Tomb Raider‘s reboot comes with contradiction at its foundations: there’s an emotional as well as logical dissonance in processing a work emphatically dedicated to ‘survival’ that also delivers on gamer expectations that their character’s abilities scale as the game progresses. Which is to say that mechanical and dramatic helplessness expire at the point that Lara becomes a mass-murderer so ruthless that even demons cower in fear. Which is fine, good even, as a revenge thing, wonderful as a deadly serious but entirely unhinged baroque ultraviolent symphony, but disappointing as an open-world experience. Early on the game’s environments each matter as Lara’s short focus (physical, narrative) desperation memorises for survival’s sake every bush, every window, but as the player snaps to find that they at some point became a superhero, they roll over to become pretty wallpaper demarcating the space for superhero activity.
To Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s credit it goes out of its way to address these problems. Although in blood too far stepped to frame Lara as once again helpless, she is presented as mad both as a consequence of the events of the first game, and by the fact that she is at all turns stalked by her father’s ghost. This is a sympathetic but bravely alienating move in a third person action game where character immersion is the norm: we understand that she is drawing connections between the external events that we witness and the internal crises that we don’t, and her death drive colours action-based decisions as corrupted, morbid. For every conflict she involves herself in, for every conspiracy unveiled, we understand that she is throwing herself into something that’s bigger than herself in the hope that her body will die before her brain catches up. She’s all movement, adrenaline. The burden of inherited mental illness (or the fear thereof) is the theme, and as much as she tells people she’s using her father’s research to salvage his reputation, it’s obvious that she’s trying to figure out what exactly death is and how she will get there. She grows madder as the game progresses, taking on more and more issues that are external to her but which chip away at her already fraught psyche.
We are encouraged to encourage her too- Rise of the Tomb Raider is full of side-quests both mundane and sprawling (one multi-part quest in particular is bigger and more inventive than anything in the main story), and this is where the developers try to return some gravity to the game’s environments. It is meticulously designed so that every key mission is set in a place that at the time feels big, but which in retrospect was actually always accessible within the map. On progressing the narrative Lara will come to a clifftop overlooking a new area, which runs in a number of different directions, feeding organically into where the player has come from and where they will go. There are no painted corridors or isolated stages for conflict; the map is more like a series of loops than a linear sequence. These large crossroad areas are where quest-givers are located, kind of like in Tony Hawks 3, but unlike that game most of the optional quests are terrible. There is only so much that we can read Lara’s self-destruction into MMO style activities, which are so clearly made with trophies in mind and no more. The problem with involving oneself in them, even if one finds their tedium therapeutic, is that they unlock weapons and skills that make the game too easy.
As in the Far Cry series the developers are well aware that providing an upgradeable skill set means that the very act of exploring the game environment leads to a way overpowered protagonist that negates attempts at narrative gravitas. Where the previous game had fun letting go, Rise of the Tomb Raider attempts to throttle the player into submission. Unfortunately this is not done through scaling enemy artificial intelligence, or through having them ‘learn’ and imitate our playstyle, but through staged control-points where the game can only be progressed in a set way. Everywhere else it is up to the player whether Lara is stealthy, trigger-happy, or a scrappy demolitions expert, but in these key stages the player finds themselves surrounded in a space, only able to fire big weapons back. These control-points are designed to ensure that the player does not get too comfortable with any one tactic, and that the game retains a degree of difficulty, but they work against the game’s philosophy. I’ll not denounce cover systems in general as others have found a way to build them into the flow of the game, but Rise of the Tomb Raider plays in the way that Spec Ops: The Line made fun of three years prior.
The essence of the Tomb Raider reboot is creativity and the quick, deliberate flow of improvised decisions, but sadly these moments are strictly relegated to the domain of fucking around, and not standing up to the big and powerful. As a blunt force thing on trauma and self-destruction it’s variously exhausting, boring, and exhilarating, but as a game it’s unwilling to even find the line between ludic freedom and dramatic demand, and so is predominantly a drag.