally, We Have A Winner
Amidst this menagerie of things, however, is the one addition that truly matters: Challenge Tombs! These are optional tombs that you’ll have the chance to explore as you discover new locations.
The tomb layouts are diverse and their geological formations unique from one another. They provide respites at sensible intervals during the game – I usually stumbled across them as I was traversing an open area – and offer a glimpse of the direction in which Tomb Raider should be heading towards.
The puzzles are slightly more difficult than the previous game, though too easy for my liking. They are longer, can often be quite stunning to look at (they provide countless screenshot opportunities) and they’re quite important: There’s a chest at the end of each tomb that contains skills and outfits. The skills improve Lara’s versatility and the outfits have specific attributes that correspond to certain situations.
The Challenge Tombs are a fine example of how to implement supplemental scenarios into the fabric of a game without interfering with the narrative. In this instance, the tombs even bolster the gameplay by providing beneficial rewards for the player. This is real gameplay. Complementary, engaging, and rewarding.
Raid Or Ruin
Rise Of The Tomb Raider suffers from an identity crisis, is weakened by cliched story tropes and bloated by gameplay features. Lara’s ongoing narrative is exaggerated with little effect. Rise ekes her story out as though it knew there was going to be a third game and it didn’t want to give everything away.
An ‘Expeditions’ mode, which includes ‘Chapter Replay’, ‘Chapter Replay Elite’, ‘Score Attack’, and ‘Remnant Resistance’, is puffy content, acrimoniously married to a game that doesn’t require any such additions.
I get the impression, as I do with too many games, that certain features were added to make a majority happy. Rise is full of disparate additions that stray from an approach that focusses on essentials.
In The End It Doesn’t Even Matter
Rise of the Tomb Raider never quite gets out of first gear, nor does it fully leave the shadow of its predecessor; it’s more of the same with some extra bells and whistles tacked on. I understand this is a sequel, so there should be some continuation, right? A sequel can renew a formula and it can redefine the narrative and gameplay whilst retaining the character of the franchise.
It felt as though the developers had taken what the fans requested on board and followed it to a tee. It’s great that Crystal Dynamics listened; it’s not so great they thought that meant they didn’t have to innovate. It’s all too safe. I spoke about this in a previous review: Video game developers must be given a licence to be creative. Pandering sequels that satisfy the more more more culture will run their course eventually.
The thing is, there’s an excellent video game here; it’s unfortunate that it falls short of being consistently brilliant. I loved playing this game. The cutscenes are choreographed brilliantly and I was entertained by the gameplay, some of Lara’s developments, and even some of the story. The game started so well, and it retains a lot of the excitement throughout, but some of the design choices elongate the game unnecessarily.
The Foundation Engine is a joy to behold and immerses you in the exotic locations Lara explores in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. Considering the spiel at the beginning of the game, it’s ironic that Crystal Dynamics didn’t take more risks to improve the game. Instead, Tomb Raider and Lara both stagnated here in a dull story that did little to progress Lara’s character. That said, it’s a thoroughly entertaining game if you forgive its weaknesses and enjoy its strengths.