At first glance, Rise of the Tomb Raider has all the adjustments and mechanical expansions you’d anticipate from a modern sequel. There are larger hubworlds filled with collectible items, hidden secrets and optional objectives, and many of the thrilling yet linear platforming obstacle courses have been refined for better usability. There’s emergent and cinematic gameplay combined, offering a fusion of play styles that coexist like two koi fish swimming together rather than two snakes devouring each other.
Most significantly, however, is the greater emphasis on survival. In order to upgrade Lara’s equipment and gear, the player must excavate and gather resources from the surrounding environment or hunt and skin the local fauna. Lara is also capable of using any materials in her surroundings or at her disposal to craft improvised weaponry and traps. She is able to dive onto and slay foes from the heights above, be they rooftop or tree. Rather than simply being able to survive a shoot-out by the grace of regenerative health, it feels like she survives because she is smarter than her antagonists.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider is very much a third-person shooter, it really feels like Crystal Dynamics took the concept of Lara being a “survivor” as a designation and Survivor as a profession. She is less Tom Hanks in Castaway and more Bear Grylls.
This is all great and contributes to Rise of the Tomb Raider being a mechanically rewarding game. Combat provides the player with a multitude of options to suit their style, keep them experimenting, and maintain engagement. Platforming sections feel like a mild “puzzle” without having to be obtuse or opaque. Collectibles are thematically fitting and mechanically rewarding.
Yet something has nagged me about the experience that I just could not shake. As much as I enjoy the additions, particularly to the survival aspect of the game, something just seemed off. I’ve been wondering if it was the story, even though it’s not like 2013’s Tomb Raider was Academy worthy. If anything it was merely “good for a AAA shooter”, a most back-handed piece of praise you could give.
The secret lies in my feelings on the survival gameplay. It’s not that I wish the hunting, foraging, and crafting were present in the prior title, it’s that it felt like it belongs more in the reboot than it does here. In the prior game, Lara Croft is learning to become a survivor. She is learning how to be resourceful and what she is capable of. The new gameplay is thematically appropriate to the prior game.
So why didn’t it fit with Rise of the Tomb Raider?
I think because, in Rise, the game’s focus isn’t really on Lara as a survivor. If anything, the game is about the cost of obsession. Two families are essentially pitted against each other over their obsession in finding an ancient mythological artifact. One that is not believed to be real, and whose search for it drove Lara’s late father to become a laughing stock.
This is actually not a bad direction to take the game. The various scrolls, logs and diaries address various obsessions and the cost it has on individual lives. Both the collectible, optional narratives scattered about the environment and the primary narrative reflect this single theme. The idea is that obsession is dangerous. It causes someone to lose sight of simply living, that there is no sacrifice too great in order to have that object of obsession.
I dislike that the theme is delivered with yet another imitation of The Stone Masons or The Templars, some world-spanning organization that no one has ever heard of even though they have deep, deep pockets capable of purchasing military-grade tech and resources. I dislike that Lara Croft is evidently going to have to face this nemesis in future games. However, I give credit to delivering such a theme in so many layers.
The problem is that it has nothing to do with the prior game.
Part of this is a result of expectations. The first trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider revealed a Lara Croft sitting in a therapist’s office dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It seemed like a pretty heavy concept for a AAA game to be tackling, but a wonderful way to follow up a game that focused so intently on the internal strength of will necessary to survive such an ordeal. That Lara may now be an addict to danger, that she cannot live a normal life any longer, is a fascinating direction to take an “action hero”.
This aspect of Lara has instead been relegated to a couple of audio logs that the player may never even listen to. The obsession is less a result of Lara’s inability to cope with a normal life and more a way to repair her relationship with her father.
In truth, it feels like we’re missing a game in between. We’re missing a game that fully explores Lara’s relationship with her father before he passed away, a story where, through her experiences, she begins to understand him better. The first game provides very little information on father Croft. We only know he’s not around anymore. It’s not until Rise of the Tomb Raider that we learn Lara’s relationship with her father was a bit rocky in the time before his death. It is only through swift flashbacks that we learn of the relationship and its troubles, and are given cause for Lara to become obsessed with her father’s own journey.
This isn’t the Lara we ended the prior Tomb Raider with, though. She’s already recovered from the experience. It all happened off screen. We only get occasional audio logs to discuss it. But the Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider is confident, capable, and determined. She never questions for a moment her decision to slide a knife into someone’s body. The game never asks us to feel uncomfortable about it, either. We’re never asked if she, perhaps, is so ruthless due to her obsession. It isn’t made to fit thematically. It is merely there as a mechanic to the game.
It’s not so much an issue of ludonarrative dissonance. It’s not that the mechanics do not match the character or story. Lara is an intelligent and capable survivor. Yet the fact that the mechanics seem more fitting to the prior game reveals how much a gap there is between it and Rise.
There are certainly minor qualms I have with the story of Rise of the Tomb Raider. The use of a Templar-like organization, the lazy implementation of a Judeo-Christian heresy, and the expectation that select characters or plot twists would generate an emotional impact despite having little reason to care.
Despite that, I found Rise of the Tomb Raider a very strong game that I would love to revisit. I want to play it again knowing what its core theme is, getting a better understanding of how the different narrative threads all lend themselves to a singular, central idea. I want to see how the Survivor difficulty changes the experience mechanically, atmospherically, and emotionally.
I just feel like there was a story missing in between. One that I would have rather played through rather than listen to in collectible audio diaries… or worse, discover it was released as some apocryphal comic book or novel.