In the original Tomb Raider — the most recent original Tomb Raider — our cast of characters is shipwrecked on a sinister island. Lara Croft becomes their unlikely savior. Well, of the ones that survive. Because the template isn’t pulp adventure; Tomb Raider is a horror story in which our heroine is transformed by violence and death. As she descends into increasingly nightmarish levels, the island’s mysterious background emerges and the members of the cast meet their various fates. It’s an exciting character-driven story about peril, heroism, and violence. Just describing it makes me want to play it again.
Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, is the typical ham-handed videogame story, clumsy, cringe-worthy, and aimless.
After the jump, other than that, it’s pretty good.
Rise of the Tomb Raider opens with a lot of gobbledygook backstory about a Prophet from the Middle East centuries ago. Whoa, a story about Mohammed? Bold choice! Lara Croft goes to tomb raid the Tomb of the Prophet…in Syria. Boy, is Saudi Arabia — not to mention about a billion Muslims — going to be dismayed when they find out they’ve been bamboozled all these years! But it turns out this Prophet isn’t Mohammed. He’s just some persecuted dude who beat feet out of Syria and ended up founding a Shangri-La in the Himalayas (don’t ask), where he left behind a race of Vikings who speak impeccable American to defend some doodad called the Atlas that leads to an all-powerful doodad called the Divine Source (these people should consider a different marketing firm next time they’re branding an all-powerful doodad). As is their wont, the Soviets occupied this place a long time ago, and they stumbled across the doodad, but before they could Harness Its Unimaginable Power ™, they were driven out by the Vikings who speak impeccable American. Now a pair of villains from a Shadowy Organization ™ is leading a whole mess of disposable henchmen to go back in and get the all-powerful doodad. Lara Croft, who wants the all-powerful doodad to redeem her disgraced flashback dad, throws in her lot with the Vikings who speak impeccable American. Basically, she lends herself out as a mercenary with a Conscience ™ to a Good Cause ™.
It’s not just a silly story. It’s a clumsy mess. A tangled unengaging derivative mess with an embarrassingly awful finale that features the most ridiculous helicopter boss fight I’ve ever had to play. The characters are right out of Videogame Central Casting, and what’s more, Lara’s little friend and plucky ship’s captain from the last game are missing. What happened? Sam and Reyes both survived, but they’re nowhere to be seen? As near as I can tell, they’re never even mentioned. It’s as if Crystal Dynamics lost the rights to them. But they didn’t lose the rights to Jonah, Lara’s teddy bearish buddy who also survived the first game. He shows up for the beginning, goes AWOL for most of the game, and then comes back just in time to get captured, rescued, and wounded.
Most of this awkwardly bad storytelling plays out in cutscenes, with redundant audio logs lying around in conspicuous places. Rise of the Tomb Raider is apparently about characters who write or record frank diaries and then leave them lying around for anyone to read. It’s like social media. The cutscenes are equally clumsy. Every single moment of every single cutscene is slathered in music. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t let up. Someone needs to tell Crystal Dynamics that background music is a creative choice, not a contractual obligation. Underneath the soundtrack, the contrived character relationships skip dully from expected beat to expected beat. Betrayal. Sacrifice. Redemption. Rescue. Revenge. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
The actual traversal and gunplay is still pretty good. But with the bad story draped so thickly over everything, it becomes a real liability. I don’t have much reason to care about Lara Croft beyond “well, uh, I really liked her in the first game.” To be fair, that goes a long way. That feeling of protectiveness carries over. She’s still so tiny, so determined, so enthusiastically voice acted by Camilla Luddington, so wonderfully animated and detailed, wringing out her wet ponytail when she climbs out of the water and shivering in the cold air. Even though she’s all but swallowed up by the penny ante narrative of helping this ridiculous band of resistance fighters, even though her gruel thin motivation is now based on yet another all-powerful doodad, even though Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t have any of the first game’s character development or interesting cast, this is still the Lara Croft that Crystal Dynamics reinvented and rescued from irrelevance three years ago.
Furthermore, this is still that familiar gameplay. There’s so much gratifying gunplay/archery, now with fancy upgrades that would make Sam Fisher proud. Once you’ve resigned yourself to the fact that this may as well be a Call of Duty game for all the balls-out combat, Rise of the Tomb Raider comes into its own. The climbing around is undemanding and cinematic enough that it doesn’t feel as pointless as it really is. However, even though Lara has become a badass warrior heroine, she’s strangely hapless when it comes to trusting crumbling edifices or grabbing unsturdy ledges. She doesn’t seem to make wise traversal choices. She gets swept away by raging torrents. She plummets off cliffs into pools. She stumbles into tunnels. She barely makes jumps. Things collapse underneath her. She falls through flimsy roofs. It gets downright Chaplin-esque. There’s a thin line between derring-do and ungainly. Lara Croft has lost sight of that line, or maybe her traversal skills aren’t as leveled up as her combat skills. She does everything but slip on a banana peel in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
And even though the setting — well, settings, considering the very minor globetrotting — can’t compare to the first game’s sinister island, it’s still a generous spread of mildly open world arenas, festooned with stuff to find, hunt, collect, upgrade, and even buy. So many little icons to scoop up. It’s veritably Ubisoft! The gameplay progression is spotty. The skills are poorly organized, piled into heaps rather than arranged to encourage hard choices. It’s like taking candies out of a tray of Sees chocolates. Hmm, let’s see. Oh, I don’t know, I suppose I’ll have this one. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to eat it. In contrast, the rewards for the optional tomb raids are great. These permanent upgrades, often meaningful, are far better than the nickel and diming increments of gameplay scattered haphazardly onto the skills platter.
It can’t have been easy for Crystal Dynamics to design Rise of the Tomb Raider. The previous game didn’t lend itself to a sequel. We all knew Lara Croft would go on to become a bad-ass adventurer. We all played those games many years ago. Now that we’re past her insightful origins story, Tomb Raider awkwardly straddles what made the first game great and the familiar territory of the long running and played-out series. Is it any surprise this sequel so often feels so small, so contrived, so uninspired? Without any character arc left, Lara Croft may as well descend into meaningless shooting and traversal. And interestingly enough, that’s the best part of Rise of the Tomb Raider. It includes a blissfully story-free scoring mode with its own gameplay economy, with its own rewards and unique challenges, with leaderboards and collectible cards to tweak or break the gameplay. Expeditions mode, as it’s called, is a montage of Lara Croft on her adventures, without the bad cutscenes, without the contrived backstory, concerned only with efficient combat and fast traversal. Can you beat your high score? There’s nothing quite like a high score to fill in for character development. Yesterday, Lara Croft was 10,000 points on the tower level. Today she’s 12,000 points. Tomorrow, with a higher score multiplier from a card that makes the enemies immune to melee, she’ll be 14,000 points. Next week I’ll crank up the difficulty level and equip the fully upgraded shotgun I just found. 20,000 points, here we come! That’s videogame character development, pure, simple, and too lean to afford bad writing or awkward storytelling. Now that all that silliness about the all-powerful doodad and the Vikings who speak immaculate English and flashback dad is behind us, it’s time for me and Lara to get back to what she does best.