Does Lara's latest adventure rise above the hype?
I'm a longtime Tomb Raider fan who didn't love the last Tomb Raider game. To me, the 2013 reboot lacked two major things that define the Tomb Raider franchise: a steely, female protagonist with resting bitch face who defies the traditional definition of likability, and tombs.
At least the tombs are back.
Unfortunately, a compelling story, well-designed controls, and inspired writing are all missing in action. Rise of the Tomb Raider tries to do too many things at once, and fails at almost all of them. It's not that it's a bad game per se, it's just an extremely messy game. There are indications all through it that Crystal Dynamics was trying to serve too many masters, and lost sight of a strong central creative vision.
Except for the tombs. The tombs are great.
From a narrative perspective, the original game might as well have never happened. Lara's father was dead before that game began, and Rise of the Tomb Raider revolves around the mysterious circumstances of his demise. His death really isn't that much of a mystery, however. It, like everything else in the game's plot, is predictable, cliché, and ham-handedly telegraphed. I was expecting something really poignant seeing as writer Rhianna Pratchett recently lost her own father, but she wasn't really given room to explore anything meaningfully emotional in Rise of the Tomb Raider's scattered format. These character points are crammed into cut scenes and campfire monologues... and oh how I despised those campfire monologues. I'd level up all my skills, swap out weapons, and craft new ammo, and Lara would still be talking about nothing terribly important. I'm not sure anyone in the company knows for certain who Lara Croft is anymore, other than a prominent female character that can be marketed to those concerned about such things.
The story is also notable for its completely ridiculous fictional artifacts and characters who would be more at home in Hobbit fan fiction than a video game set in our world. The dialogue is overwritten and bland, the cut scenes are too numerous, and everything is cluttered and overdone. Much of Square Enix's output is like this, so if overwritten and overwrought hasn't bothered you in Final Fantasy games, you'll be fine. If you're hoping for a Crystal Dynamics story more like Tomb Raider: Legend or Tomb Raider: Underworld, the plot is going to be painful for you. The game exists in an uncanny valley where you're looking at images which are astoundingly real -- Lara's face has an interesting unique quality to it now instead of being generically "sexy," and the environments are beautiful. But below the neck she's distractingly idealized, and she doesn't dress for the weather. Worse, cold and wind effects are horribly inconsistent, and the supporting characters are downright stupid... including a guy with massive hand wounds who still manages to accurately hold a gun, and a tenth century prophet from Constantinople who looks like Aragorn mixed with Bradley Cooper.
But Rise of the Tomb Raider is not just a narrative. It's a video game. Games with terrible stories can work if they're really fun to play -- like almost every Resident Evil game ever made. Rise of the Tomb Raider makes up some ground here with clever, varied tomb puzzle designs and some good platforming areas. The rest of the game is a mixed bag, with sound being overdone in places and lackadaisical in others, and combat being notably uneven. The Tomb Raider franchise has had a problem balancing combat for some time, and those problems persist.
The last game had some decent combat mechanics until late-game levels that had so many bullets flying around that you resorted to blind fire and grenades far too often, and that repeats itself in Rise of the Tomb Raider. But the base combat isn't as solid as the last outing: it starts out very stealth driven, then dips to almost no difficulty at all once Lara obtains the shotgun. Special overpowered weapons that Lara can buy with collected coins also throw off the difficulty, then the last level renders all the weapons but the bow all-but-useless.
The nice thing about the bow is that you don't have to reload it, which sidesteps the annoyance of the reload trigger and the prompt to pick up environmental objects both being mapped to the X button. It's incredibly frustrating when you want Lara to reach for a can she can turn into a grenade, only to have her reload her weapon instead, especially when you're in an active firefight. Lara's previously signature weapon, the pistol, also becomes obsolete very early in the game. This was uniquely disappointing for me as a longtime fan.
The game also can't make up its mind whether it wants to be an open world game or a more linear progress paradigm, which isn't bad, per se, but neither type of game mode feels especially meaty as a result. I personally preferred the more linear areas because most of the open world missions were lame, and if I picked up more than one at a time, the game map didn't track them very well.
And the hunting mechanics reveled in the suffering of the animals so thoroughly that I was left disturbed. I understand that, in the real world, killing a deer with a bow and arrow is a horrendously barbaric process unless you do it exactly right. I have absolutely zero interest in making innocent animals suffer in a video game, and the extent to which the game belabors their deaths struck me as borderline sadistic. My husband, who is more sensitive to this sort of thing than I am, couldn't even be in the room because the sounds of the wounded deer were that upsetting. Games are supposed to be fun, not Bambi torture porn.
Though the game has a morbid fascination with Lara's physical suffering as well, though no matter how many times she falls down a mountain, smashes off a glacier, or falls through ice, she doesn't get more than some scrapes and bruises. Her voice acting, perhaps in an attempt to sound less allegedly pornographic, now borders on victimized whimpering, and I don't want that from a Lara Croft game. It's not fun.
But when Lara is actually tomb raiding, it is very much fun. The environments are gorgeous, the puzzles are clever, and the difficulty level is perfect, thanks to a subtle, organic hint system that gives you just enough information to limit frustration. There's a real sense of satisfaction when you figure out the puzzles, and no two are alike. In the tombs, the game works as an Xbox One graphics showpiece without resorting to cut scenes every ten minutes. I could have happily played a game more heavily focused on these areas, but they're relegated to optional status.
Meanwhile, the much-promoted translation mechanic is an interesting idea that doesn't quite solidify. I felt the same way about a platforming scramble mechanic which I liked except for the fact that navigating vertically is surprisingly complex. Jumping and scrambling is on the A button. Latching onto a wall with the ice axes or recovering from a slip is on X. I don't know why it couldn't all have been the same button, and dying due to a button fumble was annoying. Too often, I didn't feel like the game was communicating my intent, and I play a lot of platformers.
But at least these efforts are original. Too much of the game feels borrowed from other sources. Lara's "survival instincts" are just Geralt's Witcher senses from The Witcher II... and The Witcher III refined the snot out of that mechanic. Other parts feel like Assassin's Creed. Other parts feel like a Survival Horror game. And there are even some sequences that feel ripped off from Uncharted and God of War, which probably isn't good since those are PlayStation games and Rise of the Tomb Raider is a timed Xbox exclusive.
So it's not surprising that the name "Rise of the Tomb Raider" is misleading. There's no build, there's no character development, and Lara doesn't even come across as terribly smart or interesting. Perhaps she's "likable" in a generic sense, but I don't want her to be likable. I want her to be a defined character in her own right, in games that have clear design visions. Rise of the Tomb Raider fails to rise above the clutter of its various complexities, and fails to be greater as a whole than the sum of its parts.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One with a digital copy provided by Microsoft.
Images courtesy of Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix.