Scrappy fights, crafting with animal entrails and cavernous puzzles: the latest from Crystal Dynamics could finally be a return to the Tomb Raider of old.
“Lara’s no ninja, so guerrilla combat is needed to take down enemies. Spirit and spit are more important here than skill and technology”
The last time I picked wild mushrooms I tripped my tits off, got lost in a bus station and laughed for six hours at drifting sands on the kitchen floor.
Lara Croft is a bit more resourceful with her foraging. She dips an arrowhead in mushroom spores to create a poisonous tip, then notches the arrow on a bow made from a tree branch and deer gut. I couldn’t even coordinate enough to touch a lighter to the tip of a ciggie.
Rise of the Tomb Raider takes me back to the heady days of my early 20s, when Lara famously appeared on the front cover of The Face, games were cool, and Sony promoted the PlayStation on flyers made for skinning up.
Going back to the original source was at the heart of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot of 2013, and it’s still the cornerstone of Rise. It wants to put the tombs back into Tomb Raider; the feeling that a whole level is actually one giant puzzle. Lara on her own, using wits, scrappy fighting and improvisation to stay alive and one step ahead of adverse conditions. Lara’s had more reboots than a returning combat vet, including the disastrous Angel of Darkness, but it feels like Crystal is making me care all over again about something I’d actually just taken for granted.
The majority of Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place in Siberia, although there are multiple locations – a Russian gulag, Byzantine ruins – that should make the region itself irrelevant. It starts for Lara in the cold wilderness, injured, and trying to avoid confrontation with a shady organisation. This is where she grabs the resources she needs; wood to make a fire, hand in the stomach of a recently slain deer for the gut string, poking around tree stumps for fungi. There are sixteen different resources to use, apparently, each helping Lara craft different ammo types and other gear essential to survival, which she can do on the fly as she stumbles around the snowscape.
She’s no ninja, so guerrilla combat is needed to take down enemies. She climbs trees to get the drop on goons, swims through water to avoid conflict, crafts petrol bombs to thin out a crowd, distracts with arrows. Spirit and spit are more important here than skill and technology. It may be being produced with a multimillion dollar budget, but it’s as far away from the gloss of Angelina’s silver suit and Tomb Raider: The Ride as you can get.
Beyond survival is exploration. Rise of the Tomb Raider is designed for you to poke around and take risks, to reward you for going off the beaten track. Larger open spaces are another throwback to classic Lara, where you can see the goal but it’s a hell of an indirect and dangerous path to get there. A path that you need to work out for yourself, solving environmental and physics puzzles to reach areas seemingly out of bounds. Yes, you’ll need to flood a room with water to access higher ground. Welcome back.
It has spectacle too. How about a 1950s cold war facility that houses a pirate war galleon suspended in the ice? Crystal Dynamics is hoping to create jaw dropping tombs that you’ll want to clamber around. These should feel like they’re ancient places, with deadly traps and architecture that crumbles and shifts as you move around them. Lara needs to react quickly when pinned in a trap, shooting spikes before she’s impaled, pulling her foot out of a clamp before the rising tide drowns her. Dangerous spaces with rich rewards.
What I’ve seen of Rise of Tomb Raider is a familiar flashback. It’s about swinging from ropes, scrambling up crumbling walls, just making a jump over a terrifyingly deep pit, outrunning a bear. And at the start at least it’s about snatching up any resources that can be turned into something deadly, or useful, and turning them on an enemy that outnumbers and is much better armed than Lara ever will be. I hope it plays like that throughout the rest of the game, and doesn’t veer towards coverfire, collecting trinkets and Jeep chases through the jungle.
If Tomb Raider Legend began the rebooting and Tomb Raider took Lara back to her roots, here’s hoping Rise of the Tomb Raider can strip a little of the modernised fluff away. It doesn’t need to bloat up with multiplayer and collecting and hardcore combat. It can have all of these to an extent, but if it relies mainly on the scavenging and scrambling I’ve seen so far, we’ll have a real return to Lara Croft’s glory years.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is due November 10 on Xbox One. PC and PS4 versions are promised but have no release date.