NOW PLAYING: RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER
It’s the sort of caper late-’90s Brendan Fraser would have eaten his own arm for: young adventurer trots the globe in search of artifacts and answers to a family mystery, stopping in Syria and taking root in Siberia. Bears are shot, men are choked out from behind, rabbits are skinned and eaten. And along the way, Rise Of The Tomb Raider treats every second of its screen time like a Hollywood blockbuster.
And in fact, that’s what put me off. As a member of that befuddled older generation who remembers Tomb
Raider as a bastion of finicky jumps between improbably square Himalayan rock formations and pistol shootouts with Tyrannosaurs, I’d long fostered the idea that these newfangled Crystal Dynamics titles were a bit too… well, a bit too late ’90s Brendan Fraser for me. Always blowing things up or levelling them to the ground, characters waggling their eyebrows at the camera whenever they could. No, Tomb Raider
III was where I pulled up the stumps, for fear of becoming alienated with Lara’s contemporary escapades.
I think ultimately it was the sheer beauty of 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, and by extension this even lovelier looking game, that finally eroded that resolve, and I’m glad of that personal weakness. Because in truth it did take two games for Crystal Dynamics to achieve a sort of equilibrium between old-school, honest-to-goodness raiding of tombs (complete with finicky jumps) and the new-school Michael Bay action game material. But achieve it they did. Space invader All the more impressive is that Rise
Of The Tomb Raider retains a sense of series identity while also weighing into the industry-wide argument about what should be done with all this extra game map space we’re now apparently required to have. It isn’t an open-world game, not really, but it does find a happy middle ground by setting itself in a series of interconnected hubs with generous boundaries. In this way, Lara’s free to spend her time hunting and foraging if she prefers a newer interpretation of action-adventure gaming. And if she’s feeling nostalgic for past adventures (really future adventures, given the labyrinthine series timeline) she can follow a fairly linear path and get on with the job. That really takes some doing, from the game designer’s perspective. How often have you heard publishers bleat about ‘play it your way’ and similar empty platitudes on conference live streams? And, by contrast, how many games have you played that allow you to actually play them your way? Well, quite.
Let’s take a minute to be clear about which bits of Tomb Raider past are actually worth preserving, because frankly the Core games play like crawling through broken glass today in many ways. I don’t need a modern Tomb Raider to recreate the old wayward camera, which at times seemed to be actively working against you, veering off to pursue its own secret objectives while you wrestled the tank controls down a corridor flanked by spike pits. I’m not campaigning for a return to those controls, either. What I hold dear is the sense of wonder.
The sense of being in an enormous and dangerous puzzle box, filled with pulleys, pressure-pads and booby-
traps. Pressing any given button might reveal that long-sought path towards completion, or it might instantly impale you on the aforementioned spike pit. It felt like an adventure, in a way that’s seldom delivered today for fear on the developer’s part that you might get a bit bored spending three bamboozled hours in the same underground room and simply never play it again.
And that, I’m discovering, is what Rise Of The Tomb
Raider puts back in. Tombs, and the raiding thereof. Being left alone to figure out the intricacies of a particular environmental puzzle, and thus being able to enjoy the glory when you finally solve it. Sometimes these crop up as optional diversions in among the business of progressing the main story, and sometimes they’re placed at centre stage for you to mull over. It’s unashamed vintage platform puzzling, with new tricks thrown in that don’t feel like they’re tarnishing the old traditions. Those rock wall surfaces that can be leapt at with abandon, and latched onto using your climbing axe, actually feel the opposite – essential moments of edge-of-yourseat platforming that you’d feel the absence of in older games.
“Treats every second of its screen time like a Hollywood blockbuster – and that’s what put me off”
As a born-again student of Tomb Raider’s modern redesign, I’m also by proxy a student of ancient mythology, and Siberian geography. Crystal Dynamics have obviously spent untold hours with their heads in the books in order to decorate ROTTR’s bitter cold environs with thematically and historically appropriate artifacts, and whether or not you have the patience to sit and read the accompanying text of every new find, there’s no doubt that this enthusiasm for the setting and surrounding mythology on the developer’s part is infectious. Even if that enthusiasm only extends as far as staying engaged with the main plot.
About that, actually: it’s not very good. Games rarely are when they have to retrofit deep personalities and rich backstories to characters who were originally intended only for marketing and titillation. We’ve all heard the story about Lara’s boobs being enlarged in error, after all, and left at that spine-troubling size for the benefit of teenage boys worldwide. Does that suggest a character who was intended to have a relatable personality, and complex motivations? (Another bit of ‘old-school’ game design that can get in the same bin as
Tomb Raider’s camera and controls.) Crystal Dynamics do their best to tell the story about a young woman dealing with the death of her father, and her destiny as a treasure hunter, but in reality while that’s preferable to a game about a mute anatomical curiosity it’s told too earnestly to really get its hooks in. In the end, it’s the background lore that proves much more engaging, and happily that’s the stuff you see all around you in the game, second by second. What a tightrope between old and new Crystal Dynamics walked here, and with expert poise. Maybe you’ve been protecting those ’90s memories by giving new Lara a wide berth too – it’s time.
Ab ove The game’s never short of a spellbinding vista or two.
Ms Croft’s latest has a way with rock formations and complementary lighting conditions. far left