I was a fan of Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. It looked great, had decent combat, and most of all possessed enjoyable traversal1. Tomb Raider iterated on the best movements in third person adventure games to give players a Lara Croft who was a lot of fun to control. It was, however, was a flawed game, and two of the biggest problems were the nonsensical, mystery-free narrative, and the highly distracting and intrusive perks system. It’s unfortunate that Rise of the Tomb Raider, while improving upon the strengths of its predecessor, also retains the same problems.
Where the first game focused on an inexperienced Lara Croft forced to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, Rise of the Tomb Raider (RottR) sees her purposefully chase after an important family legacy. That legacy – her father’s doomed search for the lost city of Kitezh and the secrets of eternal life deep in Siberia – is a perfunctory excuse for Lara to set off on her journey, making little sense and failing to spark even a modicum of curiosity. Compared to the Uncharted games, which while themselves not exactly Oscar-winning material, were at least careful to establish connection to the glamour of well-known real-world figures2; the Tomb Raider reboots also use existing myths and legends, but they feel more obscure and historically lightweight. Another problem that RottR repeats is the way Lara, after arriving at suitably attractive natural location, always seems to spend more time exploring grimy military installations than ancient temples and, yes, actual tombs. This time it’s old Soviet facilities left in ruins, and trying to navigate our heroine past rusting industrial equipment and muddy storage areas doesn’t exactly appeal to our sense of adventure. The worst offender, though, is the nagging notifications for all kinds of perks, upgrades and other sundry items of ‘interest’, another carry-over from the first game. You get separate popups in all four corners of the screen for things like XP increase, ‘Region Summary’, map updates, materials and ingredients obtained, nearly challenge tombs, nearby allies, optional missions, missing gear, new gear acquired, and so on, on top of the ‘Survival Instincts’ triggered with the press of the R3 button which is the ‘highlight’ crutch developers rely on to ensure everyone manages to progress through the levels. All of this means that the player is constantly distracted from being able to just enjoy the game. Worse, these distractions do a poor job of instilling the sense of improvement that skills and weapons upgrades are meant to provide, and the side missions given by Lara’s allies are desultory to the point of obsolescence.
I don’t want to make it sound like RottR is a failure. It’s not. Crystal Dynamics has built another handsome and enjoyable game, and it’s clear that they recognized the lack of tomb raiding in the first installment was a problem, because the environmental puzzles are noticeably beefed up in both frequency and quality. In its best moments, invariably involving Lara on her own, traversing a rugged terrain against a beautiful snowy backdrop to reach a new location, RottR is as compelling as any game in the last year. There are a couple of places in particular (the astrolabe being the highlight) where the combination of the intricacy of the pathfinding, the rich visuals of the environment, and the flexibility afforded to Lara’s movement come together in such a way as to hark back to the glory days of Tomb Raider’s earliest entries. Lara has also added a couple of new movesets, so that she is now able to wield a roped hook to jump further, and most fun of all shoot arrows into walls and then hang or stand on them, further increasing her range. Both of these allow for more sophisticated and involving traversal, which obviously is a very good thing here.
The developers, however, really need to start steering away from the ‘game for toddlers’ approach and put more trust in their players. Players don’t need screen prompts for every little thing that can be interacted with. Players don’t need to be told again and again that they have discovered nth out of so many components for the next shotgun upgrade, especially when the upgrades feel so superfluous. Players don’t need to hear Lara or other characters describe every single action and every single treasure, and explain every single motive – RottR might well be one of the most garrulous games not made by Rockstar or Bethesda.
All these are distractions that add little to the game, and their continued presence betrays a lack of confidence in the central things that RottR gets right. Now is the time to put Lara in isolated environments full of mystery and danger, with puzzles and challenges offered not by modern technology3 but by ancient civilizations. Give her enough time to roam and wander exotic and hidden areas, undisturbed by prompts, notifications or inane chatter. Let her fight against a select number of interesting opponents (animals, mythical creatures, the decay and outgrowth of time) rather than battalions of faceless human goons who populate supposedly remote regions (Siberia temporarily achieves population density not too far off from commute-time Tokyo, before getting summarily whittled down by our heroine). After two games full of hedges and crutches, it’s now time for Crystal Dynamics to let Lara stand on her own.