‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ is more of the same, and that’s okay

24 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ is more of the same, and that’s okay.

Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider reboot pulled off a tough task: It successfully brought life back to an aging, muddled franchise and provided heroine Lara Croft with an excellent origin story. In 2013, Crystal Dynamics re-invented one of gaming’s most iconic heroines, going back to the start to tell the story of how Lara Croft became the Tomb Raider we all know and love.

After spending an entire afternoon with it at a preview event in London, I’m happy to say that the game looks like a solid sequel, and is likely to be a system seller.When Lara Croft’s experiences on the lost island of Yamatai are covered up by the mysterious Trinity organisation, she becomes obsessed with revealing the truth to the world.

Now that Croft has made her transition from a terrified shipwreck survivor to adventuring (but still vulnerable) badass, what does she do for an encore? Tomb Raider provided a total re-write of the franchise’s gameplay style, featuring a darker, more explosive, action-centric tone, which leaned just as heavily on combat as it did on the series’ puzzle-solving roots, with an emotional story to boot. Now on the hunt for a hidden city — the existence of which would prove both her own and her father’s archaeological research to be true — Lara’s latest adventure uncovers a vendetta between Trinity and the followers of a seemingly immortal prophet stretching back centuries. Within moments of starting the game, you’re thrown straight into the action atop a high mountain range, where you’re attempting to find the ruins of a secret ancient city hidden amongst the peaks. Lara’s facial animations are unbelievable, character (model) movement in general is about as realistic as it gets, and of course, the environments are on point.

With both the story and the game world massively expanded in scope, WIRED spoke to senior designer Michael Brinker on Lara’s growth, how developing for a next-gen console has enhanced the game, and dodging religious wrath. After experiencing loss, supernatural threats, and a hell of a lot of burning buildings in the last game, she returns a hardier character intent on discovering more lost secrets in the world around her. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a sense of atmosphere, established by a very noticeable ambiance and some fantastic post-processing and particle effects, that you rarely see, even among the biggest games. WIRED.co.uk: The last Tomb Raider didn’t hit next gen consoles until the Game of the Year update, whereas Rise has been natively developed on Xbox One.

Pathways collapse, there are avalanches to deal with, and some very treacherous climbs up sheer ice faces to navigate as you go through this quite breathless initial sequence. Set one year after the events of the first game, Lara is this time searching for an immortal prophet in the Lost City of Kitezh – a journey that takes her to Syria and Siberia. It’s an exciting introduction, and one that sets a very cinematic tone to the proceedings, weaving together narrative cutscenes and action sequences seamlessly to give the game a really movie-like feel.

It’s easy for players to jump right in whether they’re familiar with the previous game or not; the controls remain mostly intuitive and the story stands up well on its own. Perhaps out of the entire experience, I shouldn’t be so morbidly entranced by The Many Deaths of Lara Croft, but they’re gruesome for the purpose of impact. That first sequence completed, time is then rewound to a couple of weeks before the game’s initial events to properly set the scene and to start articulating the plot.

It’s a story that’s a bit of a cliche: Croft is continuing her father’s research into reincarnation and “tangible evidence of the immortal soul.” The search for immortality is hardly new, but fortunately the ensuing fight for survival and world exploration aren’t dulled by the reason behind Lara’s mission. If the player wants to take on a more stealthy route, we’ve given you more tools and opportunities to do that,” reveals Horton. “Lara can now climb trees, she can swim underwater, and she can hide in bushes to evade detection.” Meanwhile, the move to the next-gen Xbox One console means a new facial animation system, more realistic shaders and materials, and a brand new lighting engine – in short, the best-looking Tomb Raider game yet, with players even able to see Lara’s footprints in the snowy landscapes of Siberia. This further enhances the game’s cinematic approach, and really opens the game with a bang, before it settles into the more traditional Tomb Raider adventure-like fare. Creative director Noah Hughes says that focusing on “virtual tourism” is always a part of location design in Tomb Raider games. “You go to these exotic destinations and feel like you’ve been there on some level,” Hughes said. “That leads to a natural focusing on environment as part of the concepting phase, thinking ‘where are the cool places we can take her’ that are ultimately different than we’ve been in the past.” A good chunk of the game’s first hour flashes back two weeks and takes you out of Siberia to a more “standard” Tomb Raider environment (the sun-baked deserts of Syria).

There’s also a rendering process we use call PBR, physical based rendering, which basically means everything is baked but uses a centralized light source. One time I missed a jump just as a brick pillar Lara was standing on began crumbling beneath her—Lara cracked her head as she fell face first into another pillar before falling to her doom. Searching an area for wood to craft arrows, wildlife to eat for health and even mushrooms to poison the tips of your arrows makes survivability as real as ever.

This time out, she’s following up on one of her father’s missions, a search for the ancient Siberian city of Kitzeh, which apparently holds clues to the secrets of immortality. But despite the consistent, snow-covered aesthetic, the details of each location continue to be quite varied — Hughes noted that they focused on making sure each location had a wide diversity of terrain to keep any one environment from getting stale. Yet one more time I failed to hit a button prompt fast enough for Lara to sink her metal climbing picks into an icy wall, as if she were Ygrette from Game of Thrones, and she was once again flung into the middle distance. (Sense a pattern here?) The most brutal death of them all came from a boss battle with a grizzly bear, who blocked the entrance to a cave in the first open section of the game in the snow-covered wilderness.

Lara narrowly escaped with her life the first time she tangled with the beast, though it took me several attempts for her to sprint away successfully from the galloping bear. Getting around is also a lot easier in general as Lara’s movement has been improved, and some new movement options have been added into the mix, like the tree shimmy. Optional tombs, puzzles, warehouses, underwater caves (yes, Lara can now swim underwater) and treetops will all wield rewards like scrap and treasures when you find them. It took almost a full quiver of arrows—and a few poison-cloud arrows for good measure—to slay the beast, so I imagine that I won’t be the only one to watch the bear take a bite out of Lara once the game finally arrives.

Although if truth be told, I went a far more aggressive route and simply shot arrows and – when I eventually picked up a gun – bullets at everyone I could. You also get new upgrade coins that you use to upgrade equipment; these can be found scattered around the environment and are vital to improving your weapons, particularly your bow. I guess I should have experimented a little more, but since I didn’t have a huge amount of time with the game, I wanted to press on and get as far as I could, and shoot-outs definitely take less time than carefully sneaking about avoiding things. After fully exploring a temple in the middle of Syria—by finding hidden documents, digging up buried Byzantine coins, and raising the water level to various heights (like a thankfully brief version of the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time)—Lara needed to escape the temple and run away from an oncoming torrent of water.

You can still find the generic salvage around the world, but some puzzles will require you to scour the environment for specific materials you’ll need to survive. There are even NPCs scattered around each location that will give you these blueprints, but first you will need to complete their side quests that they give you. Unfortunately, I bungled this action sequence several times, and each time Lara would drown… but not before a pillar seemingly out of nowhere would smash into her back like an ACME anvil from the Wile E. Initially, she won’t be able to decipher the Greek, Mongolian or Russian but investigating artifacts or murals will improve her proficiency with these tongues and she’ll be able to read them. The game helpfully informed me that poison might be a way to get around the beast, and so I was sent off to search the snowy forest for mushrooms and other supplies I could use to craft a poison arrow — something that made felling the bear much easier.

There are also plenty of optional side-missions to engage in – such as mini-tombs to explore, which I’m sure will be an important aspect for completists. Fortunately, the requirements for crafting these special items weren’t too onerous; I never felt like I was being forced into unnecessarily long fetch quests to pad the game’s running time.

Jessica Vazquez, who was playing the game at the station to my left, took one look at me laughing and then another look at my screen with Lara drowning, before silently shaking her head at me in disappointment. This time around, there are collectibles that offer more background and insight to the game’s main lore about a remarkable prophet who reportedly found the secret to eternal life. The story revolves around Lara’s pursuit of the Trinity, an enduring organization seemingly hellbent on erasing all knowledge of a figure named The Prophet and everyone pursuing said knowledge (even to the point of chasing Lara with a military helicopter through the desert), from all public record.

Upgrading weapons borrows a page from the Far Cry series, requiring you to collect various ingredients from the world before you can craft an upgrade. I moved on to keep the story going because of my limited demo time — but if I were playing at my own pace, I would have been happy to spend more time exploring. Lara’s skills are split between the brawler (hand-to-hand combat and healing abilities), hunter (hunting and scavenging abilities) and survivor (crafting and exploration abilities) categories. It not only lets the player unlock new ways to play as Lara, but every weapon has different customisation options that will let you decide how you want it to ultimately function. Skill types can be unlocked in any order you choose, with the only restriction being that lower level skills have to be unlocked as prerequisites to more advanced skills.

Rise may not break any new ground for the series, but the 2013 reboot successfully reinvented the game’s formula well enough that I’m not at all disappointed to have another chapter to enjoy. SETTING UP HER FIRST CAMP: When Lara is settled in at her first camp fire in the Siberian wilderness, players are introduced to a skill tree with three seprate branches: brawler, hunter and survivor.

That said, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to learn languages that you don’t know well by deciphering things you half-understand at best in the span of five seconds, but hey, you know, video games. Lara can scour the wildnerness for basics like mushrooms, feathers, oil, and simple herbs and supplement them with rarer goods like magnesite ore, bear hides, and deer antlers. The more supplies she has, the better her gear will be and the more chances she has to craft useful items while she dashes about in the midst of combat. You can play it as an action game, with Lara gunning down people, or you can play it as a stealth game, with Lara going in for quiet stealth takedowns. You’ll get to keep your current user name (as long as it doesn’t contain invalid characters, in which case you’ll have to go through a few extra steps to make the transfer), and all your old comments will eventually (not immediately) migrate with you.

Lara Croft, though slightly more experienced than she was in her last adventure, still dances on the precipice between a wild huntress who can single-handedly destroy camps of well-armed mercenaries and a vulnerable heroine who can perish at any moment. One weapon — or item, to be more accurate — that became a quick favorite was the oil lamps that could be found throughout the Soviet installation in Siberia.

While I didn’t find the game particularly hard, there are instances where there’s a little trial and error required to figure out how to negotiate difficult situations. There’s one instance in Siberia where you need to go up against a giant bear that quite happily tears you to pieces if you don’t kill it quickly enough. Turn it on, and the overlay displays the game’s logo along with various stats (time spent playing, enemies taken out, hidden items found, etc.) that cycle through a ticker area. The border isn’t required, but it’s a nice touch and is sure to be appreciated by anyone who plans on broadcasting a playthrough via Twitch or YouTube. It rolls together an interesting and quite gripping story, some solid game mechanics, a fairly large-scale environment, and some semi-RPG overtones to create a game that’s exciting, visceral, and has a feeling of openness.

I had to use ropes and pulleys to climb the masts, but I eventually made it and discovered that Crystal Dynamics improved the rewards for this optional area. Sometimes it’s about Lara learning a language because she needs to translate something, and how does she use that language as she goes through the game?

As I explored more and more of Siberia, I could see how designers constructed the environment to block off passages so that Lara would need the right tool. There are allies who offer aid such as the Trinity turncoat running the Supply Shack or the native who gives Lara sidequests with a promise of a reward. As for the story, it already has plenty of twist and turns and from what I saw in the early part, it has the intrigue to keep players hooked for the rest of the campaign. So we were looking at large, epic spaces for tombs that are deadly, with more traps and environmental hazards like tomb guardians, and then looking at the core of level design for what a puzzle is. The nested puzzle formula involves not just solving a puzzle; it’s about having solved a small part which takes you to a second part, then a third and a fourth and then they all combine to solve the central mystery of that tomb.

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