The wait is almost over for PS4 owners who happen to also be Lara Croft fans. Rise of the Tomb Raider's exclusivity deal for Microsoft platforms will have lasted for nearing an entire year, which is a chunk of time given the quality of the adventure. By way of compensation for the long wait, Crystal Dynamics has been crafting additional content for the PS4 version - which comes with the 20th Anniversary subtitle - the idea being to ensure that it has something new to offer when it finally lands on Sony's console.
The most unique and appealing part of the expanded game is its jump into the world of virtual reality via PSVR. This means an extra hour of gameplay entitled Blood Ties (which you can also play the traditional way if you don't have a headset). The same stage has then been recycled for an additional survival horror mode called Lara's Nightmare, which thematically-speaking follows in the footsteps of story driven DLC, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch. On top of all that the base game is also getting an additional online cooperative multiplayer mode, Endurance, and that part of the package is focused on pure survival.
With all that in mind, we had the chance to try these new and updated features during a recent press event, hence the following three-part hands-on impressions piece. So without further ado...
Blood Ties Mission
Instead of a story-driven DLC to expand on the original plot by building on top of the base game, the developers opted for creating a more distant one hour long expansion aimed more squarely at franchise fans, with it focused on Lara's personal story and the relationship between various family members, instead of it being yet another adventure off exploring the deepest darkest corners of the world.
Thus, Rise of the Tomb Raider abandons its action-focused gameplay in favour of being more accessible for new PlayStation VR users. All is related to Lara's inheritance of Croft Manor, and it doesn't look like events will take place outside of the mansion. Starting in the office that once belonged to Lara's father, we'll have to walk through several rooms, picking up items and books in search of anything proving our heroine actually is his chief beneficiary. You proceed slowly, opening up cupboards, rummaging through memories, and collecting handy items. This sequence of events conveys a feeling somewhere between loneliness and nostalgia, along the way revealing the influence of experimental narrative games such as Gone Home.
There's not a single difference between playing this on a standard PS4 and doing so on PSVR, at least by the first 15 minutes we've tested (apart from a slight dip in terms of visual fidelity, expected with the shift to VR). It's clearly designed with virtual reality in mind, as demonstrated by how items float when you highlight and interact with them, and the result is pretty good from a visual perspective. It offers two control methods: you either point and teleport to specific points in the environment, similar to what we've seen from other first-person VR experiences, or you just move around smoothly (now that Lara doesn't need to sprint or jump, she can simply walk). The latter seemed much more interesting to us, as it allows you to amuse yourself and enjoy the manor and all it has to offer, but just be aware of potential motion sickness. In fact, even when we used the former aim-and-leap method, which is supposedly meant to streamline the process, the camera acted up here and there, turning on its own axis.
Lara's Nightmare Mode
Blood Ties not having action sequences doesn't mean that the manor will be calm and peaceful all the time. Crystal Dynamics takes advantage of the environment and fills it up with zombies in this alternative game mode. It's your typical horror film/game setting and it delivers action-packed gameplay, with you defending yourself from hordes of the undead, something akin to Resident Evil's Mercenaries mode. The goal is to survive for as much time as possible, while scoring points and picking up weapon upgrades as you go.
It's quick and straightforward, for those who want sharp, to the point bursts of action. You're dropped off in the wine cellar one minute, and the next you're dealing with the undead, struggling with somewhat complex creatures, such as armour-covered enemies, or TNT-powered runners. There's a bunch of customisation and configuration settings that could very well end up adding some life to the online rankings, and then a series of challenges to choose from before the match kicks off, so you have specific goals to focus on during each round (beyond, you know, surviving). Speaking of which...
Endurance Co-Op Multiplayer Mode
If you're all about survival, the new Endurance Mode will look much more tempting, as it takes elements from an even more trendy genre: roguelikes. By making the most of the base game's Syberia map (those of you who played it already will recall its massive size and verticality - now imagine this with a randomly generated element), you're dropped in the middle of nowhere along with your co-op partner, and then you must both try to survive under extreme conditions. And this means everything: from hunting and collecting food to eat, to lighting up warming campfires, not to mention surviving attacks from both human militia and wild life animals.
During the three rounds we and our co-op buddy played, we discovered that Crystal Dynamics were right when they told us that if you split up, you won't stand a chance. Stumbling into a wolf pack when you're happily searching for a secret vault usually means insta-death, and having to restart from scratch. This way, the game manages to push you forward unceasingly, as you have to keep moving in search of tombs, artefacts, camps... whatever you're looking for. And do it fast. It looks like the scale and depth will be there, and that means you'll be able to replay the scenario multiple times over, so there could be some lasting appeal. True, this alone wouldn't sell you a Tomb Raider game, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20th Anniversary is expanding on the game's action-survival base and is moving into other genres and offering new experiences. That means that the main game, which was already rather good, remains untouched. The three new modes seem to have been crafted with care, ensuring that they're not at odds with the original, even if individually their content seems pretty limited. Oh, and on top of all this, Lara on PS4 is still looking as great as when we last met her on PC and Xbox One.
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