This happens fifteen hours into my playthrough of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Under my control, Lara Croft has murdered something in the region of two hundred paramilitary soldiers. This game offers no chance of a non-lethal run. It bottlenecks you out of the open, explorable environs of Siberia into corridors or arenas where it chucks waves of enemies at you. The bad guys bark threats, instructions to each other, misguided boasts that they have Lara right where they want her. I direct her out of cover, wait for the crosshairs to centre on their heads, and then let go of the right trigger. Arrows sail through their skulls with a whistle of wind and a spurt of blood. Simple and satisfying. As it has been during this particular encounter, which ends with the snowy battlefield littered with more bodies than Leningrad. Then there’s a cutscene: more of these enemies appear, looking no less frail than the ones who came before. They will be dispatched with relative ease, I reckon, based on recent experience, but no! Your long-absent pals have hijacked an enemy turret, and they wipe away the bridge full of oncoming enemies with a spray of bullets. “Thank god,” Lara sighs with relief. Eh? What?
It’s as if the game doesn’t remember what it’s been having you do for the past few hours, and a great deal of the hours spent playing its predecessor. It’s a scripted event which calls into question the validity of your experience, both immediately before it happened and throughout the whole flipping game. It tears you out of the experience of playing completely, because it makes you aware that this game’s narrative will proceed as planned, regardless of your input. Which, well, is true of all video games. They need to be switched on and engaged with actively to unfold, but for triple-A titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider which do not employ dialogue choices and multiple endings as part of their core gameplay, there’s usually only one way things will go. Which is why the game has to engage you, it has to have enough verisimilitude that it feels like this is happening to you, or else that your experience matters.
This is a baseline ludonarrative harmony which all games with a semi-coherent story manage. The majority of mainstream games have the characters on screen follow a classical hero narrative, familiar from ancient myth and Hollywood blockbuster alike, wherein said hero accumulates skills until they reach a level of hyper-competency allowing them to triumph over their ultimate adversary. This mirrors the experience of the human player in control of the character: in role-playing games they will level up their party, expand skill trees; in first-person shooters, they receive new weapons and become adept with them; on a more basic sense, whatever you’re playing, you too achieve a level of hyper-competency simply by the repetition of play. You learn how exactly to manipulate the systems put in front of you in the necessary way to achieve the win-state, just as the character does in the game’s story. Again, this is the baseline, the standard expected throughout most games. The first of the rebooted Tomb Raider games was unusual in that it managed to build a stronger, more involved piece of immersive architecture on these foundations.
To put it in terms suitable to the franchise, the Tomb Raider franchise completely botched the leap across from 32-bit consoles. It didn’t line it up properly, its tank controls hopelessly unfit for purpose, and ended up in a crumpled rag doll heap in the pit of bargain bins across the land. It wasn’t until Core Design folded, Eidos was bought up by Square Enix and development duties passed onto Crystal Design that things got back on track. The 2013 game retooled the franchise completely, making it more of a survival simulator/Uncharted riff. In order for the first bit of that equation to work, the developers had to roll back the years and present a Lara Croft whose temple-robbing career was just beginning. She did not do back flips whilst firing dual-wielded pistols at a dinosaur. She got busted up, frequently stacked it down cliff faces and was party to endless gory death animations.
That was a controversial move, robbing one of the earliest and most popular examples of a “strong female character” (problematic though that term is) of her, well, strength. Doing so meant, however, that Lara’s character development as the narrative unfolded was in perfect parallel to that of the player. As they became more adept with Tomb Raider’s survival systems and scrappy combat mechanics, so too did the young girl stranded in the wilderness eventually transform into a bow-wielding woman to be reckoned with. The crowning marvel of the reboot was Lara’s affirmations to herself and, unseen, to the player. At the beginning, when she is anxious and isolated and green, her subaudible repetition of “you can do this” was a way of deflecting that fear and inexperience. By the end of the game, she yells it as a show of confidence as she traverses rocky mountain faces and collapsing bridges. She invites bad guys to come and have a go, if they think they’re hard enough, instead of wincing whenever she makes the wrong move and invites their attention.
As for the story itself in Rise of the Tomb Raider, it’s…fine. Perfectly adequate. Which is to say its structure, conflicts and characters are entirely generic. Unfortunately, it does not take the arch, humorous approach to tropes that the franchise’s original inspiration, the Indiana Jones films, or the reboot’s chief influence, the Uncharted games, does. Everything is very serious, and if you maintain a furrowed brow for long enough the intensity begins to wear off for those staring at you. You end up looking a bit silly. This time around it’s all about Lara’s father, who killed himself at the insistence of a wicked step-wife (it would have been nice if writer Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Terry, had perhaps had the gumption – or the freedom – to explore or subvert this fairytale cliche in some way), leaving his daughter to go off in search of some lost treasure he never managed to find.
Lara’s search is under threat by a paramilitary group lead by said step-wife’s brother, who commands his group with a cult of personality fervour which is enough to enlist dozens of men for Lara to gun down in merciless cold blood. How he does this is not explained, since every time he appears on screen for one of the game’s interminable cut scenes, full of polygon-chewing bad dialogue and evil pronouncements and monologues about destiny, he has all the personality of a loading screen.
Tomb Raider was a familiar story for those who had seen, say, climbing documentary Touching the Void, or even spelunking horror flick The Descent. But it was unusual to games, since instead of casting you as a powerful figure who only gets more powerful as the narrative progresses along its arc, it started you off as an entirely powerless young woman whose most pressing need isn’t to dominate enemies, but to avoid getting any more injured. The opening sequences aren’t a tutorial meant to get you to grips with mowing down bad guys, it was you guiding Lara through a seemingly unstoppable series of falls and scrapes that did indeed cease before reaching Hot Rod levels of silliness. It was a story of survival, with beating some enemies secondary to Lara’s journey to both stay alive and become the sort of temple-robbing colonial bastard her dad was.
Pratchett reprised her role as writer from the first game, but without the structure of Lara Croft’s origin story, the plot of Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t know where to take the character. She’s encumbered with daddy issues, a lost friend, helping a hidden mountain tribe retain their land, a mystery involving an immortal deity, and ghostly Mongol Hordes rising from their ransacked graves. None of which gel, and none of which really provide enough motivation for either character or player. In the first game you were right there with Lara as she struggled to hold on, you shared her anxiety about the friends she was separated from, even feared for her life as she scaled an impossibly tall radio tower. Here, the story is interrupted by cutscenes which bear little resemblance to your experience in control of Lara. When they’re not being openly contradicted, the shooty-shooty parts of the game work entirely in concert with the story, in that they’re both entirely perfunctory and if you have as much patience as me, you’ll want to skip them entirely. At least you have the option of gliding past the cutscenes, which when allowed to play out take up something like three hours total of the game’s playtime.
It took a couple of years to come out, but the second game in this rejuvenated Tomb Raider franchise nonetheless has the feel of an annual franchise instalment. The graphical engine is the same, as is Lara’s model. Besides some cosmetic tweaks, the controls handle exactly the same as they did on last generation’s consoles. The UI remains messy and a hassle to navigate. The few new additions to the explorer’s backpack only serve to make the Uncharted comparisons all the more apt, with a grappling hook gained around halfway through operating almost identically to that of Nathan Drake. Comparisons between the two franchises shouldn’t be brushed off – much as you could argue they’re simply drawing on similar source material, Indiana Jones and his pulp serial antecedents; or that Tomb Raider has technically been around longer – although, really, that’s the way of these things. Somebody innovates, then everybody riffs on/steals that innovation to varying results. Sometimes you get the “Prague” of this year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, indiscernible from the City 17 setting of Half-Life 2. Others you get things like the 2013 Tomb Raider, which clearly owed a lot to Uncharted’s climbing mechanics, cover-based shooting and quick time events.
The difference between the two series is the feelings they aim to evoke in the player and the roles into which they are cast. When we’re in control of Nathan Drake, he is a plucky action hero star in the mould of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China: lantern-jawed, arrogant, constantly stumbling and fumbling but nevertheless party to big blockbuster action sequences. The new and regressed Lara Croft, meanwhile, is a young woman struggling to survive in extreme circumstances. Tomb Raider is more Bear Grylls than Indiana Jones. Subsequently, the QTEs are based around frantically saving her from a gruesome death, rather than pulling off a cool moment in a set piece. Animals are hunted and their pelts collected. Moments of calm come when the inquisitive and classically-educated Croft happens upon relics and artefacts. Any moment where you’ve cleared an open area of human enemies, with the threat of attack by wild animals ensuring you don’t dawdle regardless, and are free to actually raid tombs? Those are the most enjoyable moments of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
“Challenge Tombs” return from the previous game, optional puzzles in environments off the beaten track. The best of these recall the original games, where mowing down endangered species takes a back seat to climbing, timing jumps, and pulling gates open with Rube Goldberg-alike pulley systems. These sections require some creative problem solving on the part of the player. The encouragement to try things out, actually use your experience of the game’s mechanics to advance, is almost like the dungeons found in Ocarina of Time. It’s also very telling that these sections are optional, since they stand in opposition to the meat of the game, which are the combat sections where the aiming is garbage, the health recovery system poorly portrayed by de-and-re-saturation of the colours on-screen, and the incentive to use any weapon apart from the headshot one-and-done arrow non-existent. There’s a similar lack of incentive to go back and complete the Challenge Tombs.
Doing so has little bearing on your experience of playing the main story, after all. As you’re pushed forward, there’s nothing to encourage you to fast-travel back to camps in areas which remain mostly unexplored (there are even tombs which are impossible to access before receiving some late-game additions to your inventory). Rise of the Tomb Raider at once demands you be dragged by the hand through its wholly functional and unremarkable story, and then expects you to retain some curiosity about the areas it has previously lead you through without chance to look around properly. Perhaps Rise of the Tomb Raider really does manage to bring the player and Lara’s experiences in line again: it doesn’t know what to do with either of them.