Rise of the Tomb Raider Review (PC): A Sense of Adventure
Crafting a game through which one can experience wonder is no easy task. Wonder and awe are things most often reserved for nature; things that come about as a consequence of randomness. This makes any attempt at constructing wonder fraught from the start. This fundamental problem shows the challenges faced when making a game like Rise of the Tomb Raider. The very foundation of the game is exploration and discovery. It’s diving into a cave no one has entered in over a thousand years and seeing things no living person has ever seen. Consciously building such an experience is not easy.
In the opening cut-scene the game references the curiosity humans have as children, and that few of us carry that curiosity with us into adulthood. Upon hearing this line I thought, somewhat pessimistically, that the game now had the challenge of instilling that childlike curiosity in me.
Within the first moments of gameplay I find myself on a frozen mountaintop. Wind and snow assail me as I try to climb my way higher. Ice gives out underfoot falling down the mountainside, warning me of what fate I might find here. Jumping gaps, climbing walls of ice, and grasping at ledges I make my way up the mountain only for a sudden avalanche to send me tumbling back down.
“I FIND MYSELF DESPERATE TO LEARN MORE”
I’m thrown into a flashback and then immediately afterward I’m scrambling up a desert cliff. Upon entering a cave and finding myself equipped with little more than a glow stick I discover something in the catacombs. An inscribed monument surrounded by murals. I inspect the monument and every mural, uncovering the story of a prophet previously unknown. Through the rest of the mission I scavenge for every available scrap of information. A tape recording here, an ancient letter or artifact there. I find myself desperate to learn more about this place. About the story that left these corpses behind. A story never before heard.
It was clear within these first thirty minutes of gameplay that they’d hooked me. I haven’t played this game’s prequel but it didn’t seem to matter. The story, which is quite well done, isn’t what drove me to keep playing the game. I knew that around every corner there was potentially another cavern to explore, another artifact to unearth, and a story to unearth with it. Curiosity drove me through the game.
This alone aligned me with Lara above anything else. I could empathize with her story enough to feel how much she needed to explore.
Often during the game Lara will talk to herself. During a tough puzzle she might mention something about an object in the environment which is important. When you sit at a campfire you’ll often hear her inner monologue. She ponders her circumstances, the intentions of others, and what decisions she may have to make in the near future.
These brief conversations with no one allow you to connect with Lara. They clue you in to what’s going on inside her head. Frequently you’ll find that she’s thinking the same thing you are. There were a few points during my time with the game when I swear she was completing my sentences. Not only does this help you put yourself in her shoes but additionally it shows how well they’ve aligned the player’s goals with that of the character.
In other AAA games (Fallout 4 comes to mind) I find that what the character is supposed to want isn’t always what I want. That a goal very pressing to them becomes secondary to the player. The fact that I always felt as though Lara and I were on the same track speaks volumes about the care and intention this game was made with, even down to the smallest touches. When you’re in the snow for a while Lara will start to hold her arms tight to her chest. When you get out of water she’ll wring out her ponytail. On numerous occasions we both exclaimed in triumph upon completing a task.
It is one of the greatest achievements of this game that the player is considered every single step of the way.
While talking about immersive aspects of the game I think it’s important to make note of one that I wasn’t expecting at all: quick time events. Being entirely honest I normally hate QTEs. They usually indicate a jarring transition between the normal controls and flow of the game to something unnatural and ham-fisted.
“YOU BET I WANT TO BASH THAT BEAR’S SKULL IN”
This is the first game I’ve played where QTEs feel natural. Frequently when jumping for a ledge one hand will slip and you’ll be left dangling over a crevasse. In that moment I can feel myself slipping and the one thing I want to do is get my hand back on that ledge. When this happens a QTE initiates and, upon pressing X, Lara reaches up and grabs the ledge to then pull herself to safety. When I find myself cornered by a bear and the game pops up a QTE to repeatedly press Y to bash the bear’s skull in you can bet I want to bash that bear’s skull in.
The use of these events only ever serves the game as an immersive experience. They were never confusing or unexpected and always coincided with something I desperately wanted to do, allowing me to do them. They lent a sense of agency where most QTEs make you feel as though you’re on rails, which is not something to be overlooked. It’s the only good use of QTEs I’ve ever experienced.
I got nearly a quarter of the way through but the greatest thing I took away from Rise of the Tomb Raider was a true sense of adventure. In all honesty this isn’t something I feel very often in games anymore. To be sure, I enjoyed the vast beautiful worlds and brilliant narratives that AAA games have brought to us over the past few years, but Rise of the Tomb Raider feels almost like a return to form for games as a whole.
It removes much of the tedium, complexity, and rote grinding that has bogged down even the best AAA titles in recent memory. Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like an adventure. It may not offer the greatest number of square feet or the largest array of weapons and vehicles, but the world feels huge. I never know what vast mysterious ruin I’ll find in some inconspicuous cave entrance, or where on the globe this ancient story will lead me next. It feels carefree and, in the truest sense of the word, wonderful.
We’d like to thank Square Enix PR for sending us a code for this one!
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