Rise of the Tomb Raider Review

#Video ReviewsNovember 8, 2015

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Carolyn Petit

Managing Editor

2013’s Tomb Raider reboot gave us a new, and at least superficially more human, Lara Croft. Gone were the cartoonish features and Barbie doll proportions of the legendary adventurer. The new Lara Croft looked like a real person. The story half-heartedly tried to make her act like one, too, showing her feel guilty about killing a deer early on, but Lara’s internal conflict was quickly swept aside as she became a walking arsenal, slaughtering enemies by the dozens with bows, pistols, shotguns and other weapons.

The first teaser trailer for the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, showed a seemingly troubled Lara in a therapist’s office, so I hoped that this game might be that rare blockbuster action adventure that at least takes violence somewhat seriously. I hoped it might acknowledge that even if you were in a situation where you absolutely had to kill hundreds of really, really bad people to survive, doing so would probably leave you a little traumatized. But Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do that. I won’t spoil exactly how the therapist actually figures into the story, but I will say that it’s not in a way that suggests Lara might actually benefit from therapy after everything she’s been through. 

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2013’s Tomb Raider reboot gave us a new, and at least superficially more human, Lara Croft. Gone were the cartoonish features and Barbie doll proportions of the legendary adventurer. The new Lara Croft looked like a real person. The story half-heartedly tried to make her act like one, too, showing her feel guilty about killing a deer early on, but Lara’s internal conflict was quickly swept aside as she became a walking arsenal, slaughtering enemies by the dozens with bows, pistols, shotguns and other weapons.

The first teaser trailer for the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, showed a seemingly troubled Lara in a therapist’s office, so I hoped that this game might be that rare blockbuster action adventure that at least takes violence somewhat seriously. I hoped it might acknowledge that even if you were in a situation where you absolutely had to kill hundreds of really, really bad people to survive, doing so would probably leave you a little traumatized. But Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t do that. I won’t spoil exactly how the therapist actually figures into the story, but I will say that it’s not in a way that suggests Lara might actually benefit from therapy after everything she’s been through. 

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In fact, there’s a remarkable dissonance between Lara’s attitudes in the story and the experience of playing the game. When she’s asked about it, Lara asserts that she did not enjoy all the killing she did in the first game, she did it because she had no choice. But she also doesn’t seem troubled about it. And of course, a ton of games put their protagonists in similarly absurd kill-or-be-killed situations that provide an excuse for lots of gunplay. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games, for instance.

But the seriousness with which Lara is portrayed makes Tomb Raider different. Lara is not a happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake type. Drake shoots his way through his adventures with a wink and a smile and he has a wisecrack for every occasion. We’re meant to see Lara as a survivor, a person with deep, real emotions who doesn’t relish violence but does what needs to be done. But meanwhile, the game revels in violence. It celebrates your marksmanship every time you shoot someone in the head. Blasts from your shotgun can send enemies flying. It all feels powerful and satisfying. Playing as Lara, you don’t feel like someone desperately fighting just to survive. You feel like someone who is very, very good at killing people and doesn’t hesitate to do it.

The game just doesn’t want to acknowledge that Lara clearly enjoys it, and the disconnect between the narrative’s portrayal of Lara as someone who feels things deeply and doesn’t enjoy violence at all and the gameplay’s attempts to make violence as fun and explosive as possible is really jarring. Despite what she says, Lara does have a choice and she chooses to put herself in this position. The game expects us to believe that she views her actions as some sort of grim necessity, all the while wanting us to have a blast, as it continually introduces new tools and new skills that give us exciting new ways to kill people.

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The people you’re killing in this game are an ancient, violent sect called Trinity with designs on controlling humanity. The story is predictable and derivative. Lara’s late father was obsessed with a source of eternal life associated with an ancient prophet, sort of like how Indiana Jones’ father was obsessed with the Holy Grail. Lara becomes obsessed with finding this divine source of immortality, too. It’s all very familiar, standard adventure story stuff.

Trinity has big evil helicopters and lots of mercenary dudes. (No mercenary ladies, though, sadly.) Like Lara, Trinity will stop at nothing to find the divine source, but Lara’s obsessive quest for it is good because she’s a good person and Trinity’s obsessive quest for it is bad because they’re bad people. I really wanted a villain at some point to say to Lara, “We’re not so different, you and I,” because in this case, it’s absolutely true.

The game encourages us to hate Trinity by showing them killing innocent people, which in turn makes us feel good about killing them, but the game never encourages us to consider the morality of what Lara is doing by choosing to be here and kill all these people herself. And that’s too bad. The new Tomb Raider games clearly want to humanize Lara, and exploring the emotional and psychological cost of what she’s putting herself through would have made her seem more human.

Still, there are some improvements in the way Lara is presented in Rise of the Tomb Raider. By default, she now wears clothing that’s much more appropriate for the harsh elements that she finds herself in than she did in the previous game. And while Tomb Raider seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in making Lara suffer and putting that suffering on display with grisly death animations and excruciating injuries she sustains, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t delight in torturing Lara or impaling her on things.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider is exactly what you expect it to be. It’s competent and thoroughly unsurprising. There are plenty of environmental puzzles, and plenty of sequences in which everything is collapsing all around you as you run, jump, or climb for your life. Lara is crafty and resourceful, able to whip up Molotov cocktails, shrapnel bombs and other deadly devices from junk she finds lying around. Enemies are smart enough to try to flank you and flush you out when you’re hiding, and you can try to be sneaky or just go in guns blazing. Oh, and the camera really doesn’t deal well with close combat in tight spots.

The world of Rise of the Tomb Raider is beautiful, and I enjoyed those moments in which I felt like I was just exploring and discovering the world for the sheer beauty and enjoyment of it. I love the experience of coming around corners or climbing up ledges to behold some breathtaking new landscape. But that beautiful world is constantly reduced to being just a source of stuff to collect. There’s just soooo much stuff to collect in this game. You switch to Survival Instincts, look for the things that glow, and grab them; suddenly the world isn’t this majestic, wondrous place anymore. Rather, it’s a place full of little golden things you can snag for your own personal gain. The world exists just for you to plunder.

There are moments in Rise of the Tomb Raider when you’re solving a puzzle involving some ancient contraption, or studying ancient murals, or traversing the environment, or taking in the view. And in these moments, I admired Lara’s skill and resolve. I’d like to go on more adventures with her. I just think she has a few issues she needs to deal with first.