Posted on 01 Feb 2017 by L Coulsen

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration

The Defence

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action, Adventure
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: No
Release date: 28 Jan 2016

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3.1 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 650
AMD Radeon HD 7770
RAM: 6 GB
HDD: 25 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i7 3.5 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 970
AMD equivalent
RAM: 8 GB
HDD: 25 GB
DirectX: 11
Controller: Full
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

The Case

Rise of the Tomb Raider has been around for a while now, so it might seem like an odd game to be looking back on. But it’s worth remembering that the 20th anniversary edition, which brought new content along with some much needed fixes (yay, Geothermal valley isn’t a slideshow anymore!) dropped much more recently. Which leaves us now wondering not only if the game is any good, but if the recent changes have added anything of significance. So let’s jump in and take a look.

The Trial

Now, it’s worth bearing in mind, that your (not so) humble reviewer was not what one might call a fan of the “first” Tomb Raider from 2013. It had potential, and wasn’t terrible, but the writing was so ludicrously hamfisted, and there were some gameplay elements that…urgh. Yeah, enough about that. Just keep that all in mind when you read the following.

In a game called Tomb Raider you must raid at least one tomb.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a bloody good game. It’s not Tomb Raider, not the one that I grew up with. That Lara is gone now, and she won’t be coming back. This new series is a beast all its own. One which is still trying a little too hard to be Uncharted with a woman, but it’s beginning to find a sense of its own identity. And this, yes, does mean that Tomb Raider 2013 is the first, and Rise is the second game. Just for the record. There are still a few, lingering niggles, but they are now nothing more than minor issues that don’t particularly mar the overall product.

This is most noticeable in how the game has a somewhat oil and matter approach to gameplay versus narrative. On the one hand, the team, particularly the (thankfully) far more fleshed out narrative by returning Rhianna Pratchet, expends an immense deal of effort trying to make this a living, believable (if only internally) and consistent universe. Meanwhile, certain design choices…well, it’s not ruining the experience, but it is distracting. Particularly the way Lara “learns” a language by looking at murals, scrolls and the like. She just seems to stare at them for a while, and discern their meaning by sheer force of will. And it’s such an easy thing to fix too. Give her a codex that she can use to translate things, inevitably growing more familiar with the language in question each time. Maybe even make it a mini-game so we, the players, might even learn something too.

The hunting system is likewise in need of further tweaking. Whilst significantly improved over its predecessor, with a greater variety of game, and tangible rewards in the form of animal skins and the like which can be used to craft or upgrade equipment. It still feels a bit tacked on. Now more than ever, with how darn well it was implemented into the Endurance Mode multiplayer side game. In which animal carcasses also count as food. That may not be to everyone’s taste, having to hunt for food to survive, but there’s certainly the market out there that would appreciate it as an optional extra.

Ah, the good old days when Lara was more...edgy.

Speaking of Endurance Mode, it is incredibly well fleshed out. Cutting out a lot of the fluff (story and set pieces) of the single player experience, in favour of a straight up gameplay based, uhm, game. All you’re doing is exploring the area to find artefacts, venturing down into, dun dun DUHN, tombs and raiding them for artefacts. Whilst righting the elements (Southern ponce doesn’t like the cold and will freeze to death because of a lazy fart) and hunger. Not so great solo, given how easy it is to die, but in co-op it’s a damn fine gameplay mode that grows increasingly difficult with each passing day. And instantly proves just how great the hunting mechanic could be…how great it is when committed to.

Other things, like the fact Lara can take fifteen bullets to the face and just shrug them off by tying a bandage around her arm…it’s a bit silly, but at least it’s an understandable, perhaps even essential, acquiescence. Realism can only be taken so far, after all, before it becomes an impediment to the final product. And having Lara spend years in therapy learning how to use her brain again…that’d kinda’ break the flow just a wee bit. But hey, everyone else would have gotten bored and fecked off by the time you went back, or stayed too long and died of starvation, so…yeah anyway, you get my point.

Right then, now that that’s all out of the way. General gameplay is mostly unchanged from the first. Tweaked, mostly, in all the right ways, expanded on with extra weapon and tool choices, it still focuses primarily on the more actiony side of action adventure, but it’s fun to play. The auto-cover system is as good as ever, and the introduction of more varied level design makes gunfights far more (or less if you choose stealth) engaging and rewarding. There are also far fewer forced combat sections, though there are still some, but most can be circumvented all together if you choose. Chances are you just won’t choose that path, because the gunfights and stealth mechanics are quite a lot of fun to use.

Even Lara can’t escape the zombie craze.

It’s a really pretty looking game as well. Not really making any great use of DirectX 12, it does at least make use of it to improve performance if you have access to it. Character animations are really bloody nice, especially in the way enemies respond to injuries to different parts of the bodies and the frikkin’ superb auto stealth system. Whilst the world at large is beautifully varied, colourful when it needs to be, drab and grey when it makes sense, and intricately detailed.

Puzzles are still…in need of work. Some sections, like the optional (remember that word) Challenge Tombs show some real potential. They still tend to be quite smaller, but are noticeably larger than Tomb Raider, and now require significantly more effort and time to complete. The Mongolian shipwreak, early in the game, was particularly enjoyable. Requiring good timing and pointed application of physics based solutions. In other words, you get to break shit, and that’s never a bad thing. Well, unless it’s your little toe or something. That hurts like a bitch.

The overall narrative is…not terrible either. There are some moments that are so screamingly obvious, like, “water is wet” kind of obvious. But actually, even most of those moments aren’t so bad. Feeling more like they’ve been well set up rather than flat out contrived. Overall, it tries to bring up some compelling ideas about religion and mortality, without being too open about commenting on any one specific religion. Though it’s screamingly obvious they really mean Christianity, even literally calling one character a Messiah. But its lack of willingness to really commit, so as to avoid offending anyone, leaves it falling a bit flat. Not terrible, just underwhelming. With the final product feeling, actually, not at all dissimilar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade without…hell, even the main antagonists are pretty much a Nazi analogue.

Rather this than skinning a Tauntaun.

The Croft Mansion extra story does a better job of exploring the latter theme, however. Delving into the history of Lara’s Father and his obsession with overcoming mortality. All of which (spoiler, but not really) spurred by his inability to let go of Lara’s dead Mother. Your exploration of the manner reveals, in a very notes and audio logs heavy journey, exactly how dedicated, and even slightly unhinged, Lord Croft was. Clearly impressing upon us that that’s precisely where Lara gets it from. Although…there is one diary entry that makes me wonder if they might not be setting up Lara as an illegitimate child from her Mother having an affair with Roth. The surrogate Father figure who had the most pointlessly stupid death in the first game. Perhaps a serious plot point, maybe a red herring, probably just me reading too much into it. But still an interesting idea all the same.

Lara’s Nightmare, finally, which also takes place in the manner…that’s a little more difficult to pin down. Basically, you are tasked with making your way, literally, through a nightmare Lara is having. Destroying three aspects of her Uncle’s lingering “evil” before confronting his malicious presence head on and freeing her from her past. It’s quite fun actually, scouring the mansion to unlock different areas, finding different weapons and the like. But the fact it must be completed in one sitting, with you having to start all over if you die, makes it kind of a chore. Especially since it can take a good half hour to actually wrap everything up.

FOX news in writing.

Lara’s Nightmare and Endurance Mode can further be tweaked via the use of the seemingly pointless card drops. With both also earning you more as you play. Things such as giving enemies, or Lara, huge heads, reducing damage from certain weapons, adding explosive chickens (yes, that’s a serious thing) to make your game more or less difficult. Actually, they work in the main game too, during mission replay, and they can make things more interesting, challenging or easier in quite a lot of ways. Especially if you’re playing co-op Endurance, which allows several cards be used by each player. They’re a bit of a gimmick, but some of them add a nice challenge and others are ludicrous enough to be a lot of fun.

The Verdict

Essentially, if it hasn’t become obvious by this point. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a really good game. It’s not great, still having just enough crisis of identity to keep it from being truly outstanding, but it fixes almost every single problem its predecessor had, whilst setting up a lot of future plot threads which are rather compelling and leave one wanting to know more. Clocking in at a good 30+ hours of content, it’s not an insignificant chunk of your life either, making it not at all a bad exchange for your hard earn monehs.

Case Review

  • Open Ended Combat: Most areas can be approached guns blazing, sneaky stabby, or flat out skipped all together.

  • Scale: Both the game’s length and many of the visited areas are immense both in time and physical proportions.

  • Narrative: Overall, fairly solid, but heavily derivative and without any real sense of its own identity.

  • That’s Not How Language Works: I will stare at this manuscript until its secrets are revealed by the force of my brain!

  • Tombs: Come on guys! In a game called Tomb Raider, we really would like to loot some mandatory tombs ya?

4.5 Score: 4.5/5
A huge improvement over the first title in almost every way, though still struggling to find a sense of its own identity.

Evidence

  • Graphics: There are a fudgeton of options that allow a great deal of tweaking so as to make the game run on a very wide variety of system setups. Including DX12 support, that noticeably improves framerates where available, even if it doesn't add any new features.
  • Audio: Each of the primary sound elements can be tuned individually. Though, with a generally well implemented sound balance, there's no particular need to adjust independent values.
  • Controls: Full rebinding and controller options, though the turn speed, even cranked all the way to maximum, on a controller is ludicrously slow.

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