Okay. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a really fun game. It made me want to get back to it and still does, even after finishing the main story. I love Lara Croft, you love Lara Croft, everybody loves Lara Croft.
But Rise of the Tomb Raider also has some real problems. It’s engaging and has some truly stunning moments, but it also trips up in so many places that the entire experience feels hollow and disappointing.
It feels like everything that’s potentially good about this game has a serious undermining flaw. The biggest of these is Lara herself. When the game was first announced, a big deal was made about how good she would look, going so far as to include shiny new hair physics. Now, I understand that graphics are important to many gamers, but I can’t think of a single other example where there’s been such focus merely on how the protagonist will look.
Moreover, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a really pretty game, but Lara…Lara’s character design is my least favourite thing in the entire game. The aforementioned fancy hair physics doesn’t apply to the huge amounts of hair that doesn’t go into her ponytail. Now, this is a pet peeve of mine because hair in your face when you’re trying to do anything is annoying, but especially for a seasoned archaeologist who knows she’s going to be climbing in places with terrible weather. But somehow Lara’s hair stays framing her face even when she’s looking directly downwards. Good for her, I guess, firstly this isn’t how hair physics works, and secondly, my god could she just pin it back? She’s even shown to have a bobby pin at one point which is doing exactly nothing to keep her hair in place.
Aside from that which would admittedly be minimal if it wasn’t my personal vendetta, things get even worse. As previously noted, she still doesn’t know how to wear a proper shirt for a lot of the game. She also doesn’t appear to be wearing a bra. Her vest top is exactly the same as the one she wore in Tomb Raider, but in that game you could see white straps below, whereas in this there are none. For those of you without breasts, wandering around without a bra is super uncomfortable for most people, and climbing, running, and jumping are definitely out. She also doesn’t wear gloves even when climbing up ice walls. She does, however, wear makeup throughout the entire game, even though she’s spending weeks at a time roughing it in the wilds. This makeup stays in place through absolutely everything, including swimming long distances underwater. Lara’s character arc is also pretty poor, but I don’t want to get into spoilers here, so that will come in a later post.
We’re not done with Lara though! The game is really gratuitous with piling hurt on Lara - even if I’m only talking about the physical kind to avoid spoilers. Yeah, I know, every male protagonist ever gets beat up in their games of this genre too. And yet it feels different with Lara; it’s truly endless and she never really comes out the hero on top of it like most male protagonists do. There are several scripted events where she is really brutally killed, like near the beginning of the game where I missed a spike trap and saw the spike go directly through her neck with the camera focused on her lolling head and blank face. My sister also commented in shock at one point that Lara had blood all over her and I realised that damage to Lara’s actual character model (the kind that happens in cutscenes not player controlled combat) is basically persistent, meaning she’s covered in scratches within a few minutes that never go away. These little things (another notable one is that until she gets the rebreather very close to the end of the main story she can hold her breath underwater in usual conditions for about ten seconds before dying) would usually be something I’d give the benefit of the doubt, but previous to the earlier Tomb Raider, executive producer Ron Rosenberg said that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.'” I think this is where the extra emphasis on damage comes from - Lara isn’t the hero, she doesn’t need to emulate triumph, because the player, her “helper” according to Rosenberg, is the hero instead.
Alright, enough about Lara for now. The game plays pretty nicely. The combination of exploration, parkour, and combat keeps everything interesting. There is a gradual introduction of new skills throughout the whole game meaning there’s always something new to be learning. The small flaw with this is that in the early to mid game you’ll find a lot of collectables or areas that you can’t do anything with because you don’t yet have the requisite skill, but that’s minimal.
However, there was some suggestion before the game came out that there was the possibility to use stealth rather than murder to achieve your goals. It turns out that’s not true at all. Killing people is very often mandatory, just part of the puzzle that allows you to proceed. And boy is there a lot of it- according to my stats I killed 506 people in the 10 hours it took me to beat the game. Personally I didn’t mind it as I enjoyed the combat itself, but it’s a shame that the game can’t be done entirely using stealth - not even nearly.
I was also really excited before this game because I was told that it features actual tomb raiding. I’m a historian, I’ve done real archaeology before, and while I wasn’t expecting this to be like that (scraping the ground with a trowel does get boring after a while) I wasn’t quite expecting this either. What I saw was truly raiding. No tomb survives Lara’s arrival. While that might be expected when the antagonists are throwing grenades without concern for the history they’re destroying, there are separate challenge tombs that Lara flatly disregards any kind caution - all of the puzzles I solved actually required you to damage the archaeology in order to proceed. I realise that it’s just a game, but my god was it painful for me.
All of this, combined with the spoilery disappointments I’ll speak on next time, make Rise of the Tomb Raider an incredibly superficial game. It’s fun. I enjoyed my time with it and I look forward to continuing with some of the extra tombs and collectables. But if you look closely - and not even that closely - at it, there are a lot of flaws. And Lara deserves better than that.