As may be obvious from the fact that I’ve thus far written two posts on the 2013 Tomb Raider (TR2013) (my game of the year for 2013 and “Dr. Croft, I Presume?”) and two more on the first trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider (RotTR) (part one, and part two), I’m sure no one is surprised that I’m really excited to play this game—so excited that I went out and bought it on release day despite the fact that I knew I wasn’t going to have time that night. I intended to play the next evening, and then spent it sick. And then had to go to a conference, so almost a week later, I finally sat down to play. (I also need to note that whoever decided that RotTR should share a release day with Fallout 4 was quite possibly insane, or maybe a Bethesda spy executing a brilliant plan to undermine the marketing of RotTR by burying its Xbox-exclusive release under a veritable pile of radioactive trash and Dogmeat. Not the best idea, as RotTR has gotten very little comparative press and is bloody brilliant… at least so far.)
It should go without saying that the entire rest of this post and all the As-I-Play posts contain spoilers. This is a collection of my thoughts, not a walkthrough, so there will be plenty of gameplay that I don’t talk about (for example, I am not going to identify every challenge, collectable, artifact, and upgrade in the game), but I am going to talk about the things that strike me, and I’m betting that many of those will contain plot spoilers. Yes, I know that all of you who don’t own Xboxes can’t buy this game yet (I’m playing on 360), but you will be able to, and you really, really should. The point is, I’m not withholding anything for the sake of your delicate sensibilities, so consider yourself warned.
The menu screen looks alarmingly like my office. I mean, not really, but it has that overly-lived-in-by-a-career-academic feel, with stuff pinned all over the walls, like maps and date charts, books and bags and random objects everywhere else, a turned-on laptop, drawers pulled out, a beat-up office chair, stray papers that have managed to crawl their way all over the desk and the floor and every other surface they can find… I don’t have a bow in my office, though. My office would be cooler if I had a bow in it.
NEW GAME! I really love that moment of choosing “New Game” on a menu screen, even if it’s a game I’ve played before, but especially when it’s one I haven’t and have been looking forward to. It’s like cracking open a new book – fresh pages that haven’t been seen (at least by me), a whole world and story and people inside that haven’t yet had a chance to be brought to life.
There’s a close-up of Lara’s desk now, with the background of her laptop showing what is probably the ruins of Atlantis (in a call-back to the very first Tomb Raider game back in 1993), some articles on the wall mentioning Yamatai (which is like a real-life Japanese Atlantis, by the way – a real historical place, but lost) and a “Mysterious Suicide in the Tube” that mentions a “beloved bishop.” I’m guessing that’s important, too. A picture of Sam and Lara (the same one from the Endurance in the last Tomb Raider game). Books. Some post-its I can’t read. A map of Siberia (I’m guessing that’s where I’ll be going soon).
Okay. Let’s do this. I choose “Adventurer” (easy) because I almost always play games on easy. It’s not that I can’t play them on a harder level (sometimes I give in and play on normal, and every now and then—usually in co-op games—I play on difficult… I played through all of Halo and its sequels on Legendary, though, so I want no crap about not being hardcore enough), but that I’m not really a gamer for the challenge of combat mechanics. I like puzzles, mental challenges, narrative. I’m not really all that into aiming a tiny dot at moving objects. So I make aiming the tiny dot easier so that I can spend more time enjoying the other parts.
“What makes someone reach beyond the boundaries of human experience, to face the unknown?” the game asks. The voice (male) talks about how some people never lose their curiosity and they are the people who push the world forward. Lara is standing on a mountain with a man (who, as it turns out, is Jonah from TR2013, although he totally looks different here—his skin seems darker, for one thing, so much so that I didn’t actually recognize him as Jonah), discussing how “the others” won’t make it to the top of the mountain in the distance. She says she’s going anyway, and he replies, “I know.” The cut-scene ends, and he and Lara are climbing up the mountain.
Here we go!
As we cross the open trail (which is on a ridge, exposed to the elements), the wind picks up, and Jonah says, “This wind is crazy!” I am suddenly rather concerned for his survival. People around Lara don’t generally have a high survival rate, especially really early in the games.
He tells me that “Even if we don’t find anything up here, your dad would be proud.” Lara says, “I know, but I have a good feeling about this.” My brain says, “Really? We have to bring up Daddy? Already?” I mean, it’s pretty obvious Lara Croft has always had daddy issues of various varieties, but can we at least get five minutes into the game before we have to remind our players that the only reason Lara is successful at what she does is because “You’re a Croft,” to quote Roth from TR2013. Okay, the game isn’t literally saying that, but it also kind of is—the characters who constantly remind her that she’s her father’s daughter are essentially giving more credit for Lara’s success to a dead man’s genetic material than to Lara herself.
I can also totally see how this might be a really familiar situation for Rhianna Pratchett. I would bet anything that it’s intentional—that as much as Lara loved her father, she’s going to start to seriously resent everyone ascribing her talents to his seminal influence, and that’s she’s absolutely justified in doing so. I just hope we get there sooner rather than later so I stop wanting to punch the NPCs.
And then the snow gives way and I get to fall a bit down the mountain, using my trusty axe to grab a ledge and climb back up. As this happens, Lara calls out to “Jonah!” (which is the point where I actually realize this is who he is, since he looks different and sounds different—although it is the same voice actor), who waits for her as the game introduces climbing mechanics so that Lara can get back to him.
We move through a tunnel, then back out, and Jonah remarks that “I guess if I were to hide a city, I guess this is the sort of godforsaken place I’d do it.” Lara makes a cryptic remark about how she hopes “Trinity hasn’t beaten us to it.” Okay. My guess is that Trinity is some sort of shady organization that’s trying to do nefarious things. But that’s just a guess based on years of watching pop-archaeology movies.
As we keep going, Jonah does the appropriate thing and clips the two of them together (why he didn’t do that before, I don’t know) as they scale the rest of the cliff. Near the top, Lara makes a jump that Jonah can’t, and she finishes the climb to provide him with an anchor. As she pulls herself over the top, there’s a storm in the distance (which we’ve been trained by TR2013 is a Very Bad Thing), and in front of her, across a valley, is a fortress—presumably the lost city they’re seeking.
The storm picks up (of course), and knocks Lara loose, but Jonah keeps her from falling (she swings into the cliff face, though, and a ringing noise tells me that she’s probably got a low-grade concussion). Now Lara has to swing back and forth to get back on the cliff (Jonah endures this for a little bit before telling her the rope is slipping—while I get distracted by how cool Lara’s shadow looks on the ice below), then climb up quickly… just in time to see the start of an avalanche (naturally).
Lara has to run to avoid it, and calls back, telling Jonah to go back down and “get to shelter!” She ends up dodging snow and rocks on a narrow ledge, rounding a rickety wooden platform to see a crashed plane (a definite call-back to TR2013 and the plane Lara has to cross to traverse the first waterfall).
The game is definitely relying on players to have played TR2013—I got a little tutorial in how to climb, but here I have to swing off a pole, hook my axe on a zipline, dodge while sliding, grapple the edge of the cliff, jump, catch with my axe, then climb up again, all without more than just one “press X” prompt (on the edge of the cliff). Oh, and then a jumping puzzle that I didn’t realize was a jumping puzzle. Bonus? Lara’s death scenes in this game aren’t as weirdly sexual-sounding
Eventually, the avalanche catches her, and Lara is swept into the snow. Tune in next time, for more adventures with the intrepid Lara Croft, adventurer!
Now, I know that this isn’t a lot of gameplay, but it is a lot of text, and this is a good breaking point because things are about to get a lot more complicated. The take-away from the game thus far, though, is that it is relying both narratively and mechanically on players having at least a passing familiarity with TR2013; yes, the game will still prompt you to press X or Y or what have you in order to perform actions if you don’t do them right away, but when you’re in a rapid-fire running-from-an-avalanche sequence, you don’t really have time to pause and think about it (and would likely end up dying a couple of times). Players who have played TR2013 will know what Lara can and can’t do already—that she uses her axes to scale ice walls (and know what those look like), that she grabs ledges with X, and that she can only jump off a wall with a double-tap of A.
That said, a player doesn’t really have to have familiarity with TR2013 in order to follow what’s happening in RotTR, but it does make the whole thing a lot richer.