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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

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

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Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

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To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

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On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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