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Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Review – A Whole Lotta’ Lara

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It is safe to say that PS4 owners have been the ‘winners’ in the whole Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusivity debacle. They may have had to wait a year, but they are receiving the best edition of one of last year’s best games (you can read Nick’s original review here), as well as all of its DLC, including the fantastically trippy ‘Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch’ and the borderline-survival-horror of ‘Cold Darkness Awakened’. The main game also receives an extreme survivor difficulty that removes all checkpoints from the campaign, along with plenty of new outfits and ‘classic’ skins, which replace Lara with her Tomb Raider 2, 3, or Angel of Darkness models. This 20 Year Celebration edition also introduces co-op support for Endurance mode, which is a Don’t Starve-style hunt for food and resources while trying not to snuff it.

The bulk of the new content in the 20th anniversary edition is set in Croft Manor. The first piece is an hour-long story mission called ‘Blood Ties’ (also playable with PSVR), and the other is a score attack mode called ‘Lara’s Nightmare’ in which players must survive for as long as possible while under attack from hordes of zombies.

‘Blood Ties’ sends Lara on a scavenger hunt around Croft Manor to find her father’s will, in order to prove her right to the estate. Players are restrained from shooting anything while wandering around the dusty old mansion. Instead, the mission takes Lara down memory lane, remembering the time she spent with Winston the butler as a kid (including her love of locking the poor bugger in the freezer), and players even discover why Lara flexes her shoulder during her idle animation.

Having fond memories of playing the original series back on the PS1, returning to the mansion came with mixed feelings. It was great to be home, but, like the reimagined Lara in the new adventures, home is not the same as I fondly remembered it. Winston is gone, the gym in the ballroom has been dismantled, and young Lara has not yet installed a pool; instead, a large tree occupies the West Wing. Still, we are still firmly in reboot territory so things were always going to be a little different. Despite these changes to the layout of Croft Manor, finding out a little more about Lara’s early years is a lot of fun and contains plenty of knowing nods and winks to the original series.

‘Blood Ties’ is also a clever way to familiarise players with the layout of the mansion before they take on ‘Lara’s Nightmare’, the other new mode set in Croft Manor, meaning that the old mansion still works as a kind of training level. That being said, it may have been more fun had Crystal Dynamics recreated the mansion as it was in earlier incarnations and given players free reign to abuse the butler and swan dive from gym equipment as in Tomb Raider 2.

It is worth bearing in mind that if you decide to play ‘Blood Ties’ using PSVR, the default controls are set the way they are for a very good reason—the alternative twin stick controls can cause severe  motion sickness in some players after only a brief period of play. This is by no means a deal breaker as the experience of being literally placed inside Croft Manor is a profound one and a superb added extra for those with the means to access it.

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‘Lara’s Nightmare’, meanwhile, sees Croft Manor invaded by zombies. The mission is straightforward—destroy three flying skulls, find a master key, and defeat the boss—but that does not mean it is easy. Ammunition is incredibly scarce, and weapons, keys and the skulls’ locations are randomly generated for each playthrough. Furthermore, zombies are everywhere and a complete pig to kill. The mode can be completed in about 15-20 minutes on a good day, but it can also stretch on for far longer. Finally, ‘Lara’s Nightmare’ also comes with a leaderboard, inviting those players so inclined to dip into it from time to time.

The biggest problem with the mode is that, since the placement of the skulls, guns and ammunition are random, getting a better score seems as much the result of luck as skill. In my first attempt, I failed to escape the first room before a group of zombies were chowing down on me. In another, I managed to get my hands on a shotgun and the master key in the first couple of minutes (I still ended up zombie chow, but for a moment, I thought I had hope of beating the thing). Overall though, it is a fun, if brief, distraction.

Finally, there is Endurance mode, which, as mentioned earlier, can now be played co-operatively online. Of all the new additions, this is the one most likely to hold players’ attention over time. As before, players must survive in the Siberian wilderness by skinning animals and raiding camps for food and setting fires to create camps. The difference is that it is now possible to battle the ravages of hunger and cold with a friend. Be warned, however, it can, at times, be as much a battle against your teammate’s poor decision-making skills as it is a fight for survival.

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For those who have not yet played Rise of the Tomb Raider, it goes without saying that the game deserves a place in your collection and it would be so even if this PS4 release was a straight port. Combining beautiful visuals, thrilling set pieces, and a fantastic blend of action and exploration, Rise of the Tomb Raider gives Uncharted 4 a run for its money. Uncharted may have the more charming protagonist and a marginally better narrative, but Rise of the Tomb Raider is a much more expansive and complex game with far more to see, do, and discover.

The inclusion of all previously released DLC adds so much content that it almost overloads the player with random collectibles and minor tasks to complete. The Soviet Installation section of the map, alone, contains 110 different points of interest to find and interact with, and that is only one of 11 areas to explore. Completionists have their work cut out for them. Even for those who do not care for collectibles, the game still includes a plethora of optional tombs to plunder and side missions to complete, meaning that along with the main and ‘Baba Yaga’ campaigns, there is a considerable amount of content here.

As for the extras, players are most likely to run through ‘Blood Ties’ only once or twice, (depending on whether you have a shiny new PSVR), while ‘Lara’s Nightmare’ has limited appeal, and co-op Endurance mode, while great, may force you reconsider some long-standing friendships if you play it for too long. However, this all just icing…Wait, no, the DLC is the icing. This 20 Year Celebration is the cherry on an already delicious birthday cake for one of gaming’s most iconic, enduring, and beloved series. Happy Birthday, Lara! Here’s hoping you don’t have to reinvent yourself again for your 30th anniversary!

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20th Celebration was reviewed on PS4/ PS4 Pro with a copy provided by the publisher.

Publisher: Square Enix | Developer: Crystal Dynamics | Genre: Action/Adventure | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 18+/M  | Release Date: October 11,2016

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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