It feels strange, playing a new Tomb Raider scant months after Uncharted 4. The Uncharted series takes after Tomb Raider in many ways, its protagonist Nathan Drake often referred to as “the male Lara Croft" - amusing given that Lara was always “the female Indiana Jones.” Both Uncharted 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are highly-polished action adventures with slick, scripted action and physical, globetrotting adventure. But where Uncharted’s expansive settings are merely wide corridors, Crystal Dynamics' Rise of the Tomb Raider uses its environment for much more - and that’s exemplified in this “20 Year Celebration” edition.
Of course, Rise doesn’t deviate far from the Tomb Raider formula - but it’s the new, more freeform model, introduced in its 2013 predecessor. Borrowing the best elements from the Arkham Asylum games, Uncharted, and the series' own history, the rebooted franchise is built around cinematic gameplay and discovery. There’s added emphasis on exploration and puzzles, with giant sandboxy areas full of secrets, collectibles, resources, and puzzle-laden tombs. Those tombs, representing this game’s best content, frequently tell their own stories, as Lara uncovers the fates of leper colonies, sunken ships, a doomed uranium mine, and more. Some areas can only be accessed with certain gear, forcing Lara to return later, if she can be bothered.
Rise also subjects poor Lara Croft to all kinds of hell. The game treats her like shit, threatening to freeze, drown, impale, burn, eat, or otherwise murder her at every turn. Lara’s accident-magnetism gets thoroughly unpleasant after a while, even without threats of sexual violence this time (that I’ve encountered). When she’s not literally dying, Lara still has to shiver her way through the Siberian cold (with the odd geothermal oasis as respite). It’s a miracle she made it this far.
Luckily, Lara is ludicrously capable, resourceful, and tenacious. An astonishing and acrobatic climber, she can best any physical challenge, as long as the player can press the Y button at just the right moment. She’s a better crafter than MacGyver, able to build complex weapon parts from sticks and loose feathers, and boy, does the game rub that mechanic in your face. Though she starts the game speaking exclusively English, she manages to learn Russian and Greek - at least - over the course of the game, solely by reading plaque inscriptions. Best of all, her environmental awareness is so powerful that she sees a glowing aura around useful objects, rendering even the most complex puzzles a doddle. She might as well just stay in that vision mode permanently - it’s all too tempting for players to.
As for Lara’s motivations, they’re...questionable. An obsession with her dead father’s unfinished work, a thirst for impossible missions, and no firm grip on reality bring her (and returning rad dude Jonah) to Siberia in search of eternal youth, where by no coincidence a mercenary group is after the same thing. The archaeological bullshit transitions into supernatural bullshit, and if it weren’t for Camilla Luddington’s excellent return performance, it’d be unbearably cheesy. But Luddington imbues Lara with the intelligence and awe she needs, adding unexpected touches of genuine emotion.
That emotion doesn’t extend to Lara’s insane capacity for violence, however. Like Nathan Drake, Lara murders hundreds of people in her adventures. To a degree, I can’t blame her - they’re all dicks, and her weaponry feels great to use. The difference between Drake and Lara, though, is that he seems to enjoy what he does, whereas she’s reluctantly compelled to do it. In combat and in cutscenes, her lack of emotional response to the body count suggests a character who won’t even acknowledge - and possibly isn’t even consciously aware - of the death she’s causing. Given the events of the Lara’s Nightmare DLC, in which she slaughters countless zombies in her home, it’s entirely possible she’s psychologically repressing all of it.
Too bad for Lara’s psyche, though, because Rise of the Tomb Raider, by design, wants Lara to go through the game’s various levels over and over again. It’s like this year’s Hitman in that it’s designed to be replayed. Challenge modes can be added on top of the basic game, putting more emphasis on stealth, gunplay, or survival. It even has leaderboards. In a narrative-driven game like this, such a feature feels a bit odd, but it’s fleshed out well, if you’re into that sort of shit.
The 20th Anniversary edition contains a whole bunch of extra content over and above the original game. Much of it is of the “in-game outfits” variety, including some amusing tributes to Laras past, but there’s some meat in there too. The two original DLC packs offer diverging takes on survival horror, exploring witchcraft and zombies, respectively. There’s also now a co-operative option in the Endurance replay mode, which I didn’t get to play. No review for that feature.
The crown jewel, though, is the brand-new Croft Manor DLC. In the grand tradition of Tomb Raiders past, this incarnation of the character finally gets to explore her family mansion. Croft Manor is smaller than I remembered it being, and shabbier, following years of neglect and an inheritance dispute. In keeping with the new Croft way, the mansion isn’t a playground for Lara’s platforming abilities, but a narrative exploration. Evoking nothing so much as Gone Home, the DLC reveals compelling and well-written stories about Lara’s past as she pokes about the place. It’s a kind of video game short story, a family tragedy about love and obsession, expanding upon and contextualising the main game's storyline in a number of ways. Even former comedy butler and target practice dummy Winston gets to have something to do other than be locked in the freezer.
Comparing Rise of the Tomb Raider to Uncharted 4 is a look into the compromises made in game development. Rise is less polished than Uncharted, but deeper and more complex in gameplay terms. It’s more serious. It’s less over-the-top. Less linear, more full of collectibles of dubious importance. The major difference, though, lies in Lara herself. Not only does she help the game pass the Bechdel test; she’s a serious protagonist, and - especially given the addition of the Croft Manor DLC - a sympathetic one. I wanted her to succeed more than I did Nathan Drake, and that’s important. Hopefully next time around she doesn’t have to suffer quite as much.