The time limited “embargo” that disregarded the feelings of Lara Croft’s fans on PC has been lifted and on January 28 Rise of the Tomb Raider made its way to the PC.
The 2013 reboot was set on changing the series’ direction starting with its protagonist. Once fearless, Lara Croft has been humanized leaving behind in the process the over-sexualization and her old almost supernatural characteristics to create a much more plausible heroine. The new Lara was an insecure rookie overwhelmed by emotions, a girl that could be hurt and make mistakes that could kill her in terrible ways. She was put in a situation that demanded adaptation to a hostile environment in order to survive, shaping her skills into a reborn heroine in a reborn series. Overcoming the events of the first game was the first step in the transformation of Lara Croft surfacing her courage and adventurous spirit that won’t give up.
Rise of the Tomb Raider shows a Lara Croft haunted by the past and eager to find a way to redeem her father’s name which was dragged through the mud in the last years of his life. She goes off in a new adventure starting in Syria searching for an ancient prophet tomb that should contain the Divine Source, an artifact which has the power to grant immortality. Her arrival here isn’t the warmest despite the weather as she is not the only one hunting this mythical artifact, an organization named Trinity is just one step behind her. The meeting of the two parties isn’t very pleasant leaving Lara no choice but to improvise an edgy escape. But her short trip was not in vain. The tomb provided the revelations Lara needed leading her to Syberia as she follows on the footsteps of the Prophet and his followers as they fled from the desert to protect the Divine Source. Somewhere in the vastness of snow, mountains and dense forests the City of Kitezh has remained hidden for thousands of years protecting the Divine Source from the curious eyes of civilization. Lara is dead set on finding this city and the artifact to clear her late father name.
Driven by unfortunate events into a land that hasn’t seen civilization since the soviet era, Lara Craft goes back to what she learned in Yamatai jumping and fighting her way through every obstacle while uncovering a hidden side of history.
|They have helicopters but it's OK because I have a bow!|
While the presentation has stepped up a notch since the previous game the quality of the story has regressed considerably. At its core Rise of the Tomb Raider’s story follows the same pattern as the 2013 game with a stranded Lara Croft mostly alone in a forgotten place controlled by a local faction that isn’t in touch with the outside world. Following a similar pattern is not necessarily a bad thing but repeating previous mistakes in a progressively quality degrading plot is clearly not the way to reuse concepts. Lara is again subject to events too big for one person to deal with, but she can do so nonetheless. She finds herself constantly held back by exaggerated coincidences just to be saved by some Deus ex machina moments that don’t do any good to the story. Her past experiences seem to have been forgotten as she bizarrely reacts with wondering gasps to heavily foreshadow supernatural forces. Lacking interesting writing the main story tries to take the player by surprise with some predictable twists that will require some heavy overlooking not to see them coming. The redeeming point of the writing stands in the alternative history created around the main story’s past and present events. Combining known history with fiction the stories unraveled by artifacts discovered through the journey from Syria to Syberia opens up new layers of depth to a rather weak main plot. But having continuity on this alternative history requires a completist level of effort from the player and not everyone is willing to do so.
|What are people not willing to do for power?|
With the series’ main enemy revealed Rise of the Tomb Raider’s ending opens up many pathways for future games while throwing some mystery into the mix intriguing players about Lara’s past and future. What the ending and the entire game seem to have missed is the rising that the title points at. Lara Croft’s resolve at the end of this adventure is not much more different than the one in the previous game, the only true change being the introduction of a true enemy and its implication in her affairs.
My recent playthrough of Tomb Raider made me realize how faulty my memory of the game was as it had me dealing with issues that I couldn’t remember but despite that I did enjoy the story a second time. Even if the story was a little too bombastic for my style it holds up pretty well by providing the protagonist’s development and characters relationships in parallel with its supernatural plot.
The bombastic nature of the action carries in the game at hand with QTEs and right on time escapes from near death situations, but that’s not enough to stop then narrative from feeling flaccid. The attempt to have a less linear action with a better defined villain didn’t work out well as the story doesn’t manage to deliver either.
|Here he seems like such a good guy.|
|As always Lara slides her way out.|
While the writing falls flat into predictable twists and unimpressive events, what’s placing Rise of the Tomb Raider above its predecessor is the visibly improved gameplay.
The first big improvement that jumps straight into the eyes is the level design which is masterfully done. Rise of the Tomb Raider uses the same system of slightly open ended maps tied together with corridor areas which more often than not serve as a place for scripted moments that take a leap in the narrative. The intricate level design gives a labyrinthian quality to the open ended maps making them marvelous platforms for exploration at any given time as they gradually open up following the main story progression. Navigating them usually requires using the environment and gadgets gained throughout the game leading to a lot of jumping and climbing which is part of the Tomb Raider experience. But why go to all this trouble in exploring the world?
As in the previous game exploring the world helps in understanding it. Artifacts containing small fragments of a larger story are spread everywhere and finding them is no easy task. Every nook and cranny has to be thoroughly searched if one wants to uncover the better part of this game’s writing. But despite having a beautiful world to show and lots of secrets to uncover the exploration might not be so enjoyable. The barriers set by various progression systems can prove to be a nuisance by severely slowing down the process and toying with non-completists’ patience. Yet, those willing to invest into the exploration and patient enough to take it step by step will have a blast.
|Zoomed in for spoiler reasons.|
Part of the process of understanding the world is the tombs’ exploration, tombs that have retained the feeling of being attached to the world and not being part of it favoring their introduction through DLCs. The new tombs are bigger and better than what we experienced in the 2013 game, but that’s a low standard of comparison and doesn’t really say much. In reality the tombs are still small and much of the time exploring them being lost in slow walking sequences that lead in and out of the tombs. But it’s not all bad. The unique level design of these tombs sets them apart and their complexity has been increased managing at times to squeeze a little grey matter juice through some interesting puzzles.
In the end, the treasure hunting is rewarded by uncovering an interesting alternative history that provides context and meaning to some of the events in the main plot. It’s up to you to decide how much of that story you want to know.
|The water must be so cold.|
|I need a truck!|
The world exploration has become more important than providing stories and being essential in reaching 100% completion. With Rise of the Tomb Raider the developers have decided to take advantage of the missed opportunity in the previous game and follow on the trend of survival games.
Lara Croft is a resourceful and gravity defying woman, but Siberia’s trials are far more dangerous than what she previously had to face putting her again in the position of a survivor who has to start from scratch. She starts off by crafting a shaky bow from twigs and builds her way up through a varied and powerful arsenal which is composed of numerous bows, rifles, shotguns and pistols.
|G36C pimped up to 11!|
The crafting system has been improved mostly by being available through a much cleaner UI, but also by having similar weapons share some upgrades lowering the grinding necessary to get the gear in good shape.
Crafting consumables and upgrading the gear and weapons requires a fairly high amount of resources. Wood, cloth, leather and other materials are in high demand and exploration plays a big role in obtaining them. What cannot be scavenged has to be hunted, but that is no problem as the new setting has an unlimited and variety rich fauna.
|If PETA finds out how many of these I killed...|
Ironically enough, these survival mechanics which add a great deal of immersion pay a price with the same currency. The need for resources forces an excessive use of the Survival Instincts ability to highlight any lootable objects constantly breaking the immersion in the process. Nevertheless, the progression has been greatly improved by giving players a wide range of options. But all this character improvement through crafting and weapon upgrades has one goal: to prepare Lara for the combat challenges ahead.
|The usual singleplayer wallhack...|
Trinity is a much more organized enemy capable of sending a small army in the region to achieve its goal. Heavily armed mercenaries are turning these forgotten lands upside down in the search for the Divine Source. And as the mercenaries weren’t enough of a threat, the land itself isn’t very welcoming. Wilds animals disturbed by the presence of civilization are aggressively defending their territories. Bears, wolves and even agile wild cats see the unwelcomed guests as prey and, despite her good intentions, in their eyes Lara is as unwelcomed as anyone else.
The combat wasn’t very satisfying in the previous game and Rise of the Tomb Raider’s improvements in the matter are something to be happy about. The first improvement that adds new layers of depth to the combat is the stealth system which is much more fleshed out combining new sneaking mechanics with level design to allow Lara to sneak on enemies and silently take them down one by one. The AI has been tweaked to deal with the sneaking and enemies react to sounds and dead bodies alarming each others to group up and hunt down the intruder.
But those who are not interested to make a silent entry can easily fight their way through using the varied arsenal and combat consumables which allow each player to tune their play style the way they want.
Skills made a return (why not, they are in every game nowadays) and are still split into three categories but their numbers and utility has been greatly increased requiring a lot more time to max them out.
|I'm guilty of being a completist...|
Unfortunately the game didn’t get rid of the major problem that made the previous Tomb Raider combat average. The aiming angle is stiff and isn’t in sync with the weapon’s barrel creating weirdly rigid animations when Lara is aiming with most of the weapons. The shooting lacks the feeling of balance and weight that a 3rd person action should have and if you are expecting something at the quality level of Max Payne 3 you will be disappointed.
|In reality I would be shooting a wall up to the right...|
|Hey! You got a weak spot!|
Piling up on the disappointment the game doesn’t offer a challenging enough experience even on the highest difficulty levels players having way too many tools to deal with any situation. With a little bit of upgrades while playing averagely it is easy enough to overcome some of the hardest encounters in the game. The toughest enemies I fought are the bears. But instead of allowing the players to take on this powerful animals using everything they’ve got, the developers have provide an arrow that knocks them out for a few seconds transforming a challenging fight into banality.
It’s no surprise to me that a modern AAA game doesn’t manage to provide a proper challenge. While I learned to live with this even if I’m annoyed by the problem I’m aware of the fact that creating a challenging but fair AI in a modern setting is difficult. What I can’t give this game a pass on is treating players like imbeciles and Rise of the Tomb Raider does that a lot…
Every time the players have to deal with a puzzle Lara seems so anxious to finish it that she can’t stop providing hints and repeating the objective. As a completist I usually take my time with each level and explore it at my own pace, but playing in my own fashion was hard to do with all that nagging. I must have heard Lara repeating to herself the same sentences about a simple puzzle in the main story at least fifty times to the point where I had to turn off my sound. Moments like this remind me why the tombs are not bigger and the puzzles aren’t more challenging. Apparently video games have to be so accessible that even a toddler should be able to beat them.
|Go to sleep!|
All in all the gameplay is good and its visible problems didn’t stop me from enjoying it but kept reminding me about the spacious room for improvement.
Finishing the game left me wanting more especially since it took me about 23 hours to get it done with 100% completion. And despite the fact that I could continue walking around hunting and killing the remnants of Trinity I felt the game was begging for a New Game+.
There are a few arcade modes that allow replaying parts of the game for score and achievements while competing on a ladder. The adjustable difficulty through a cards system which provides strengths and weakness altering the score modifiers was a great way to add some extra challenge I didn’t feel attracted by this.
|I'm not making it easy for myself.|
The lack of challenge doesn’t take over everything. In fact, putting up with the game’s poor optimization was the biggest challenge of this sort since Batman: Arkham Knight (but without getting its heat). I felt powerless while trying to configure my (potent) rig into obtaining a playable level of performance while still maintaining a good visual experience. The performance rollercoaster from freezes and stuttering to constant 60 fps drove me as mad as Lara incessantly advising me on what to do and I could do little about the former.
In all fairness the graphics look gorgeous and the physics are not too shabby either. The character models are detailed, the animations are lovely to watch and Lara’s hair has never looked better. In general the graphics are worthy of a game released in 2016. It’s a shame that this experience is diminished by such horrendous performance problems, but this probably won’t stop me from remembering this game’s visual quality for snow as I remember Bioshock’s amazing water.
|This is where the performance hell begins...|
The sound design is rarely something that AAA titles manage to screw up and Rise of the Tomb Raider is no exception from this rule. Syberia it’s brought to life not only through stunning visuals, but also through excellent sound design. The combination of creaking vegetation caused by the wind, the howls of wild animals and the crumbling snow under Lara’s feet transposed me into a sublime immersion state (which lasted until the next performance hiccup or Survival Instincts use). Echoes carried my gunshots in the distance reminding me how far from civilization this adventure took me.
The voice acting is on par with the rest of the sound’s quality, but this was to be expected considering the small number of important characters that have more than two lines to say.
|Playing toss the chicken!|
|Contemplating over what could have been better.|
My feelings about Rise of the Tomb Raider are mixed. On one hand there is this greatly detailed world that I enjoyed exploring to the last corner and it was so visually appealing that I couldn’t stop taking screenshots of it. There is the alternative history that is worth listening to in its entirety and the quality gameplay which manages to combine survival, stealth, combat and platforming in a deadly mix of diversity.
On the other hand is the highly unentertaining story filled with forced coincidences and Deus ex machina moments. There are severe performance problems which haven’t been fixed even after three patches (it's time for DirectX 12?!). And to top things off, there is a Season Pass that costs more than half of the game’s price for just three DLCs and like this wasn’t enough a microtransactions system for some useless cards. All these problems salt the wounds opened with the announcement of a timed exclusivity for Xbox One.
I like the new series and the new humanized Lara Croft. But waiting almost three years for Rise of the Tomb Raider for a slightly improved game is not ideal, especially when we have to put up with a studio that doesn’t seem to value its fans. But at the end of the day the quality of the game experience comes first and Rise of the Tomb Raider reached only part of its great potential.
+ High quality gameplay
+ Impeccable level design
+ Gorgeous graphics
+ Good sound design, music and voice acting
+ Better contoured survival elements
+ A wide variety of skills, weapons and upgrades
+ Completists heaven
- Horrible optimization problems
- Generic story with predictable moments
- Way too many scripted events
- The shooting mechanics still need work
- Out of place microtransactions
- Begs for a New Game+