Rise Of The Tomb Raider

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tomb Raider was the first game series of this kind that I played years ago, and I loved the saga instantly. Nearly all of its installments were great games, except The Angel of Darkness which had so much potential that was wasted due to a variety of reasons. I think The Angel of Darkness was some sort of turning point though; despite it being a failed attempt to breathe fresh air into the series, it nonetheless gave the necessary urge for the saga to almost start over. Legend was a gorgeous, fast-paced game, Anniversary had the classic feel combined with all the modern luxuries of tech and gaming, and Underworld was a true epic. Tomb Raider Reborn was very good, but I feel it could have been better.

Rise of The Tomb Raider, released last year, is no less than a masterwork. It's one of those games that you just can't stop playing. It has all the elements that almost all Tomb Raider fans and players loved from the classics, like the incomparable feel of exploration and discovery, with the addition of character development traits from Legend and Underworld, where Lara's backstory was closely connected to her adventures and we got to see her more sentimental and human side, plus some cool gameplay perks from Tomb Raider Reborn.

It has a completely improved version of the Tomb Raider Reborn Lara, both visually and character-wise, as her personality and style have beed reworked a lot and now she matches the classic Lara we all love, and who roams in incredible, massive environments, mercilessly killing baddies, helping out old and new friends, exploring tombs as side-quests, looking for artifacts and relics to justify her title, and basically doing all those things that make an action-adventure game an intense gaming experience.

The graphics are stunning, and there's beautiful music to accompany your quest - in particular the background music of some impressive action sequences is epic stuff. The ambience is extremely detailed, and there are nicely worked effects that create a unique atmosphere in each stage. There are changes in time (night-day) and weather (snowy-sunny-rainy-cloudy) with some clever details to underline some of them (ie, if you arrive at the village in Geothermal Valley in the evening, the chicken are replaced by crows).

The plotline of the game is pretty good, with a few twists that may or may not be completely unexpected, yet there is a lot going on, and the story keeps you interested all along. It revolves around Lara and her quest for the Divine Source, aka, the Source of Immortality, an artifact that her father had also been looking for, that was supposed to grant immortality to those who came in contact with it, but unfortunately this quest cost him his reputation and, even worse, his life.

Naturally, Lara is not the only one looking for the Divine Source. Her enemies will try numerous times to prevent her from getting close to it, as they are desperate to get there first. Thankfully, she is also lucky to have strong allies backing her up, although their aim is slightly different: they want to protect the Divine Source from being exposed to any intruder.

Except Lara, there are some other nice characters that play their important part in the development of the events. Jacob, whose role remains a mystery for quite a while, is a great companion for Lara during some parts, guiding her through his land, giving her advice and conversing with her. I have to add here that I love it when in games the characters discuss with each other as they go (like also in the latest Resident Evil games). It adds more to the feel of realism and it's like watching a movie.

Jacob becomes an eminent and important figure in the game from the moment that he appears on screen. Lara meets him in a nearby cell when she is found in prison after being captured by the bad guys. She manages to find an escape route very quickly and after moments of hesitation, she decides to free Jacob as well and make use of his valuable knowledge of the region. As the story unfolds, more details about his life and personality come into the light, and at some crucial point it is revealed that he is a lot much more than just a good guy and an ally. As a sidenote, there seems to be a bizzare chemistry between him and Lara, and at some point I had the strong feeling that she had developed a major crush on him. Well, knowing Lara, she couldn't get impressed by anyone lesser.

The arch-villains are equally very well-thought characters, solid and consistent, especially Konstantin; with a concealed human side which they avoid to show to third parties. He and Ana, the girlfriend of Lara's late father, are one more pair of evil siblings in the gaming universe - pretty much like Albert and Alex Wesker or Alfred and Alexia Ashford, again from the Resident Evil saga. There are a few unclear details about them, which do get their answers once you go through the collected documents of the game, which is why I recommend reading them during or after playing; some information shared there is vital for understanding actions and events connected to both Konstantin and Ana, as well as Lara herself.

There is a brief but fascinating section taking place in Syria, but the big part of the adventure happens in Russia. Snowy mountains, idyllic valleys, hostile facilities, abismnal chasms and the necessary confrontation with the myth, together with an unforgettable boss fight split in two parts, make up the main part of this amazing game. The puzzles are perfectly thought and organized; without being extremely difficult, they require a good deal of thought and strategy planning - something that becomes even more evident in the optional tombs side-quests.

The gameplay is flawless, and Lara's movement is very realistic and flowing. I found it so cute when she got out of a river with frozen water and fixed her ponytail, then wrapped her arms around her body because she was feeling so cold. There are many cool moves she can perform, and she can carry a decent inventory of weapons and items. Her guns can take several upgrades that she can use to her advantage. In many situations, you have (or it's better to) go stealthy and even attack enemies without being noticed, which is a very interesting feature of the game.

The other characters also have a very realistic look and movement, although certain ones seem to be ventriloquists: Nadia, the girl  in the Baba Yaga side-mission, talks with her mouth closed for no obvious reason in several scenes. 

Aside from the main action, there is a whole world to cover and discover. Like in Tomb Raider Reborn, there are optional tombs, relics and documents to find and challenges to complete. Now you can also look for a variety of other things that add up to your completion percentage. There are stages that are like individual games themselves, given the amount of optional stuff you can carry out there: Soviet Installation and Geothermal Valley will probably keep you occupied for a long time.

Also if you are familiar with and fond of games like Deus Ex Human Revolution, you will find the addition of the optional but rewarding side-missions rather interesting: in some stages, there are certain characters that will ask you to carry out tasks on their behalf. Once these tasks are completed, you will be rewarded with useful items or money. This turns out particularly helpful if you take on the side-missions while going through the main adventure, as the rewards you get from them will aid you upgrade your gear and thus prepare yourself for the tougher stages later on. However, there are certain missions and challenges that you cannot take during your first run since you will be missing essential gear. In this case, you have the option to either backtrack there once you have updated your inventory, or go back to them after you're done with the main story.

The game offers three difficulty levels: Adventurer (Easy), Tomb Raider (Normal), and Survivor (Hard). Be warned that the Survivor setting is very challenging; the enemies are extremely hostile and vicious, and the wild animals have no mercy, especially the White Bear in Lost City; I nearly wasted all my ammo on it, until I found out that the Dragonfire shotgun shells can save the day (and Lara). If you are feeling adventurous like Lara, you also have the option to play in the Extreme Survivor mode which, technically, is the Survivor difficulty setting, but this time the game only saves on camp sites, which means that a stupid death, like mis-calculating a jump over a chasm, is enough to bring you back to your last base camp.

Rise of The Tomb Raider also brings back the Croft Manor, which comes with two separate adventures, Blood Ties and Lara's Nightmare. In Blood Ties, your task is to explore the manor and locate items that will give you hints on an important combination. This adventure is not only beautiful in itself, but it also contains numerous easter eggs and references to Lara's past and known travels.

In the surprisingly creepy and haunting for a Tomb Raider game Lara's Nightmare adventure, you are called to exterminate an army of zombies that has invaded the mansion, along with a horrifying boss to top it all. This mini game is seriousy insanely difficult, and maybe even this is an understatement. The atmosphere is incredible nonetheless, aided by the dim lighting and eery sounds that follow Lara as she wanders around the corridors and rooms of her once glorious manor, with some creepy zombies taking her by surprise. 

The DLC includes an in-game mission, Baba Yaga, which is integrated in the main game and is actually part of it, in spite of being optional; it even has its base camps and can be normally accessed via Fast Travel later like the regular chapters of the game. In this mission, Lara helps a Russian girl, Nadia, who has lost track of her grandmother and grandfather and is convinced that this is because of a terrifying which who lives in an infected forest. Lara suspects from the start that things aren't half as metaphysical, and goes on to investigate. The mission is decently long, enjoyable and even has its own boss fight.

There are also a few more extra missions that you can play outside the main game, that are somewhat more demanding and challenging, in that they are guaranteed to put your skills to the test. The best of them has to be Cold Darkness, an excellent mini game which sets Lara in a zombie-infested facility where she's set to help Nadia (from the Baba Yaga mission) and Sofia (Jacob's daughter) shut its towers down and eliminate it. Following their instructions over her earphone, Lara must make her way in the creepy snowy forest, trying not to alert the zombies (in fact they are infected soldiers, and their behaviour reminded me a lot of the crazy crew on the ship where Adam Jensen goes to find Hugh Darrow in Deus Ex: Human Revolution), and take the right steps in each one of the towers, then head to the central one to destroy it.

Other missions include the Score Attack Expeditions, where you can choose to play any stage of the game you want under set circumstances and collect credits depending on how well you do, and the Replay Chapter and Replay Chapter Elite Expeditions, where you can replay the game's chapters with a preditermined inventory or with your upgraded weapons and gear, respectively. The latter is the closest you have to a New Game+ option, although you get to play the sections separately and not as a full playthrough; there are a few parts that you can't replay, like the fragment where you have to collect materials for the antidote in Baba Yaga, and also some cutscenes have been left out from these two sets of expeditions.

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