Rise of the Tomb Raider: Insert Uncharted Pun Here
I have to admit that I don’t have a significant history with the Tomb Raider series, and mostly that is due to personal oversight. For as big of a fan as I was for the original Playstation, I just never picked up that series. I was in middle school at the time of those original games, and my peers who were into those games were into them more for the allure of the Lara Croft character than anything else. The awkward sex appeal that was attached to those early games was kind of a turnoff to me, and thus I never really thought highly enough of the series to give it a go. When the rebooted Tomb Raider was released in 2013, I was completely surprised by the number of Tomb Raider fans that were suddenly vouching for the quality of the older games. It made me a little bit ashamed that I had waited so long to get into the series, especially for a game that many long-time fans considered to be a departure from what made the earlier entries special. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 Tomb Raider and was excited when its sequel, the boorishly titled Rise of the Tomb Raider, finally made it to PC last month.
The story of Rise of the Tomb Raider I feel is by far its weakest part, both in plot and in characters. The plot synopsis of Rise is simple: Lara must get to the magical artifact of the week before the bad guys do. In this case, the object of obsession is the Divine Source, a device used by an ancient Byzantine prophet to grant himself and his armies eternal life. Long since faded into myth, the Source was the obsession of Lara’s father, Lord Croft, and his dogged pursual of the artifact eventually earned him the enmity of the shadowy organization known as Trinity. Trinity pulled strings within the UK media to discredit and publicly humiliate Croft which led to his apparent suicide when Lara was young. Flash forward to the present day and Lara has discovered new evidence which points to the Divine Source having found a resting place deep within Siberia. Before she can depart, however, the information is stolen by Trinity, which triggers a race to reach the long lost antique.
I guess the story of Rise isn’t particularly bad. It serves its purpose in that it gives proper motives for Lara to complete the various objectives she’s tasked with across the game. I guess my main problem with it is that it’s not very unique. The “reach the artifact before the bad guys” plot is of course the story of most of the Indiana Jones movies (all save Temple of Doom) which in turn has been used in almost all of the old Tomb Raider games and every single one of the Uncharted games. That might seem like an odd thing to take issue with, but I enjoyed that the 2013 reboot story differed from this archetype and instead focused on a group of survivors trying to endure and escape a cursed island. It was a welcome change of pace.
The lack of originality is also weighed down by the fact that the characters just aren’t very interesting this time around. Lara is accompanied by a returning character from the 2013 game, but here he’s really just sort of “there” from time to time. He doesn’t do much interesting and nothing about his character or his relationship with Lara are developed further. As Trinity gets closer to the Divine Source, Lara makes an alliance with a native group that are trying to protect the secrets of the artifact, but I can’t say anything was particularly engaging about them, either. They merely fill the “native tribe resisting a powerful invading force” slot that these types of stories have. I also didn’t really care all that much for the villains. While the secrets of the shadowy Trinity group could have been interesting to unravel, we don’t actually learn anything about them. Instead, the villains are a mercenary group that serve as the enforcement arm of the organization. There is some interpersonal drama between the two leaders of this rival group, a brother and sister, but, again, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about how their relationship plays out. The entire story is pretty predictable, and as a consequence, I was neither invested nor intrigued in seeing the resolution, as I had already worked everything out in my head.
Fortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider really shines in its technical feats. The environments are huge, but nonetheless filled with a gorgeous amount of detail. The outdoor landscapes teem with lush foliage and striking terrain, and the enclosed areas are no less impressive. Particle effects were particularly eye catching and put to good use to fill the screen with snowflakes, ash, ember, and the like during the appropriate scenes. Fire effects are also really impressive, both visually and for the way fire spreads through surrounding structures during certain sequences. And being a Lara Croft adventure, often entire levels will begin to collapse in spectacular fashion as Lara makes a mad dash to safety. I think the visual appeal on display was what ultimately made the game stand out to me, which might seem like a shallow thing to say, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little bit of high-tech eye candy.
The original series of Tomb Raider games could probably be described as a mixture of acrobatic platforming, with Lara jumping, tumbling, and swinging her way through ancient ruins, and puzzle solving to overcome environmental obstructions (either manmade or the result of natural obstacles) rounded out with some action sequences. A major criticism of the 2013 Tomb Raider from long time fans of the series was that it significantly rebalanced this mix of gameplay toward being more about action and shooting, with the puzzle solving almost completely relegated into optional side missions. More or less, the same is true of Rise. I think the game is about a 50/50 split of acrobatic platforming (similar to the old games) and action shooting segments. There is almost no puzzle solving to be found in the main quest of the game. Like the last game, there are secret “tombs” whose entrances are hidden throughout the game’s sprawling outdoor areas, and these tombs serve as a kind of side mission which contain puzzles that Lara must solve to earn a reward at the end of the ordeal. While many long time fans may lament the lack of puzzles in the main mission sequence of the game, I will say that, to Rise’s credit, the optional tombs seemed far more intricate and lengthy to me than in the previous game, and the items that were earned by completing them always seemed highly worthwhile.
It’s no secret that the newly rebooted Tomb Raider series has taken cues from Uncharted when it comes to the design of its action sequences, and naturally one can’t help but compare this game to Naughty Dog’s series. Action sequences during the main missions of the game are often linear in nature, with the player constantly being funneled along a straightforward path composed of sequential areas where enemy encounters are staged. I will say that I probably prefer the action in these new Tomb Raider games to that of Uncharted. While it’s clearly a follower not a leader in this aspect, I find the enemy encounters in both the 2013 game and Rise to be far more satisfying than Uncharted’s design philosophy of spamming the player with waves of bullet sponge enemies, as they inspire me to be far more thoughtful in my offensive approach.
However, unlike the Uncharted games, Rise isn’t purely a linear “rollercoaster ride” type game. While the main missions are highly linear in nature, in between these missions Lara has freedom to roam around and explore a series of large interconnected areas that make up the game’s overworld. In these areas, Lara can search for hidden tombs, take on side missions, root around for collectibles, and she can collect crafting items by hunting animals and gathering plants. Pleasantly, I felt that these big open areas gave the game a bigger sense of adventure than the Uncharted series.
New to Rise of the Tomb Raider is a crafting system that wasn’t present in the 2013 game. There are a wide variety of crafting items that can be collected in a number of ways (see above), and these items can be used to unlock new abilities for Lara, as well as craft ammo, grenades, and health packs on-the-fly. On-the-fly crafting works simply by holding down the button associated with a specific object. So, for instance, if you have the bow equipped, you can craft arrows simply by holding down the button that you press to fire the bow (the right trigger of the controller). If you have the requisite crafting items in your inventory, a meter will appear on screen that will fill up to complete the crafting action. You’ll often need to do this in the heat of battle to generate more ammo, especially for the bow, since arrows usually aren’t dropped by the enemy. I think the game wants you to spend time exploring the large open areas of the game to hunt animals and gather plants for these crafting items, but I generally never found myself having to go out of my way to stock up on these. If this whole system sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s very similar to the crafting system used in The Last of Us. Considering these games already draw enough comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I was more than slightly amused that they just went ahead and wholesale copied the crafting system that Naughty Dog introduced in The Last of Us.
While I’m sympathetic to the bristling of long-time Tomb Raider fans at the action-oriented approach of the rebooted series, I think I’ve grown to enjoy these games a lot, and, in fact, I find that I prefer them over the Uncharted series that inspired them. For many of the reasons I’ve outlined above, Tomb Raider just feels like a more substantial adventure than Uncharted. It may not have the best characters or story, but Tomb Raider really does present a world that feels dangerous and alive. Meanwhile, the Uncharted games feel more like a theme park attraction to me, where the focus is more on cinematic heroism that is all smoke and mirrors. And I hate to sound so down on Uncharted, as I really liked Uncharted 2, but I think Uncharted 3 left me with some disdain for the series, and I’m looking forward to see if Uncharted 4 can bring me back around.
Putting Uncharted aside, however, I do wonder about the future of the Tomb Raider series. I really enjoyed this game, but I don’t think you can say that it is anything but an incremental improvement over its predecessor. If this series wants to sustain a future, I think it’s going to need to evolve a lot more in the next iteration. This series has already seen one short-lived revival with the Legends-Anniversary-Underworld games, and I fear that this latest round of the series is on the same trajectory toward stagnation, which I think would be a real shame.