Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Game Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider (PS4)

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a solid sequel to 2013's Tomb Raider reboot. This time, Lara Croft is pursuing her father's research, which had led to his downfall and death. Most of the action takes place in Russia, with a brief interlude in Syria. Mechanics from the first game have been improved, locations are diverse, and Lara now starts out as a badass. Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a terrific action/adventure platformer that has me looking forward to the next installment.

Ways Rise of the Tomb Raider Rocks
The game has plenty of strengths: a compelling lead, lots of exploration, fun puzzles, gorgeous visuals, and a thrilling soundtrack. As always, Lara is a star: she's a force of nature, laser focused on her goal; and neither words nor bullets will deter her. It's a joy to have her perform improbable physical feats as she seeks the Divine Source that her father obsessed over. Lara scales sheer walls of ice, mows through mercenaries with only a bow and arrows, and survives falls that would kill anyone else. She also helpfully tells players what the next move should be when faced with a puzzle, e.g. "Looks like that lever will control the flow of water." The Survival Instinct mechanic, similar to Eagle Vision in the Assassin's Creed series, is key to spotting clues, relics, documents, climbable surfaces, and other environmental features that will help Lara move forward.

In terms of visuals, while Uncharted 4 retains its "Prettiest Game" tiara (my review here), Rise of the Tomb Raider offers stunning vistas and excellent animations, particularly the wildlife. Facial expressions during cut scenes are also outstanding. Night and day look fantastic, and Lara's glow stick does a great job illuminating dark places.

The music is also great, with tracks for every occasion: a grand yet somewhat melancholy main theme, a "ta-daa" effect when Lara solves a puzzle, driving percussion for enemy encounters, etc. The voice work is impeccable. In fact, Lara sounded so different from the first game that I thought they changed the voice actress, but no, it was still Camilla Luddington, pitching her voice lower and adding rawness to Lara's lines, appropriate for the traumatic events Lara underwent in her last outing. The villains Konstantin and Ana are menacing, Jonah is as huggable as ever, and Jacob's and Sofia's voice actors are stone foxes, I tell you. Also their voices are good.

Meanwhile, the AI does a bang-up job of making the game challenging. When alerted, bad guys coordinate their attacks, with gunners laying covering fire as brawlers try to flank Lara. Mercs armed with flame guns will never turn their back on you, necessitating frantic rolling maneuvers to get behind them and blast their fuel tanks. As for animals, non-predatory ones are vigilant and snap to attention as Lara approaches, fleeing before she gets too close. Predators are quick to charge, and some even sneak up on you. The AI adds a level of realism that compensates for Lara's near-magical jumping abilities, I think.

Exploration is where the game really shines. Observant players are rewarded with faded brown explorer satchels leading to hidden survival caches, hilariously conveniently placed treasure boxes, and all sorts of items for crafting: wood, nests, ores, oil, etc. There's a happy marriage of fantasy RPG elements and platforming, where discovering artifacts or documents scattered throughout the settings leads to experience, which become skill points, which in turn can net new abilities for Lara (e.g. faster healing). Deciphering ancient documents or Soviet-era murals improves Lara's language skills, which help with finding hidden coin caches to buy extra swag like gun silencers. At base camps, Lara can craft ammunition, upgrade weapons, learn new skills, or fast travel to a previous camp. This latter option is perfect for when you get new gear that lets Lara access new areas in past locations.

Crucially, game controls are perfect. There is never a danger of missing a platform (unlike in Final Fantasy XV's Pitioss Dungeon); Lara is programmed to land on or reach for the next climbing surface. Firing weapons is intuitive (aim with L2, fire with R2), though I did have some issues with the special ammunition at first (aim with L2, fire with R1). So confusing! But this is probably because I am an old lady. Get off my lawn.

Alas, Rise of the Tomb Raider suffers from skimpy writing and character development. Unlike in the last game, when Lara struggles with her transformation into an effective killer, there's barely any growth this time around. I spent most of the game unimpressed with Lara's fixation on the Divine Source. While "My dad died for this!" is an acceptable and well-worn motivation, it rang hollow without more background on Lord Croft's efforts. If you haven't started a new game yet, I recommend doing the "Blood Ties" mission first, accessible via the Croft Manor option in the main menu. This introduces players to the exploration and puzzle-solving that are the crux of the game, and also presents a lot of context for Lara's motivations.

Since I only played "Blood Ties" after I finished the main game, Lara's quest seemed pretty selfish at first, especially since there were friendly people around asking her to give it up. The only time I felt a sense of urgency was when Jonah got kidnapped. Then I was totally on board the Lara Exploration Train, which had screeched to a halt and then jumped on the tracks marked "Rescue My Pal."

In Conclusion
Other than that, the game is bomb. I love the NPCs and the new allies system, where Lara could agree to ally requests geared toward the overarching goal of defending their homes. I especially appreciated Sofia, who is initially hostile but eventually becomes a staunch supporter. The main villains are shown to have strong desires and inner conflicts, just like the hero.

My attachment to the NPCs made me realize a major difference between the Tomb Raider series and Assassin's Creed: Lara Croft (and her progeny, Nathan Drake of Uncharted) is frequently alone in her adventures, whereas the various Assassins move through crowds of people and interact frequently with NPCs. This is why the new allies mechanic was so nice; it made the game feel less lonely and balanced out Lara's very personal quest, making her part of a bigger picture.

In the end, of course, Lara gets her hands on the Divine Source but destroys it, and players are rewarded with a wonderfully fierce ending theme, "I Shall Rise" by Karen O. At the very end is an easter egg: a scene showing Lara being targeted by powerful foes, capable of ending her at any time they choose. Oooooo~!

TL;DR: A fantastic sequel! Highly recommended!


This post brought to you by Sarah Waters' Fingersmith!

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