Rise of the Tomb Raider review

Back in 2013 Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics rebooted Tomb Raider to very mixed results. The game’s Metroidvania elements and exploration were fine, but the story was bland, the characters were all un-developed stereotypes and in place of an arc Lara herself was just an attractive, young white woman who got the shit knocked out of her but kept getting up afterwards. Then they announced a sequel that seemed to place emphasis on Lara surviving in the bleak, desolate wilds of Siberia; an experienced survivor that the game wouldn’t try to convince me is a frightened kitten while she guns down hordes of goons. So I picked it up cheap, and while it has problems, it’s definitely an improvement.

The story’s still rather bland, all told. Lara goes to Siberia to search for what is basically the holy grail but in glowing rock form to prove it’s real and repair the reputation of her dead father. But oh no, here comes a shady religious organisation and their hired mercenaries! Also there are a load of white people who live in the area and attack the mercenaries with bows and arrows, and the samurai zombies from the first ones are now crusader knight-type zombies. The cast isn’t as horribly cliched as it was last time around, but none of them stand out at all. Lara herself is the only one of any interest; she’s a lot more confident and her skills feel more natural now. There’s none of that shit from the first game where she yells “Run you bastards!” and sounds like an amateur dramatics coach, nor does the game try and convince you she’s anything other than a competent survivor and explorer. She’s still got her camp fire monologues though, but you can’t have everything. The game has a pretty consistent main villain this time around, his motivations make sense and are clearly outlined, and the ending is fine, albeit completely generic.

Gameplay wise, nothing’s changed. It’s a mixture of exploration platforming with the aforementioned Metroidvania elements, combat and stealth. The exploration and platforming are its best aspects: the environment has a good sense of scale (it’s a lot less linear than Uncharted), the platforming controls well and is tight for the most part (jumping is occasionally floaty) and finding your way through environments feels satisfying. Unfortunately the time you spend isolated in an unending, “Hateful Eight”-style white hell is minimal, and you soon swap snow for old Soviet installations (good) and bland ancient towns (not so good). It goes from open to quite linear rather swiftly, with only the optional challenge tombs offering a break from the beaten path. The combat can be satisfying but is hampered by the guns having very little weight to them. They’re no fun to fire, particularly the AK47, there’s no melee system, just one move where you swing an ice axe and shooting lacks any kind of feedback. The only real enjoyment I gleaned from it was killing people, which is of course its own reward. Stealth fares slightly better. Dedicated stealth kills including context sensitive ones, a silent bow and arrow and enemies that are relatively easy to sneak up on make it a viable option, but again there’s nothing that makes it memorable.

There’s not much more I can say, really. I’ve beaten the game and I can only remember bits of it; its story is bland, its combat unexciting and lacks anything that makes it stand out. The platforming is good; during stretches in which I had to, say, climb a tower or navigate cliffs I found myself getting sucked in, only to be pulled out again by a gunfight. Its villain is an angry white man, its heroine is a posh woman going after artifacts against the insistence of protective natives for purely personal reasons and it ends with a whimper and some sequel bait. To sum it up; it’s alright. Nothing special, but not bad.

By James Lambert

Fallout 4 Review

So then. Hot on the heels of MGSV came Fallout 4- another massive, next-gen release in a series of games I love, with a well-organised hype train and a final product that promised to be the best thing since Berserk. The game rolled around in November, and I finally got to play it over Christmas. Is it a bold step forward for Bethesda RPGs? Or is it just a holding pattern until they finally take a big leap forward technologically?

Story wise it’s arguably the best of the modern Fallout games, and is oddly the inverse of Fallout 3. Whereas that game had you grow up in a Vault after the nuclear apocalypse and set out to find your father, 4 has you play one parent trying to track down their baby kidnapped from a vault. But I’m getting ahead of myself; the game casts you as one of a married couple that flees to a vault as the bombs are just starting to fall. You’re cryogenically frozen upon arrival, and after your spouse is killed by mysterious ne’er-do-wells you escape the vault to discover it’s two hundred years later and SOMEONE’S GOT YOUR BAIRN. So you gotta go get him back like. If you’re into that kind of thing. Personally I hate children so I spent my time doing anything else. Ahem. The story has some interesting twists but its characters are the stand-outs. The game has several companions with their own backstories, personalities, likes and dislikes. The two mandatory ones in the story are excellent; robot Detective Nick Valentine and fiery reporter Piper Wright endeared themselves to me more than every companion in Fallouts 3 and New Vegas combined, due in part to how the game handles your character now. See you’re voiced for the very first time in Fallout 4, which has its problems (more on that later) but definitely adds to the feel of the game and its world building. Your character feels less like a cipher for the player and more like an actual character that’s part of an on-going story. It’s down to personal preference in the end but I like Bethesda’s approach here, and it definitely helped with roleplaying. Seeing your character interacting with people is genuinely immersive, and it doesn’t feel at all jarring, which is a surprise. The story itself places emphasis on picking a faction and working towards a final battle a la New Vegas, and while its world doesn’t have the depth of the previous games the characters and locations it does have are excellent.

Gameplay wise is where things go downhill, and it’s mainly due to things being simplified. On the plus side, the combat has improved quite a bit- the guns feel a lot more weighty and satisfying to shoot, and combat doesn’t make you want to spend all your time in V.A.T.S any more. However, unlike previous games, shooting feels like the main option now. In New Vegas the speech system was fantastic- the options were pretty much limitless, and effected by all manner of traits ranging from Intelligence and strength to your skill in speech or firearms, speech was an invaluable weapon in the wasteland. Here speech is limited to four options (one for each face button) that are generally “More information”, “Sarcastic” (a general “Be sassy” option that definitely does not need a dedicated slot) “Yes” and “No”. It’s painfully limited, and genuinely feels like a real step backwards. Similarly the new level-up system feels diminished. In 3 and New Vegas with each new level you sank points into a variety of skills including lockpicking, melee, medicine, speech etc and a new perk (a perk every other level in NV’s case)- this worked brilliantly. Here every time you reach a new level you pick a perk or put one point into your S.P.E.C.I.A.L (Strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, luck) with no skills. In my playthrough I had barely any perks because I sank most of my points into Charisma (for speech) and endurance (for max health), picking perks that boosted max health because the game feels less like an RPG and more like an FPS with RPG elements, which really isn’t how Fallout should play. Eventually I realised my biggest problem with the game is that it feels too much like “Mass Effect”; shoot your way through an area, reach someone important, kill them or use the magical “We shouldn’t fight” speech option, which comes in two flavours: “Let’s not resort to violence” (Good) and “Don’t fight me, I’ll murder you” (Not so good). Now don’t get me wrong, I love Mass Effect, but these are two different games, and Fallout taking cues from a simpler, streamlined series doesn’t feel right. The game’s biggest new addition is crafting (because of course it is), which alternates between being reasonable and infuriating. Messing around with the system in your own time is decent; it’s fun to mess around with and reasonably rewarding. Whenever the game makes you craft something as part of the story there’s no tutorial, no explanation and it’s bloody infuriating, though fortunately it doesn’t happen too often.

Overall, Fallout 4 is a success, but it has problems. Its characters, world building and character interaction are all very good, but in what I presume to be an attempt at welcoming new players the game oversimplifies some of its most important systems to its detriment, and feels more like an FPS with decent RPG elements. It’s a good, strong step into the next generation for Bethesda and I enjoyed it a whole lot, but personally I’m looking forward to New Vegas developers Obsidian taking over and using this as a launch pad for something truly special.

By James Lambert