I wanted to play Rise of the Tomb Raider [official site] more than I realised I did. It's nice to not have yet another BrawnMan in the middle of my screen, sure, but for me it's the idea of vaguely puzzley, vaguely sandboxy adventures in a not-too-fantastical wilderness which appeals.
Enthused by Adam's review, I picked up the PC version, but it wasn't long before I was hissing through my teeth at the bad balance of impossible escapes from death, relentlessly dour and earnest tone, mechanically-delivered dialogue and preposterous animal-massacre-based-crafting (because, once again, Lara had gone on an incredibly dangerous adventure without packing anything more than a glowstick and the first option you get if you type 'bow and arrow' into Amazon then sort by Price: Low To High). Fortunately, the Endurance Mode DLC turned out to be game I wanted.
I want Rise Of The Tomb Raider's great outdoors challenge, partly because it's a beautiful place to be, partly because the game does a grand job of making a complex control set feel fluid and rewarding, partly because its protagonist comes across as capable and hardy in a way a beefy man with a gun rarely does, but I don't want its plot. I have no strong feelings about the actual writing one way or another, but the tone of its presentation is the issue.
It's one thing to fail to comment on the inherent absurdity of what Lara goes through, and another still to actively force a blandly grim mood over the top of all that squirrel-bothering, avalanche-surfing, ancient ruin-devastating and climbing around pirate ships embedded into an underground cliff-face. It'll be a cold day in hell before Tomb Raider embraces comedy, but a little more self-awareness would go a long way, as would a more open spirit of joy: Lara is, after all, doing this crazy stuff by choice.
As well as that, the slew of setpiece bear battles, over-long cutscenes and chain-reaction avalanches were killing any sense that this Siberian wilderness I was in was a real place. I wanted to spend more time with the game at the heart of all this rather than find out what happens, so I nosed at the Expedition side-missions and the DLC (already available in bulk, as the temporarily exclusive Xbone version had this stuff a while back). £6.99 on top of the base game's £36 is a pretty hefty price to pay for the Endurance mode add-on, but having spent some time with it I'm convinced that it's the best way to play Rise of the Tomb Raider.
The survival aspect of the main campaign is pretty thin, even if the sandboxy approach to it manges to stay on the right side of mechanical. Resources such as wood, cloth and oil must be gathered from the land, and animals large and small must be hunted for hide and feathers, but it all only serves one purpose: crafting weapon and item upgrades. Lara's in no danger from the environment, unless you count spike traps as natural hazards: she's just doing her A-Team thing with no fear of exposure or starvation.
Conversely, in the Endurance DLC she's close to death the whole damn time, and as a result it becomes a truer game of exploration and risk-taking, rather than an odyssey of implausible action movie tropes. Endurance digs through to the game that I think Rise of the Tomb Raider really wants to be. (The problem spinning out of that is whether Endurance really should be a part of the base game package, but I'm going to leave business model agitation alone in favour of 'hey this is cool').
The perma-death Endurance mode is built around the 'ever-widening circle of exploration' concept familiar to anyone who's played a recent survival game such as Don't Starve or DayZ, and even Minecraft. Find a (relatively) safe space, carry out short sorties from it to collect resources, then use those resources to build stuff that should see you through a longer expedition - ideally to the point that you can establish a new outpost to then stage further adventures from.
In this case, though, it's paired with something a little more traditionally Tomb Raidery: trying to find long-last relics, and doing a whole lot of climbing and jumping to do so. Freed from the dour bonds of plot, Endurance missions feel like A Day In The Life Of Lara Croft: she's sent herself somewhere stupid because this is her job, or more to the point because she's a thrill-seeker and has wealth enough to fund her crazy adventures. I guess my root problem with Rise's main plot is that it works overtime to make us feel sorry for an adrenaline junkie who has willingly thrown herself into danger, but Endurance leans closer to the original games' sense that this was just what Lara Croft was up to this week.
But it's very different nonetheless. Hunger and cold, not factors in the main game or in any previous Tomb Raider, are introduced, with the latter a particularly pernicious threat. This is stuff an explorer should know how to deal with, and in this mode Lara very much does: the capable adventurer shines through. Unbound by plot, by daddy issues, by ultra-earnest friends to help her out, she's entirely back to being the bad-ass we always knew her as. It's glorious.
That said, her failure to bring any provisions with her and inability to create a fire in any place other than where a fire has already been are big logic black holes: this isn't the end of the world, it's just someone on their holidays. Accepting that Lara Croft somehow doesn't know how to make fire is a hurdle you just have to jump in order to enjoy Endurance mode, but it's worth it.
Cold is the killer. I know that there are rare resources and, most of all, ancient artifacts out there in the snowstorm somewhere, but if I spend too long clambering around looking for them, I'm going to freeze. Freezing isn't an immediate death, but it does slow me down badly, and it chips steadily away at my health until I find a heat source. Shelter alone will slow the onslaught of cold, but it won't take it away. For that, I have to find fire. Borrowing from a system in the main game, a campfire is also the place to craft and spend experience points, but campfire spots are few and far between: often enough, I huddle around a flaming barrel or an old stove, giving me strength enough to push on even if I haven't had the opportunity to build new toys.
There's no fast travel and no map. Intuition, memory and luck are all I have to go on as I scour the landscape for resources and treasure. It's a swirling, whirling snowstorm out there: I have no idea what's more than a few feet in front of me. Even the divisive 'Survival Mode' vision toggle, used in the main game to identify items of interest and potential puzzle solutions for the uncurious, here becomes more of a vital filtering system than a supernatural shortcut. This might be a wilderness, but it's not a wasteland: trees and bushes are everywhere, and a tap of Q reveals which ones grow edible berries or branches suitable for kindling.
Endurance is not about puzzle tombs, but rather about exploration, so Survival Mode doesn't feel like a cheat, and more just a necessary way to save myself from fruitlessly pressing 'Use' on every tree I pass. It can be upgraded to highlight animals and some items, which does make finding what you need in the snow a little easier, but mercifully it never goes all the way to super-powers.
Nothing helps with the cold except fire. I'm forever making a risk assessment: push on even though I'm freezing, taking a chance that I'll find a campsite before death claims me, or turn back and then have to do all this again once I've warmed up. Hunger, at least on the lower difficulties, isn't quite so punishing, but does necessitate a little more patience when it comes to animal hunting, of continually making sure that you've got snacks on hand rather than just going off to murder a deer because you want to stitch a new bag.
This is, as I've mentioned, a perma-death mode, so the consequences of that risk backfiring are steep. At least in terms of sense of failure: if there's a weakness to Endurance mode, it's that the consequences of success are menial: leaderpoint points, in-game cash to spend on cards which remix abilities and items in Rise's side-modes. There is some crazy shit in the cards, like making Lara into a sort of a vampire or being on fire all the time or becoming even hungrier whenever she eats a squirrel, so I guess I'm down with buying packs of them to see if I get anything ridiculous, but really Endurance is about sense of accomplishment.
Not just how long I can survive for (I forgot to mention - as well as the cold and the food and the falling and the spike traps, Bad Men arrive from time to time and must be dealt with too), but how many treasures I can find in the process - and, additionally, potentially climatically, if I can manage to call in an extraction. This can be done at any point, if I can find and provide resources for a signal fire, but do it too soon and it feels like defeat, leave it too late and my chances of falling, freezing or starving to death steadily increase.
Getting out of there with ten artifacts in my bags feels like victory; getting out of there with just four feels like I gave up. Losing it all because I froze to death after taking a chance that there'd be a campfire further ahead feels maudlin but deserved. Losing it all because I failed to jump away from a spike trap in time makes me scream and curse.
It's less like olden Tomb Raider than even the main campaign is, but somehow it feels more like it. That sense of loneliness, of me taking the risks myself rather than the world exploding under me without warning, no more drip-feed of unlocks, none of the cognitive dissonance of learning languages on the fly by looking at old paintings in a cave, a wider area to explore without narrative or setpiece interruption, and most of all strong sense that this is just Lara doing what Lara has always done best rather than whatever it is she's trying to prove in the plot is. It's a shame it's seven quid extra, and it's also a shame that new Endurance missions only unlock if you progress far enough through the main game, but I think it's as essential a piece of DLC as I've seen in a while.
Rise Of The Tomb Raider is a good game, but it keeps its best aspects somewhat at arm's length, particularly in terms of tone. The Endurance DLC not only takes that gap away, but actually amplifies what this game does best. It's also the only game I can think of in which killing a squirrel feels really, really important.