****The other day I did a piece covering my First Impressions of Rise of the Tomb Raider, so please feel free to read that for a more general overview of the game. In the interests of trying not to repeat myself too much, this one will mostly be a follow-up to that – and focusing more on the narrative/complete experience stuff that was missing from the previous one.****
Having played something of a blinder with 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal had quite a lot to live up to with Rise of the Tomb Raider, and as the latest installment of the franchise hit the shelves, expectations were undoubtedly high. For some people, more so, because – what with all the timed exclusive stuff – this might have been a big chunk of the reason they handed over their (future) kid’s college fund for the console on which to play it – like, erm, some guy I know. On a more personal note, RotTR was released on the same day as Fallout 4, so given that playing on the former meant I wasn’t playing on the latter, there was a definite element of ‘this better be effing worth it….’ as I entered Lara’s universe this time around.
The good news is that it totally was worth it, and actually, in testament to just how good Rise of the Tomb Raider is, I’ve been more than happy to forego my Fallout time in favour of it. On more than one occasion I’ve intended to do a few hours with Lara before moving across platforms to do a few in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, but have actually found myself unable to tear myself away from all the Tomb Raider-ey goodness. Frequently, I’ve done the old ‘I’ll just do x first…”, and that’s led to “I might as well do y now…” until I’d suddenly realise it was already stupid o’clock, and I should probably turn the Xbox off and go to bed. Essentially, even though I initially prioritised this in the interests of getting it out of the way before I got helplessly sucked into Fallout, I ended up getting helplessly sucked into this.
A big part of the reason for that – and what I’ll look at first – is that Rise of the Tomb Raider manages to find a perfect balance between a Narrative Driven, Linear Type game and a huge, sprawling Open World type one. Like the previous instalment, RotTR features large “hub areas” for you to explore at your own pace, as well as distinctly linear paths when you’re focusing on the story/mission aspects. What’s more, the extent to which you do focus on one or the other is largely up to you, and indeed, thinking about it a bit can improve your overall experience. Whereas in most linear games, collectibles are merely a ‘tick-off list’, or perhaps trophy/achievement related, because of the XP/upgrading/finding cool and useful stuff elements in Rise of the Tomb Raider, you’ll be amply rewarded for that exploration, and both aspects mutually reinforce and benefit each other – and in fairly smart ways. If you progress a bit in the story, for example, you’ll pick up things that’ll make your exploration easier, or allow you to do something you couldn’t before, and if you explore tombs and crypts and whatnot, you’ll learn skills, or get pretty cool stuff that’ll help you out in the missions.
In practice, what this means is that your time in Tomb Raider will be spent being equally compelled by both aspects, with the allure of exploration and completion pulling you in one direction, and the narrative pulling you in the other. Basically, it all makes Rise of the Tomb Raider the gaming equivalent of MSG, and you’ll be helplessly ramming it all down your virtual cake-hole like there’s no tomorrow.
Now, that NARRATIVE. What really made the last instalment great for me was exactly that it had a compelling story, and its more mature approach to that story ultimately gave the game an emotional resonance that’s only present in the best examples of the medium. It also made Lara a better, more sympathetic character – and not the caricature she’d become over successive games prior to the reboot. I mean, yeah, a wise-cracking, kick-ass hero’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Lara Croft had become a parody of that really, and the Tomb Raider games had arguably crossed into some kind of ‘leery teenage fantasy’ area for the most part. Whilst the games were eminently playable, there was a definite sense that they had just become a vehicle to dress Lara up in sexy outfits, and give her an array of gadgets that would make James Bond look like some kind of Luddite simpleton – and whatever narrative existed was usually of the ludicrous, overly-clichéd variety.
That’s not present here at all, thankfully, and this is every bit as well handled as the last one – probably more so. Sure, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief from time to time, but there’s a degree of realism to RotTR that I enjoyed immensely. You can genuinely understand why Lara’s doing what she’s doing, and what’s driving her, and all the kick-assness comes from the fact that she’s not particularly blasé about it, that it is a struggle, but she’s fighting on anyway. Going back to all the upgrading/experience stuff for a second, and precisely because your own learning/skill curve is matching hers, you really feel like you’re making the journey together, and genuinely overcoming the odds in a realistic, and ultimately quite satisfying, way.
Within the mission-ey stuff, there’s also an admirable degree of variety too, so you don’t ever feel like you’re just doing one thing. There’s a mix of all the climbing and agility-based aspects that we associate with the Tomb Raider games, some shooting and combat, as well as an element of puzzle solving. One aspect that I found quite cool too was that even the “combat” bits have an element of choice that’s enjoyable. You can often, for example, utilise Lara’s agility, and provided you’ve unlocked/purchased certain things – and with a bit of forethought and nous – pass a particular area using stealth kills and silent takedowns, as opposed to all-out combat. Again, I felt that this was in keeping with the tone of the game, and whilst going in all-guns-blazing is an option (and a fun one), it just makes more sense that Lara would be looking to even the odds by playing to her strengths, and using her head. It obviously adds a fair bit of value in terms of replayability too – and that’s pretty cool, because I will want to replay this at some point.
Anyway, taken as a whole, the narrative elements of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally well done, and it’s a joy to experience and be a part of. Nothing seems gratuitously thrown in there, and it’s all the more absorbing because of that. The themes of redemption, and closure, and loyalty all play a prominent part in Lara’s journey, and they’re all handled with skill and respect. The acting is superb, and in conjunction with the high-quality visuals and graphical excellence of the game, this is a fine example of how Games can be a truly absorbing – and interactive – narrative medium.
Now, that “element” of Puzzle Solving I mentioned. As I’ve already said, I’d genuinely hoped this would feature more in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that it doesn’t really. Yes, there are quite a few “challenge Tombs” which is great, and some of the collectibles are in places that aren’t immediately accessible and such, but there’s nothing that’s really going to stump you for longer than a minute or two. I’m never going to be winning any prizes for ‘using my brainz to think stuff good’, but there was exactly one Tomb that took me longer than a minute to figure out (it took three), and the few collectibles that I thought had me beaten, were actually just because I’d not progressed in the story far enough yet.
In a way, I get that it’s harder to have as much of this stuff when you’re being driven forward by a narrative – and the pacing of that narrative – but this is exactly why I feel Rise of the Tomb Raider could’ve had its cake and eaten it too. Given the “Challenge Tombs” are optional – and given you’ll likely be tackling them during some down time/exploration anyways – there was actually no reason not to ram a bit of trickiness in there, because it wouldn’t be interfering with the ‘quick, get to here before the bad guys’ elements of the story. Nobody likes feeling stupid, admittedly, but those moments of ‘WTF….???’ followed (at some point) by that unmistakable feeling of ‘Ahhhh, now I get it!’ were a big part of what made the Tomb Raider games so compelling, I thought, and it’s a shame that seems to have been all but lost – even if it was in favour of an excellent narrative approach.
Finally, in terms of how the game works, I really couldn’t complain at all. For the vast majority of the time I was playing, the controls were intuitive, responsive, and everything worked exactly how it should’ve. For example, even though Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t overtly a ‘Stealth’ game, when I opted for that approach, I found it to be considerably less frustrating than many games that are built around the concept. Similarly, the folks over at Tomb Raider HQ seem to have figured out that you can remove a lot of frustration from the game in general by just thinking a wee bit about how you map your buttons. In climbing, combat, crafting, whatever, there’s never really any ‘THAT’S NOT WHAT I TOLD YOU TO DO, LARA!’, and there’s next to no issues with her ‘taking a massive leap into an abyss’ rather than hopping across to a ledge a foot away – which, as I said before, is great, all things considered.
The camera usually works fantastically too, and there’s none of the equally frustrating issues of it suddenly disappearing into nearby rocks, or randomly spinning around at mach 3. The two exceptions to this I’ve found are the few underwater swimming bits, and occasionally, if you get rushed in combat. In the former, it’s not a huge deal, but in the latter it might get you dead once or twice. Basically, if one guy runs at you – and gets close – and there are others slightly further away, the camera might freak out a bit if you try aiming, and you’ll have to run away until it sorts itself out again. In all honesty though, it only happened a few times, and it wasn’t the end of the world thanks to RotTR’s fairly generous checkpointing/saving system, meaning it cost me less than a minute of progression in the end. As a word of warning though, one of those times was the “final boss battle”, and the camera thing – with a little bit of added ‘snapping to cover on the side facing the bad guy’ – had me yelling at the telly just a little bit.
In CONCLUSION though, Rise of the Tomb Raider is exactly what it looks like when a lot of stuff’s done really, really well, and when that all comes together to become greater than the sum of its parts. As a narrative experience, this is up there with, say, The Last of Us, and when you then factor in all the addictiveness and enjoyment that comes from the open world aspects of the game, it really is quite a brilliant, and potent, combination. I’ve enjoyed every minute of my Rise of the Tomb Raider journey, and I’m likely to enjoy it all when I inevitably come to tackle it again. I haven’t even started on the challenge stuff yet either, so there’s every chance that the sum total of my experience will grow yet further still.
Honestly, if you’d have told me at any point over the last two years that I’d be doing anything else when Fallout was released, let alone playing on another game, I’d have said you were batshit crazy, but Rise of the Tomb Raider was capable of capturing my time and attention in an impressive number of ways. It’s fun, commendably big, and there’s so much that’s done really, really well that it’s a genuine joy to throw oneself into. My only real complaint is the Tomb Raiding/Puzzle-y stuff which was, in my opinion, sacrificed when it didn’t need to be. That said though, maybe it was a blessing in disguise that there wasn’t that added ‘time-suck’ element – a really, really good disguise, admittedly, but a disguise nonetheless.
All-in-all though, Rise of the Tomb Raider is fantastic, and – a certain Wasteland-ey game aside – it’s highly likely it’ll be one of the highlights of my 2015. This is a beautiful, well-crafted, and well thought-out game, and, in my opinion, is an example of what happens when game-makers are operating at the height of their craft, and when they really think about what they’re doing. I was expecting a lot from Rise of the Tomb Raider, and it delivered on all of that – and then some. Sure, at least one of my kids might not be going to college now, but when I show ’em just how freakin’ awesome the explosive arrow is, I’m pretty sure they’ll be *totes* OK with that!