Rise of the Tomb Raider: Lara Croft’s snowbound temple run is finding new ways to threaten her survival

According to Noah Hughes, creative director on Rise Of The Tomb Raider, “the secrets of our world are hidden in the darkest places”. It’s an attempt to explain how Lara Croft can find herself raiding her old stomping grounds without sacrificing the brutal survival-action edge that was nurtured in 2013’s reboot. After ten bone-breaking, deer-murdering hours on Tomb Raider’s Yamatai, the prospect of a dusty catacomb, trap-laden or not, seems polite in comparison. Hughes’ solution is to embed those traditional tombs infrequent in the earlier game in the most hostile parts of the world. By all means marvel at the looming architecture, but don’t forget the bear gnawing at Croft’s feet.

Siberia is the hostile corner of choice for this demo, allegedly hiding the fabled lost city of Kitezh, a Russian Atlantis. Swapping a storm-swept Pacific island for crisp tundra gives Crystal Dynamics’ new Foundation Engine a chance to strut its stuff, with flare light refracting through icicles and powder snow shifting around wading legs. Croft boasts more sophisticated kit, too, her furred hood, glowsticks and dual climbing axes giving her an advantage over the student who got dragged through the reboot. Hughes calls it “proactivity”;  where Tomb Raider conjured intensity in the struggle to escape, this story is driven by a “need to unlock the secrets of this place, so she doesn’t have to be trapped in order to confront its hostilities”.

Naturally, hostility has a way of finding Lara Croft. Clambering up icy walls, using the same timed button presses to dig in her axes that lent the first game’s platforming a little more agency than auto-shimmying, leads to a familiarly scripted assault on the nerves when a swing of the axe triggers a collapse that sends her lunging for safety, only regaining her grip at the last possible moment. Soon separated from her climbing companion, Jonah Maiava one of the few side characters not to die horribly in 2013 she scrambles into the face of an avalanche. But barring the rushing snow, her escape across crumbling platforms could have been lifted from Tomb Raider’s opening cave sprint. It hardly showcases a pioneering spirit.

It does justify emptying Croft’s pockets of useful gear, however, and setting her off on another Metroid-like hunt for new abilities. “We really liked the relationship between the hubs that you come back to with more gear to access new areas, so we’re bringing it back,” Hughes says. “There’ll be old favourites, but whether she’s finding or crafting new gear, we will expand on her repertoire.” So not only do we see Croft craft poison-tipped arrows, she also carries multiple bows. Instead of upgrading one model, she can return to the makeshift longbow should she prefer its speedy draw over the sluggish stopping power of the compound bow collected later. 

This connects neatly to a revamped scavenging system that swaps generic salvage for specific crafting ingredients. Branches and deer hide help rebuild a windswept base camp, plucked herbs heal wounds, and sinew makes for a springier bow. More valuable upgrades are tied to materials carved from rare species found off the beaten track, or that respond to the day/night cycle. Fancy a furry hood made of alpha wolf? Wait until nightfall and hope to find it before it finds you. It looks like a meeting of The Last Of Us and Far Cry the thrill of tracking heightened by a desperation that Ajay Ghale and his meat pockets lacked. 

Hughes hopes that greater emphasis on resourcefulness will feed into more choice for players, and it shows in Rise’s combat. Croft uses a new dive to stealthily drown a soldier from a pier perch, before scrambling up a tree to pounce on another. Where only Tomb Raider’s smallest patrols could be picked off, Croft can now avoid large confrontations with guerrilla tactics, lobbing distracting bottles, controlling the high ground, or tossing gasoline cans into open flames to incinerate mercenaries as they ward off the cold.

The tone of Croft’s adventures and those of Nathan Drake has diverged in recent years, but both will be placing greater emphasis on player freedom in between the scripted parts in 2015. For Croft, free-roaming hubs return, now three times bigger than before, Hughes wanting to “cater to that feeling that you’re discovering things that not everybody can”. Mysteries feel more organic, such as ancient script on a worn monolith promising to lead the code breaker to something rare, while tombs no longer reveal themselves with clumsy gong bashes. In one scene, Croft returns to face a bear she escaped in a scripted chase. Peppering the beast with arrows frees her to enter its cave and discover a Grecian barge in a frozen waterfall. The segue from survivalist drama to wide-eyed wonder is already more pronounced than in Tomb Raider.
The segue from survivalist drama to wide-eyed wonder is already more pronounced
That said, there Remain throwbacks to that game’s often overzealous guiding hand, specifically painted streaks denoting ledges to climb. It stems from a desire to underline the critical path that drives the story, though Hughes is keen to raise the navigation stakes. “My hope is that we maintain a certain intuitiveness and ease to the platforming controls, but what the environment asks of you keeps you on your toes,” he says. “I don’t want to be mean to the player, but I’ll be happy if we see a greater equalisation of deaths from the environment as in combat.

”We are shown a teaser reel of catacombs to come, offering brief glimpses of tangled canals as well as tiered arenas that remind us of the towering wonders that so impressed in Tomb Raider: Underworld. The glee in Hughes’ voice when discussing the art of deathtrap design speaks of a studio too long away from its natural habitat. “My most memorable tomb experiences are these giant places that feel almost unsolvable from a player perspective,” he says. “We use the term ‘nested puzzles’, and that means having more than a single thing in a room. So as we make these rooms bigger, you create this situation of, ‘Oh, I need to get up there to do that thing and then I need to get over here.’”

Far from standing out as inconspicuous chunks of old Raider thinking amid a harsh new world, Hughes sees these structures as the perfect showcase for all of modern Lara’s strengths. “As much as they’re a set-piece moment for our puzzle designers, you’re also having to do your craziest traversal to navigate these tombs, and you’re avoiding traps and fighting animals.”

It’s this talk of evolved systems compressed, pressure cooker-like, inside groaning structures that separates this Lara Croft from her 2013 self. And as loud as the sighs were over Microsoft’s exclusivity deal, there is a thrill in seeing one icon in its corner for now, at least and the other in Sony’s. Their rivalry over the world’s darkest places is set to light up consoles this winter.

Entombed on Xbox?
Secrets dwell in dark places, and none murkier than wherever Microsoft is storing its exclusivity agreement. Crystal Dynamics boss Darrell Gallagher says the appeal of having a first party place your game on a pedestal is obvious, as is having access to those who know the platform best. “There are so many people in Xbox with hardware-specific knowledge, and it felt like we were extending our team with amazing expertise we didn’t have before.” Such is the focus on making the most of Xbox One’s silicon that the 360 version has been outsourced to Nixxes, which was responsible for  Tomb Raider ’s gorgeous PS4 and PC ports. Although keen to talk up the “technical marvels” being performed at the outfit, Gallagher’s references to this  as a “translation”  do hint at a more modest version for older hardware.

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