Since the recent conclusion of my adventure with the most excellent Rise of The Tomb Raider, I’ve been playing the earlier entry in the rebooted Lara franchise, Tomb Raider (2013). Not having played it before, I was concerned that – as often seems to happen when you play a series out of order – it would prove to be a lesser experience. Less polished, less presentable, less friendly, less… less.
But on the technical front, which is the biggest stumbling block for backwards-playing gamers, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. With Rise I experienced only one problem, which was most likely my own fault anyway. With TR (2013) though, I finished it in 13 hours (without stressing too much about collecting everything), and had no crashes, despite Windows 7 x64 wanting to drag me back to the desktop with tall tales of colour schemes and memory and so on (something Rise never seemed concerned about). And even though the 2013 game does have slightly less sexy graphics, it of course runs even more smoothly than the 2015 sequel on my mid-range i5 440/GTX 750/16 Gb DDR3, and is still recognisably the gorgeous twin of its more recent sibling.
Now, I’m not here to review Tomb Raider (2013), and I’m not here to complain about anything. What I am here to say is that almost from the first moment, I’ve been overwhelmingly struck by the similarities between the two games. I had thought there would be some overlap between them, especially as the Rise reviews had all said that it was a polishing and improvement of the previous game, not a giant leap forwards. Still, it seems amazing to me just how similar the two are, despite being different stories set in (mostly) different places.
Beyond the simple fact of being two parts of a new series (and therefore two chips off the same block), both are set amidst the ruins of World War II architecture (Japanese in the first, Russian in the second). Both even feature “geothermal” areas of their world map, and both stories feature mystical and supernatural elements (including romps through large fortress-type areas stuffed with supernaturally-preserved warriors and exploding urns. Yes, both games!). Then there’s a small part of one area in the 2013 game (‘Base Approach’) which is almost identical to a small part of one area in the 2015 game (‘Soviet Installation’), down to the physical architecture and the route you take through it. Both games also have ‘heavy’ enemies that come at you from behind shields and require the same strategy to deal with, and both have the same ‘orange crates’ full of salvageable junk for you to scavenge. Both games like to slam Lara through multiple floors of a collapsing/exploding structure before having her slide on her arse down miles of bumpy chutes to new areas. Giant, hanging bells and cages that need to be made to swing into barriers to clear the way ahead also feature in both games, and both feature wind-blasted mountain-top structures with the same towering wooden shutters flapping and rattling in the breeze. But more than all the graphical and physical similarities, both games also make the same mistakes early on, before settling down into their grooves.
These largely consist of shoving your face in their mechanics and holding it there while shouting and bombarding you with rock slides and explosions, until your entire mug is a charred, hairless mess. Then, after an hour or so, they push you back in your seat and are content to let you ooh and ahh at things on your own time, with only the occasional nasty surprise to make sure you’re paying attention. In both games, although far more often in the first, these are manifested as the dreaded Quick Time-type events. They’re often woven seamlessly into normal gameplay, which makes it all the more jarring when you run afoul of them – death can happen because you didn’t realise it shouldn’t have. Sometimes they’re indicated by a sudden, urgent message to “mash” a key (which strangely switched to saying “tap” a key about ten hours into Rise). To be fair, after the first hour or so they don’t come too often in either game, and it’s one area that Crystal Dynamics definitely improved on in Rise, making them less life-or-death and less reliant on stabbing potentially knackered keys at precisely the right, exact, Goddamn moment.
Beyond those mechanical misadventures (and one hugely frustrating boss battle (sorry, my keyboard)), the leap across the gap in the cliff-side path from 2013 to 2015 can be seen not only in the obvious improvements, like the UI – which began as something attractive but clumsy and became something slick and intuitive – but also in the backstage stuff, like the smoothing of the XP distribution and the reworking of the skill progression and gear upgrade system. In the first game, these were all strong punches that nevertheless felt as though they’d been slightly pulled.
The key differences in the skill and gear upgrade systems lie in how the two games present them. Rise of The Tomb Raider presents everything in neat grids clearly labelled Tier I, Tier II etc, whereas Tomb Raider (2013) presents everything in one row of murky icons, with extra pop-ups needed to explain when and how to access the next tiers of skills or add-ons. Weapons in the first game receive overall upgrades from Basic Things to More Advanced Things (like the knackered WWII-era Japanese machine gun which later becomes a nifty commando rifle), but semi-logically they replace each other while retaining the same add-ons and improvements, meaning you only ever have four of them (bow, pistol, rifle, shotty). In Rise, each weapon is a distinct entity in your inventory. You might think this makes things more cluttered, but the fresher, more accessible UI mitigates this easily. Swapping between Lara’s outfits as well as the different sub-menus is also much easier in the second game, being a case of clicking on fiddly little icons that don’t really fit the overall theme in 2013, and using more intuitive clicks and keyboard shortcuts to navigate a smooth, cohesive UI in 2015. (And as an inveterate MMORPGer and Sims fan, I do like playing dress-up-dolly with my avatars).
Other improvements in the 2015 game’s UI make you wonder why they didn’t nail them the first time: a map with a scalable zoom operated by the mouse wheel (compared to a clunky two-step zoom in the 2013 map); the ability to step backwards through nested screens using ‘Esc’ instead of clicking on tiny icons (in the first game, ‘Esc’ ejects you straight back into the world); rotation of relics on the relic inspection screen being a far more intuitive left-click-drag than TR 2013’s right-click-drag; having an actual model of the diary/tape recorder/scroll you’re reading appear on-screen next to the text (instead of just having a huge blank space), and on and on. It’s all these little touches that create that magical thing known as ‘polish’, and in this respect the difference between the two games can be measured in bucket-loads.
If 2015’s model is basically the same as 2013’s, just with improved tuning, more comfortable seats and a better paint job, the question becomes, ‘Is that bad?’ In my opinion it’s not, because I feel that the Tomb Raider franchise has, after 20 years, well and truly proved its worth (as have Crystal Dynamics over the last 12). Furthermore, we’re two deep in the fourth trilogy of games, in what is known as the ‘Third Era’ of the series. Looking back at its evolution, we can see that the first chapter of each trilogy (TR ’96, The Last Revelation, Legend, TR ’13) presents a refreshing new way of doing the jumping-climbing-shooting-Crofting thing, the second improves on it to a greater or lesser extent (TR II, Chronicles, Anniversary, Rise), and the third is usually a mixed bag of the best and worst bits of the preceding two (TR III, The Angel of Darkness, Underworld, …) . In other words, there’s plenty of precedent for the kind of wholesale re-skinning of graphics and systems that we can see here.
Secondly, both TR 2013 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are good, solid, fun games. As I suppose it is for most people, ‘fun’ is usually the answer I’m looking for when I ask the question, ‘Will Time+Money make this game a worthwhile investment?’ And as much difficulty as I had getting my head into the rebooted franchise, I can see that most of that was down to my own personal baggage. Because once I got over myself and let the games show me their pleasures (or had them beaten into me by constant noisy avalanches, ship wrecks and plane crashes), I discovered that a) the core pleasures of all Tomb Raider games were still present and correct in the reboots, and b) even without a large degree of fandom or an obsession with expensive video cards, they’re still really, really good games.
It seems nowadays that as both gamers and consumers we’re being increasingly more often mis-treated by the big publishers and their AAA franchises. The last full-price game I bought was Star Wars: Battlefront, which was a Happy Meal sold at a Big Mac price (still a great game though). And as I write this now, gamers are discussing the fact that Far Cry: Primal’s world seems to be Far Cry 4’s world, re-skinned and tweaked (and no, Primal is not supposed to be 4 millions of years in the past). In my local currency, the average price of EUR 60 for a brand-new title (when purchased fuss-free from Steam etc – I have exceptionally bad luck with cheap key sites) equates to a whole month’s worth of petrol or at least 3 weeks’ shopping for my family of four. So it’s very rare that I buy a new game while it’s still new, let alone pre-order anything or buy anything new ‘just because’. But when Crystal Dynamics unveil their next Tomb Raider game, I will be more than happy to plunk down the cash on Day One – even if the changes are only minimal – because in all other respects I know I will be getting a quality gaming experience and full satisfaction. And that’s priceless.