Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Fall of the Hospital Builder

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fun game! It's a well-designed, polished piece of entertainment. Not the most innovative or creative thing I've played, but it also avoids any of the major flaws and irritations that tend to disrupt my enjoyment of big-budget action/adventure games.

Let's start with Lara! It's awesome to have a main character who is not a moody white male troubled by the death of a loved one. Granted, Lara can come across as a moody white female troubled by the death of her father, but it's still a welcome change. As I noted in my first post, Lara often comes across as resigned or bored in her voice acting. This seems a bit out of sync with the gameplay, which is really fun; to be fair, though, Lara does go through a lot of the game getting scraped and burned and shot and frozen and bitten, so I really shouldn't be asking her to smile more.

The environments are great. I'd remarked earlier about the ex-Soviet Siberian outpost, which is a surprisingly beautiful depiction of a dilapidated, rusty, brutal installation. In the latter part of the game, you move to a more vibrant and lush area; the transition from tundra to geothermal valley reminds me of Shadow of Mordor's transition from volcanic desert to the fertile Sea of Nurnen, one of many parallels between the two titles. I like pretty areas, so that was nice; also, I was impressed by the subtle but effective art direction of this part of the game, which imagines a hypothetical evolution of Byzantine architecture adapted to a remote corner of the globe.

And for the plot itself: It's good. Nothing too mindblowing. It's nicely complex, with layered revelations, and a good mix between Ancient Secrets and current plot twists.


Favorite weapon: Grim Whisper (high-tech compound bow)

Favorite outfit: Man oh man! So hard to pick just one, and I loved the variety. Some top contenders included Shadow Runner, the Henleys, Apex Predator (mostly for the face-paint, though the clothes are also cool), Commando, Valiant Explorer, Wraithskin, Sacra Umbra... you know, there are a lot of good outfits.

Favorite fighting style: Melee stealth kills, especially death-from-above and drag-someone-down-into-the-water-and-stab-them.

Favorite purchase: Crafting upgrade, followed by the Commando outfit.

Favorite skill: Hard to pick one, but a few notables: Upgrading Survival Instincts to see items through walls, silent landings, and revealing headshots.

Favorite item: Combat knife.

Favorite NPC: Sofia was pretty cool. Honestly, there weren't a whole lot to choose from. Oh, wait! Changed my mind, it's Nadia from the Baba Yaga DLC.

Favorite DLC: Baba Yaga, with an honorable mention to Blood Ties.

Favorite villain: Again, not a whole lot of options. Baba Yaga was pretty compelling, but I think I have to go with Ana.

Favorite enemy: Hm, maybe the bear. I was excited by the concept of the undead army, but they were mechanically fairly boring.

Favorite challenge tomb: Maybe the Exorcism chamber. I liked how it was small and compact, so you could consider all the elements without a lot of running back and forth, but still dense and mechanically interesting.

Favorite ancient knowledge codex: I was really surprised that Chromite Ore is gated behind one of these. I couldn't figure out how a few of them worked, like the double-shot or the animal heart.

Favorite cut-scene: These all looked really good in general, I'm very impressed by the motion capture. The coolest-looking are probably the pyrotechnics at the top of Kitezh near the end of the game; the most emotionally rewarding was probably Jacob and Sofia reuniting at the start of the Geothermal Valley.

Favorite animation: Ziplining was always fun. Squeezing through cracks is also cool, a really nice variation from standard door-based separation of areas.

Favorite zone: Geothermal Valley.

Favorite consumable: Grenade arrows.

Favorite music: Nothing was really memorable, was it? I guess maybe the closing credits music?


As I understand, here's the full story:

In Byzantium, late in the 10th century, a man discovered a relic he called the Divine Source. This made him immortal, and he could use it to grant immortality to others, as well as heal woulds and such. He became known as The Prophet, and preached a heretical faith. He believed that God existed, but was unknown and unknowable, and anyone who claimed to speak for God lies. But, God can be seen through his creation of the world.

The Prophet attracted a large following in Byzantium, but also unwanted attention. Emissaries from the Catholic Church in Rome spoke out against his movement in the Forum, leading to large-scale riots and other disruptions. (This would have been several decades before the Great Schism, so Rome still nominally held authority over the Orthodox church.)

Rome dispatched a Crusade-like military group called Trinity towards Byzantium to enforce orthodoxy. The Prophet wanted to avoid further violence, so his movement left the city and resettled to the Syrian desert. (This segment sounded reminiscent of the history of the Mormon church, although I don't know whether that's intentional or not.) Trinity followed them, though, and the Prophet's group fled once more, disappearing to the northeast.

They eventually settled in a remote valley in Siberia, warmed by geothermal energy. The Prophet continued to attract new followers, and together they built an advanced city, hidden from the outside world. Trinity's agents continued to search for the Prophet. At some point, their mission seems to have shifted from ending heresy to seizing the Divine Source for themselves. One of their agents secured the cooperation of the Mongol Horde, and together they discovered and invaded Kitezh.

Desperate to save his city, the Prophet granted the gift of immortality to his army of followers: when slain in battle, they would rise up again and continue following. However, this process changed their personalities: they ceased to be the people they were, and became heartless, emotionless creatures, single-mindedly devoted to their mission. When the immense Mongol army threatened to overwhelm Kitezh, they pulled down the ice from the surrounding mountains, trapping themselves, the enemy, and the Divine Source within.

The Prophet and a few of his followers managed to escape. Calling themselves the Remnant, they adapted to a more rugged existence, leaving behind the utopian dreams of Kitezh. The Prophet, calling himself Jacob, cast off his religious role and took on a more simple guise.

Trinity continued to search for the Divine Source, but with the lower profile of the Remnant, they had little luck. Trinity is involved in a lot of other efforts. One of their recruits was a man named Konstantin. Konstantin's sister, Ana, suffered from an unspecified terminal illness. When they were children, she carved stigmata into his hands while he slept; he interpreted this as a sign that he had been chosen by God, turning him into a fervent follower of Trinity, willing to kill and commit atrocities in the name of his faith. Ana cynically supported his path, hoping that, through his contacts at Trinity, he would be able to locate mystical artifacts capable of curing her.

Around the same time, Lord Croft, Lara's father, started investigating the Source, retracing the Prophet's steps from his first appearance in Byzantium. Trinity covertly supported his efforts. Among other things, they planted Ana as a deep-cover agent with him after his first wife Amelia died. Ana became a mother-like figure to Lara; Lord Croft seems to have been fond of Ana, but remained distant, obsessed with his work as always. He discovered that Trinity was tracking him, and sought to expose them; in turn, they discredited his research and murdered him, staging it to look like a suicide.

Years later, Lara, going through his notes, picked up the trail. Ana tries to dissuade her, but Lara persists. She traveled to Syria to locate the Tomb of the Prophet. Along the way, she was ambushed by Trinity; she managed to Raid the Tomb, but discovered that the Prophet's sarcophagus was empty. After a brief encounter with Konstantin, she kills most of his soldiers and escapes back to England.

At Croft Manor, she reveals her findings to her friend and travel assistant Jonah. He is, understandably, nonplussed at her ravings about discovering the secret to immortality, and leaves. At the same time, an agent from Trinity arrives. He and Lara struggle; Jonah returns and helps defend Lara, but the agent escapes with the map to the location of the Prophet. Realizing that they're racing Trinity, Jonah finally agrees to help Lara.

They travel to Siberia and make their way over the mountains. They get separated during an avalanche, though, and Lara is on her own for most of the game. She sees Trinity soldiers exploring the area and taking over an old Soviet base; she also runs into a few locals, the Remnant, who are being captured and interrogated by Trinity.

Lara herself is captured by Konstantin, who threatens to kill Ana unless Lara shares the location of the Source. Lara, not knowing the answer, cannot help him. Ana then reveals herself to be in league with Trinity. Konstantin wants to kill Lara as a loose end, but Ana (and, apparently, Trinity as a whole) want to keep her alive; in Ana's case, maybe for some residual affection for Lord Croft; Trinity's own motives are murky. Lara is locked up.

Lara escapes from her cell, rescuing Jacob along the way. He shows her a secret way into the geothermal valley where most of the Remnant lives. Lara also meets Sofia, Jacob's daughter and a leader of the Remnant's militia forces.

The Remnant knows that Trinity will attack soon, and so they and Lara prepare and defend against multiple assaults. They repel the invasion, but Trinity learns of the key to the Divine Source, an artifact called the Atlas. They stop their attack on the valley, and instead focus on taking the Cathedral, where the Atlas is housed. Lara Raids the Tomb, taking the Atlas and escaping with it back to the Remnant. Here, she is finally reunited with Jonah, who has been searching for her ever since they were separated.

The Atlas projects a complete map of Kitezh's city planning, including all major buildings and routes. Using this, Lara identifies a path into the city through the mountain. But Trinity then launches a counter-attack, capturing both Jonah and the Atlas. Lara rescues Jonah, but by the time she retakes the Atlas, Ana and Konstantin have already made the same discovery of the location of the Source.

Jonah is stabbed by Konstantin and close to death. Lara and some freed Remnant prisoners return him to Jacob, who heals him. Around this time Lara realizes that Jacob is the Prophet; and, furthermore, he's known all along about how to get to the Divine Source. But by this point Lara's continued support of the Remnant has won her their loyalty, and Jacob, Sofia and the rest are willing to trust Lara's quest.

Lara makes it into Kitezh, which is still patrolled by the ancient army of immortal soldiers who have served there for centuries. While she's making her way up from the base, Trinity smashes in through the icy ceiling, drawing the undead towards them. Lara makes her own way up to the top, where she brings down Konstantin's helicopter and finally kills him. She rushes to the inner chamber, only to find that Ana has already taken the Source.

Ana is no longer devoted to Trinity, if she ever was: while Trinity seems to want to hold the artifact to increase their own power, Ana wants to use it for the whole world, curing all sickness and disease (or at least claims as much). However, Jacob has long wanted to destroy it; after seeing the monstrousness of the undead army, Lara is inclined to agree. Ana uses the artifact to heal herself, but then Lara grabs it and smashes it. The undead vanish, and, soon after, so does Jacob.

Ana and Lara slowly make their way on foot out of Siberia, and Ana confesses that she knows Lord Croft's death was not a suicide. Lara learns that Ana didn't commit the murder herself, but before Ana can say who did do it, she is assassinated by an unseen assailant. That same assassin spares Lara on the order of Trinity.

Lara makes her way back to England, where she is reunited with Jonah and everyone lives happily ever after the end!


I get the feeling that this will be one of those game stories that fades from my mind; I doubt I'll retain any vivid memories of Konstantin or the Source or such after a couple of years. (To be fair, though, this is the first Tomb Raider game I've played, and it might have resonated more with me if I'd already been invested in its mythology.) While the plot may be forgettable, though, the actual gameplay seems much more likely to endure. It was fun, fluid, challenging without ever feeling frustrating or unfair, filled with cool little moments and scenes. This is ultimately a game that's primarily about Lara herself, and she manages to be simultaneously relatable and awesome, carrying the game on her strong shoulders.

Albums! Continuing with my belated plan of reform, I'm dividing albums into smaller (through still large) chunks. These are listed chronologically, but each may contain spoilerish captions referencing end-game content.

Geothermal Valley Arrival
Defending the Remnant
The Cathedral
The Rescue
The End!

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