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STILL Rising: is a better Tomb Raider game lurking in the Shadows?

I’ve been a little late in purchasing Rise of The Tomb Raider.

As a Core-era loyalist who actually enjoyed a fair bit of what TReboot had to offer, I had planned to pre-order and purchase Rise on release, as I had done so with every previous title on Playstation.

But being forced to sit out for a year while Square Enix rolled around in Microsoft’s money stuck in my throat just a bit. Such behaviour shouldn’t be condoned or rewarded with my hard-earned money.

Fast forward a few years, and my anger over being excluded has subsided. With Shadow just around the corner, and Rise being cheap at the moment, it seemed like the right time to experience the game myself.

Will Rise prove to be the perfect template for Shadow to follow? Or a lesson in everything not to do?

I know I’ve been incredibly hard on Crystal Dynamics for their treatment of Lara, their casual dismissal of the classics, and how this attitude has created a schism in the fan base, but:

* I actually don’t enjoy being so upset at the direction the series has gone in.

* I’m tired of always seeing the negative in Crystal’s Lara-related work.

* I don’t want to always be looking back.

* I want to love Tomb Raider again.

But they’re just making it so damned difficult to do so. Even with my tempered enthusiasm, Rise left me feeling disappointed. Is it terrible? Not at all. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a largely competent action/adventure title which is too safe to be interesting. Rise crams in so many gameplay elements: a semi-open world environment, standard combat and RPG systems complementing a predictable story, with the best gameplay not showcased but rather secreted away.

I just can’t marry the positive outpouring from critics for Rise with my experience.

So indulge me while I give you my opinion of the good, the bad, and the frankly stupid of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and what I hope they will take forward or leave behind for Shadow.

Redundant chatter, hints and other oddities

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Why are you shouting, Lara? I’m standing right here.

Within seconds of the game commencing, we hear a cheesy voiceover, courtesy of the deceased Lord Croft, after which Lara and Jonah bellow at each other on top of a mountain. I was instantly reminded of how much I disliked the melodrama of this new story and Camilla Luddington’s breathy, forced delivery.

This is a personal preference, and I mean no ill will towards Camilla, but she just isn’t my Lara. Fighting to suppress an American twang, she just doesn’t sound authentically British to me. I also feel her tone is too lightweight to communicate power, drive and resolve.

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MOM?!

She’s a shoo-in for Shadow and there’s nothing I can do about that, so I just have to hope she relaxes into the role in game three. With a better script and direction, who knows: perhaps I could grow to love her?

But for now,  in order to give Rise the best shot I could, I needed to take a quick hop to the options menu to switch off everything unpalatable.

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Survival instincts?! Dialogue?? Puh-leeeease.

This is absolutely something which I hope we see in Shadow: the option to minimise the in-game dialogue without muting the cutscenes.

It is rather surreal seeing them acted out in mime, but mute Lara is actually far more likeable.

Gone are the frankly weird noises Lara makes in between inane comments about her surroundings or capacity to do something. It does mean that you miss out on the story, but since it’s incredibly derivative anyway, I didn’t feel I was missing out on anything.

Indeed, even after skipping most of the cutscenes, I still got the jist: Lara wants a shiny thing to restore Dad’s reputation, and must reach the shiny thing before the bad guys do. And she meets Jesus along the way… Or something.

I would love for Shadow‘s story to put Dad to rest early in the game, and for Lara to spend the remainder of her time following her own path. I suspect, though, that I’ll be disappointed and Richard’s spectre will loom large over the next title.

Keep the fantastic art direction

When the stunning vistas or monuments were allowed to speak for themselves, enhanced by a serviceable score, the game can be quite beautiful. It’s in those moments that the classic Tomb Raider feel begins to return.

Now if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Crystal Dynamics will always do a good job with the graphics. They’ve proven to have a very talented art team and, if nothing else, the look of the game seems to be in safe hands. I expect Eidos Montreal, who are equally accomplished (see Deus Ex: Mankind Divided) to maintain or exceed the current standard.

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Eidos Montreal’s artistic ability is absolutely not in question.

Treating your players like beginners: one size does not fit all

One thing that must change, though, is the constant barrage of pop-ups and hint screens, some of which take up a full quarter of the screen and which frequently marred the often-stunning scenery.

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Every pop-up spoils the atmosphere by damaging the sense of isolation

It’s as if Crystal Dynamics believed that their audience has never played a game before. Either that or they’re terrified of players getting stuck and abandoning the game.

For example, take this clip of me playing part of Syria near the start of the game. By this time I’d already muted Lara and turned off everything to do with survival instinct.

I was working out a simple puzzle that revolved around raising the water level in order to proceed.

In this short section, the game reminded me how to swim faster, despite having already told me how to do so mere moments earlier so that I could survive a death trap.

The game also told me three times to use survival instinct to see highlighted items in the environment, despite me having switched this tool off.

These prompts remain on screen for roughly six seconds each (although I ended this video clip just after the third prompt appeared.) In other words, in a one-and-a-half minute section, the game bothered me for 20% of that time with irrelevant hints while I was trying to enjoy solving a puzzle. And it didn’t stop just because I stopped recording!

It’s a real shame because this really hurt the experience of what would otherwise be a really solid opening level, with simple puzzles to navigate and death traps to avoid. At least I had dialogue disabled, or doubtless Lara would be telling me what to do, too!

Here the game is telling me to use Survival Instincts even though I’m making progress!

And it gets worse when you arrive in the ‘open-world’ hub areas.

When I arrived in Siberia, the game constantly informed me that an OPTIONAL tomb entrance was nearby, and wanted me to be aware that my map has been updated with OPTIONAL points of interest (incidentally, these were caves that I was in the process of entering).

Rise does this with such insistence and persistence that it no longer feels like I have a choice. If I want to be left alone, first I have to do as I’m told.

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Get it?

This constant hint intrusion means that any sense of isolation and immersion is nigh-on impossible to achieve.

While this did become less prevalent as the game progressed, it’s odd that Crystal didn’t add a difficulty level or option that removes hints from the start. So few of the techniques in this game actually required an explanation if, like me, you’ve played any title similar to Rise in the last few years.

With this in mind, I would love to see Shadow have custom HUD options, or maybe even a separate puzzle-difficulty setting which removes all of these hints and splashes. While Lara herself might be a novice in this game, not all of the players are and they need to be treated accordingly.

Actual Tomb Raiding 

As expected, the OPTIONAL tombs are a stand-out experience.

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The trophy stats indicate that not all users have completed the tombs. They’re missing out.

The on-screen hints drop away and there are some awesome sights to see and satisfying puzzles to complete.

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Still images really don’t do this justice.

The level of polish in these sections is variable, though. For example, I encountered a game-breaking bug in The Red Mine, which was a shame. I spent the better part of an hour trying to solve a puzzle, which turned out to be impossible because the game hadn’t loaded the items I needed to complete it. Some of the tombs are also disappointingly short.

Shadow, therefore, should not only implement devilishly tough optional challenges, but also pepper more of the main path with these puzzle and trap-filled tombs. It’s Tomb Raider, after all; this should be the meat and bones of your game, not something shoved to the side.

Please though, lay off the rope arrows: they’re relied on far too much in Rise.

Home Sweet Home

Croft Manor makes a welcome return, although in a dilapidated state. This stand-alone environment features a short treasure hunt and is a fantastic diversion to the main game. It also fleshes out the family drama a little more, if you’re into that.

We’re introduced to Lara’s uncle, Atlas – a man so repellent that I have to wonder if he will be introduced as a bad guy in the next game, possibly even as the person responsible for the death of Lara’s father.

I would LOVE to see the return of Croft Manor and its grounds – including an obstacle course! I want to see tangible evidence that Lara is trying to get physically stronger to better prepare for the challenges she’ll face in Shadow.

What of Lara herself?

When it comes to Miss Croft, a disconnection between the narrative and the gameplay has always been a feature of the Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games.

She is cunning yet stupid, simultaneously resilient and weak, resourceful but still incapable. Lara is a walking contradiction, but not in a believable way.

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A nervy Lara who is also oddly liberal about handing out spare keys to her ancestral home.

From the title of the game, I mistakenly believed that Lara would be the finished article by the end; but, alas, she still needs a third game before she’s fully cooked. Character development doesn’t and shouldn’t need to take three whole games in order to be convincing.

That isn’t to say I was hoping for a Sarah Connor-style transformation in Lara. That would just be jarring, given where we left her at the end of TReboot. I was expecting something like Rachel Weisz’s transformation in The Mummy Returns. But really, I got neither. Despite her experiences in Yamatai, Lara hasn’t really matured. She has retained much of the wide-eyed naivety from the previous title. Physically, Lara floats back and forth between athletic superwoman and clumsy academic, making super-human leaps when the script demands it but remaining graceless when climbing over waist-high barriers.

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I’m only exaggerating a little.

She could have done with taking a few self-defence classes, too. She is almost killed by an intruder in her home because she hasn’t learned to fight or even keep a weapon handy; this is doubly odd because she knows she’s being pursued by a shady organisation.

She put me in mind of a slasher-flick victim by how ineffectually she flailed at her attacker. In fact, this entire manor scene bugged me. She showed shock and fear at Jonah walking in unannounced, and was reluctant to shoot the man who was choking her to death moments before.

She doesn’t show any mercy or hesitation to stealth-kill unaware guards during gameplay, but someone who has just attempted to murder her (and who is now stealing her father’s research,) gets a pass?

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Good job there was a big, strong man nearby to save her from certain death. #feministicon

Spectacular swimming sections and action sequences

As someone who loved the shipwreck levels in Tomb Raider 2, and the deep-sea sections of Underworld, I was so happy to discover that Lara has now learned to swim underwater. Sadly, she could have done with packing her armbands for the expedition.

Lara seemed to go into panic mode the moment her head goes beneath the surface; and this was still the case when she acquired a rebreather and was no longer in danger of drowning.

It’s important that running out of oxygen underwater is a threat to build tension, but I hope Lara will learn to hold her breath for a reasonable amount of time in Shadow.

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At least Hillard had an Alien chasing her.

The underwater sections, therefore, ended up as nothing more than stabbing constantly at the circle button to make Lara flail and jerk about more quickly, and holding the forward button until she surfaced automatically.

The animations suggest that Lara is vulnerable in an attempt to make the audience empathise with (and root for) her. But like the many other action sequences in the game, was basically just a glamour which lost its effect the more it was used.

Whenever there was a cave-in and/or a daring run through exploding tunnels, Lara might as well have been on rails. Simply holding forward normally got you through the experience alive and unscathed.

In Shadow, I want to see a physically capable and confident Lara, even if she isn’t there emotionally yet. She should be someone who isn’t just lucky at avoiding death throughout the game. I’m not expecting handstands and backflips – just animations that don’t portray weakness of body or spirit.

A bit of common sense

I’d also see a little more common sense in the game design, especially in relation to her practical skills. It’s wildly inconsistent in Rise, for example:

  • She learns to make explosives out of baked beans
  • She scales sheer walls using climbing axes
  • She skins a bear with just an arrowhead.

She can do all this, but she can’t cut a rope without a hunting knife?

I understand the intention: finding tools and learning skills to progress creates a greater honeycombing of levels and rewards player exploration. The execution of this just feels a little off at times.

Here the game felt the need to tell me how to pick the lock on a survival cache, despite having already raided it:

Learning optional skills is great, but I’d rather see them open other paths to explore rather than just ammo crates.

Less focus on combat

The combat system is largely unchanged from TReboot, with standard over-the-shoulder aiming, close-quarter stealth kills, and melee strikes.

The gun-play feels a bit buggy this time around. There seems to be a little latency when trying to aim, although the human enemies are pretty dumb and often leave themselves open for headshots even when behind cover, giving us plenty of time to pick them off.

However, I disliked the forced shoot-outs so much that I found myself rushing human enemies and taking them out with my climbing axes to get the battles over with more quickly. It was surprisingly effective as you can stun-lock them until they expire.

Encounters with wild animals are also frustrating. In packs, they attempt to surround and rush you at speed, before pouncing and knocking you to the ground.

Meleeing animals doesn’t seem to work (apart from the encounters with bears), until you unlock the QTE insta-kill skill. This is an odd design choice, given that you’re often forced into close-quarters situations with the beasts. My irritation was compounded here as the camera suddenly becomes your enemy in addition to making you feel suddenly under-powered.

It seems that Shadow fully intends to keep Lara’s bow at the forefront and the dual pistols probably won’t be making an appearance. I can live with that, but hope there are fewer hordes of enemies to kill, and a polished hand-to-hand combat system allowing Lara to do real damage whether armed or not.

Less RPG fluff

I’m really not a fan of the RPG-leveling system, either. While it’s nice to learn new skills, such as firing arrows in quick succession, many of the upgrades referred to Survival Instinct (which I had disabled), or interfered with my game experience in an undesirable way.

For example, I unlocked an ability which made me invulnerable for a short time after successfully stealth-killing an enemy; and, to indicate this period, the screen’s colour palette shifts. A simple audio cue would have sufficed just as well; or, you know, players could be trusted to think for themselves and keep a track of the time in their heads…?

You can also unlock the ability for the aiming reticle to indicate if you have a headshot lined-up. However, it already turns red when it’s over an enemy; would adding anything extra to that really be useful to anyone?

I’d love to see Shadow totally strip this system back. I love progression but it needs to be meaningful. In short, less fluff, more substance.

Awe-inspiring climbing sections which speak for themselves

Platforming was rather simple, linear and uninspiring. Lara learned several traversal skills which seemed interchangeable and redundant. For example, why did she specifically need broadhead arrows to create platforms when she already had climbing axes which could have served the function better?

I wonder if Crystal felt the player would get bored if they didn’t shoo-horn more skills in at regular intervals.

On occasion, the game would get confused as to whether pressing square in midair meant that I wanted Lara to throw a grapple wire, or attempt to dig into a wall with an axe. This led to a few uncontrollable deaths and, unfortunately, is a fundamental flaw in any game which tries to interpret player intentions rather than simply relying on solid systems and rules.

There was only one mandatory section in the game which I thought was truly impressive (from a platforming stand point), and that was The Orrery that appeared late in the game. Ascending this contraption evoked memories of the climb to the top of the Hall of Seasons in Angel of Darkness:

I want more of these quiet moments in Shadow. Awe-inspiring climbs where the puzzle is enough to hold my interest by itself. I don’t need endless waves of enemies firing arrows at me, or a billion crumbling ledges to make a platforming section compelling.

Give me something which rivals the original St Francis’ Folly. Go big or go home.

End-game: boss fights and finishing on a high

Which brings me nicely on to the finale.

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Lovely graphics marred by yet another redundant pop-up

In this final section, Lara traverses ledges while the Deathless soldiers (who do a pretty good impression of dying when attacked) march around her, unaware of her presence. There was an obligatory platforming set piece with the enemy raining down arrows and fire while I attempted to escape.

Rise aped its predecessor to such an extent that I wondered if Crystal had run out of ideas or if they simply loved the TReboot sequence so much that they just had to repeat it. I really hope that we don’t see this same Oni/Deathless antagonist re-skinned in Shadow. Two games is enough, Crystal.

Now, the Tomb Raider series has had some pretty special boss fights. Rise shoves in two  at the end of the game

There’s a gunship battle which is very standard Crystal Dynamics fare, stretching all the way back to Soul Reaver: do something special to damage it, and repeat three times (Waves of enemies in between rotations, optional).

The battle with Konstantin felt like a sub-par version of the one-on-one encounter between Ellie and David in The Last of Us.

It’s telling, however, that Rise cannot replicate any of the drama or tension even though Lara is effectively unarmed against the gun-toting main villain of the game.

The same combat issues lingered, though; it’s possible to stun-lock Konstantin by clobbering him with melee attacks, but only the contextual sneak-attacks seem to do damage so I had to let him go, run away, and play the game properly.

Good boss fights are hard to construct. They are a trope as old as the medium and pretty much everything has been done before. If Shadow insists on adding a climactic battle, they have to try and push the envelope further.

And then we end on an old cliché: it isn’t TIME for the Lara to die, says the villain. Yet again, Lara survives through sheer dumb-luck.

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Good hiding, Lara.

Ultimately I feel that Rise ended on a flat note and didn’t leave me excited for the next title. It was lucky that the teaser for Shadow dropped when it did to pique my interest.

Assuming Shadow is not just the end of a trilogy, and acts as a launch-pad for a new series, they need create some momentum for the series to truly catch fire. That won’t happen if they’re rinsing and repeating other more successful titles, or plumbing their own depths.

I’m aware that I can come across as overly critical at times, but that’s because I miss the feeling the Tomb Raider series used to give me.

Tomb Raider as a series, and Lara Croft as a character, hold such a special place in my heart that if someone is going to march into this world and declare that they’re going to do it better, I expect them to deliver.

So IS a better game lurking in the Shadows?

There is quite a lot to like about Rise; for example, the graphics are great. There are some lovely puzzles in those ‘optional’ tombs that should have been the focus of future Tomb Raider games.

But the combat is overdone, unoriginal and frankly boring.

In the classic titles, staying mobile in combat was key. As someone who loves the platforming and athletic portion of the Tomb Raider experience, I enjoyed the combat of old as a momentary diversion. I have hated the focus on Uncharted-style sit-behind-cover-and-pepper-enemies-with-headshots shoot-outs.

I know we won’t see a return to that style unless auto-aiming mechanics return, and I’m not suggesting that that is the way forward. I just want to see Shadow minimise its weaknesses and maximise its strengths. Don’t give me more average combat. Spend time giving me more impressive platforming and puzzles instead.

Likewise with the open-world elements, RPG features, and collectables.

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Do these collectables, with inane commentary from Lara, really add much value?

Rise feels bloated at times, with too much uninspiring filler in its open-world sections. There isn’t ANYTHING WRONG with crafting a simple game well. I’d rather that than a sprawling jack-of-all trades title.

The developers’ fear that players will abandon the game if it doesn’t constantly hold their hands is palpable. Crystal Dynamics is an experienced game developer with some amazing titles in its back catalogue. So to is Eidos Montreal. I hope that they learn to trust their audience more. At the very least, they could give those of us who want a challenge options to remove all the condescending hints.

If this was an action game with any other name, and any other character, I’d consider it serviceable if a bit bland.

But this isn’t just any action game. This is Tomb Raider.

There is a large contingent of fans who feel left behind with the turn this series has taken. I do hope that Eidos Montreal bring us along for the ride with Shadow.

Fans of the new series along with those that preferred the classics should be able to agree on one thing:

We deserve better.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Shadow of the Tomb Raider? Hopes and fears? Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and join in the discussion!


Still Rising: is a better Tomb Raider game lurking in the Shadows? by Matt Taylor / Survivor Reborn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work here.

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About Matt Taylor (5 Articles)
Classic TR series and tennis fanatic. Lazy artist, drinker of spirits and eater of cheesecake.

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