Oh my, did I push finishing this article for so long! Even though I finished Rise of Tomb Raider a long time ago, it left me somewhat indifferent. I can’t say it was a very good game. I can’t say it was a very bad game either. It was just average. Rise of Tomb Raider is NOT one of these games that makes me really annoyed or something. For the most part it felt like a B movie with AAA production values. A hamburger with fireworks!
After Tomb Raider 2013, I was eagerly waiting for the sequel to land on Linux – I had heard good things about it (while not too specific) and I was expecting Rise of the Tomb Raider to deliver, and deliver big! And to be honest ROTR does improve on a number of aspects – there is an incredible amount of work that went into the game – yet on the other hand it’s held down by terrible, terrible writing and repetition.
It starts with Lara Croft following the footsteps of her father who claimed to have discovered the trace of a prophet in whatever-land protecting some kind of Divine Source, before he passed away. Her poor dad’s been made a fool by the papers and Lara suffers from that family history. Note that this is all new story elements that were not introduced previously. Typical of the LOST syndrome, where new episodes keep adding new background stories to every character, so much that at some point, the story does not fit anymore with what we know from them to begin with (In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara should have been called “the crackpot’s daughter” after she introduces herself, or worse, she would use a different identity to avoid the trolls wherever she goes). But let’s assume that writing is all well and dandy and ignore that for a second. Soon enough Lara finds that a secret organization called Trinity (a think tank probably came up with that name…), led by really evil Russians (facepalm de rigueur) is trying to get their hands on the said Divine Source. And so begins a long and boring and overly scripted adventure where Lara tries to get to the final goal before Trinity. Add some ounce of treason, a bunch of completely irrelevant and uncharismatic NPCs, a depressive environment (snow, empty warehouses, more snow, caverns, still more snow, more caverns) and you are in for a treat.
Lara is really tiring to follow during most of the intro. She is always pacing around when talking, and then all of a sudden she needs to rush, rush, rush, run, run, run. And it keeps going like that. Just… bad pacing. A good action movie or action game will know when to slow things down and make things spice up a little before a good action scene. In ROTR you are like constantly under fire, in danger of being shot, of falling to your death, of being killed by this or that. Note that 2013 suffered from the same defects, but it’s getting more extreme in ROTR. I’d like to remind folks who design video games that “more is not always more”. You don’t make a game more exciting by adding twice more action sequences. You don’t make an action movie more enjoyable by having twice more kills in it. A clever story, unpredictable plots and good motivations for each character go a long way. Note that Uncharted 2’s most successful scene is probably when you get in a Nepalese village and do something else than shooting all the time. Was anyone watching?
To make matters worse, Lara’s mission appears very weakly motivated: “I have got to save the world from Evil Trinity, because they might do something really bad with that artifact that we don’t really know what it does in the first place!” B-movie from the get go. TR2013 was a little more subtle, at least in the beginning: you crash on an island, fight for your survival and to save your friends. And you happen to land in the middle of a strange cult as you explore the place. That’s a tangible way to introduce something mysterious. In ROTR Lara has to save the world pretty much alone against an army of mercenaries in armor, carrying military grade weapons and riding on army helicopters. And guess what, she will get thru it mostly by using her self-made bow and handmade molotov cocktails.
Did I mention bad characters yet? Villains in RTOR are boring, because they just plain evil. Good villains should be multi-faceted. The best villains have motivations that you can kind of relate to, even if you can’t identify with them. Why? Because the truth is that nobody is born a villain and pretty much anyone can become one in certain circumstances. In ROTR they are just motivated by greed, power for the most part (and saving some other evil person too). It does not work as they are way too predictable. Even good characters are bad! You have the boring sidekick of Lara, Jonah, who manages to get kidnapped at some point, long after you forgot about him, forcing you to go back to save his ass. I mean why not, but then can you guys make me care about that character in the first place? Like, provide some strong backstory between him and Lara, make sure they spend a few hours together bonding and so on, so that when he gets captured and tortured I will be inclined to do something about it? Bad, bad writing. And then there’s “the prophet”, another NPC-dude that will bore you to death by its complete lack of charisma and personality: let’s see, he has nothing interesting to say, no great philosophy, and worse, he is pure evil himself as he lets his own people get killed for no good reason, by lying to them constantly, while he knows very well an army of powerful, undead soldiers are anyway protecting the sacred artifact.
So, weak plot, poorly written characters. Does level design save it all at least?
Not really. Just like in TR2013, the environment is designed by a creationist. The whole world of ROTR was waiting for Lara to show up: every little element on screen is made to be used for her to jump from one place to another (and only her). I’m old enough to remember that the first Tomb Raider game had a very different take on level design, providing you many paths that “looked-like” they were the right path to take, making you explore the environment by trial and error to find the best way out. You know… exploration? That aspect is completely gone once again in ROTR, and we are pretty much in a large corridor the whole time with some freedom of movement but really only a very obvious single path to get from A to B.
They had some good ideas this time around to make path finding a little more playful. Later in the game you can shoot arrows that stick on certain surfaces, and you can use them to climb up to places you could otherwise not reach. Good concept that strays away from “finding the obvious path” a little. Also, some physics based puzzles were decent: there’s at least one or two that I remember clearly having to think about for a while before getting it, and that was a welcome change in pacing.
Other than that, the action is very similar to Tomb Raider 2013 with bows, guns and upgrades. Let’s be clear: this is the meat of the game and if you like third person shooters like Gears of War, well Tomb Raider does it relatively well. It’s still fun to fight but it gets repetitive. The fact that most of the game stays in the same environment is a shame (there’s a brief part in Syria but that’s too short), I would have liked it to move from one country to the next a la Indiana Jones (or Uncharted, since Tomb Raider takes so much inspiration out of it…)
Still, the game is fairly impressive and well-made. I have my reservations about the story, characters and level design, but the art is top-notch from beginning to end. Port-wise, Feral did an excellent job in porting the game to Linux using Vulkan: it runs flawlessly on my two testing configurations (GTX970/i5/Ubuntu and Old Xeon/GTX1060/Solus) at high details – no problem to stay at 60fps most of the time in FullHD. Still, there is this weird bug I get from their custom launcher, which does not register any click when I launch the game sometimes. I was not able to find out what is causing it and it seems like it’s rare enough that nobody else reported it. The fix is just to kill the process and launch it again, until it works.
So… now we know that Feral is porting Shadow of Tomb Raider, and this time I have read about the game and it looks like it was “more of the same“. Now, I’m not sure how much I am going to look forward to that.
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