Year: 2015 [Xbox Exclusive] | 2016 [Multiplatform release]
Platform: PC | Xbox One | Xbox 360 | PS4
I'm a great admirer of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. I went in with low expectations after previous mediocre attempts by Lara's handlers, and what I found was an incredibly well presented adventure, that I actually enjoyed equally as much as any entry in the Uncharted series. It was no surprise that Uncharted was topping everyone's lists for 'Best Action | Adventure' title on the PS3, so for the Tomb Raider franchise to take notes from Nathan Drake, was a smart move to make. The 2013 reboot took a new direction narratively, instead of throwing us into the role of tomb raider Lara Croft, we had to play out her growth as a character from her normal beginnings, and how she grew into her famous role through adverse conditions and the challenges that faced her on the island the game took place on.
The problem was, that this was very much a one-trick-pony situation. We've played out the role of Lara as a young woman, who then becomes an adventurer. Once that unique and interesting narrative element has been played out, there's no returning to it. She can't re-discover herself a second time [unless a distant reboot in the future of 2025 proves me wrong]. That's the problem that plagues Rise Of The Tomb Raider [ROTTR]. Knowing we can't play the same trick twice, we're forced to move in a new direction narratively, and as the many Tomb Raider games have taught us over the years, fans are no longer happy with the standard formula of shooting | platforming | puzzles. They crave an engaging storyline, as the gameplay-centric focus of previous Tomb Raider games no longer satiates its audience, grown accustomed to the high budget AAA stories of games such as Uncharted and other modern adventure games.
So if Lara can't explore her transition from present to future self, all that's left is for a mechanic from her past to come forward in order for us to learn a bit more about her history. Cue her late father, and his obsession in pursuing an artefact that ruined his career and reputation. Lara learns of the whereabouts of an ancient artefact that sounds eerily similar to a certain Holy Grail, that promises eternal life to those that posses it; The Divine Source. She rushes off to Syria and Siberia in pursuit of The Divine Source hoping to restore her father's reputation, and make sense of the confusion she's now suffering of the supernatural events she experienced from the 2013 reboot.
She now knows the world holds mystery and the supernatural, and wants to uncover the truth behind them. We have a mixture of betrayal, revelation, and some other surprises thrown in throughout, but what it all amounts to is a very safely played, mediocre action | adventure plot. I wasn't blown away by anything in a big way, and what was meant to be a surprise or perhaps even a plot twist, was seen coming a mile away, and did very little to excite me beyond what started as a good introduction to the game. I won't go much further into the story at risk of ruining what's still a decent experience, but it's very safe and plays by the book, which is a shame as the experimentation done with Lara's character in Tomb Raider was a welcome breath of fresh air for the franchise, and I wish some of that stayed.
Some of the core gameplay design choices contradict the growth Lara has undergone, and at some points you wonder if the first game happened at all. Certain upgrades at firecamps bestow Lara with abilities and buffs, that were either obtained before in the first game, or are just slight improvements of those previous upgrades. Has she forgotten how to track animals since the first game? Has she forgotten how to see glowing collectibles, or how to aim a bow for an extended length of time? These questions could be simply answered with "It's been a while since her last adventure, she's probably rusty", but it feels like a clumsy answer for being able to throw the same perks in a second time alongside new ones, and have the player relearn them all to extend the length of the game. I can understand weapon upgrades starting from scratch, as her equipment is procured onsite and these weapons are stock models once more. Her abilities and perks however, it just feels like a lazy attempt at padding out the game. What's going to happen in the 3rd entry to the reboot timeline? Am I going to have to get enough experience to see collectibles glow once more, and to be able to skin 2 pelts from an animal instead of 1? How can she forget these things over the course of 1 game?
That's where my biggest concern for the game lies, in repeating the same formula of the first, with no real though taken as to what makes sense, and what is simply artificially extending the grind for players a 2nd time around. At least her attitude and personality reflect someone who underwent the challenges of the first game. She's much more determined, focused, and is fully aware of her capabilities. No longer feeling threatened by the various dangers around her, she adapts and overcomes whatever challenges are thrown at her. It's unfortunate that this is undermined by the whole forgetfulness of her abilities, skills, and perks. Ignoring this small frustration however, there's actually quite a lot of perks to choose from this time around.
Split into 3 main categories based skill-trees, Lara can invest in skills which specialise in a certain playstyle. This forces the player into a tier based progression system where the next tier of skills is unlocked after spending a certain amount of points in the current tier within that category. As such, the player is given the freedom to approach the game with their own playstyle, as they balance decisions on whether to: add points into becoming a survival expert, capable of taking extra pelts from her animal hunts; become an expert marksmen with a bow, capable of lining up multiple headshots for Lara to execute quickly in seconds; or become an expert crafter, and be able to be more hasty in her preparation of handmade explosives and other throwable objects.
That last point is one of the few combat additions in this year's Tomb Raider game; craftables. Using tins found on the floor, Lara can create handmade explosives, or using bottles to create Molotov Cocktails. She's able to improvise with objects around the environment, to best suit the player's need at that particular moment. These objects have a double affordance, as the player can use them for stealthy means such as creating noise for distraction, or they can use it offensively as I mentioned above. These decisions are made on the fly, and are dynamically and seamlessly weaved into the fabric of gameplay much like the Last Of Us. Rather than navigate a clunky menu however to craft these objects and store them, ROTTR opts for a more immediate and straightforward approach. Holding a button down whilst holding the appropriate object, will begin to craft | convert the item into its more aggressive form. Because of this, the player is able to react to the developing situation much more readily as a result.
This adaptiveness continues through every other aspect of the game as well. I played ROTTR on the hardest difficulty mode, which is no walk in the park, even later on with all the defensive perks acquired to reduce damage. Because of the overhauled stealth kill system [which perks can improve later on], and the ability to hide in bushes and atop the branches of trees, the freedom is given to players should they wish to tackle the game in a more stealthy approach, then they can. For easier difficulties, the temptation to run and gun for sake of progressing quicker and not being too stressful, will most likely favour most players on the casual level. For players engaging with the game on a higher difficulty level, the A.I is sophisticated enough and aggressive enough, that when coupled with different enemy types that range from sniping Lara to outright flanking her out of cover, the game coerces you into at least trying to start every encounter by trying to take out as many enemies out as you can quietly first.
I found myself surveying the environment at the start of every major encounter that involved multiple enemies. I'd stalk them and work out a few movement patrol patterns, before deciding which ones would be best to take out first, and what the best location | method would be for achieving a stealthy kill. The game rewards you for stacking successful stealth kills in succession with extra XP. Besides the extra XP, it's important to take out a few enemies quietly, to stand a chance when the real fight inevitably does begin [again, only on higher difficulty levels]. A certain perk will make sure that you achieve more XP on top for doing so, combo-style. Even when taking all of the perks that enable you to achieve more XP when performing certain actions or acquiring certain items, and even when coupled with obtaining multiple stealth kill combos to multiply the experience gain, I still found myself only just being able to max out Lara's perks and upgrades by the end of the game. There's just enough perks to obtain, that you'll be working hard to obtain them by the very end.
This is where the optional Tombs come in handy as well. Much like the 2013 reboot, Lara has the option of entering Tombs that are found along the main adventure. Rather than only provide small chests with bonuses this time however, there's Tombs that offer permanent skill upgrades or perks. Things such as being able to climb faster, or draw a bow faster, these are permanently added to your perk | skill roster as a bonus for taking the time to solve the Tomb's puzzles and challenges. There's more of them, and they're better designed than before, which makes them a welcome addition to ROTTR. Alongside more inventive and creative challenges such as 'Cut loose X number of rabbits' and 'Shoot archery targets', the game further rewards those keeping an eye out whilst traversing the environment. These small additions save Tomb Raider from becoming a go-to-mission type affair of tedious foot travel, as the search for these optional challenges in-between locations is a nice filler for the much more open areas of the game.
Enemy types are more varied than before, but still conform to only a few basic principles. They either take shots at Lara from afar, try to flush out Lara from cover by advancing or using grenades, or a mix of both, where they're likely to roam from point to point adapting to what the player is trying to achieve in the scenario. Every enemy has a weakness, and rather than feel like an organic battle system, it feels much more like a simple repetitive puzzle of "Who do I kill first, and what do I do to each enemy after?". Usually it's a standard repetition of a previous formula you'll have developed by this point according to your playstyle. For me it became taking out the close range rushers | shotgunners, before taking out the snipers in the back, and then dealing with the drifters in between. I began to enter a sort of grinding mode at points, where the monotony of the combat became a chore and not so enjoyable. This is all compounded further by the addition of one particular bow mechanic; poison arrows.
Poison arrows are the go-to weapon of choice for anyone in any situation. Whilst the flame arrows explode nicely and cover a fairly wide area, these only set enemies on fire, and might not be enough to finish them off [at least without the Greek fire upgrade]. The poison arrows already fill a much larger area than the fire arrows, and have the ability to be upgraded further to envelope a much wider area again, and this would be fine if its use was to temporarily blind | stun enemies into a coughing fit, but the reality is, it kills them outright. Any enemy type, any amount of armour or health, this will insta-kill any enemies it touches within its radius. Bears being the only exception, and maybe a few other powerful animals such as the cougar [I hadn't checked, I was too busy trying to shotgun them in the face before they mauled me]. The poison arrows are your escape weapon when you need to fall back, your overpowered rocket launcher that makes no sound, and your quick-reaction fallback if you need to take out a quickly advancing enemy. This is the BFG of Doom, the Shark Gun of Armed and Dangerous, the Hammer of Super Smash Bros, whatever you want to compare it to, it's the insta-kill overpowered weapon of choice you'll default to when you're in trouble. So combat becomes a repetition of your overly rehearsed routine, and should any part of it fail, whip out the poison arrows.
So as you can see, making each aspect of the game more open and diverse with more choices in equipment, isn't always the best call to make. What this does apply nicely to however, is the locations. Starting off in a hot, dry, arid Syria, before moving into the snowy, desolate, and unforgiving mountainsides of Syberia, the player also takes a tumble through various Tombs of ever changing design. Some are infested with mining equipment, others are submerged and forgotten ruins of an old village or temple, mixed with the variation of the scenery of the outside buildings and structures, the game has plenty going on with its set design, that you'll not feel as if you've visited the same place twice. A few areas serve as main hub-like locations, and from them stretch multiple paths into the various different areas, but each one is locked away from the player until they have obtained a certain piece of equipment or reached a certain section of the storyline.
The incredible environment design and variation is further improved with the visuals. I've been playing on the PC version with all the bells and whistles turned up, and it's easily one of the best looking games I've played. The hairworks on Lara really give her signature hairstyle a lofty and light physical movement that reveals a surprising amount to her character design. It's a small detail, and the regular hair physics are just as nice in places, but it adds much to her character, since one of her defining traits is her hairstyle. HBAO+ is an ambient occlusion technique by Nvidia as well, that adds a lot of depth and dimension to scenes. Without going into Game Developer technical jargon, just take it for granted that this is an improvement over something which you've probably heard about before called SSAO [Screen Space Ambient Occlusion]. Particles add a lot to the environments too, flakes of snow, rain, embers from a nearby fire crackling in the air, it all adds to the immersiveness already present in the environment design, and when combined with a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack and excellent sound design, it's one of few games that really does pull you into the game completely if you allow it.
As for the characters that inhabit said environment, there isn't really much to write home about. Our main two antagonists are pretty much on the same level of mediocrity as the main narrative sits. The brother is after the Divine Source to save his sister, who has a terminal illness, and alongside saving her, they are also recovering the artefact for the sinister organisation they are representing; Trinity. There's one or two interesting moments that the two provide when the brother | sister dynamic makes things interesting, and how far the brother is trying to go to save his sister, and how his sister takes full advantage of her brother's emotions to get her own way, but it's deftly played and only briefly. Strangely, I enjoyed watching these two siblings more than I did watching Lara, regardless of not being able to remember their names, which says very little of Lara in this entry.
Very little development is made with Lara at all outside of one or two main cutscenes. What starts as a flawed character trait at the beginning of the story, of her wanting to restore her father's reputation, then evolves into an obsession of chasing the Divine Source, regardless of the consequences. This was also played a little too lightly to be of any value to the narrative. Lara needed to be pushed into a questionable circumstance, where her judgement was severely impaired, and she makes a choice that holds some kind of consequence, whether it results in the death or injury of someone close to her, there needed to be some lesson learned from her flaws to be of any service to the story of her development [there's something similar at one point, but is hardly present to register]. Unfortunately, there is no such real epiphany or character development gained for Lara, and we follow the same mediocrity of playing it safe as I've mentioned at the start of this review.
Thus mediocrity is the sour taste that's left in my mouth after what I fondly remember as an incredibly well designed reboot in 2013. Playing the 2013 reboot was like ordering your starter. You don't expect anything amazing, it's the preceding dish to what you expect will be the main filler and more appetising dish afterwards. It was meant to be an explorative re-design of an iconic character, which would hopefully be an introductory lesson to the developers on how to approach a more polished sequel. To me, Tomb Raider 2013 was an exceptionally good starter, that almost felt like a meal in itself, which led to a disappointing main course which had too much going on with the ingredients, and tasted like a bland mixture of various elements where nothing really stood out. The assumption is that if the starter tastes this good, the main dish must be outstanding!
ROTTR just does 'well' in every area, and doesn't really elevate itself into something that means more to me than the exploration of Lara's beginnings did in the 2013 story. This was her first real adventure where she was equipped both physically and mentally to deal with the challenges thrown at her, and that's kind of all we had; more of what the ending half of Tomb Raider 2013 had. It was nice to see her flawed character show for once, and the obsession of clearing her father's name could have been twisted a lot more tightly into a more exaggerated representation of that character flaw. Yet the studio decided to take a far too subtle approach to this character design choice, and the result is that we don't really acknowledge its presence at all. When you consider this weak story and weak character design alongside failings with combat repetitiveness and broken equipment such as the poison arrows, there's nothing here that makes me want to give ROTTR anything higher than a 7/10 sort of review. I enjoyed it, it was fun, but it stands nowhere near on par as how the 2013 game felt on its first playthrough.
Some might think it's unfair to compare the two games, as they're going to be different, but that's exactly my point, they were supposed to be different. ROTTR was meant to have its own iconic voice in contrast to the first game, and instead of giving out a mighty roar like the first, it started off well and stuttered into a cough midway through. As there were signs of finishing off strong towards the end, these expectations were also disappointed as the ending came about with very little to impress beyond a paint by numbers style ending which we're all familiar with by now from other popular adventure stories. An enjoyable boss fight with an interesting mechanic for taking out the helicopter, but again is just a repetition of combat and waiting for your opportunity to follow up with an attack on the boss.
If ROTTR's goal was to create a safe, recognisable adventure story with the usual key elements and expectations of the genre to support Lara's first real adventure, then it's succeeded on all accounts. Considering the prequel's reputation for experimentation with the character however, it's impossible not to compare the two, and be slightly disappointed with the result. Uncharted 2 did a fantastic job of showing us a flawed character in a sequel, of someone who makes mistakes along the way, and all of this is further supported with things like his decision between Elena and Chloe who represents the dark and light in his personality. Lara doesn't get an equivalent morale dilemma, neither directly nor through metaphor in narrative. So as lovely as the graphics are, and as varied and imaginative as the locations are, this is all overshadowed by the shortcomings of character design and narrative, which whether the studio likes it or not, has now consequentially become a staple of the new Lara Croft, as a result of her 2013 reboot.