Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider (PC)

2013's Tomb Raider Reboot was a great game, and while I was a little disappointed that the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider wouldn't come to the PS4 until later this year, I wasn't in a hurry to play this game, and am never in the habit of paying full freight for games anyway. Well, I won a giveaway for a free game code for the Windows version, so I guess this review's coming out a year or so early.

Abstraction kills performance. Nowhere is this more obvious than in cross platform video games. My desktop PC, even though it was built in 2009, should in theory run circles around the PS4 and the XBox one. The CPU is a quad core i7 with hyperthreading, clocked at a GHz more than what's in either of those consoles. The GPU is a Radeon 7870, clocked at over 1GHz, a 25% increase in clock speed over what's in the PS4, which in turn has 50% more stream processors than the XBox One. By all rights, my desktop PC should be running any game with better graphics and faster response time than any of the consoles.

In practice, running Rise of Tomb Raider on the above machine required me to turn the resolution down to 960p and turn off several features that are turned on by default on the XBox One. Whenever I run a CPU/GPU monitor on the machine, it showed that the GPU is fully utilized, while the CPU basically pegs one core while the rest of the cores are idle. But because that core is being turbo-boosted, my machine's fans are fully spun up whenever the game is running, even during the cut scenes. In effect, my machine sucks down more power (about 300W) while producing a lower quality image than the XBox One. To get a better experience, I'd have to spend at least $300 on a graphics card, which would cost more than buying an XBox One. On top of that, when you're done with a game on the PC there's no way to resell the game to someone else, so while my PS4 games occasionally have a negative cost attached (i.e., I resell the game for more than I paid for it), there's zero chance of that happening on a PC game. I can definitely see why despite predictions of doom for dedicated game consoles, they're still selling very well.

During my review of The Witcher 3, I speculated that the SSD on my desktop PC would result in reduced loading time. Rise of the Tomb Raider put paid to that speculation: game startup times were north of 45s (the same as the Witcher 3 on the PS4), and that load time was repeated every time I used fast travel. A reload due to a death was fast, however, which made me happy but I don't think the XBox One would have been any slower.

OK, enough about the mechanics of PCs vs consoles. What about the game? If you enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot, the sequel is more of it. As an action adventure game, it's a lot of fun, borrowing mechanics from RPGs, open world games, as well as the 3D platforming and linear sequences found in the Uncharted series. The game's McGuffin, a search for the fountain of youth is a bit too much of a cliche, but the story itself is not bad: we get a romp through various beautiful scenes (though the impact of that scenery was muted for me by a 960p resolution on a 27" monitor that's 12 inches from my eyes), lots of shooting, some stealth (though my Lara Croft never stealthed through anything when she could shoot through it), and of course, environmental puzzle pieces that are a hallmark of the series.

Just like with the Batman games, we get various equipment made available to us over time during the game, and with each upgrade, more parts of the environment become accessible, along with more goodies. Lara Croft herself has a skill tree where you can upgrade her during play, and customize her moves. If you actively seek out some side missions and pick certain correct skills early (some of the skills gives you bonus experience points throughout the game, so if you grab them early you level up very quickly), which makes the game much easier. (In fact, it's so much easier that this is one of the few games I played on normal and never felt like switching the difficulty level down)

Despite the entire experience being more polished (and also bigger: the game's 20 hours instead of 13, there are 9 tombs instead of 7, etc., etc.), I felt like the game didn't quite live up to its potential. Most of that is due to the writing: the Tomb Raider reboot made you feel sympathy for Lara in a way the sequel doesn't. While a lot of the game's emotional impact would have been very strong if you were attached to Lara's family, the game's writers didn't spend any expository time (or player-directed game time) to making the player understand the relationships and what they meant to Lara. As a result, you never connect to the secondary characters the way Joel and Ellie connect in The Last of Us, or even Nathan Drake and Sullivan or Elena connect in Uncharted. Similarly, despite the huge amounts of CPU/GPU available to Square Enix, they chose to make most of the experience focus on Lara Croft exploring, hunting, or fighting by herself, instead of having a companion character help out. The net result is that the game's missing the magic touch that Uncharted or even The Witcher 3 provides.

I don't want to give you the impression that the game's unenjoyable: it is, and in a direct way that The Last of Us isn't. It's just that it had the potential to be more, and I feel like Crystal Dynamic's team always took the conservative choice instead of the ambitious choice with every aspect of the game design, which ultimately hurt the game.

Nevertheless, it's a AAA blockbuster type experience that never overstays its welcome. It's recommended, but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy special hardware so you could play it earlier.
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