By Ben L.
For a gaming icon as huge as Lara Croft (and her bosom), I only played my first Tomb Raider game pretty late. Like late-2015 late. By then I was already behind the industry by 10 games.
In light of Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s (RotTR) release in November 2015, Microsoft released 2014’s Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition free in October for Xbox Live Gold subscribers (the game was orignally released in 2013 for the previous generation of consoles). That was a pretty smart move to get people like me, who had never gotten into the series before, hooked onto the franchise’s reboot and then purchase the sequel when it’s out.
More publishers should do the same.
As an adventure game, Tomb Raider was hugely entertaining. The intriguing story about Japanese supernatural mythology was made even more compelling by some brilliant characterisation, voice-acting and mo-cap animation. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being Michael Mando’s performance as Vaas in Far Cry 3 worthy of an Oscar, the crew of the Endurance ship deserves a BAFTA.
But as a treasure hunter game, given Lara Croft’s occupation, Tomb Raider seemed to have missed the mark. Levels were too linearly designed and there were too few tombs to loot, which seems kinda ironic for a game titled as such. Exploration and seeking treasure became secondary to the generic third-person shooter focus of the game, although I had to admit it was at times bloody satisfying to see a young, raw British girl perform gruesome takedowns.
And so I launched the sequel a week after finishing Tomb Raider, with a little trepidation. The reboot had successfully gotten me so invested in Lara as a character that I dearly did not want the latest game to flop. Tomb Raider‘s formula, although different from previous games as many fans had noted, worked. But the sequel needed to be more than just prettier wool over the same skin.
Fortunately in most aspects, RotTR is the bigger and better sequel that Lara deserved. And given that I had just finished the first game, the differences are very conspicuous. Where the first game seemed to lack in its sense of adventure and the thrill of treasure hunting in favour of being a third-person shooter, RotTR feels like it has acknowledged those flaws. This could also be partly due to the change in tone – Tomb Raider was a story about a girl trapped in the darkest of places; RotTR – as its name suggests – sees Lara putting that ghastly episode behind her and rising to the challenge of becoming the treasure hunter that her father had aspired to be but failed. It’s less dark and more aspirational and liberating – I’m sure many of us who played Tomb Raider couldn’t bear to see the girl with the pretty face suffer so much hardship again.
The game’s levels are massive, though linear, and offer numerous side quests and hidden stories that make exploration very rewarding. Puzzle-solving also becomes a more important aspect of navigation, requiring players to make use of objects or their natural environment to get from point A to B. There are more tombs in Siberia too than in Yamatai, which seems to suggest the ancient Siberians were a bunch of tough nutjobs with huge nutsacks. Because who else would be able to use primitive tools to carve and construct elaborate tunnels and towering structures designed to kill 99.9 per cent of looting thieves while freezing their balls off in minus 30 degrees Celsius temperatures? (The Japanese only had to contend with thunderstorms, humidity and the resulting mosquito onslaught on their supernatural island.)
Lara now also has her work cut out for her, because despite the huge range of customisation options available for weapons and gear, upgrading isn’t as simple as spending XP points any more. She has to hunt animals and gather resources, which means diligently exploring the various zones to find wood, metal ores and kill the occasional bear if she wants an extra magazine or added damage to her rifle. This takes time off Lara’s focus on finding that coveted treasure piece which her dad had died trying to find, but there are lots of bad guys after the same thing and no one said being a treasure hunter was going to be easy! Look at Uncle Indy, for instance!
Speaking of which, the story although ambitious is in fact RotTR‘s biggest letdown – you could call it Lara Croft and the Last Crusade. The treasure piece, dubbed the Divine Source, is believed to hold a fragment of God that gifts the power of immortality – sounds like another branding for the Holy Grail. And those father-daughter flashbacks? I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ve been through your collection of film classics, Mr Writer. The three-arc battle with the game’s main villain Konstantin, a man who initially seemed like a formidable enemy consumed with his desire for power, also surprisingly fizzles out with a less-than-emphatic conclusion – three grenades and a knife was all it took to put the commander of the world’s most fearsome private army to sleep.
On a more positive note, there was no riding off into the sunset to cap off Lara’s adventure in Siberia.
In terms of video games sequels, Assassin’s Creed 2 defines the gold standard for a complete upgrade package to its first game. The rebooted Tomb Raider franchise has had a similar journey too – 2013’s game felt a little repetitive at times, but RotTR seemed to have identified all of its problems and rectified them (they even saw fit to remove multiplayer, which felt like a half-assed effort in the first game) while becoming bolder and more comprehensive in what it encourages the player to do in the world.
In that respect, RotTR is probably one of the most perfect games of 2015. It is a shame that Lara had to be overshadowed by the bigger and badder Fallout 4 on release day, because this is certainly Game of the Year material that, given less than desired sales figures, risks finding itself in the discount bin very soon.
Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out on PC on Jan 28, and Q4 2016 for the PS4.