In school they taught me to use the Sandwich Method for any critical writing piece — that is — start by killing with kindness and flowery compliments to get your target on cloud nine. Then you unleash the critical dagger and shove it their back before finishing with a soft revisit to the opening compliments.
So let’s start with the stuff I liked about Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of the Tomb Raider:
It’s awfully pretty, and Lara Croft says the word “Shit!” a lot in it — usually when something she’s climbing breaks under her grip, which happens about every 30 seconds.
OK, now that we’re wrapped up on the flowery compliments, let’s get to the stuff I didn’t like:
Rise of the Tomb Raider is exactly the kind of connect-the-dots, AAA-developed bullshit that I hate about video games. It’s the kind of game that won a Writers Guild award, yet it would be laughed out of any other medium with this caliber of writing.
This is not a game about raiding tombs, despite the name. Much like Crystal Dynamic’s 2013 Tomb Raider Reboot, there are some tombs here, but it’s a seasoning on the main course, which is murder. So little of it focuses on raiding tombs that I’ve done Crystal Dynamics the great service of coming up with alternate titles for the game.
Rise of the Amnesia of its own Reboot
Lara Croft, having figured out she can indeed thrive on her own in the Reboot by surviving a shipwreck, a brutal traversal across an island and encounters with no less than 100 enemies, (some mortal, some mythological) is back to Rise some more. And she left nearly everything she learned from the first game behind, which would explain why she sets off on an adventure in Syria while carrying only a pistol and a couple of climbing picks.
You know what that means! She has to relearn and re-level up the exact same skills she mastered in the Reboot. Maybe she took a vacation between these two outings and forgot how to do anything but murder dudes. That seems to be the only skill that remains intact.
I take that back. The other skill she retained is the art of narrating every fucking obvious thing she’s doing. She picks up an ornamental vase filled with grain and says out loud that it’s a vase made for ornamental use, but it looks like someone has used it to carry grain. Sweet skills, Detective Croft.
In another scenario she walks down a grim hallway filled with soldiers who have recently been burned to death. She narrates the fact that the soldiers have been recently scorched and when she gets to the end of the blocked hallway, where containers of Greek Fire sit, she wonders out loud if the Greek Fire containers are still flammable. Hmm. I wonder, Lara? Do you think that’s maybe what roasted all the guys in the hallway you’re still standing in? Did you learn those complex 2+2=4 skills in archaeology school?
If you’re in need of a new drinking game, take a shot every time Lara says something along the lines of “I need to do this,” “I can do this,” “I must do this,” or “I have to do this.” Odds are you’ll be wasted in 30 minutes. Lara is incapable of doing anything without narrating it or blatantly stating that she just has to do this. I imagine at this point she can’t even step into the shower without saying, “I must do this,” out loud to reassure herself she’s doing the right thing.
Get a grip, Lara. You already spent an entire game persuading you and your audience you can survive. You already know you can do this shit, because it’s exactly the same stuff you did in the Reboot.
If Lara at least had a shred of humor it would be bearable, but I guess Crystal Dynamics missed that beat when they were ripping off everything else from the Uncharted series. That’s always a fun comparison to make because 10 years ago Uncharted was ripping off Tomb Raider.
Rise of the Sociopathic Killer
If Rise of the Tomb Raider and its Reboot taught me anything about Lara, its not that she’s a survivor. It’s not that she finds clever solutions to problems.
It’s that she’s a sociopathic murderer.
This character arc had already ended when the very first Tomb Raiders launched on the Playstation. I wish Crystal Dynamics would stop slowly working its way up to seasoned Lara and hurry up and fast-forward to 35-year-old Lara who is in it for the sport and doesn’t give a shit about killing people. What bugs the hell out of me is how Rise of the Tomb Raider tries to have its cake and stuff its fat face with it, too.
Here I am, controlling Lara Croft, who gleefully jumps off of pillars onto one commando after the next, shoving a combat knife deep in their throats to quickly murder them. Yet about 6 hours in she sits down by a cozy campfire and says something for the first time about how she hopes she finds what she’s looking for on this expedition or all these deaths will have been for nothing.
Excuse me? Really? Good to know you’ve suddenly grown a conscience in a passing voiceover after 6 hours of murdering guys.
This is what I hate — when a game gives you zero options to sneak past or knock out enemies instead of killing them, then the main character acts all sad about it. Get over yourself, Lara. You enjoy diving out of those bushes and pulling unsuspecting guards down with a quick snap of their necks. Don’t even play. If you were so bothered by killing, then don’t. But the game won’t let you.
Lara’s actions here echo the Reboot when Lara kills the first guard (maybe her first murder ever?) and she fucking whines and cries about it for an hour before headshotting one guy after the next for the rest of the game without a single whimper.
You can only play the “poor me, it’s self defense card” for so long, and I’m not buying it anymore. Crystal Dynamics would do well to drop this act in future Tomb Raiders and actually get Lara to where she’s going instead rewinding her “poor me” character arc with each sequel.
However, I support the fact the game itself doesn’t mind if you kill people. It doesn’t pull any Spec Ops: The Line bullshit like that. So I guess that’s a point in its favor.
Rise of Ludonarrative Dissonance
Rise of the Tomb Raider starts with Lara Croft scaling a frozen mountain with a climbing partner, Jonah, who is the only other survivor (maybe? Except for that other chick?) from the first game. I didn’t care about him then, and I don’t care about him now. Tomb Raider is still on a roll since its Reboot of putting a character onscreen for 1 minute and expecting you to give a shit about them for the rest of the game simply because they exist. You can imagine how relieved I was when he disappeared from the game after 10 minutes. It’s also worth noting he leaves Lara because she tells him to after he helps her scale an icy mountain. What a great friend! Telling your buddy to take a hike when you’re 90 percent to the top of a dangerous snowy mountain. At least Lara starts showing her sociopathic tendencies from the get-go in the game rather than waiting until she murders 10 dudes like in the Reboot.
I liked Jonah even less when he showed up again about 80 percent of the way through the campaign only to be kidnapped (instead of killed, for arbitrary reasons) so Rise of the Tomb Raider could pad itself out for an extra hour or two with Lara’s daring rescue mission.
During the rescue Jonah has a perfectly good opportunity to kill the main bad guy but doesn’t. His reasoning is that the villain was “unarmed.” Nevermind that the villain kidnapped Jonah and tortured him during interrogations. Nope, that’s not enough. I bet Jonah sure was surprised when the villain pulled out a knife and stabbed him. So much for being unarmed, dummy. This is the kind of game where as soon as I give up control of characters via cutscenes they lose all ambition of doing what I want them to do. This facet of Ludonarrative Dissonance is all up in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
If I’d been in control of Jonah, I’d have murdered the main bad guy without a second thought. On the flip side, if I’d been in control of Lara shortly after, I’d have murdered Jonah for letting him go. These are the kinds of dumb decisions the characters make for the sake of story, however fragile it might be, as soon as they rip control from me. And it costs them in the end every goddamn time.
This main bad guy, I want to add, literally says the line, “You’re made of stronger stuff than your friends.” during the final boss fight.
“You’re made of stronger stuff than your friends.”
Did I mention this game won an award for writing? For that.
Rise of the Lack of Common Sense
This brings up another issue of the game — and it’s another subject on which Crystal Dynamics wants to eat all its cake as well. The game makes you think it’s based pretty well in realism. Here we have this realistic woman (read: not DD tits) who reacts realistically to realistic situations in which she must endure to survive. Realistically.
Yet we have her able to climb and jump and wallclimb completely against any laws of physics and survive explosions and falling off tall cliffs for half the game. I’m not saying it should be realistic in the sense that she should only be able to jump a foot off the ground, but if you’re overlaying these overbearing themes of survival and grit with nary a sense of whimsy, I can’t buy it. Lara Croft is a super hero, yet the game demands that she stay grounded and completely boring.
I really wish Crystal Dynamics would change Lara’s character model to fit her athleticism. I want a super buff Lara with a pixie cut and thighs that could crush a bowling ball instead of making her a size 0 with twigs for arms and expect me to believe she can really keep up all this climbing. Ah, but if she were anything but a size 0 and didn’t have long, impossibly shiny hair, guy gamers all over the world wouldn’t be able to cast their male gaze all over her. What a shame that would be.
Side note: She also looks weirdly like Ellen Page in parts of this game. Did anyone else notice that?
Rise of the God of War
Late in the game Lara learns an ability to attach ropes to her climbing picks and throw them at nearby ledges for extra grab length while in midair. It’s everything but a grappling hook in name. The first thing I thought was how it would affect her combat capabilities, too.
“Fuck yeah she’s gonna be able to do some bitchin’-ass Kratos shit and swing her picks all around and fuck some dudes up.”
She does not do that.
As a matter of fact, she doesn’t take much advantage of weapons or equipment at her disposal at all. At the beginning of the game she starts only with a bow and arrow. She kills several commandos who are armed to the teeth with pistols, rifles, knives and grenades. Want to guess what she grabs when she pilfers them post-murder? Cloth, screws and occasionally ammo.
She doesn’t take their guns. She doesn’t take their knives. She doesn’t take their bulletproof vests. She doesn’t take their grenades.
Instead she waits until Crystal Dynamics says its OK for her to have a weapon, and she takes one in a cutscene much later in the game.
Toward the start, as the game teaches you its not-ripped-off-from-The-Last-of-Us-at-all crafting system, Lara must grab supplies to craft a bandage, despite the fact that if she waits 20 seconds, she’ll regenerate all her health. The game asks you to find cloth.
“OK,” I thought. There’s a flag waving right there on its pole. I’ll take it down and use it.
“Nope!” the game says.
“OK, maybe I can take the fashion scarf Lara is wearing and use it. Although she’s shivering on this snowy mountain, she doesn’t have the sense to zip her fucking coat up all the way. Zip it up and use the scarf as a bandage.”
“Nope!” the game says again.
What I had to do was find a little jar that had cloth in it(?) that the game tells me is the right kind cloth to use for bandages.
Here we have a woman who is so resourceful she can weave and knit an entire rucksack out of some animal hides, yet she can’t use her own scarf for cloth if she’s bleeding out.
I also came upon a curious scenario where I walked up to a rope that tied some kind of obstacle together and the game told me I couldn’t cut the rope until I found the combat knife. Nevermind the fact that she’s carrying two climbing picks, which she uses to pierce dudes’ skulls, and arrows, which she uses to skin animals for their hides.
“No,” the game says. You must have the combat knife we give to you at a contrived cutscene to cut through this simple rope. “And also,” the game says, “We’re making it so you’ll have to get the knife later and then have to come back here after to cut this rope, so we can fool you into thinking there’s some progression and replay value here.”
“Fuck you.’ I said, and I never went back to cut that rope.
I, again, questioned Lara’s common sense skills late in the game when she must use a giant trebuchet (stay with me, here) to launch fireballs into a gate to burn it down. Well, the problem is the trebuchet’s gears are covered in ice. Frozen completely.
I thought to myself, “Well, I’m carrying a commando bow with flaming arrows, grenade-tipped arrows, a pistol, an assault rifle and a shotgun that shoots incendiary shotgun shells. If none of that works I have two ice picks for backup. I should be able to blast through this ice, no problem.”
“No,” the game says. You must solve this obtuse puzzle, which involves climbing up a tower, tying a rope on a swiveling arm to a bucket, pulling the arm around to fill the bucket with water from a nearby waterfall, swinging the arm around again, shooting an arrow at the bucket to drain it, then jump on the weight on the other side of the arm to drive it into the frozen gears to shatter the ice.
If you’re going to pad out the game with puzzles at least make them sensible. Don’t give me 10 convenient ways to solve an easy problem and make me do all this obtuse bullshit to break some chunks of ice. It’s worth noting that I’d leveled my flaming arrows up so much that one arrow could melt an enemy’s metal armor at that point, but it can’t melt ice.
You cannot make the breadth of your game about survival at any cost and then turn around and eliminate the most obvious choices someone would make in order to survive and solve problems. Rise of the Tomb Raider is nothing but one tightly, obtusely controlled sequence after another with the developers holding so tightly on the leash you feel like choking.
Rise of the end of this piece.
Oh, remember the sandwich theory? I guess I should revisit things I like about the game right here.
But seriously, fuck this game.
Images from Crystal Dynamics’ website