Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fun, ravishingly beautiful game that is unfortunately stymied by one of the most uninspired plots in recent video-gaming memory.

Pop culture has a strange fondness for characters like Lara Croft and her ilk – brave archaeologist-adventurers who venture into ancient tombs and ruins and wreck everything in sight. Unfortunately for said ruins, such hijinks make for good films and video games. Rise builds upon the unique environmental challenge gameplay of the first game in the rebooted series and delivers it in a beautiful open-world package.

The game is set in the wildernesses of Siberia, and it’s a visual treat. Golden sunlight streams through ice-covered conifers. Deep snow deforms at every footstep. The visual fidelity isn’t limited to the environments. Characters, too, are rendered with intense attention to detail. Lara Croft is probably the most realistic character model I’ve encountered in any video game so far, just in her locomotion sets, facial textures, and motion capture alone. And PureHair technology makes Lara’s locks move with unprecedented realism, at a seemingly minimal performance cost.

The game has a good mix of linear gameplay segments and open-world free-roaming. The designers have gotten rid of most QTE events in the game, and made Lara’s movement more timing-based. Environmental puzzles also feature more strongly. The player is given a set of traversal tools to use to navigate the terrain. The basic gameplay loop here is to have Lara traverse a segment of landscape in order to reach the next story point or to access areas to obtain goodies.

Speaking of exploration rewards, Rise probably does collectibles about as well as they could have possibly done. The act of collecting these rewards is an act of grinding, of filler to extend gameplay and push the player’s reward buttons. In Rise, collectibles actually have some flavor text associated with them, which gives them some degree of narrative interest. It’s also one of the rare times Lara acts like a bona fide archaeologist.

The best parts of the game’s traversal mechanics, though, are the optional challenge tombs. These are extended puzzles, each pretty unique, that are hidden throughout the game world for players to find. They’re all spookily beautiful, well-designed globules of traversal gameplay, and the completion of each tomb grants Lara certain nice abilities that offer good gameplay perks.

Unfortunately, the game’s suite of mechanics and environmental and character designs don’t shine as much as they can, mainly because the game’s story is a total bore. The plot, which revolves around Lara’s quest for a MacGuffin that grants immortality, in a bid to restore her father’s lost reputation, is an exercise in staid tropes. The tone of the story is incessantly dour, gravid with pompous self-importance. The dialogue of the ostensible antagonists – an organisation called Trinity – is comically canned. The plot is riddled with plotholes and is rife with inexplicable worldbuilding. I am at a loss as to how this game could have won the Writer’s Guild of America Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing” in a nominee field that contained The Witcher 3. The writing feels almost desultory – fluff designed to get the player from point to point, as opposed to fashioning the gameplay around the story.

This is seen in the way the game depicts violence, for example. After the sensitive exploration of Lara’s growing capacity for violence as a justification for self-defense at first, Rise abandons that thread of Lara’s character. She is now a ruthless killing machine, mowing down faceless gooks with an assault rifle or silently feathering them with her bow and arrow. To be fair, she became one in the second half of the original, and she probably is one in Rise because of the need  to include shooty bits to sustain the market for games of this type. But the inclusion of options for violence, without the concomitant to reconsider the alternatives to violence that are workable.

The upshot is that Rise introduces thematic elements that are never consistently followed up on,  in part because of the exigencies of seeing storytelling as an accessory to gameplay. Lara’s determination to clear her father’s name suddenly turns into a desire to “save the world”, without explaining how she got there. There isn’t a quiet, character building moment in Rise. Every cutscene is filled with tedious exposition, signposted by the portentousness of the tone, all serving to briskly advance plot points at a steady pace.

As such, there is no space for authenticity or rawness in the Rise story. It is a carefully tweaked narrative package that merely serves as a thinly-veiled justification to get from point A to point B. The only good stories are pretty much the exploratory portions of the game – where Lara goes around, discovers crypts, enters tombs, and is herself – and flashes of her humanity shine through the cracks in her steely, self-serious facade, established by writerly fiat.

I give this game: 3.5 out of 5 icepicks

 

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