Tomb Raider was one of our favourite games in 2013. It was visceral and beautiful and brutal, and everything Lara needed to be. It was also a game built on making the player feel uncomfortable.
We’re glad to say Rise of the Tomb Raider does the same thing in new ways, for a brand new experience in Lara’s world.
In our behind closed doors demo of Rise, the goal was to show off as much as possible, so the developers gleefully skipped over the sequence shown off at Microsoft’s media briefing and focused on the events that transpired right after it.
At the end of the last game, Lara glimpsed something supernatural with Himiko, the anicient Japanese queen. Developers wanted to channel that once again, but bring in inspiration from real people such as Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first two people to summit Mount Everest. They’ve discovered in their research that these people would risk their lives to see pieces of the world that no one else has seen.
And with that, we’re off.
The section of the game we’re shown is in the Siberian wilderness, where Lara believes there is a lost city that holds the secret of immortality. Lara has lost a lot of her gear and is freezing cold, and you can see it reverberating through her body. She moves slowly through the thick snow trying to collect scraps of wood and leaves to scrounge together a fire. She eventually finds an old camp, gets that fire going and is warming up, ready to take on the world in front of her.
Lara is back to talking to herself, a tool she uses to reassure and motivate herself, though it seems that it is more frequent and is perhaps because she is going a bit loopy or because Crystal Dynamics was just a bit heavy-handed with that element of their psychological game.
Perhaps part of that psychological game is how much there is still a genuine sense of pain in Rise of the Tomb Raider. The stutters in Lara’s movement, the struggle to get through thick snow, the way she holds her injured arm as she runs all plays into the horrible situation she’s in, and the player feels it.
The one tool Lara still has is a radio, on which she hears some ominous voices speaking of something called Trinity, which we later find out to be a secret organization racing to find the artifact before Lara does. It all requires a bit of a disconnection from believing this could ever happen in real life because the ridiculous coincidence that they’re all going after this artifact at the same time after thousands of years is, well, ridiculous.
The other classic Tomb Raider element of crafting weapons and tools is back in full force and then some in this direct sequel. The original game had a sort of linear progression of items which could be purchased by finding shrapnel and pieces of tools laying around the world.
This time around, specific things will be needed to create upgrades. There are two types of items in Rise: commons and exotics. The common items include things like paper and bone and tree bark, while exotic items range from specific poisonous mushrooms to bear far to chromite ore.
This is probably one of the more exciting elements to the game as it seems to make crafting upgraded weapons a bit more difficult than just going around the world to scrounge as much shrapnel and spare parts as you can find. Having to retraverse specific areas (we assume snow-covered rocks won’t grow many poisonous mushrooms, and you likely won’t find beat fat in a tomb without any bears) is a bit terrifying, especially if there is something especially difficult to find in a well-guarded or difficult to access area.
Fluid movement in Rise of the Tomb Raider is back and it brings with it two new elements: tree climbing and swimming.
We’re told that virtually every tree can be climbed, though there needs to be a ledge or sturdy branch for Lara to swing from to make the climb worth while, or she’ll just jump off again. Swimming wasn’t demoed for more than a few moments, but it is reminiscent of the moments in the original game that the camera was dunked under water. There were no specific details given on how long she’ll be able to breathe underwater, but this is full underwater swimming, not the doggy-paddling we got in the first game.
Initiating combat. On your own terms. That’s the name of Lara’s combat game this , and it feels like it.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider, much like the original game, there are certain advantages to being stealthy or to go in guns blazing, depending on the situation. With new elements like tree climbing, for example, the possibilities are heightened, and with better enemy intelligence than the original game, there will be that much more tension when trying to stay concealed.
Distracting the enemies is always a possibility. Pick up an enemy’s radio and throw it across the area to distract everyone, then fire off a poison arrow and take them all down at once. Or fire an arrow to one side of the map and watch the thug in that area become confused, leaving you time to sneak by and take him out from behind.
Following this combat area we were shown, we caught a glimpse of what the team at Crystal Dynamics calls open exploration spaces. These were a big part of the original game, and they’re back, about three times as large as anything the team created in their first go. That’s huge. Anyone remember how massive the Shanty Town was in Tomb Raider? Yeah, you’re in for some big areas.
This time around, the open exploration spaces are even more rife with explorable content. Secondary missions can start and end here, and Lara can find collectibles like relics and documents and hunting items that she wouldn’t necessarily find when ascending a mountain. Tombs can also be found in hidden areas of the open exploration spaces, and it’s no secret that gamers want more tombs.
When we asked if tombs would continue to be barren and free of enemies, Crystal Dynamics said that they’re supposed to feel like Lara is the first person to discover them. They’ll sometimes be guarded by animals (such as the bear we saw in the Xbox briefing demo), though their desolation is kind of the point. Tombs will contain larger “nested” puzzles, where solving a small puzzle will only provide one piece of the larger puzzle, really testing the player’s ability to keep up and get their brain working.
Following our entry to a tomb, we’re treated to a short montage with Lara claiming she’s got her wind back and is looking to continue to challenge herself, not that it was ever an issue.
Surprisingly, the team took us to a new mission that actually takes place a bit earlier in the game, before Lara’s got her upgraded weapons and tools.
Along the mountain tops of the northwest Syrian border, Lara is listening to a recording of her father (not Jon Voight), who is saying that the path to the prophets is lined with glyphs along the rocks. “If the tomb is there, it is above one of the forgotten cities,” he says. Of course, moments later, Lara stumbles upon some glyphs, climbs a couple of rocks, and discovers the entrance to a massive city within the mountain.
There’s an insane draw distance here, and it seems like it goes on forever. We’re assured that the city we’re looking at below is all playable content, not just a skybox or some random buildings to make it look more populated.
As we enter the city, we’re told of some of Lara’s new progression mechanics. Perhaps one of the most interesting things we learned of was Lara’s language proficiency. She doesn’t just know every language, but learns along the way. As she discovers more of these foreign and often unused languages, she gains knowledge about how to better translate them and is able to better understand what she’s reading, whether it be a wall carving, mural, or strange document. It’s a really interesting, human way to continue the story and is very different from the typical Indiana Jones approach (you know, the one in which Indy knows just about everything).
There’s a lot going on in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but that’s by design. Lara has a lot thrown at her, almost to an unbelievable degree. Okay, actually to an unbelievable degree, but that’s what video games are about.
We’re absolutely thrilled with the way the game looks so far–it is our pick of best game at E3 2015– and have to keep reminding ourselves that we’ll be able to play it in just a few short months.
Rise of the Tomb Raider hits Xbox One on November 10, 2015.