LARA “NOT LAURA” CROFT
By (Guess who?) Shelby Steiner
Tomb Raider has seen quite a few entries over the 20 years since the original released. That’s right folks, the Tomb Raider franchise turned 20 this year. In that time, the series has changed quite drastically, from games that featured infinite pistol ammo and horrible platforming sections, to one of the most beautiful and fun games I’ve seen to date. The Tomb Raider reboot is what got me reintroduced to the series and Rise of the Tomb Raider builds on that framework, and does a damn fine job at it too.
In the time I’ve spent with the latest iteration, I’ve loved every second. Now I can understand what you’re thinking: “But Shelby, Rise of the Tomb Raider came out in November of last year! Why are you reviewing a game from that long ago?”. I’ll answer that question. I was busy working, attending college, playing other games, playing with my corgi, and sleeping… So get off my back about it! I’m not some game reviewer that gets free copies and gets to stay at home all day writing these articles for a living.
So here we go.
The gameplay itself in Rise of the Tomb Raider is extremely solid. The mix of combat and exploration lends itself well to the design decisions made in the game. The areas that you’re taken to are fairly expansive, but not empty as a result. You won’t be slogging along across a useless plot of land to get to your destination (fast travel helps with this too). There’s tons of things to climb, tombs to explore, and many different enemies to fire arrows into.
Speaking of arrows, you will be happy to know that the iconic bow of the rebooted franchise has made its return and it is damn satisfying to use. The developers have done an excellent job of making the bow in all its forms feel like the real deal, or at least as much as they can without physically putting a bow in the player’s hands. The sounds themselves would’ve been enough to do the job, but they didn’t stop there. If you’re playing on a console, the controller vibrates in your hand as you draw the bowstrings and grow the vibration intensifies as Lara tires from holding the tension for too long. The bows also make a satisfying creaking sound as the frame strains from the tension and the arrows reward release with a pleasing “thwack!” followed by the whistle of it screaming towards the target.
But enough about the bow.
If you aren’t a bow person, you also have a number of firearms and improvised weapons in your arsenal. Now the weapons are fairly standard; you have your revolvers, semi auto pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and even a submachine gun. I’m happy to report however that they are nearly as gratifying to use as the bow. Each weapon has its uses and features unique feedback, but other than the fact that you can upgrade the weapons with scrap and purchased mods, there really isn’t much else to add.
The good news is that melee combat is still brutal and rewarding. During the course of events in the game, Lara goes through some extremely trying events and is forced into many life or death situations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the face-to-face moments in battle with the various enemies you’ll have to fight. Every skirmish feels desperate, and if you play on higher difficulty settings, that desperation bleeds out from the game to the player. Death is quick to those that do not dodge.
The adventuring elements to the game are on point as well, and the Lara’s distress is just as palpable here. Granted, there are plenty of very improbable moments in this part of the game (like latching onto a ledge without breaking every bone in her hands and arms), but if you are able to suspend your disbelief you’ll certainly enjoy the platforming. Besides, the daring moments in the game are where you’ll see the most impressive death sequences.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is beautiful to put it simply. The textures, flourishes, motion capture, and lighting all work together to create a package of visual splendor and there are tons of little things that add to the overall look as well. Crystal Dynamics obviously valued attention to detail considering they focused on the things that would likely be overlooked.
For instance, when Lara strides through the snow, she leaves footprints but when she walks slowly, her heels leave scrapes across the top of the snow and the snow itself even glimmers in the sun. Particle effects are employed in the fires to simulate the embers flying off. Explosive blasts are violent, yet muted and the fiery explosions from Molotov cocktails and lanterns smashing against a target appear to have the properties of a liquid burning and spreading everywhere.
Lara’s reactions to her environment does a good job of humanizing her, which makes the things that you’re forced to put her through almost cringeworthy at some points. Jumping into a freezing river causes her to start shivering upon her exit. In some scenes, you can even see her teeth chattering as a result of her beginning to freeze to death. Lara also recoils from injury in a believable way and boy does she get injured a lot.
It is worth pointing out that Lara Croft is a woman that apparently has a talent for dying in gruesome ways, much akin to the victims in the Final Destination movies. Crystal Dynamics kept Lara’s visceral death scenes from the Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot and expanded on it. It is needless to say (though I’ll say it anyway) that if you derive enjoyment from creative death and dismemberment, you won’t be disappointed. I myself have watched her impale herself on a spike countless times in my playthrough.
The sound design deserves a special mention here as well. The environments that you explore all have a distinct atmosphere that help with immersion. The howling wind, echo of gunshots, cries of animals in the distance, ice creaking under pressure… These sorts of touches serve to enhance the experience.
The camera itself is also part of what adds to the experience. The devs did some neat work with making the camera do things like zooming in when Lara squeezes through a tight space or focusing below Lara when a long drop is underneath. The visual cues that they use to indicate where footholds, climbable rock faces, and double-jump sections are possible are subtle enough to avoid breaking your immersion but obvious enough so that just about anyone can notice them.
It isn’t all sunshine and bears ripping your entrails out though. There are a few minor issues at least, but none that will ruin the experience for you I hope. These lesser oversights are like her glowsticks’ light not casting a shadow of her character and the camera dipping under the deep snow.
Lara’s adventures haven’t evolved much since her conception as a character so the originality obviously suffers. The key to the rebooted series’ success is not in reinventing the wheel, but by refining what is already present. The latest Tomb Raider just adds more to the already complete offering. Hopefully, if Crystal Dynamics continues Lara’s saga, they’ll maintain the progression.
STORY AND MULTIPLAYER
Lara’s excurision into the wilderness this time around was at least planned, so at least there’s that. Unfortunately I can’t really say that the plot to this Tomb Raider is enthralling. Sure, it is servicable, but it doesn’t do much to set itself apart from any other “search for the holy grail” style story. Like in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, Lara is on the mission to find an ancient artifact that her father was searching for and she quickly finds that an evil organization is looking for it too. Along the way she realizes that there are people trying to keep the artifact from being discovered and she takes the opportunity to side with them.
By no means does this mean that the story is badly written. In fact the story is pretty solid, it’s just bland.
To complement the story, there is an Expeditions mode. In this mode, you can select different styles of play including Remnant Resistance, Score Attack, Chapter Replay, and Chapter Replay Elite. Of these options, you can also choose to play a mission or even create your own. Modifiers are available in the form of cards which offer things like stronger enemies, better weapons, and even exploding chickens.
Now here is the sticky issue (not the exploded chickens, a different kind of sticky). These cards can be purchased in the game through earned currency, either collected from playing the story or Expeditions mode. However, Squeenix also included the option to purchase card packs with real money. Sound familiar? Yep, just like in Halo 5.
Here’s the kicker. Square omitted multiplayer from this game. I guess they got wise about the lack of interest in the 2013 Tomb Raider’s multiplayer. In replacement, Rise of the Tomb Raider includes a leaderboard to compare scores against your friends. This allows you, if you’re an Gamerscore hoarder like myself, to one-up your friends for as long as you both are playing the game. It’s a battle of attrition folks!
As a neat little aside, they also included a way for people streaming the game via Twitch to get screwed with by their viewers while playing in the Expeditions mode. Viewers also gain special rewards from simply watching certain events unfold as well, which is pretty sweet.
I guess the one thing that makes for a differentiator is the inclusion of microtransactions in Rise of the Tomb Raider. The thing that puzzles me about Squeenix putting them in, is just how utterly unnecessary they are. Earning credits to purchase card packs is ridiculously easy, and unlike in most other games that have them as an option, they aren’t even that useful. The card packs are fun but they are only for the Expeditions mode. They could have easily left them out and nobody would’ve missed them. I guess Square decided to make a quick buck, which seems like they’re heading in that direction here lately.
At least they’re not Konami though… Right?
So at last, you’ve arrived. You are probably wondering what the gist of all of this is. Well let me break it down for you.
This game is sublime. The combination of awesome visuals and riveting gameplay, including both the subdued moments in addition to the action sequences, do very well to offset the missteps. The story may not be anything to write home about but then again these sorts of games rarely ever have that kind of impact, except The Last of Us. Holy crap that was a tearjerker sometimes. What Tomb Raider does well is that it puts you through hell with Lara Croft, and you’ll likely watch her die a few times. But it will be worth it.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the best games that I’ve played from 2015. As you know (if you’ve read my other reviews at least) I don’t offer scores or stars, but suggestions. I assure you, this Tomb Raider is a must-buy for anyone that enjoys the series or action adventure style games. I’d also consider this a must-buy for fans of the Uncharted series. It’s worth noting as well that Rise of the Tomb Raider looks even more amazing on the PC, and it will be coming soonish to PlayStation 4.
So to those players out there with only a PS4, put this on your list. If you have a PC or Xbox One, give it a shot at least. Rent it, buy it, whatever. You’re going to love it.
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