Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dave Critiques - Rise of the Tomb Raider: Power fantasy


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Welcome to my critique of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Just a friendly reminder that I will be discussing the game for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

It might sound a little ridiculous but the 2013 release of Tomb Raider restored a lot of my faith in AAA gaming. I had spent a couple of years at the time mainly playing indie titles due to the level of experimentation found within paired with their affordability. It was late 2013 and I became curious about a few of the year’s big titles that people were talking about. My roommate had a copy of Tomb Raider so I popped in the disc in his PS3 and gave it a try. I was blown away. The game has this beautiful balance of spectacle, streamlined pacing, and immersion that I was not expecting. The challenge tombs were a lot of fun, everything moved forward steadily, upgrades included, and some of the set pieces such as climbing the tower or coming upon the ship graveyard have stayed with me over the years.

A similar amount of time give or take a few months had gone by between the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider and when I was able to finally get a copy and play it. What I have is the definitive edition that released to celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary. It includes all the DLC, but aside from the Baba Yaga storyline, I don’t think I interacted with any of it. I played through the game on normal, following the main story with a little bit of sidetracking for most of the challenge tombs and some of the ally missions. It took me around 14 hours start to finish. If you’ve played the game, then you’ll know where I’m coming from when I say that aside from some of the platforming set pieces, most of the main game isn’t exactly a Tomb Raider game. It’s a third person shooter that revolves around upgrades and crafting. Combat seems to be the focus of this game, with the majority of your time spent mowing down dozens upon dozens of highly trained mercenaries through either straight gunplay, the benefits of the upgrade system, or crafting explosives and specialised arrows to inflict as much damage as humanly possible.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t be criticizing a AAA game for indulging in a power fantasy. That’s one of the things that big budget videogames are quite good at. Take a character, throw as much violence at them as possible, and watch them persevere. It’s the medium’s own psychopathic hero’s journey. It works because videogames are about doing, shooting can be lots of fun, especially when it’s designed to feel satisfying, and the game and the player never really pays much mind to the virtual humans they’re killing by the bucketload because neither really wants to bring it up. Heck, this idea of overcoming adversity is one of the central ideas of the 2013 game. I do think that game had a better balance between combat, platforming, and exploration / collecting, but I do admit I might be misremembering it. By the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has essentially wiped out an entire army of highly trained mercenaries. Not only that, but there’s a supernatural army called the Deathless. A lot of the lead up to revealing combat against the Deathless has them butchering the same mercenaries you’re killing by the handful. Then the tables turn once Lara gets involved.

One of the final sections of the game has you fighting in the ruins of a lost city. For some reason, I got a Lordran vibe off the place and jokingly referred to it as such. Maybe it’s because this is a nexus point of city ruins, ancient undead foes, and an upgrade system at a bonfire. At this point, you’ve already had some fights with the Deathless in small waves, but in the city and especially on your way to access the trebuchets, you’ll be fighting a lot of these warriors up close. So let’s put aside Lara slaughtering a highly trained mercenary army. Let’s put aside Lara being able to kill waves of a supernatural foe that is also able to slaughter a highly trained mercenary army. By this point in the game I’d filled out most of the upgrade tree. I had dodge counters and quick time event kills for each weapon and was more deadly in close quarters combat than I was behind cover with a bow or any firearm. So what was the most efficient and easy way to take down the hulking undead monstrosities with scary melee weapons? Spam the attack button on my controller so that Lara would wail on them with her pickaxe until either the prompt to deliver a finishing blow appeared, they crumbled from too many hits, or they fell off a ledge. In the post credits cutscene, Trinity, the shadowy organization behind the mercenaries kill Anna as she’s seemingly too much a threat to them, She knows too much. However, they leave Lara alive. It’s probably for the best, at this point, she’s likely the most deadly person on planet Earth, and a sniper bullet to the head might have just pissed her off.

Let me say that this criticism about the ridiculous level of power fantasy is not because I wasn’t enjoying the combat. It’s competent third person shooting. The stealth kills are great, and my favourite encounter was early on when you have the opportunity to take out an entire camp without raising an alarm. You have this opportunity on more than one occasion, but I was never able to pull it off with this level of success ever again. I think some of my frustration is that I chose to play with a controller, and if after all these years of playing console games I can’t get used to aiming with an analogue stick, it’s likely never going to happen. If I ever revisit the game, i’m going to use the mouse and keyboard. At least then I can take advantage of the headshot experience bonuses. My issue is mainly that the combat is such a heavy focus of a game that doesn’t need it.

The story has Lara hunting for a mystical artifact in order to salvage her father’s legacy. The early game introduces survival against local wildlife, and the wonders of searching the landscape and discovering artifacts and secrets. This leads to your first challenge tomb. If you want to get technical, the expedition to Syria was sort of its own challenge tomb, but the first official challenge tomb side content is when you discover the ship frozen in ice. Now not all the challenge tombs are on the spectacle of this one. Most of them are quite short, focused around one simple puzzle. Sometimes accessing the tomb itself can be engaging, especially in cases were the tomb itself is a bit of a let down. The cave formation on the way to this short little tomb puzzle involving boats and rapids is a good example. What’s more, the tome found at the end of each tomb grants Lara a new ability. The reward of course should be the tomb itself, but it’s nice to get something a little extra out of taking the time to solve these. I just wish they weren’t side content and the main story had a lot more tomb raiding and a lot less wanton murder from Super Lara.

Thanks for watching.

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