It surprised me when Tomb Raider gained relevance in 2013 with the release of the game Tomb Raider, which was a reboot of the series. But when you look at the information, there’s nothing surprising about it. Crystal Dynamics has been quietly working on the series since 2006, but didn’t have a mega-hit until the 2013 title. I remember Crystal Dynamics in the days of Gex the Gecko, and I’m impressed they’ve sustained their business so well out of the spotlight. With 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, we see a sequel that gets a lot right, including beautiful graphics, a fun adventure through Siberia, where you feel like a true historian uncovering ancient artifacts, and a lot of backstory revealed as you go, including Lara’s special relationship with her father, also a historian, as a child. Unfortunately, the game falls back on one of the things I hate about modern games to keep things moving: lots of gun-based action where killing every enemy is the only way forward.
Again, the gun is the weapon of choice. You have three guns: a shotgun, a pistol, and a rifle. You also have a bow and arrow, which to be fair, is used creatively in non-violent ways. Some of my favorite moments in Rise of the Tomb Raider are where you’re simply exploring. You can use two ice-picks to climb Siberian walls of ice. You can hang from ledges and climb briefly to higher ground. Your ice-pick can later be used as a rope swing, a bit like Batman. The arrows can have rope attached, creating a taut line to climb to a new location. Finally, you get an arrow that will stick to certain walls, that you can jump on top of (somewhat silly). These are some of the most fun moments in the game.
There is also use of quick-time events, a game idea dating all the way back to Shenmue from 1999. I think Rise of the Tomb Raider is an Uncharted caliber adventure, though Microsoft picked up exclusivity rights for a while, until a PlayStation port came later. As the plot is unveiled, you learn that there was a “prophet” with very biblical looking imagery around him, who promised “life eternal.” There is a map called the “Atlas,” which serves as an ancient blueprint of a lost city. Finally, there’s the “Divine Source,” which can grant eternal life to the one possessing it. It takes Lara a long time to realize it, but she realizes death is a necessity, and preaches to her mother-in-law, who wishes to live forever, “Death is a part of life.”
Lara Croft is definitely a sex symbol, though she always has been. What I remember growing up is a magazine ad with perhaps a twenty year-old man in a room full of Lara Croft posters head-in-hands. It kind of drove home the point, should you be attracted to a polygon? It’s made worse because the graphics are much more realistic now. Feminists and game-journalists alike don’t know if we should be grateful for an empowered female lead, or if we’re preaching sex in a Christmas present. Let’s just say Lara is in good shape.
Again, Rise of the Tomb Raider falls apart with the guns. All I really remember about the 2013 reboot is one critical firefight that was a break in the exploration monotony. Here, we’re mowing down way too many baddies (members of “Trinity”), but it’s occasionally interspersed with puzzles. Part of me wonders if handing over publishing rights to Microsoft screwed this game up with violence. Where would Microsoft be in the console wars without hyper-violent games like Gears of War and Call of Duty? It takes time to learn the lesson, but if this game was an action-platformer, it would still be fun.
Closing thoughts are that I’m blown away by Crystal Dynamics’ game engine. Dubbed the “Foundation” engine, it was built in-house, and has super advanced lighting effects, as well as high-dynamic range while looking out on Siberia. My PC has a modest Radeon 570, and an advanced Rysen processor. The game ran with graphics settings on “high,” though my processor fan was roaring. I was just happy I can play an Xbox One / PlayStation 4 game OK. If you like gunplay, add an extra point to this score. For me, it was a nice departure from the retro games I’m into, but there’s nothing too bleeding-edge in this package, except maybe the inclusion of VR support. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a graphical masterpiece and a light make-believe adventure. With the sequel Shadow of the Tomb Raider already in stores, call this one the sophomore slump.
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