Lara Croft has it tough. Not only does she have some serious parental issues, but also a lot of her friends end up in mortal peril and/or turn Evil. The mystical artifacts she unearths tend to get lost in some cataclysmic event that she barely escapes with her life. She is not unique in this – Uncharted‘s Jonathan Drake and Indiana Jones share the same fate. But she seems more downbeat about it than the other two. The voice-acting makes her sound plaintive and regretful, which leads to ludonarrative dissonance as you cheerfully and creatively make her murder hundreds of Bad Guys. We hear a lot of her inner monologue, but the murdering doesn’t phase her at all. She may have a split personality, the adventurer oblivious to sharing a body with a psychopath. At least she looks more like a ‘real’ woman these days than like the busty, impossible mannequin she used to be, though she could still easily have a career as a fashion model.
Lara is fearless about her expeditions and has the constitution of a Terminator. She rightly assumes there will always be one precarious path leading to where she wants to go, even though it may be littered with death-defying jumps. And she never worries about getting back, despite the one path she followed often crumbling away behind her. She takes it on faith that there will always be a way out, and she is never wrong about that. The physical feats she achieves are a marvel. Over and over again she throws herself across chasms, and assuming you pressed the right button at the right time, she will swing herself across on a hook and/or slam an axe into a wall as she lands, proceeding to climb it. The amount of precision, luck and raw muscle strength needed here is astounding.
Immersion is sacrificed for gameplay. Despite clearly showing that Lara doesn’t carry much, she actually has a large arsenal and an always increasing amount of ancient collectibles and an infinite amount of glow sticks about her person. Save points are represented by campfires, which makes sense in some cases, but less when she finds one in a spot that no one has visited for years. And the environment is fussy about how it can be manipulated. The way may be barred by wooden planks that are indestructable from one side, no matter how many fire arrows and explosives you throw at them, but that can easily be pulled loose from the other side. The game’s backstory is filled in by documents and audio logs you find all over the place. Especially the logs are a bit ridiculous, scattered where they shouldn’t be – out in the open – when it seems they would have been carefully hidden, as they contain private thoughts that could expose the person who – oddly – recorded them. It all makes sense from a design perspective, but feels artificial.
The game consists of a few open areas for Lara to explore, collecting things and fighting or hunting animals for their pelt, to craft gear with. There are actually a few tombs for Lara to raid this time around, each containing an environmental puzzle that she needs to solve to get to the artifact hidden inside (which gives you a gameplay bonus). They are optional and not all that complex, but they should not be missed, though it often makes no sense in the flow of the story that Lara would take a time-out to leisurely explore. More than the fighting, the tombs give you the feeling of playing a traditional Tomb Raider game, with the emphasis on exploration and problem-solving.
The star of the rest of the game is – like last time – Lara’s bow. It is stealthy, easy to use and insanely powerful. By the end you have a variety of different arrows you can use with it. Some set things on fire, others blow stuff up real good or spread a lethal gas. Who says chemical warfare is bad? You also get other guns to play with, and options to upgrade those with grenades or incendiary ammo, and these are handy when battles get more frantic. But the different versions of each gun that you can unlock by collecting pieces of them seem like overkill. You won’t need them, as by the end you are overpowered and very hard to kill indeed. A new type of enemy who gets introduced late in the game is hyped up beforehand, but doesn’t prove more difficult to dispatch. And the checkpointing is generous, which makes the game feel easy. I didn’t really mind that, as there was a bit too much shooting near the end for my taste, and I was glad not to have to replay the lengthy fights
The story the game tells feels by-the-numbers. Lara hunts down an artifact, followed by villains, helped by rebels and everything ends up going sideways for all involved. I wasn’t surprised by any of the twists or the ending as it all seemed inevitable somehow, following her familiar narrative formula. Listening to a fair amount of the logs and having found most of the scattered documents gave more context for the place and the characters, but didn’t make the tale feel more complex. The story and the players are all fairly two-dimensional.
Now, the above this sounds like I didn’t really like the Rise of the Tomb Raider, but that is not the case. Despite all the shortcomings, it has to be said that this game is as entertaining as f*ck. It looks gorgeous and shows many interesting, imaginative locations. If you like humbling vista’s and pondering the ruins of lost civilisations, the game delivers. There are a few big, impressive set-pieces and the gameplay is varied and smooth for the most part. It leans more on fighting than I would like, but then that may be necessary to sell a game these days. Unfortunately, due to some very bad decision-making on the part of the publisher, the game didn’t sell so well. (It was an exclusive on X-Box One initially and then released on PC at the same time as a few more high-profile titles.) I do hope we get to see more of Lara, though ideally with more raiding and less shooting.