Despite her escalating body count, Lara Croft has no problem crossing borders.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the explorer’s second outing since a 2013 reboot which re-established her as a more vulnerable yet more violent warrior, she freely zips around the world – including an ill-advised stop-off in chaotic Syria.
The series, once an icon of the British video game industry, has also roamed; it’s now being co-built by long-time developer Crystal Dynamics and a Square Enix studio in tax-break friendly Canada (albeit with a team that includes the British writer, Rhianna Pratchett). Not only that, like the 2013 title upon which it builds, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game that has wandered some way from the roots that linger in its title. Not a lot of tomb raiding goes on in Tomb Raider these days. Instead, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a rip-roaring Saturday matinee of a video game, which has traded original ideas for popular ones.
Croft, voiced by Camilla Luddington, spends the majority of the game in freezing Siberia, where she skulks through the snow in search of an ancient, life-extending artefact supposedly lost to time in a forgotten city. More abstractly, Croft is chasing her late father, who once sought the same treasure. As well as answers, she also seeks resolution to unresolved issues to do with loss and deferred grief. Croft does this soul-searching through monologues, recited whenever she finds shelter at a campfire (the locations at which you may upgrade equipment, refill ammo supplies or craft new implements with which to combat the Siberian winter and the nefarious secret society known as Trinity, against whose agents you scuffle in the snow). Later, she also does this through conversation with a companion, who lends an ear if not, outside of the game’s cinematic cutscenes at least, a hand in her progress.
If Croft is in search of inner peace, she shows little care or consideration for her fellow human in the moment-to-moment play. Appearances deceive: this lithe, slender protagonist packs a serious punch, able to take out swarms of well-armed men, even those protected by Teflon body armour and six-foot-tall shields. Croft is able to knock up rudimentary explosive devices from tin cans or Molotov cocktails while cringing behind cover. She hurls them at her opponents with abandon, waiting for the flames to extinguish on their charred remains before plundering the body for ammunition or resources.
The juxtaposition in these games between the likeable, quipping hero we often find in word, and the bloodthirsty, ruthless killer we find in deed has become such a cliche that pointing it out has become a cliche itself. Nevertheless, the clanging incongruity remains, undiminished by familiarity, ludicrous in its continued repetition.
Familiar too, at least to players of the previous game, are your tasks, both primary and extra-curricular. Stealth follows light puzzling, follows light exploration, follows open battle, follows the kind of Indiana Jones set pieces in which you must, for example, flee a pursuing attack chopper, or a burning building. The linear design allows Crystal Dynamics to finely control the game’s rhythms, changing the pace and feel of the story through the nature of the challenges with which you’re presented. The recipe is undeniably compelling and well measured, but ultimately feels shallow.
Soon enough you learn to enter every new area and stab the analogue stick in order to instantly highlight items of interest – ammo crates, relics, rope-slides, climbable branches, frolicking animals who can be hunted and turned into resources. In this way you can read a location in seconds – there’s no need to slow down any more, survey your surroundings and figure out what you’re supposed to do. Mostly, you run from highlighted object to object, collecting, prising, climbing or reading your way through the to-do list that’s been laid out in front of you. There is, in nouveau-Tomb Raider, little true exploration or puzzle solving to do. Even on the toughest difficulty, this is a fast-food approximation of challenge.
It certainly slips down easily enough. Levels propel you forward with pitter-patter of manageable tasks, creating a sense of momentum. But there’s none of the enriching sense of accomplishment that one used to feel when working away at one of Tomb Raiders’ grand and exquisite environmental puzzles. As in the 2013 reboot, these are relegated to optional side-missions. You must discover the entrance to the tomb, perhaps accessed through some remote cave, or down a disused Soviet mineshaft, and then work out how to reach the treasure in its farthest depth, or tallest summit. Your reward is not only an upgraded ability, but also an honest sense of triumph. These are Rise of the Tomb Raider’s strongest moments.
On the evidence of these optional tombs, which are the closest the game comes to replicating the style and satisfaction of historical Tomb Raider, it’s clear that developer Crystal Dynamics is a home to masterly designers who would, surely, be able to deliver many games’-worth of memorable and delightful puzzles. But in the ever-accelerating homogenisation of the blockbuster video games, it seems as if they’ve been held back by the need for the game to hit the expected notes of the genre. Where once Tomb Raider led the field, now it merely rides with the pack, offering nudges of modest invention and improvement, but little to truly inspire and amaze.
The exception is, perhaps, Expeditions. Gone is the 2013’s game’s multiplayer mode, replaced by this score attack recasting of the main missions. Here you find new challenge goals and the chance to complete against friends and other players online. As in Halo 5, a new collectible card system adds modifiers to play. You buy (either with in-game currency or real world money) or win packs of cards. Each offers a bonus (eg better starting weapons) or a drawback (eg no ammunition), which comes with a counter-balancing penalty or multiplier to your subsequent score.
The harder you stack the odds against you, the greater the opportunity for glory. As you can equip multiple cards per run, there are many thousands of potential “load-outs” with which to fine-tune the balance between skill and risk. It’s a welcome diversion, and one that will provide, for some, additional interest and challenge after the main game is finished.
Rise of the Tomb Raider improves upon its predecessors formula. The skill tree, with which you improve Croft’s abilities, is larger and better defined. Most areas have additional challenges, and, in some locations, you can even take on freelance missions for other friendly characters you meet among the snow-dusted firs.
The game has undeniable breadth, then, but questionable depth. Like the Assassin’s Creed series, which places its bet on sprawl rather than texture, too often Rise of the Tomb Raider devolves into a gratuitous treasure hunt, where every piece of treasure is marked with a beam of light shooting up into the sky. If only this talented team had the chance to pursue a more singular vision.
As it is, Tomb Raider’s transformation from archaeological puzzle adventure to action blockbuster is complete. The result is a crowd-pleasing game, which offers only glimpses of what could be if this team were only allowed to take some braver risks with Croft’s next expedition.
This article was written by Simon Parkin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 11th November 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010