“Smart”, “Fun”, “A Blast”, “Game of the Year”. All of these phrases and labels colored the acclaimed success of last year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. There’s very little criticism that surrounds the sequel to Lara Croft’s reboot, which will make my feelings here towards Rise jarring to say the least. With the PC version released, and the Baba Yaga DLC out, there’s a fair amount of buzz that may encourage you to join the modest 1 million plus players that picked up Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox One along with 360. But I’m here to tell you why you should think twice before doing that.
Let me be clear. I did not like Rise of the Tomb Raider very much if you haven’t heard already. At its best, I thought it was a pretty, yet uninspired and completely derivative action adventure. At its worst, I thought it was a mechanical failure as a third person action game with a largely bloated reward system. Now I’m not here to sway fans or shit on their game – at least not out of malicious intent. Consider this a unique perspective for the curious consumer.
My earliest beef with Rise began with the story. The Tomb Raider reboot was mildly ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful in illustrating a young Lara being forcibly entrenched in the wilderness, leaving her no choice but to kill for the first time and keep killing to survive. It ultimately felt inauthentic if not sociopathic as Lara endured a nervous breakdown after taking her first life, then moments later embarked on a rapid blood thirsty rampage while shiving necks with hunting knives, caving in skulls with pick axes, and placing shotguns to chins before pulling the trigger. Rise of the Tomb Raider was the opportunity to revisit Lara’s involuntary violence, and that seemed to be evident in what is perhaps my favorite video game debut trailer of all time:
This heavily hinted at a contextual through-line between the reboot and Rise, insinuating that: Hey. Lara didn’t have time to grieve or process having to take a life… or several (despite her bloated monologues at camp fires). This sequel might explore her trauma as a psychoanalytic character study. But that didn’t happen, not even a little bit. To be fair, according to Rise’s director, Brian Horton, literally everyone in the industry was wrong in even entertaining the idea that the sequel was going to explore more sensitive themes such as PTSD. Instead, despite the explicit mentioning of “trauma” and “flashbacks”, the brief scenes of adventuring tied together with her fidgeting mannerisms in her therapy session weren’t signs of Lara battling with post traumatic stress disorder, but was instead her display of impatience to get back out there and raid tombs. Sorry Crystal Dynamics for expecting too much from your story.
I may be especially disappointed by the story, but I hold little grudge against it since it’s been made clear that the narrative’s theme had ventured off in the opposite direction. After Rise’s director made it clear as to where Lara Croft’s new adventure was going, I knew walking in that the story wasn’t going to be even remotely as brave and interesting as everyone and I thought it was. What I didn’t expect, though, was that I would struggle so much to enjoy every part of the game itself.
One common complaint about the reboot was how terribly fidgety the gunplay was. It wasn’t long into my first encounter with Trinity’s mercenaries that I noticed very little of it has changed. The way in which Lara moves, scrambles, and throws herself towards enemies is unwieldy and imprecise; just navigating her around the environment is a chore. Aiming and shooting has also seen absolutely no improvement, with aiming feeling stiff and arthritic like I was playing Fallout 4 as a straight forward shooter. In addition, the “cover system” remains a problem in that it’s largely non-existent. If you aren’t familiar with the rebooted franchise, each time Lara enters the vicinity of enemy combatants, she automatically lowers into a crouching position. But not only is her stance automated, Lara doesn’t stick to any cover at all. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not Lara’s position is exposed or concealed. It seems like Crystal Dynamics preserved the shitty stealth mechanics from pre-Unity Assassins Creed, and thought somehow they’d have an advantage over a conventional (and objectively better) cover system seen in the very franchise they’re inspired by; Uncharted.
Many don’t disagree about the busted combat, and all too many times I’ve heard of players opting for engaging encounters stealthily rather than guns-a-blazing. But here’s the problem with that: Rise of the Tomb Raider is the worst stealth game I’ve played in the past 5 years.
Let me elaborate. The stealth genre has established a set standard of design thanks to games such as Far Cry, Dishonored, and Splinter Cell. The ability to highlight and tag enemies is to be expected. The ability to escape detection after enemies have been alerted is to be expected. And the ability to have complete and persistent awareness of your surroundings is to be expected. Rise of the Tomb Raider has almost none of this.
First off, Lara has an ability called her “Survival Instincts”, a point-of-interest highlighting ping that illuminates collectibles, secret entryways, and crafting items in the environment. It can also paint enemies red when they are in view, but it doesn’t indicate those behind physical objects, and their highlights disappear as soon as Survival Instincts collapses. Unlike almost every other modern stealth action game, you’re merely left to your own devices when navigating around enemy positions, with nothing on the game’s HUD that helps you plan a successful kill. Some might prefer this “hardcore” design element akin to games like Hitman, but the limiting stealth features here are completely antithetical to the approachability of the rest of the game.
Additionally, the AI design is hardly applicable to a stealth game in almost every way. There is a two tiered alert system where a yellow arrow indicates that the enemy is suspicious, and red means that they’re in full combat mode. But that’s as far as Rise of the Tomb Raider was willing to go. Once the enemy has eyes on Lara’s position, their attention to your location is unusually relentless. See, even the least competent stealth games allow for a reduction of the enemies’ alert status, allowing them to effectively chill out before resuming their regular patrol. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, even when I was able to successfully break line of sight and then conceal myself say, underwater, while the enemy didn’t technically know my exact location, they always followed me with a general awareness of where I was. The only time I was able to successfully avoid alerted enemies was after exiting the combat zone entirely, which causes the game to reset all of the local Trinity goons to their original positions. None of this was even remotely fun, and it’s baffling to see a game from 2015 almost avoid industry standards altogether.
To fulfill its name as the “Tomb Raider”, Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to make a greater effort in incentivizing exploring by building “actual tombs” and offering tangible rewards with each one solved. But like everything else in Rise, these additions are also underwhelming. First off, I wouldn’t be the first to be unimpressed by the tombs’ mere marginal difference between the reboot and Rise. The rooms and puzzles themselves are mostly just a tad larger with more moving parts. But the biggest letdown is the actual rewards which were touted to grant Lara meaningful abilities. In my experience, I’ve hardly found much use for them. Outside of Natural Instincts, Inner Strength, and Fast Healer, I didn’t find a lot of value on what awaited at the end of each solved puzzle. In fact, I’ve found the same number of rewards from completed side missions more useful, which included a lock pick skill and an assortment of weapon modifications.
This speaks to the larger direction in which Rise of the Tomb Raider was going. Crystal Dynamics clearly set out to give players a heightened purpose by quantifying every action in the game. Kill wildlife and pick branches to craft items, read murals and inspect relics to increase language proficiency, decipher monoliths and pick up explorer satchels to locate more collectables. There’s almost nothing that you do in the game that isn’t attached to some kind of pay off, but as I said before, it all feels as if the game was simply quantifying the peripheral activities to justify every action you take. It all feels incredibly derivative and uninspired, lacking any meaningful additions to the rebooted franchise. Rise of the Tomb Raider is competent as a “busy game”, succumbing to more unnecessary bloat than its previous incarnation.
It was only just over two years ago that Crystal Dynamics rebooted Lara Croft back in March 2013. The small window of development time, and the speculated lack of funding behind the project perhaps contributed to at least some of the issues present in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara Croft’s story continues in Rise with post launch DLC, however if the most recent Baba Yaga add-on is in any way representative of what’s to come, expect only very brief and narrow missions that hardly deviate from what was already offered in the base game. Crystal Dynamics clearly expects to make another Tomb Raider installment. Let’s just hope that they’re given more time and resources to create a much higher quality and substantive game.