Rise of the Tomb Raider has turned Cassandra Khaw from a cynic to a believer.
"Rise of the Tomb Raider really knows how to do pacing. Before I knew what was happening, I had gone from being cynical to utterly engrossed."
Unnecessary exposition grates on my nerves like steel wool. I understand the importance of communication. I really do. It’s important for relationships. It’s important in combat, in anything that involves multiple individuals co-operating in a certain fashion. But do we really need reminding that frothing mountains and howling Siberian winds are dangerous? “A storm’s coming!” Yes. Yes, I know, person-who-looks-remarkably-like-Jonah-from-last-game. I can see that.
Rise of the Tomb Raider and I did not begin on easy footing. It opens high in the ice-slathered mountains of Siberia with Lara Croft and her associate cautiously wending their way upwards. Their destination: the ancient city of Kitezh. While hazardous, the journey is beautiful. The characters’ feet dig deep into the writhing snow. They shiver and huddle into themselves, even as the sun bleeds orange-rose across the horizon. It’s gorgeous and forlorn and, as the dire soundtrack would have you know, dangerous.
If you’re not the type to ordinarily notice savage beauty, have no fear. Rise of the Tomb Raider takes a few minutes to enforce that knowledge. The beginning is saddled with the traditional pseudo-tutorial sequence where you learn about the basic controls while the game tries to pretend it’s all coincidental. You literally inch along for a few minutes, with nothing else to do but stare at the stunning environment.
It got worse. I started rolling my eyes almost at the first cutscene. Lara’s early dialogue is confident, peppy, and ever-so-slightly condescending — like a teeny bopper Nathan Drake. Nothing I usually like in my protagonists. But I was there at the preview event, so I persevered. At worse,I reasoned, I’d be playing a clunkier Uncharted.
In a way, that was what I got. Rise of the Tomb Raider carries Naughty Dog’s archeology-obsessed series in its DNA, the same way that Uncharted has a bit of Croft in its bones. (There’s something to be said about the cyclic fashion with which the two franchises influence one another, but that’s another tale.) It plays very much the same way, with our intrepid explorer gallivanting from platform to platform, sporadically engaging in QTE athletics, shimmying across cliff faces, dodging environmental debris, and expertly surmounting deadly traps.
But at the same time, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a lot more than that. I scoffed at the first hit-button-to-execute-dramatic-jump sequence, and rolled my eyes at the game’s willingness to put you in a situation where you think you’re about to die, but not really. “Typical,” I sniffed to myself. Then the game really gets going. Lara is separated from maybe-Jonah, and you’re forced to help her survive the treacherous cliff face.
To be clear, it’s still a lot of quick-time events, interspaced with ledge-hopping and vertical climbs. But Rise of the Tomb Raider really knows how to do pacing. Before I knew what was happening, I had gone from being cynical to utterly engrossed. In the back of my head, I knew I was still watching a series of scripted events, that there were only two outcomes: death, or a cinematic vignette to chronicle my manual dexterity. I knew that the way I know the back of my hands, but that didn’t stop me from being utterly caught up in the moment as the ground was stolen from Lara’s feet. I jumped. I ran. I jumped some more. And at the end of it, as Lara braced against the snarling approach of an avalanche and our entire world turned white, I felt the urge to cheer.
And it didn’t relent. Rise of the Tomb Raider kept fervently building on its foundations, almost as though it was aware that it hadn’t made the best first impression with me. In the first extended cutscene, we see Lara reacting disproportionally when she hears a knock on the door. She panics, and we panic too. Because the music and the character’s fear tells us to. Yet, when we finally discover exactly what this “threat” is, we realize that Lara’s an unreliable narrator — her terror isn’t rooted in realism, it’s steeped in old trauma. She’s jumping at shadows, a survivor on high-alert, blameless in her reaction but also clearly scarred by what she has experienced.
It’s a tough thing to pull off. Too much, and the game risks commoditising a very real problem. Too little, and it simply becomes lip service. From what I’ve seen so far, though, Rise of the Tomb Raider has hit an exquisite balance between the two, and that’s a victory all onto itself.
"Lara's terror is rooted in realism. She’s jumping at shadows, a survivor on high-alert, blameless in her reaction but clearly scarred by what she has experienced."
I won’t go into the events in Syria. You can find it scattered across the internet in various forms, some textual and others not. I will say that I enjoyed it, however. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, you don’t just pull levers and perform platform. You flood rooms and ride rafts quickly towards a ledge, where you jump and hang on before the water can recede, and then — well, that’s for you to find out. I’m going back to Syberia.
The avalanche is over. Miraculously, Lara Croft has survived. She punches out of the snow, quivering and coughing, before clambering onto her feet. She turns. The camera pans. We see the frozen wasteland that she’s found herself in, and the magnitude of the situation hits home. Lara doesn’t immediately set off running. Instead, we’re coralled into building a fire and, along the way, taught the purpose of a campfire. It’s here that you decide what to do with your ability trees, your inventory, even your repository of crafting material. The last is a notable upgrade compared to the first, with more ingredients available to accrue and carve from the cadavers of dead animals. But everything else will be familiar — just like nature’s apparent loathing for poor Lara Croft.
Animals and Lara Croft do not get along here. At least, I did not get along with the horrific bear that serves as a guardian of sorts, separating me from the next area in Siberia. My first encounter quickly degenerated into a QTE nightmare. I did not, in any way, survive my initial attempts to evade it. (In case you were curious, Lara’s deaths remain chilling, visceral, and horrific.) However, I eventually succeeded in escape, and was told summarily to make some poison-tipped arrows. My grizzly menace did eventually go down after a gruelling game of ring a’round the roses. (He swiped. I dodge-rolled. He charged. I shot arrows.) Satisfying? Very. My only complaint here is that the whole affair only rewarded me with two pieces of fur.
Still, as much as I liked the “boss” fight, I liked interacting with other human members more. And by interacting, I mean either leaping out from the bushes to throttle them with my bow string, or shooting an arrow into the back of their head.
I started Rise of the Tomb Raider with my nose upturned, and was evicted from my session with a certainty that I was, finally, going to invest in an Xbox One. As much as I want to be guardedly excited about the game, it’d be a lie. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a grand, fine thing that builds gorgeously on the legacy left by its much-loved predecessor.