I’ve been playing computer and video games for almost 40 years, and Tomb Raider games specifically for about half that time. Games and writing are my two things, and I’m lucky to be able to combine them in work that either pays money, or rewards me in other ways. One of those rewards – perhaps the best one – is the occasional game that comes along and actually does what all escapist fantasy has aspired to do, from Beowulf to The Force Awakens, and takes me on a journey. Most games are memorable and rewarding in all kinds of great ways. But once in a while, a Rainbow Islands, a Dungeon Master or an ELF comes along, a Morrowind or an EverQuest, a GTA III or a Divine Divinity, and just grabs me and drags me through endless hours over countless nights. Those are the games that you can point to on a shelf, in an original cardboard or plastic box, and also at a GOG copy, a Steam copy, a file on your hard drive for an emulator or two, as well as at another old box that you bought in a charity shop or car-boot sale somewhere, just because it was cheap and you know, it couldn’t hurt to have another copy. You know what I mean.
Rise of The Tomb Raider is not one of those games. But it is memorable, and it did take me on a ride, parts of which I’m going to recall in the years to come as well as I can anything in Seyda Neen or Antonica. The ride has left me somewhat destroyed and brain damaged though. In fact, I’ll say that Rise is the first game I can remember that has actually conquered me. I mean, I’ve ‘beaten’ loads of games in my life, and loads more have beaten me, so that I’ve given up and left them unfinished. But I’ve never had an experience quite like Rise’s, so full of contradiction and tension, and it’s left me exhausted and lost for words. Fortunately for you, perhaps, I’ve still managed to scrape a few together, so here they are.
If you’ve played the 2013 Tomb Raider (full disclosure: I haven’t), the latest reboot of the twenty-year old franchise and official start of the Third Age of Lara, you’ll be in familiar territory. The option-laden splash screen is the same, the menus are very similar, the icons and symbols and UI, in-game and out, the branding and general aesthetic – it’s all clearly another step in the same direction. Friends who have played both tell me that Tomb Raider (2013) is slightly less polished in comparison, and that Rise is a definite improvement all around. I’ve YouTubed it a bit, and it does seem that many of the same mechanics are back again. There’s the network of base camps that act as fast-travel points, this time between a trio of huge, sprawling zones, loads of smaller ones and miles of tunnels, cliffs and passages in between. There’s the XP-fuelled skill system back again (hello XP-fuelled skill system!), and crafting and resource gathering are all present and correct. Once again, we’re dancing the Survival Tango with a younger-than-usual and less experienced Lara, splashing through mud and dirt and animal gore, and generally getting as covered in literal dirt as we are in family dirt – daddy issues, family betrayals, etc. But although her baptism-by-murder three years ago was a major plot driver, complete with rape-tastic controversy, this element of her growth into the ‘proper’ Lara is forgotten fairly quickly. This allows her to be both sexy and violent, thus checking several demographic boxes and giving her the right appeal for the new generations of wide-screen TV-owning gamers.
Yes, we are once again adrift in a world of fighting and ripping and tearing and exploding, because a) dem ’ographics, and b) Lara is a well-established psychopath who can pass neither a tiny bird’s nest nor an elaborate wolf den without leaving it awash in blood and gristle. But let’s face it, while her main shtick is logical puzzling and trial-and-error gymnastics, she’s also been strapped-up from the start. From dual-wielding pistols against blocky tigers and panthers in the very first game, to head-shotting realistic-looking squirrels and armed mercenaries in this new continuity, the evolutionary leap in Rise’s combat makes it the best it’s ever been. Benefiting greatly from the context-sensitive controls, blocks and attacks are as much about placement as timing. Personally, I avoided melee combat most of the time because her bow and arrows are just so much fun. But when I did get up close and personal with an enemy, it was always because of my own lack of skill if I suffered, rather than any kind of awkwardness with the controls.
Like its precursor, Rise of The Tomb Raider looks utterly amazing. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it looks even better than about 99% of all the games I’ve seen in the last few years too (that 1% being Alien: Isolation). The note I have on Rise’s graphics simply says “surreal”, and I’m still having a hard time describing them to myself using human words. Honestly, after finishing the game in 38 hours with an 86% completion rate, my mind is still boggling at the visuals. The first half of the game is entirely made of ice and snow. Snowy mountains, snowy buildings, snowy forests and caverns, avalanches, snow storms, the whole K2 schmeer. Relief from the whites and blues comes from browns and greens – trees, bushes, mud, dirt, and an absolutely lush, gorgeous second half that warms up the palette considerably. The textures are jaw-droppingly good, and the topography looks entirely believable too. But all of this eyeball-searing graphical goodness creates a strange effect. The textures are so detailed and the effects so finely crafted, that they’re almost too good. The pattern on a rock, the tiny waves of wet mud under your feet, snow swirling in the wind and dust motes floating lazily through sunbeams look so authentic that conversely, everything starts to look unreal again. It’s a strange effect that I’ve never encountered before, a literal ‘uncanny valley’. Speaking of which, some of the humans in Rise are among the meatiest, most organic and real-feeling people I’ve ever seen in a computer game, and it’s this combination of super-realistic environments and weighty, slickly animated and voiced humanoids that really knock Rise out of the park on the technical front
Now, I’m aware that Ubi have done some amazing things with graphics and animation in their Assassin’s Creed series and in that hacking thing about dogs, but I’ve never played any of them (gasp!). My point of reference for top-shelf eye-candy is the Far Cry series (Ubi again) and their cousins, the Crysis games. When the original Far Cry released, it melted our brains and our graphics cards. Then, when the original Crysis was revealed, there was a lot of waffle about photo-realistic vegetation and such. Again, brains and cards. But those amazingly realistic trees, bushes and angry North Korean faces look like Ms. Pac Man in comparison to Rise of The Tomb Raider. I just want every game to be painted by Crystal Dynamics now, because man, they have nailed the graphics thing.
All this hysteria was brought to my attention by a mid-range i5, a 1 Gb GTX 750 and 16 Gb of good DDR3. But not only is there lots of scope for scalability in the options, the game just feels solid. You can read quite a detailed piece on Crystal Dynamics’ proprietary Foundation engine over here, but needless to say, on my rig everything ran smooth and stable, with only one single crash. This occurred just after saving, so maybe it was a read/write error or something related to my jury-rigged complex of ancient hard drives (I wonder what dusty treasures Lara would find there?).
The good news doesn’t end with the pictures though, because the sound design also needs a mention. The music I eventually turned off, because as good as it is (and it is really good), it was getting a bit stressful and intrusive. Lots of martial beats played on native drums and wooden percussion, wailing animal horn calls and zippy ‘rain of arrows’ strings. And that’s just when I was staring at a rabbit. But turning it off left more space in my brain for the sound effects, which do for sound effects what I think Rise’s graphics do for, umm, graphics. Which is to say that they’re astonishingly good at their job of selling the illusion that you really are struggling through the wilderness, fighting man and beast at every step. Again, it’s about being transported, from the mundane to the fantastic, and the SFX in Rise are as evocative as any other classic gaming noises I can think of right now (those mournful silt strider calls from Morrowind spring to mind). Some of my favourite sound effects in Rise of The Tomb Raider include: the acrid, chemical sound of burning balls of fire whizzing through the air; your knife crunching through bones and meat into some dead beast’s guts; the firework spread of multiple little grenadelets tinkling about on the floor then exploding; the zing and zip of shrapnel knifing through the air when you blow apart metal and wood barricades with explosive arrows; the squelch of mud and wetness under your boots; the tinny echo of Lara’s breath in her underwater re-breather; the sound of living things crunching and squeaking through the snow, and speaking of squeaking, the wooden flooring in the Gulag zone as you run all over it (which is both annoying and compelling). A big part of the game involves flying around on zip lines, the sound effect for which is really satisfying too, although it’s tragically too short and on longer lines you hear it repeat distinctly a few times. It sounds jarring when it happens, and I’m surprised they didn’t do something about it before release.