The games industry evolves at a frightening pace, far faster that any other pastime or medium I can think of: what is considered awesome one year can seem dated the next. So any IP that has been around for nearly twenty years has had to learn to evolve, learn new tricks and maybe copy the odd thing from the new kids on the block.
Better with age
It's been quite a journey for Lara and there are not many game characters that have been reinvented this many times. When I set out to research all the places Lara has been in the games globe trotting history it's hard not to be impressed. I could give you the skinny on her hits and misses but all we really need to say is this: Lara was in need of a makeover and in 2013 that's exactly what she got. As we know, classic games from twenty years ago rarely age well and even those that do still need a lick of paint from time to time. Lara in her original form gained much attention and not for all the right reasons: namely her oversized breasts and completely unpractical hot pants and skimpy vest. It's great then to see Lara's appearance is now looking far more realistic but I am always wary of subscribing to the wishes of some feminist groups on this topic. If we're not careful we will alienate woman who do have large breasts: it's a difficult balance to get right. Lara is a young, beautiful woman and her looks are part of the image of Lara Croft. This certainly warrants its own article so for now let's leave that one there.
I'll be honest, I'd said I would never play this game when it was announced that Microsoft had paid for an exclusive deal making it only available on Xbox One (duh). Now, I'm not a fan of exclusives to start with and see the whole pissing contest between Sony and Microsoft as a huge negative for the games industry - largely because the gamers lose out so large companies sell more consoles. But to reboot a massive IP like Tomb Raider on all systems, get everyone onboard and then make the next game one system only? That decision got my blood boiling and no mistake. However it turned out this had only been a half truth so Microsoft could give it the big one at E3. So yes, long story short I was not happy, am still not impressed it happened but at least the PC version has arrived shortly after and more to the point it's actually a very decent port. So moaning aside let's look at the Rise of the Tomb Raider.
When the reboot arrived in 2013 I played and enjoyed it a great deal, sure there were some problems but overall I thought it was a great new direction for the IP and most of all showed huge potential for future games. This new Lara was more real, more human and this added so much more to the series than could have been in previous games. One aspect of this new direction was something many other action games are now putting into the mix: crafting and survival. In the last game this honestly felt like they pushed a big section on it at the start and then largely forgot about it as they became very quickly focused on the combat: which was a shame because this was one of the aspects I was looking forward to the most.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider crafting/hunting is back and by Jove they nailed it. Not only is it far better implemented into the general environment but each zone you travel through has a decent variation in resources and animals to admire/hunt/run from. There are even exotic creatures which will give you a decent fight before giving up their favourite fur coat. Once again attention to detail has been poured over this already decent feature: arrows will land and remain on large creatures like bears for example. Dear will limp away after taking one arrow and leave a trail of blood in the snow, even subtle touches like if you kill a few wolves in a pack the last wolf will retreat if it can to fight another day. In addition to the natural environment Lara can also gather lots of other bits and bobs: from screws, cogs, oil, cloth etc. All these elements go into making a crafting system that while not the most expansive we've ever seen fits this game perfectly.
One of the most important elements for a game like Tomb Raider is how Lara is connected to her environment and here I have to say the game absolutely shines. When Lara lands too hard her legs give a little until she corrects herself, climbing feels fast and yet just manages to look believable. I remember in the early games there were set places you could climb, set things to push and this was all very typical of that era, now the way Lara runs, swims, swings, leaps her way across the world is an absolute joy because it feels organic and natural. On top of these abilities the tools she picks up along her journey really do many the environment seem like a playground and this in turn makes revisiting old areas worth the time. My one tip in this regard would be this: don't try and finish every area from the start as like Metroid some skills only get released near the end of the games campaign.
There are plenty of other lovely little touches to the way Lara connects and reacts to her environment, in the cutting open Siberian winds she shivers, her hair (especially with 'pure hair' switched on) blows in the wind and gets covered in snow, when walking past a wall she will reach out and touch it very much like we all would and on which ever of the many outfits you choose for her - they will become muddy and worn over time. When near an open fire she will warm her hands and seems to react to any nearby NPCs by keeping her gaze locked on their eyes. Even when Lara has emerged from water she will wring her hair out, something that shows an incredible level of detail and Crystal Dynamics should be applauded for.
It might sound hilariously obvious now but one thing that was very underwhelming about the last game was the tombs themselves. It's not that there was anything really wrong with them but they were hidden away and this led to many players not even seeing them. This disconnection was made more obvious when if you did break away from the main game to do one the rewards had no effect on the game. I am so glad therefore to see that the team at Crystal Dynamics have looked at this and made the tombs much intertwined with the main game environment - more than that though, each one furnishes Lara with a brand new skill or ability. These new tricks can have a real impact on the gameplay, being able to see traps for example or making her a better hunter.
So I've obviously heaped a lot of praise on this game so far and rightly so, however it's not quite perfect. So my first criticism of the game is actually linked to one of its greatest strengths. As you delve into the game's story you are treated to a few hub areas that act as a central body from which you then branch out. This works very well and given the obvious (and necessary) push to return to places you've been to before it is a shame that the closing parts of the game don't follow the same pattern.This is honestly a very small complaint and may be down to my own personal tastes, it is also massively mitigated by the fact the end sequence is a true spectacle.
As you explore the game every area is littered with items to collect, even here there are some quite clever ideas such as Lara having to learn new languages on the fly to then unlock treasures. As you find various scrolls and even discarded voice recordings these tell stories of characters both in the current time period and of times gone by. Obviously it's a ridiculous notion that the game's main bad guy would take the time to record his deepest darkest fears on a dictaphone and then leave it lying around for any Tom, Dick or Harry to listen to. I honestly don't have a problem with this, games often fill story in with this method and in actual fact the acting here is decent enough for me to care. My complaint is that there are way too many and some are placed very badly. There will be moments when Lara closest friends are on the brink of death but hang on a second... I've got some scrolls to catch up with over here. So my only wish for the next game is that we have a little less back story and for it to be places away from key story moments: otherwise it can really jar with the well told main plot.
My only other wish that I can actually remember was that gaming still hasn't figured out boss fights: in Tomb Raider we have less need for them as the tombs themselves usually serve thematic boss encounters but still, the fights I did have with more powerful enemies were short and uninspired.
I smite thee!
Despite Lara having her human side laid bare in these last two games anyone thinking she's a pushover when it comes to a fight is heading for a world of pain. In the origins of Tomb Raider combat was never really one of its main strengths and yet as the game's graphics embrace next generation so to does Lara give us a brand new experience with dispatching her enemies. One big difference in this game is how the skill tree works: now you can put points into either brawler, hunter or survivor. Each section offers some great ways to mould Lara to your own style of play; while you will have most of these skills by the end of the game it's still fun to try varied tactics when taking on groups of soldiers.
My own personal style is to pick off a few stragglers either by dragging them into a bush or using death from above: using your instinct sight you can easily see which guards are not visible to others by the colour they show up as. I will then lay a poison trap on the soldier's body and set his radio to beep. A double or triple arrow shot will usually mop up the rest of the guards but for larger groups Lara can also go full terminator using a whole suite of weapons: from explosive arrows to home made Molotov cocktails. Each area also has strong boxes that give you pieces for stronger versions of the weapons classes you already own. As always with games that rely on humanoid enemies variation is a problem; apart from animals you are essentially fighting the same guys at the start of the game as the end, save for more armoured enemies in later levels. Still, while this is true, as your repertoire of death dealing tools and tricks increases this goes a long way to keep things fresh.
Is it PC?
There is a time in every PC gamer's life that is dreaded or maybe, for the more affluent of us, celebrated: the day a new game kicks our system's arse. Apart from running GTA 5 at top whack nothing has pushed my system yet, that was until I booted this game up. Initially I had every setting on maximum but once I arrived at the soviet camp things started to chug big time. It was only when you get nearer to the top of the camp do you realise how large this map is and how many complex structures occupy its frozen landscape. Is this performance drop due to a bad port? Absolutely not, Crystal Dynamics have done a fantastic job of the port and given PC gamers some extra bells and whistles to play with: just last night a new patch added separate options for specular mapping which makes the surfaces reflect light in a very realistic way. Nvidia have also released a new optimised driver for their cards which is always appreciated on bleeding edge games like this.
In terms of overall visuals I'm going to go as far as to say this game is possibly the best looking unmodified game on the PC to date. The IP has always loved to wow players with them moments where the view of an ancient lost city or ruin tracks into view but Rise of the Tomb Raider takes this to a whole new level. There are honestly some moments when all the elements come together and the game looks like a moving concept image, only it's not because you're playing it.
When I finished the previous game I was overall very happy with the job Crystal Dynamics had done but also had already formed a list of things I would want in the next game: a better combat system that allowed for your own personal style, a set of interesting tombs that gave you a reason to care they existed, a more relevant crafting and survival aspect to the game... and they nailed every single one of these. On top of that they have lavished the gaming environment with so many stunning locations and graphical tricks that bring the whole experience to life. The game environments are breathtaking and really bring back that 'wow' factor I remember from previous games in the series. There is lots still to find for me in this game as I am still not at 100% completion, there is even an intriguing card based challenge system I have yet to delve into.
Obviously there will be a decent wait now while the DLC trickles out and the team at Crystal Dynamics decide where to take their young explorer next. With a surprisingly well told (if heavily cliched) story I do hope the developers continue to push these successful elements of Lara or they do run the risk of her becoming another Sam Fisher. I just hope the next one will be available on all platforms. So overall I'm very happy with this latest Tomb Raider game and had an absolute blast playing it: If your system has the stones to run it I can't recommend it enough.
Thankyou for reading my review of Rise of the Tomb Raider. If you like my site please tell your friends about me. All screenshots are my own and I am starting to produce content for YouTube now, you can also follow me on Twitter @Riggedforepic
Take care guys,