Ice Queen of Siberia: A Rise of the Tomb Raider Retrospective - ArticleIssa Maki , posted on 28 December 2020 / 2,471 Views
Lara Croft has been on a strange journey. Once the undisputed 'queen of gaming', Core Design largely botched her jump into the current century, forcing its parent company to spend the majority of the seventh generation trying to salvage a reputation that would never again reach the prestige it once had.
And thanks to Nathan Drake, these efforts went ignored. Shortly after Tomb Raider's first reboot series concluded, Naughty Dog unleashed Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to unanimous praise, instantly propelling the once-derided “Dude Raider” into the gaming stratosphere. Lara's mantle as the gaming world's 'raider of tombs' was abruptly usurped, exposing the fact that her 'classic' style of play was still behind the times for a modern audience. Crystal Dynamics could do nothing other than accept that it had been soundly beaten at its own game.
Then fate intervened. After being bought by Square Enix, Crystal Dynamics hit the desk and started its homework. Taking a page or two from the company that took the entire book from Team Croft, the series was rebooted for a second time. With a more action-oriented bent, Tomb Raider released in 2013 to critical acclaim. Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics doubled-down with a sequel and, in the end, created one of the most solid experiences Enix has produced since buying Square. Unfortunately, an ill-timed exclusivity deal stood in the way of the game achieving the sales it deserved.
One year after her supernatural trial by fire on Yamatai Island, an increasingly erratic Lara Croft has drawn the concerns of family, friends, and enemies. Convinced about the legitimacy of her late father's research on immortality, Lara journeys to the wilderness of Siberia in search of the lost city of Kitezh and the 'Divine Source', an artifact said to grant everlasting life. In pursuit is Trinity, a clandestine order of militant knights that seeks the Divine Source for its own nefarious purposes.
The story in Rise of the Tomb Raider is certainly a step above its predecessor, yet still behind the competition. The middle of a trilogy is usually full of more questions than answers, and RotTR doesn't shy away from this convention. Despite being directly told that the Divine Source is not divine, what exactly it is and how it could possibly absorb the souls of hundreds (if not thousands) of people, keep them alive for centuries, grant regenerative capabilities, and not be considered 'divine' on some level remains a mystery. I'm not asking for a step-by-step scientific explanation of how it works, but ignoring the question entirely wasn't the way of going about it. At the time, the six year-old Uncharted 2 had a disturbingly similar setting, story structure, and MacGuffin, and it was able to answer its own quasi-supernatural questions (within the context of its own world) much more satisfactorily.
This isn't to say the story is bad, only serviceable. Various in-game documentation and DLC help considerably in this regard, but enthusiasts will have to explore as much as possible if they wish to squeeze what they can from RotTR in this regard. There's some great information to be discovered, I just wish more of it was expressed directly in the narrative itself.
That being said, the rest of the game is a blast. It still might not be that leap backwards in genre the diehards want, but anyone looking for a great blend of open-world exploration and a myriad of combat options will have a hard time resisting what they find here. RotTR was one of the 8th generation titles I was most eager to revisit, and after completing it on the highest difficulty I can safely say that it doesn't disappoint - though it does have issues I refuse to overlook.
RotTR retains the gameplay of its predecessor, with even more of an emphasis on survival than before. On top of crafting her own healing kits, Lara will be making her own ammunition, equipment packs, and outfits, customizing weaponry, and upgrading her three Skill Trees. For better or worse, the emphasis on combat over exploration would become a trademark of sorts for this reboot trilogy, but the balance between the two this time around is more even.
A personal favorite is the addition of languages that Lara must decipher in order to reveal the location of Coin Caches, specialized currency used to purchase exclusive weaponry or supplemental equipment. Learning these languages is done by simply finding documents, murals, and monoliths, giving players an incentive to uncover every inscription they can find. This small decision not only drastically improves upon the GPS Caches from TR2013, but helps create the foundation of an addictive gameplay loop that always finds a way to guide Lara to the nearest marker, as opposed to the next story objective.
Missions also break things up in ways the previous title lacked, offering unique rewards almost impossible to ignore once put on the table. Used sparingly near the various 'hubs' throughout the game, Missions are fairly simple quests such as shooting down drones or collecting resources. The tasks themselves aren't anything to get excited about, but receiving a lock pick or rifle suppressor in return for Lara's services is invaluable.
One of the more significant overhauls in RotTR is to hunting and how it applies to upgrading equipment. Previously, poaching animals only gave players experience without a specific perk, which somehow allowed Lara to gather 'Salvage' (weapon parts), oftentimes more than she could potentially find in crates. Obviously, the logic of being able to turn deer innards into enhanced pistol clips doesn't exist, and while it's still not perfect by any means, the addition of oils, springs, and metals to the upgrading system helps make the game feel more cohesive than what came before.
The biggest complaint about TR2013 was the lack of actual tomb raiding. With only seven optional 'tombs' (eight with DLC) to discover, this was a truth impossible to deny. If that wasn't enough, the rewards for completing them amount to the same EXP Points players receive for doing everything else. Both of these problems have been fixed with the addition of Crypts to supplement the nine tombs (which themselves are more involved), while the abilities gained for completing them are vastly improved. Shooting successive arrows without redrawing from the quiver to reload or getting a free heal per battle can be game-changers, and if Lara collects them all then nothing can stand in her way.
In fact, this is the single biggest gripe I have about RotTR: the game is simply too easy. Even on Extreme Survivor, there isn't a single enemy in the game that can stand up to Lara's arsenal, which is so absurdly powerful it would make Solid Snake raise an eyebrow with bewildered caution.
Crafting ammunition on the fly is a great addition to the gameplay, but Crystal Dynamics cares little about the ramifications it can have. The second type of ammo Lara learns how to craft, Poison Arrows, are some of the most powerful items I've ever used in a video game. The ability to kill five enemies with a single shot should have been an immediate warning sign to developers that there's an imbalance of sorts; instead there are no less than four upgrades that can be applied to them.
It only grows from there. If an enemy isn't outright killed by an Explosive Arrow, they aren't going to survive the cluster of secondary explosives that can be applied to each shot for a measly Skill Point. Fire Arrows follow similar lines of absurdity. If Lara can attach a Grenade Launcher to her already powerful Assault Rifle, she doesn't need to know how to craft grenades. By the time Dragonfire Shotgun Shells make their appearance, players may have forgotten about being able to craft weapons from radios, cans, bottles, even enemy corpses. It turns out bears are just as susceptible to hollow-tipped bullets as everything else.
The three Skill Trees from 2013 make a return, with all of them doubling in size. And while more options are almost always for the better, here the enemies have no way to match Lara in combat, making them nothing more than fodder for her to ruthlessly butcher at her convenience. Dodge Kill alone renders most melee encounters moot, with Lara essentially getting a freebie at the cost of a laughably easy button prompt. The ability to target up to three enemies at once with the bow can only be described as ridiculous, made even more so by True Shot, which will automatically target enemies' heads.
While fun to use, these skills and crafting abilities reveal the tunnel vision of Crystal Dynamics, focusing completely on how to make Lara stronger and not at all on making threats that can elevate themselves to a level that would necessitate having this power. RotTR on Extreme Survivor is an easier game than Drake's Fortune on Normal - and not one modicum of difficulty comes from combat.
The majority of challenge in RotTR comes from the various platforming segments, and not in the ways they should. I'll just come out and say it: I felt more unsure or unsafe about making jumps in RotTR than any game I've ever played, and this applies to every single one Lara attempts to perform. Some of this comes from the sheer amount of climbing options gained throughout the adventure, but more of it has to do with the core mechanics inherited from its predecessor. 2013 had players consistently performing jumps that were either unrealistic or didn't look realistic, with Lara conveniently hovering to her destination when the situation demanded it. This issue isn't nearly as prevalent in RotTR, but its spectres remain, forcing Lara to miss jumps that should have no mathematical chance of failing. Lara's body language constantly tells players she's squaring up for jumps- regardless of whether or not they exist. Crystal Dynamics is still stumbling on the most basic element of the genre, which is unacceptable. We've reached a bizarre nexus where Tomb Raider has become a better Uncharted game than Uncharted, while Uncharted is a better Tomb Raider game than Tomb Raider. One only needs to lose a half hour of progress from a single jump to understand this.
RotTR contains a bevy of DLC with a varying range of quality. Some of it reeks of busywork or content for content's sake (no doubt spurred on by the impending release of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End), but there is definitely some great content to be found.
The 'race against the clock' Endurance Mode was the first to launch and easily the most significant. With a further emphasis on survival, Lara must regulate her food intake and temperature while exploring the wilderness in search of artifacts to extract, scrounging for supplies and dealing with whatever threats she runs across. The procedurally-generated world is seemingly infinite, and despite the repetitious Crypt layouts, provides a unique experience each session. With hundreds of unlockable Cards to customize runs that have positive and negative effects, enthusiasts could spend countless hours in this surprisingly addictive mode. Endurance Co-op extends this potential further, and with the right companion and a little luck can be more fun than the base game itself.
Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch is a story-based DLC that can be undertaken during the main quest, and another highlight. Tasked with finding a man who went to challenge the witch in battle, Lara enters the Wicked Vale, where there are rumors that a house which walks with the legs of a chicken has been terrorizing any who dare approach. Without saying too much, Baba Yaga's story easily rivals that of the main game and has a much better final boss. The rewards for completion are a new bow and outfit, both of which enhance the already deadly Poison Arrows, making it well worth the time. When people talk quality DLC, Baba Yaga should be in the conversation more than it is.
Cold Darkness is more of a mixed bag. An action-heavy 'zombie mode' is the last thing I would expect to find in a Tomb Raider game, and this is one of two. In this scenario, Lara is tasked with decommissioning a derelict Soviet research facility that has been producing a toxin that transforms (specifically) men into near-sighted fanatical maniacs. It's interesting that Crystal Dynamics would go out of its way to address something like this in a quasi-canonical mode. All it does is draw attention to the idea that there are no female soldiers in Trinity, and that virtually every person Lara kills is (presumably) a man. The puzzles in this mode favor careful listening, resembling riddles. As frustrating as it can be at times, something like this could have done service in the main game. Cold Darkness isn't on the level of the previously mentioned content, but is worth playing through at least once.
Blood Ties is a story-exclusive mode, and at first appears to be the most perfunctory. Returning to Croft Manor, Lara must find her father's will in an effort to keep her family home from the clutches of her uncle, who seeks to return it to the estate. There are no enemies, weapons to upgrade, or skills to acquire, and Lara can't even run in the manor (which I like to think was instilled in her as a child). The ironic part is that not only does it give the characters in the main game their entire drive and reason for being, the focus on exploration and light puzzle-solving elements brings Blood Ties closer to the spirit of the older series. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about its companion.
Lara's Nightmare also takes place in Croft Manor and, right off the bat, it's obvious that the only reason it exists is to reuse pre-existing assets of other DLC to make sure Square Enix gets its money's worth out of the development team. Having fallen asleep, Lara must fend off an endless swarm of zombies as she searches for Skulls of Rage to destroy, in order to summon The Master Skull and initiate the final battle. If any of that sounds a little off, playing Lara's Nightmare will only reinforce it. If Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix had the faith Naughty Dog did with something like Left Behind, this DLC simply wouldn't exist. Blood Ties was a strong enough release on its own, and tacking this mode onto it weakens the overall package.
The rest of the content is standard fare and is just sort of 'there'. Chapter Replay and Chapter Replay Elite are what they sound like, allowing players to use their kitted-out Lara and Endurance Mode wherever and whenever they wish. Score Attack challenges players to replay various tombs and platforming sections, earning points for collecting items and shooting targets, maintaining a combo meter in the process. Why developers would cheapen the tombs while highlighting the weak platforming is a good question. I have no answer. Remnant Resistance has potential, with players being able to create and play custom missions with numerous goals, such as rescuing hostages or gathering intelligence. If Endurance Mode wasn't enough to satiate a player's hunger for more gameplay, they'll find a decent amount here.
Rise of the Tomb Raider remains one of the most solid experiences of the 8th generation. The game is leaps and bounds above its predecessor, setting the bar so high its successor fell short of eclipsing it. Sadly, the exclusivity deal with Microsoft held the game back from achieving the sales it deserved. By the time Lara made her way to PlayStation 4, Uncharted 4 had already released, garnered higher review scores, and in seven months outsold what Rise would sell in its lifetime. Since the 11 million 2013 sold was considered a failure by Square Enix, I highly doubt the 7 million Rise managed was what the company wanted to see.
What lies in store for Tomb Raider is unknown, but it isn't looking good. If Lara Croft of all characters can't find an audience in an age of female empowerment during the height of video game popularity, who can? Whether it was Nathan Drake plundering the ground from beneath her, or the whole 'girl with a bow' stereotype being far too overexposed, there's no denying that the series is approaching Angel of Darkness levels of unpopularity. Talk of a third reboot series has been making the rounds for over a year, and with the sequel to the 2018 Tomb Raider film on indefinite hold, the future is looking grim.
For now, we'll have to accept that sales aren't always indicative of how good a product is. Rise of the Tomb Raider is my favorite game Enix has produced since absorbing Square, and the closest they've come to replicating the quality of a game like Final Fantasy X. Crystal Dynamics was on the right path, and while Lara wasn't the tomb raider of old, she had more than risen to the occasion. Should the worst happen and the series be rebooted again, we can at least take solace that we have a great game made by people who deserve more credit than they'll ever receive. With the advent of the new generation, Rise has never looked and played better on home consoles. There's never been a better time to go back for a visit.
Sometimes it's hard to move forward, especially when going backwards feels so good.