Rise of the Tomb Raider Review

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I thoroughly enjoyed the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, although the way the game leaned into grotesque murder and quick time events always left a sour taste in my mouth. Luckily, Rise of The Tomb Raider shows not only a maturity in Lara’s character but also in the approach to the finished product.

Picking up some time after the reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider follows Lara on a new adventure as she searches for The Divine Source deep in the Siberian Tundra. Lara follows a set path laid down long ago by her father and deals with some demons from the past game that still haunt her. She is no longer the plucky young girl who falls foul of the situation, but a hardened adventurer at the forefront of her field.

Along with this new found experience, Lara has new techniques for traversing a much denser environment than she is used too. The use of a climbing axe allows her to scale to new heights and swing from tree branches, while climbing arrows add the possibility of climbing aloft tall trees and mountainsides.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider consists of two large hub areas where you’ll spend a lot of time hunting and gathering collectibles. There are challenges; like shooting all the bullseye’s across the hub or collecting the chickens to throw into a pen. These are a nice distraction from purely collecting resources to build ammunition. These hub areas branch off into the story missions or tombs for you to explore.

You’ll spend a lot of time levelling up numerous meters throughout Rise, via a simplistic RPG system of upgrades to improve your abilities and also a number of language levels you’ll need to work on. This allows you to discover all of the secrets the game has to offer. They are upgraded by finding ancient manuscripts or enemy communications and will eventually lead to you being able to decrypt transmissions or monoliths that will point you in the direction of collectibles or secret locations across the hub areas. The hubs are a good size with a lot of things to do and the game does a fantastic job of never making you feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of things you could do.

The Metroidvania style tease of showing you everything that is going to be possible when you unlock the right equipment or hit a certain stage in the story can often be a frustration, however Rise of the Tomb Raider does a good job of ensuring the game tells you straight away if you’re straying into an area without the correct equipment. This means I never spent time jumping at a ledge I had convinced myself was scalable only to give up and return later incredibly frustrated.

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The story takes some predictable twists and turns throughout, in true 90’s action movie logic. As in the previous game, the final third of the game starts hinting at a larger story filled with mysticism and the potential veracity of some religious texts; this isn’t overt enough to detract from a healthy paced action story. You will find a lot more depth from the collectibles throughout the game, but the main driving force of the story tells you enough that you never feel you need to see any of this to know what exactly is happening. You do a little backtracking towards the end of the game which is disappointing but otherwise each story mission looks different and offers something unique rather than a simple corridor run and gun.

One of the main things missing from the previous game was the lack of actual tombs to be raided; thankfully Rise corrects that with optional side tombs. While I think it was the safe move on the developer’s part to not put these areas as part of the main story, I was disappointed with the amount that was on offer. I enjoy the puzzle elements shown in these tombs and the rewards at the end make them unmissable if you want to truly succeed by the end of the game. The fact these tombs are off to the side probably speaks more to what the modern day audience of Tomb Raider is and not wanting to kill the story pace with a slow, methodical puzzle was probably the right call for this new audience…..

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Rise of the Tomb Raider looks absolutely beautiful. With two large and distinctive hubs to operate from and numerous different looking mission areas you’re never bored of the aesthetic on offer. The game truly shows what can be offered on a next-gen console and doesn’t compromise the quality of the game or a fantastic look.

The 2013 reboot felt like a scattershot of ideas like the developer was unsure what would stick with a modern audience, therefore, tried a little bit of everything. Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like a sharper, more refined game that is a lot more polished. The move away from quick time events and murder-porn-esque deaths shows Crystal Dynamics have listened to their audience and the addition of puzzle tombs is a welcome return to the franchise. Rise of the Tomb Raider takes a huge step from its predecessor and is a fantastic experience.

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Life is Strange: What ‘Bae over Bay’ Says About Us

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The following contains very significant spoilers for Episode 5 of Life is Strange. If you wish to avoid having the ending of this games spoiled then don’t read any further.

It is a tragedy of human nature, that our ability for empathy is limited to only those within the bubble of our everyday experience. We can care more about protecting a friend or family member, than the lives of small villages. When the suffering and pain is not directly placed in front of us, or plastered on the front page of every newspaper in our country, we can do a remarkable job of distancing ourselves from the pain that is not our problem.

It’s known in anthropological circles as Dunbar’s Number, and colloquially referred to as our Monkey Sphere, and is the maximum number of people who you can actually care about. It is based on the size of primate brains, and when extrapolated to humans we arrive at a maximum number of between 100 and 200. That is a hundred people we can take an emotional investment in. An emotional investment in their lives, their aspirations, their fears, and their well-being.

This limit on our empathy has ramifications in how we interact within our society. It is among the reasons why small villages are considered friendly and welcoming, and big cities are considered cold and distant. In a single metro ride to work in the morning, I can pass more people on my journey than live in some people’s hometown. It becomes impossible to really treat everyone around you as an individual, so instead you stick to yourself and worry almost solely about your own issues (this is why we get annoyed at people taking their time at the ticket barriers).

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With all that, it was an interesting and pleasant discovery to find that a weird story game from a small Paris-based developer blew up the consequences of this relic of evolution. Life is Strange has taken us on a long ride through the life of Max, a teenager who discovers she has the ability to rewind time, a power that is brought out by the need to save a friend’s life. From that point we navigated a murder investigation, had to talk down a friend from the edge, reminisced about past lives, hopped through alternate realities, and well and truly screwed up time as we know it. And when it was all done, we were given an ultimatum: save our best friend, or save the entire town. One person who meant everything to us, or hundreds of people.

When proposed in a vacuum, without the experiences gathered through the game, the choice is obvious: save the town. From a cold cost-benefit calculus, it is extremely difficult to place the value of a single individual above hundreds of others… but a lot of us did just that. When given the choice, half of all players chose to sacrifice the entire town to save their friend. Why? Why would we let all friends we worked so hard to help, the families we helped put back together, and all the random people we assisted face the wrath of an unnatural tornado? Because we were more invested in our friend.

Throughout the game, we had literally ripped space and time apart to drag our friend back from death over and over again. We prevented the repeated murder of our friend, we undid the crimes we committed, and we even tried to make her life better even though it ended in us having to pull the plug on her. We nearly killed ourselves through exhaustion just to keep her alive, and then we are asked to let her die, to save everyone else. Your investment is so singly directed at her life, that when asked to trade it in, some of us just can’t.

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The nature of the decision also changes the moral calculations we have to do. In carrying out this decision, we have to choose between an active decision to let her die, or a passive decision to make no further alterations. A common thought experiment about moral calculations involves choosing whether to redirect a train or not, with the paths having different groups of people on either side. A young girl or four grown men, an old man or an old woman, and so on, but a different version doesn’t ask you to flip a switch to redirect the train, but to push someone in front of the train to stop it. When phrased this way many more people freeze up and reject the experiment. For many reasons, the nature of how we achieve the outcome, even when the exact same actors are present, changes our willingness to do it: we don’t want to be actively responsible for a death even if it that makes us passively responsible for many more.

To actively go back in time, and watch the friend you have spent many, many hours getting to know, and bonding with die can be harder than just watching a town be destroyed. The fan reactions to the two endings show that the above considerations have been reflected in reality. People who chose to save our friend had to then drive through the town that we allowed to be destroyed. You drive through the devastation and death, and you know that you could have prevented it all, but people in general were satisfied that Chloe lived. Hundreds dead, livelihoods destroyed, and we move on with stoic acceptance.

If you chose to sacrifice your friend, you have to watch and endure the funeral and memorial services for her. You see her mother (who died in the other reality) cry and collapse, her friends in shock, and the knowledge that all of your experiences with her never happened for her. All the happiness and hope you brought her never existed for her, and she died angry and scared. This ending is an emotional steamroller, and brutal to experience. The death of a single person was more devastating for the vast majority of players than the death of an entire town.

Finding a game that forces such deep introspection about what we value, what choices we are willing to make, and what we are really willing to sacrifice is rare and finding one that does it in such a beautiful and immersive story is even rarer. Dontnod Entertainment produced a staggeringly poignant game with their first go at a story-based game, and the influence of this game and the indecision it forced upon us could radiate out into the wider gaming industry as we try to produce more mature and considered worlds and characters.

Life is Strange: Episode One Review

max_concept_art reviewIf it is possible for a single company to have a stranglehold on the interactive storytelling genre, then Telltale are doing a pretty good job at trying to seize the mantle. While the situation is less clear cut on the PC, with a plethora of studios reviving the principles of point and click, the console space is almost exclusively served by the only company which appears to be doing episodic content. So it is nice to see Dotnod Studio attempt to branch into this space with Life is Strange, a 5 part series which is to be released monthly, part one the subject of this review.

The story focusses on Max, a teenager who has recently returned from Blackwell Academy where she spent the last five years studying photography. Starting with a vision of a destructive whirlwind tearing its way towards town, the game cleverly mixes in both an overarching disaster narrative with smaller, more considered character interactions between people Max knows, both in a good and bad way.

These interactions are well done, interesting and at times touching. The games inclinations suggest that Max is seen as somewhat of an oddball by her peers, but that allows for some very endearing moments of kindness between her and the people around her through conversation options and various actions. By the end of the 2 hour or so first episode I felt a real attachment to the person representing my choices on screen, I felt she spoke with my voice and my intentions regardless of the fact the character is both much younger and of a different gender than myself.

01_Life_is_Strange_NIGHTMAREThis is despite some very cringe worthy writing. The dialogue feels very much like it was written by a demographic much older than the characters they were writing for, with lines feeling dated and forced in an attempt to sound a lot more hip and cool than they needed to be. This does lead to points where I could not help but roll my eyes, but despite this, the actual bonds that were being created felt genuine. The friendship with Chloe in particular is already one I want to explore further.

The game also tries to add a new mechanic into the genre. Rather than follow the same formula of conversation, choice and then action, it allows Max the ability to rewind time at any point, but only for a few seconds. Primarily this is used for various puzzles but it can also be used to change dialogue choices and completely change a reply or to find out further information. At this point it feels slightly underdeveloped with its use too obviously signposted and a bit too glaring to feel it has been incorporated intelligently. However, being able to see how a scene plays out differently and having that option to choose- based on seeing both outcomes never feels like you are cheating. While it needs some further expansion the foundation of an interesting twist on the genre have been firmly laid and my hope is that it can be built upon in the next set of episodes.

04_Life_is_Strange_VICTORIAS_ROOMAs a first attempt at interactive storytelling the opening signs are very encouraging. The characters are well rounded and, more importantly, believable. There are some very interesting plot strands developing which makes me want to progress with this story even further. All the groundwork work has been done and to a very high standard, with only the dialogue really being a dragging factor. Some may also point to a general lack of extra conversation options with characters outside the main plot, but for me this is a good thing as and the game never feels like it has unnecessary padding associated with it. The animation is also a little stiff, a factor that is based on the limited budget and the priority the developers set at the start of the project.

Dotnod deserve a huge amount of credit for delving into a genre that is a complete reversal from the initial effort of Remember Me, and doing so with such a strong air of confidence. They also deserve credit for achieving this with a mainly female cast, a brave choice that may have backfired if the tone had been mishandled. Episode 2 is out now and if they can keep to a regular release schedule they have a great chance of making something both interesting, different and ultimately enjoyable.

 

Score: 7/10

Reviewed on the Xbox One