Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider was one of the most anticipated games on offer at EGX 2015 in Birmingham, and having loved the 2013 reboot, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on the upcoming action-adventure title. However, while the demo we played provided a few glimmers of potential greatness, it was let down by uninspired puzzle solving and all too derivative gameplay.
After a nearly three hour queue, our demo began with a graphically wonderful in-engine cinematic set in the scorching heat of northwest Syria. Juxtaposed with a shot of a single scorpion scuttling across this barren landscape was the roar of an SUV’s engine. Lara was being driven by a guide towards an unknown location indicated on their satnav, which we later learned to be the entrance to the Prophet’s Tomb. It soon became clear that something was amiss, however, as a helicopter flew ominously overhead. No sooner had Ms. Croft realised that her driver had sold her out, than the chopper opened fire, killing the betrayer and causing the SUV they were travelling in to catastrophically crash. In the aftermath, Lara was left clinging to a cliff-edge. Holding on for a moment with her climbing axe, she lost her grip and tumbled painfully to the ground.
This opening was brilliant in serving to showcase Rise of the Tomb Raider’s graphical improvements and increased focus on narrative-driven gameplay, although it perhaps set our expectations of what was to follow a little too high.
After a brief interlude that skipped the story ahead slightly, we were given control of Lara as she found herself much deeper within the catacombs that lay hidden in the mountains. Guiding her through a particularly gruesome cave that appeared to be the site of an ancient battle, we were impressed with the title’s graphical fidelity and foreboding atmosphere. Lara unsteadily made her way between a large number of grisly human remains and skeletons, shaking off cobwebs and scorpions which scurried around en masse.
A real sense of danger was felt when the floor gave way beneath us at various points, while spiked death traps swung hazardously from overhead. These triggered Rise of the Tomb Raider’s slow-mo quick-time events, which although felt directly transposed from the reboot, still provided a few scant moments of satisfyingly intense action.
We praised last-gen Tomb Raider for its sensitive portrayal of Lara in her origin story, accentuating her vulnerability by having her more physical actions require the player to take on greater strain (for example, breakable objects often needed four or five hits to smash rather than one or two). Not only that, but it also emphasised her pain through both physical and audio cues at various points. In that regard, Rise of the Tomb Raider builds well on the foundations laid by its predecessor. For example, Lara’s futile attempts to shoulder a blocked exit down had us mirroring her winces as we repeatedly battered the action button.
What followed for the next ten minutes – and made up the bulk of the demo – however, was where our grievances lay. With Lara effectively trapped in the deepest recesses of the tomb, players were tasked with finding their way out. What this eventually amounted to was smashing a hidden vulnerable point in a wall with your climbing axe to release a barrage of water. This in turn allowed our adventurer to traverse to a higher level, using a floating wooden pallet as a platform to hoist herself upon. In itself, this wouldn’t have been too tedious, except for the fact that the very next section required us to do the exact same thing again. And the next. What should’ve been a demonstration of the tomb-raiding puzzle mechanics that Crystal Dynamics had promised to put at the core of this sequel quickly turned into a monotonous exercise, and required little in the way of strategy or genuine problem solving. It just felt tacked on.
When Lara eventually reached the prophet’s sarcophagus and discovered what lay within (we won’t spoil it for you), we were confronted by The Trinity, the mysterious organisation who were apparently behind the attack earlier. After a brief confrontation, the heavily armoured group’s leader instructed his men to set off a number of explosives that were rigged throughout the tomb. This set up the demo’s only combat sequence, which took place as we attempted to escape the crumbling structure. While this was a fun moment to play through, it illustrated the fact that the game’s gunplay has shown very little improvement since its predecessor, with the aiming in particular feeling a little clunky. It also felt like the developers had tried a little too hard to replicate Uncharted’s grand set-pieces. Unlike Uncharted, though, the scene had an ineffective setup and lacked any real magnitude within the game’s narrative, which prevented it from coming across as anything other than contrived.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention that the EGX demo we played represents only a very small cross-section of the gameplay that will be found in the final release. Although we were left a little disappointed by this particular experience, we’ve been impressed with a number of teaser videos that have shown off seemingly much more innovative gameplay. As a result, we remain optimistic that Crystal Dynamics will put it all together in time for Rise of the Tomb Raider’s release on November 10.