Shadow of the Tomb Raider appears to be beautiful but a little vacuous

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In the course of 45 minutes with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft gatecrashes a fiesta, scales a cliff, wrestles an eel, levels a temple, steals a magic dagger, murders a bunch of dudes in Mariachi skullpaint and drowns a city after triggering the apocalypse. That’s quite the evening’s work, especially if you factor in all the times I accidentally impaled her on rebars, but I’m already struggling to remember the details. The first Tomb Raider game with Eidos Montreal at the helm, Shadow is so far exactly the blend of handholdy exploration, uneven combat, wilderness stealth, gauntlet runs and grisly snuff footage we’ve come to expect from the series under Square Enix. Two games on from the 2013 reboot, that could be a problem. I realise it’s old hat to moan about major franchise sequels lacking originality, but even by blockbuster standards this game is surprisingly unsurprising.

The story sees Lara travelling to Central America with cuddly big brother figure Jonah to recover yet another relic and stick it to Trinity, the Illuminati-style evil organisation from 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Said relic is capable of rebuilding the world from the bedrock up, the catch being that it comes in two parts, a dagger and a box. In obtaining the former without the latter, Lara inadvertently sets a number of supernatural disasters in motion, and a race for the prize ensues which carries you deep into the Amazon jungle. Lara’s complicity in the carnage she seeks to prevent is a major plot theme – you’ll see random bystanders, including children, die as a result of your actions. It doesn’t sound worlds away from the first game’s tale of realising one’s capacity for violence, and it’s hard to imagine the script wringing much nuance from the premise, given the B-movie overkill of the cataclysms in question.

The level I saw took the form of a semi-interactive walk-and-talk through a gloriously candlelit fiesta, followed by a scramble down some cliffs, a few platform puzzles (think movable weights), a couple of shoot-outs (think red barrels) and one of the series’ beloved hair-raising escape sequences. It’s a slickly laid-out affair, the script propelling you seamlessly through combat zones, puzzles and platforming sections, and the sets are as mesmerising as you’d expect from the architects of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. I particularly enjoyed how the palette evolved over the course of the level, from the glaring reds of the fiesta through the sickly undersea light of the temple. I also quite enjoyed swimming through the wreckage of a grocery after a flood engulfed the level. No amount of set-dressing can make up for a worn-out toolkit, however, and Lara doesn’t seem to have learned many new tricks, or even submitted many of her existing moves for a tune-up.

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You’ll use a climbing axe to descend textured surfaces, tapping X when prompted to stop Lara losing her grip, and deploy a rappelling line to swing across gaps or wall-run. There’s a bow which doubles as a grapple launcher, and a somewhat unpredictable, context-sensitive cover system that just about cuts the mustard when sneaking up on people, but makes firefights something of a chore. Lara is still a bit unwieldy, for all the character model’s lustre, her animations lagging a noticeable fraction of a second behind your inputs – I fell to my death a couple of times because I was overcompensating for her sluggishness. On the plus side, the game’s hunter vision mode now tags enemies yellow when they’re not being observed by allies, making it easier to off them without raising the alarm.

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To dig a little deeper into the returning faults, modern-day Tomb Raider continues to have a slightly strained relationship with player curiosity. I wasn’t able to investigate this aspect of Shadow, but as in the previous two games, there are more open sections woven around campfires where you’ll gather upgrade resources, murder wild creatures and delve into the odd optional dungeon for treasure. Some of the latter rewards are gear-gated – I passed a wooden barrier which sternly enjoined me to reinforce my dagger. Elsewhere, though, Shadow is almost laughably paranoid about you losing your bearings, a mark of continuing irresolution between Tomb Raider’s more contemplative heritage and the Uncharted-style rollercoaster it has become.

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At one point, Lara discovers a cryptic scrawl atop a cliff-face, “the key lies beyond her gaze”. The camera immediately pivots right, and lo and behold, there’s a giant face carved into the rock below, its eye sockets fixed on an alcove. “I need to climb down this cliff,” Lara prompts, as if there was any other option. It’s hardly a damning degree of inconsistency, but at the risk of flogging a dead T-Rex, I did find myself yearning, once again, for the more obscure architecture of the 90s games.

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For a series that is about running your fingers through the secrets of dead civilisations, Tomb Raider today is oddly lacking in mystery. What was once a collection of silent, enigmatic spaces waiting to be unpicked has become a game about gunfights and plot, about dancing along to the level script. I’m looking forward to discovering what arcane mechanisms and horrors await deep in Shadow’s rainforest – some of the concept artworks evoke Predator and Apocalypse Now. But I get the sense that I’ll feel my way through a lot of the game absent-mindedly, allowing my thumbs to go through the motions while I belatedly take in the scenery.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is due to be released on September 14, 2018.

31 Comments

  1. Neurotic says:

    I will be buying this on PC, and I’m sure I’m going to enjoy playing it too (loved the first two reboots). However, I maintain that it was a mistake not to have Rhi Pratchett at the writer’s helm.

  2. grimdanfango says:

    Yep, think I’m done with the series, at least on this current reboot era. I just tried out Rise as it was on offer, and ended up refunding. They just can’t bear to let you explore on your own for longer than 30 seconds without something “exciting” happening. It’s like having a hyperactive, attention-starved child dancing around a shouting every time you attempt to engage in two sentences of conversation with another person.

    Just… give me a goddamn minute to enjoy the wonder and mysterious beauty of this ancient lost temple before you tell me which button to press to catch the next crumbling ledge!!

    Until they redress the balance and make this series about the slow-burn wonder of genuine, non-hand-held exploration again, and actually let me swim along my own flooded passageway, I’m done.

    • Janichsan says:

      That mirrors my feelings exactly.

      As flawed and dated the previous Tomb Raider games (Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld), I enjoyed them much more than the dumbed down action shooters of the Reboot era, which seem to keep screaming in the players face: “Look at me! Look how cinematic I am!!”

      The top-down “Lara Croft and the…” spin-off titles are much better successors to the original series than the reboots. It’s just a pity that Temple of Osiris was technically such a mess.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      You are overstating it a bit, the start is indeed linear but I’ve been mucking around the open areas for an inordinate amount of time after that.

      • grimdanfango says:

        Well, admittedly I only had two hours to make my choice whether to refund or not.

        At best then, if it happens to change tone completely after a few hours, maybe it’d be a good idea not to start out like that? I’m really not willing to sink 10+ hours into a game just to find out whether it becomes a different game eventually. I’ve tried that before, and invariably it never turns out to be the case.

        What I’d guess at is that they loosen the reins a little later on, give you a bit of freedom, and fill it with collectibles and crafting? (Other game mechanics designed to keep you hooked every 30 seconds lest you lose interest)

        If so… I’d rather just have exploration.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I managed to finish Rise, mainly on the strength of the environment design. Where the game allows at least a LITTLE exploration, it was fun.

      My two major complaints were 1) yet again, not enough focus on actual tomb raiding, with every one being basically just a single puzzle to solve. And 2) one of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever encountered, where you have to follow a linear script instead of using any of Lara’s skills.

      Lara’s constant whining at campfires, at how oh so sorry she is to have to kill people also got old. From the trailer above, it looks like she’s still whining about it.

      • Det. Bullock says:

        I don’t remember any whining about killing people and I played it recently. Really, sometimes I think people have played another game titled “tomb raider” or Rise thereof than the one I played.
        I wonder how the marketing influences these impressions, the PTSD trailer for Rise for example has basically no bearing for what happens in the game but people always say Lara whines for some reason. Hell, if anything while she’s still a bit naive in the game she never doubts what she has to do to stop the bad guys from aquiring the artifact of DOOM (TM).

        • Zenicetus says:

          I distinctly remember whining about how sad she is, to have to kill so many people in the pursuit of a higher goal. This dialog was at campfires, so maybe you skipped it?

          • Det. Bullock says:

            Nope, when it comes to narrative content I’m always thorough, but a thing happening just once explains why I don’t remember it.
            Hearing the way people talk about it it’s like she does it all the time.
            Besides, protagonists not demonstrating enthusiasm in killing to avoid making them looking like complete sociopaths is nothing new, a military sci-fi novel I’ve been reading has this basically all the time for the protagonist (she’s a fleet admiral and most space naval battles in the novel have death counts in the thousands).

          • mac4 says:

            She gets to whine about her killing initially in Tomb Raider (2013). Maybe that memory spills over into people’s perceptions of its follow-up?

          • Zenicetus says:

            Maybe it was just one campfire comment, but that one was enough. Especially since that theme was already explored in the first reboot. And she still hasn’t come to terms with it, by the second game in the series? After something like 1000 dead bodies left in her wake?

            As someone mentioned further down in the thread, the unremittingly glum atmosphere is getting old. I’d like to see more tomb raiding, a few less gunfights, and a far more confident Lara.

  3. woodsey says:

    > and the sets are as mesmerising as you’d expect from the architects of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

    This is almost certainly made by the Thief side of Eidos Montreal, is it not?

    In any case, these previews are all rather brutal. I do think this is probably the most conceptually misconceived franchise (beginning with the 2013 reboot) in all of modern videogamedom.

    I can see how survivalist gameplay (not that these games really have any) and tomb raiding might seem like natural fits on paper, but in practice they pull in completely opposite directions.

    The focus on combat too is just bizarre. Is it not obvious that the combat in the old games sucked not because it was a clunky system in and of itself (although yes, that too) but because combat never had any real place in the concept of being a tomb raider to begin with?

    • grimdanfango says:

      I wouldn’t say they were misconceived from a financial point of view – they’ve been pretty successful from that point of view after all.

      It seems a majority of people love them too.
      I just have trouble understanding why, just the same as I can’t understand why anyone would bother to go watch the 100th damned Marvel movie (which will invariably just be a 3-hour advert for the 101st). And yet, go they shall, in the millions.

      I don’t think combat is necessarily an issue either. I liked the combat from the old games – I felt like it fit in well. It was mostly about the running around and acrobatics, while you just held down a shoot button and Lara auto-aimed at whatever was near. Fits far better than just being another over-the-shoulder shooter with manual aiming – sure as hell works better on console/pc-gamepad, where aiming is a pain in the ass.

    • Janichsan says:

      This is almost certainly made by the Thief side of Eidos Montreal, is it not?

      More likely by the TR 2013 and Rise of the TR side of them (if you can really separate that cleanly), as that game already was by Eidos Montreal.

      The Deus Ex team is currently working on a Marvel’s Avengers game.

      • woodsey says:

        The last two were by Crystal Dynamics.

        And Human Revolution and Mankind Divided shared the same group of leads while Thief had different ones, so I think the distinction is warranted.

  4. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    “you’ll see random bystanders, including children, die as a result of your actions.”

    Good grief.

    I liked the reboot a lot, but after Rise failed to be anything other than a less-good retread, I can’t say I have a ton of optimism about this franchise. It repeatedly falls into the trap of wanting so desperately to be taken seriously (“Video games aren’t just for kids anymore!!!!”) that it just piles on the grit and gore and suffering without realizing that those things are just not interesting in and of themselves. Suffering only matters if you care about the characters, otherwise it’s all just kind of noise.

    • mitrovarr says:

      Yeah, and there are people like me who just can’t stand that stuff in general. At best, bystanders dying as a result of my actions just means I’ll be wearing out my quickload key. At worst, I’ll either just stop caring about the characters altogether (like in sandbox games that constantly barrage you with “save this random person” quests every five seconds) or I’ll just quit the game as a miserable experience.

  5. Zenicetus says:

    Also, what’s this bit about “Lara traveling to South America” when all the iconography in the trailer — the masks, the temples etc. — are from Central America?

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      You head to Peru later in the game but you’re right and we’ve changed that in the article to reflect the demo.

  6. kud13 says:

    If Lara is trying to prevent a MAYAN Apocalypse, then why is she wasting time in the Amazon jungle?

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Because, like a well-intentioned tourist once asked me, “the Mayans built tunnels all the way from Mexico to like, Peru, right?” The stuff some people (usually Europeans) have in their heads about prehispanic cultures is staggeringly dumb and amazing at the same time. But hey, it would fit with the game (I mean we had a fight with a TREX in the first series!!) if it didn’t take itself so seriously.

  7. ogopogo says:

    Is she still a kid in this game? I’m glad that they got rid of the stupid outfit etc. but I just can’t abide sending some teen to her death over and over again.

    I remember (misremember?) Lara being this sorta sardonic, almost amoral character at times, saving the world out of professional courtesy more than out of sentiment. That character obv. wouldn’t have made much sense in an origin story but New Laura can’t stay naive forever, right?

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      For a brief wonderful moment this sounded like someone criticising Endeavour because Inspector Morse isn’t grumbly enough.

  8. noxohimoy says:

    “tapping X when prompted to stop Lara losing her grip…” Quick time events were the final nail in the coffin which made me stop playing tomb raider.

  9. Thomas Foolery says:

    Sounds like it’s still got the biggest problem I had with the previous two, which is that it’s just so unrelentingly glum. Hunting for treasure in long lost temples and forgotten cities should be fun!

    • satan says:

      Yeah! I kind of hoped the reboot might take her in the direction of a modern day Indiana Jones after getting the gritty grimdarkness out of the way, I guess not.

  10. gwathdring says:

    I wasn’t terribly fond of how the second on split the difference between the extreme grind of open world games of the moment and the high octane roller-coaster. The first one did a better job using contained spaces that provided some degree of freedom in pathing and some breathing space in between more locked-in segments and it also didn’t outstay its welcome so dramatically.

    I’m certainly not looking for more puzzles! What I enjoyed in Prince of Persia was the sort of rhythm-game-without-the-music of the platforming. The puzzle segments were not very interesting to me and that holds for most platforming and action games I’ve played. Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider … I can’t think of a platformer or action game where puzzles pleased me without being the entire conceit of the design as in Braid or Portal.

    I dislike slowly waddling around to push buttons and pull levers to raise the water level to access more buttons and levers and so forth. It’s not the kind of puzzle solving I enjoy in games, and if anything I think the new Tomb Raider games have too many puzzles. I’d love to see a slowly paced game about archaeology and character drama, but I don’t think that was ever on the table here and as long as I’m going to be dual-wielding pistols I’d rather the game focus on making the shooting feel good as opposed to squeezing in “tombs” and other puzzles that will bore me to tears or at least appear utterly unsolvable until I realize I hadn’t seen the lever up in the corner there that makes the whole puzzle easy and boring.

    • gwathdring says:

      Or focus on making the running-jumping-climbing feel better. Running away from overwhelming danger rather than opening fire on everything that moves is an interesting twist on the action game that I really appreciate when it (rarely) comes up. The reboot set itself up for this concept but rarely engaged with it.

      In another world guns are to Tomb Raider as they are to Mirror’s Edge and there’s a greater focus on environmental interaction, hiding, and running. It could still be similarly simple and linear, but change which verbs are most effective at overcoming obstacles.

  11. Neurotic says:

    A quick reminder for those of you who have forgotten, or haven’t played, either of the two reboots (it’s specifically about Rise, but talks about both):

    I’ve been playing computer and video games for almost 40 years, and Tomb Raider games specifically for about half that time. Games and writing are my two things, and I’m lucky to be able to combine the two in work that either pays money, or rewards me in other ways. Gaming generally I find very rewarding (otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing it, of course), and one of those rewards – perhaps the best one, if I think about it – is the occasional game that comes along and actually does what all escapist fantasy has aspired to do, from Beowulf to The Force Awakens, and takes me on a journey. Most games are memorable and rewarding, in all kinds of great ways. But once in a while, a Rainbow Islands, a Dungeon Master or an ELF comes along, a Morrowind or an EverQuest, a GTA III or a Divine Divinity, and just grabs me and drags me through endless hours over countless nights. Those are the games that you can point at on a shelf, in an original cardboard or plastic box, and also at a GOG copy, a Steam copy, a file on your hard drive for an emulator or two, as well as at another old box that you bought in a charity shop or car-boot sale somewhere, just because it was cheap and you know, it couldn’t hurt to have another copy. The games you install on old laptops or dusty attic computers for the hell of it. You know what I mean.

    Rise of The Tomb Raider is not one of those games. But it is memorable, and it did take me on a ride, parts of which I’m going to recall in the years to come as well as I can anything in Seyda Neen or Antonica. The ride has left me somewhat destroyed and brain damaged though. In fact, I’ll say that Rise is the first game I can remember that has actually conquered me. I mean, I’ve ‘beaten’ loads of games in my life, and loads more have beaten me, so that I’ve given up and left them unfinished. But I’ve never had an experience quite like Rise’s, so full of contradiction and tension, and it’s left me exhausted and lost for words. Fortunately for you, perhaps, I’ve still managed to scrape a few together, so here they are.

    If you’ve played the 2013 Tomb Raider (full disclosure: I hadn’t at the time of writing this), the latest reboot of the twenty-year old franchise and official start of the Third Age of Lara, you’ll be in familiar territory. The option-laden splash screen is the same, the menus are very similar, the icons and symbols and UI, in-game and out, the branding and general aesthetic – it’s all clearly another step in the same direction. Friends who have played both now tell me that Tomb Raider (2013) is slightly less polished in comparison, and that Rise is a definite improvement all around. I’ve YouTubed it a bit, and it does seem that many of the same mechanics are back again. There’s the network of base camps that act as fast-travel points, this time between a trio of huge, sprawling zones, loads of smaller ones and miles of tunnels, cliffs and passages in between. There’s the XP-fuelled skill system back again (hello XP-fuelled skill system!), and crafting and resource gathering are all present and correct. Once again, we’re dancing the Survival Tango with a younger-than-usual and less experienced Lara, splashing through mud and dirt and animal gore, and generally getting as covered in literal dirt as we are in family dirt – daddy issues, family betrayals, etc. But although her baptism-by-murder three years ago was a major plot driver, complete with rape-tastic controversy, this element of her growth into the ‘proper’ Lara is fairly quickly forgotten. This allows her to be both sexy and violent, thus checking several demographic boxes and allowing her to retain her cool for the new generations of wide-screen TV-owning players.

    Yes, we are once again adrift in a world of fighting and ripping and tearing and exploding, because a) dem ’ographics, and b) Lara is a well-established psychopath who can pass neither a tiny bird’s nest nor an elaborate wolf den without leaving it awash in blood and gristle. But let’s face it, while her main shtick is logical puzzling and trial-and-error gymnastics, she’s also been strapped-up from the very start. From dual-wielding pistols against blocky tigers and panthers in the very first game, to head-shotting realistic-looking squirrels and armed mercenaries in this new continuity, the evolutionary leap in Rise’s combat is the best it’s ever been. Benefiting greatly from the context-sensitive controls, blocks and attacks are as much about placement as timing. Personally, I avoided melee combat most of the time because her bow and arrows are just so much fun. But when I did get up close and personal with an enemy, it was always because of my own lack of skill if I suffered, rather than any kind of awkwardness with the controls.

    Like its precursor, Rise of The Tomb Raider looks utterly amazing. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it looks even better than about 99% of all the games I’ve seen in the last few years too. The note I have on Rise’s graphics simply says “surreal”. That’s because I’m still having a hard time describing them to myself using human words. Honestly, having finished the game in 38 hours of play with an 86% completion rate, my mind is still boggling at the graphics. The first half of the game is entirely made of ice and snow. Snowy mountains, snowy buildings, snowy forests and caverns, avalanches, snow storms, the whole K2 schmeer. Relief from the whites and blues comes from browns and greens – trees, bushes, mud, dirt, and an absolutely lush, gorgeous second half that warms up the palette considerably. The textures are jaw-droppingly good, and the topography looks entirely believable too. But all of this eyeball-searing graphical goodness creates a strange effect. The textures are so detailed and the effects so finely crafted, that they’re almost too good. Snow swirling in the wind or dust motes floating lazily through sunbeams look so authentic that conversely, they start to make everything look unreal again. It’s a strange effect that I’ve never encountered before, an ‘uncanny valley’ for environments, instead of humanoid figures. Speaking of figures, I should say that some of the humans in Rise are among the meatiest, most organic and real-feeling people I’ve ever seen in a computer game, and it’s this combination of super-realistic environments and heavy, naturally animated and voiced humanoids that really knock Rise out of the park on the technical front.

    Now, I’m aware that Ubi have done some amazing things with graphics and animation in their Assassin’s Creed series and in that hacking thing about dogs, but I’ve never played any of them (gasp!). My point of reference for top-shelf graphics are the Far Cry series (Ubi again) and the Crysis spin-offs. When the original Far Cry released, it melted our brains and our graphics cards. Then, when the original Crysis was revealed, there was a lot of waffle about photo-realistic vegetation and such. Again, brains and cards. But those amazingly realistic trees, bushes and angry North Korean faces look like Ms. Pac Man in comparison to Rise of The Tomb Raider. I just want every game to be painted by Crystal Dynamics now, because man, they have nailed the graphics thing.

    All this hysteria was brought to my attention by a mid-range i5, a 1 Gb GTX 750 and 16 Gb of good DDR3. But not only is there lots of scope for scalability in the options, the game just feels solid. You can read quite a detailed piece on Crystal Dynamics’ proprietary Foundation engine over here, but needless to say, on my rig everything ran smooth and stable, with only one single crash. This occurred just after saving, so maybe it was a read/write error or something related to my jury-rigged complex of ancient hard drives (I wonder what dusty treasures Lara would find there?).

    The good news doesn’t end with the pictures though, because the sound design also needs a mention. The music I eventually turned off, because as good as it is (and it is really good), it was getting a bit stressful and intrusive. Lots of martial beats played on native drums and wooden percussion, wailing animal horn calls and zippy ‘rain of arrows’ strings. And that’s just when I was staring at a rabbit or contemplating the scrupulously detailed flowers. But turning it off left more space in my brain for the sound effects, which do for sound effects what I think Rise’s graphics do for, umm, graphics. Which is to say that they’re astonishingly good at their job of selling the illusion that you really are struggling alone through the wilderness, fighting man and beast at every step. Again, it’s about being transported, from the mundane to the fantastic, and the SFX in Rise are as evocative as any other classic gaming noises I can think of right now (those mournful silt strider calls from Morrowind spring to mind). Some of my favourite sound effects in Rise of The Tomb Raider include: the acrid, chemical sound of burning balls of fire whizzing through the air; the sound of your knife plunging into some dead beast’s guts (with a sickening crunch through bones and into organs); the sound of multiple little grenadelets tinkling about on the floor then popping as they explode; the zing and zip of shrapnel knifing through the air when you blow apart metal and wood barricades with explosive arrows; the sound of living things crunching and squeaking through the snow, and speaking of squeaking, the wooden flooring in the Gulag zone as you run all over it. A big part of the game involves flying around on zip lines, the sound effect for which is really satisfying too, although it’s tragically too short and on longer lines you hear it repeat distinctly a few times. It sounds jarring when it happens ,and I’m surprised they didn’t do something about it before release.

    Still in the sound department – the voice acting. Compared to the music and SFX, this is something of a mixed bag. There’s quite a lot of it, because in addition to the various small treasures and relics to be found, there are loads of fully-voiced diaries, scrolls and tape recorders too. (As well as maps, murals, plaques, tablets and monuments. Honestly, for those of a certain disposition, this game is either a nightmare or a dream come true). Most obviously, the impeccable Keeley Hawes and her marvellous Marylebone mouth have been replaced by the breathy, gushing Camilla Luddington, who does a brilliant job on the whole, but who does randomly deploy a really annoying glottal stop in the word ‘got’. And Lara says this a lot – ‘I’ve goh- to find a way across this bridge’, ‘There’s goh- to be another way around’, and so on. It’s distracting to me, as a professional linguist, but probably not a problem for the majority of players. I’m also perturbed by some of the voice direction, mainly the fact that Lara adopts American pronunciation for certain words, most glaringly ‘leather’ for ‘lever’. I imagine it was some kind of idiotic executive mandate along the lines of, ‘Oh yeah, console sales of the game about the English woman who never stops talking need to be big here in the Midwest too, so let’s have her talking properly as much as possible.’ (No offence, American friends, I do love you all). Still, a good deal of the voice work is utterly brilliant, especially the guy who does “The Tracker”, whose journey is narrated with righteous vigour and murderous resolve before dissolving into a broken, dejected, deathly whisper. (Much as I sound at 3 am after another 4-hour session with Ms. Croft).

    If it feels like I’m ticking boxes on a list entitled ‘Things To Mention In A Review’, then you’re more or less correct. This is partly because I’ve already thrown out about nine pages, covering three completely different approaches to this text. The brain damage Rise has caused me is more or less complete now, as at this point I must confess that the unexpected has happened: I am now, if not totally in love with ‘Nu-Raider’, then at least really keen to see more of it. I’ve already been to Steam, purchased and installed Tomb Raider (2013). I still have 14% of the treasures to find in Rise, all within one single, huge, glorious zone, so I’ll probably go back to that as relief from a slightly less polished predecessor. But we shall see. For now, I’m not quite done here – there are still some flies in this otherwise lovely ointment that need tweezering out.

    I said earlier that Rise is a conflicted game, full of tension. That’s because for the first hour or two, it seemed to never quite know what it wanted to be. Is it a game, or a semi-interactive presentation? Am I playing this, or watching it? Several times, I became confused upon suddenly realising that I hadn’t actually been controlling Lara for a few seconds at least, then confused again when I sat here staring at her, not realising control had been returned to me. And the UI, so unobtrusive and determined to keep you immersed in the game’s world, will suddenly spring a giant splash screen in your face advertising the fact that you’ve just earned a “gift pack” that can be seen by visiting the Marketplace from the main menu. What? Is it somehow more exciting to glue in this layer of nudge-nudge, wink-wink commercial glamour to the game, than just have my rewards shoot out of the bear’s arse upon death? (You know, the usual way). Why work hard to create immersion, then destroy it by pulling the player back into reality with an in-your-face reminders that actually, it’s just a game?

    The fluidity and natural precision of Lara’s movement seems to have come at a price, too. Although the context-sensitive control scheme is the best it’s ever been since its debut in the Tomb Raider series back in Legends, there are certain simple things you just can’t do, or that are suddenly very difficult to do. There’s no crouching in the game unless Lara wants to crouch; she’ll suddenly hunker down and start crab-shuffling about if she spots or hears enemies nearby (and confusingly, she’s even better at that than I ever was in almost 40 hours of play). She does do a kind of really strange shuffle-kick if you press ‘C’, although I never found a use for it to be honest. Lara gets herself down behind cover or into concealment as she needs to. Likewise, many simple manoeuvres are actually predicated by the environment – if there’s a tight gap to squeeze through or a low-hanging obstruction to roll under, she’ll just do it. That’s quite clever really, I suppose, but most frustratingly I never really learned how to reliably and consistently drop-hang, i.e. to drop backwards off an edge and grab it before I fell completely down. This manoeuvre is also used for climbing down ladders, and I ended up having to leap painfully and unceremoniously down, or trying to do the acrobatics and ending up in a heap. Probably this is mostly me being a sausage-fingers, but I will swear before witnesses that the game was screwing with me on this point. Similarly to this, there are certain drops and ledges that she’ll just refuse to get off, possibly because she knows (!) that they’re 100% fatal. In the old games, that kind of stupid decision was left to you to make, and making it yourself was informative in some way, whereas now it’s just frustrating and unhelpful.

    But, I don’t want to end on a downer. The game’s flaws are far outweighed by its good bits, and there are lots of interesting things that I haven’t mentioned here or gone into too much detail on, like the translating of antique languages; the system of caves, crypts and tombs and how they feed back into Lara’s RPG-lite character progression; the delightfully crunchy feeling of burning and exploding things with your arrows; how good the climbing and swinging actually feels (despite the slightly mad system of having everything that is climbable being painted or obviously scraped somehow), the numerous fascinating artefacts and relics you can study (with Lara’s often hilariously delivered commentary), and much more.

    The thing is, it gets better as you play, and it gets under your skin. The control-snatching dwindles to an entirely acceptable frequency in and out of cut-scenes, the painted grab-surfaces and the strange translating process become entirely second nature, and even the occasionally awkward shuffling and spinning required to get Lara into position to interact with something becomes amusing rather than annoying (and let’s face it, this is a series staple stretching back to the very first game). Perhaps there’s no better recommendation I can give Rise of The Tomb Raider than to say that, despite my initial reluctance, my old stick-in-the-mud attitude about it being another reboot, and my early revulsion at the early self-contained insistence on providing a slick, commercial ‘experience’, it has made me want to stay in its world, to the extent that I bought DLC for it, as well laying out for its partner in the new series. Lara’s new one made has me think. It made me reflect on the incredible veracity that modern mo-cap technology can bring to games, and how that now genuinely predicates a need for good casting and quality acting (the Big Bad in this one was brilliant). It made me cringe and cheer alternately at its plot developments. It tired me with its brilliance, wore me down with its approachability, and pacified me with its onion layers of choices. Eventually, it made me want to play it when I wasn’t playing it, and not stop when I was. Ultimately, it did what all great games do and took me on a proper ride, away from work and stress and stupid obligations and into a world of adventure, and for that I shall always remember it fondly. Thanks, Crofty.

    ffs.

    • jakinbandw says:

      So much this^

      This is my exact feeling about tomb raider and why I’m excited for shadow. I want to know what happens next.

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