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- Rise of the Tomb Raider
There she was, suspended in mid-air, the camera looking up at her as if she were a gasping cloud. But the scene wasn't right. A spike had lodged through her neck and out the other end, marking her fall into a trap mere moments ago, and now I could see our heroine Lara Croft from an unceremonious angle, her body lowering slowly onto the sharpened bundle of wooden pikes as the screen faded into darkness. I had failed.
For better or worse, that moment is what I remember most clearly from my three-hour session with Rise of the Tomb Raider behind closed doors at a private Microsoft event (if just to make clear that this is indeed an Xbox exclusive). Perhaps out of the entire experience, I shouldn't be so morbidly entranced by The Many Deaths of Lara Croft, but they're gruesome for the purpose of impact. Missing a mere quick-time event or a leap from a ledge, as fans of the Tomb Raider reboot will know, can vault Lara into one of numerous death animations crafted with the same gut-wrenching precision as a fatality from Mortal Kombat.
And I saw plenty of them. One time I missed a jump just as a brick pillar Lara was standing on began crumbling beneath her—Lara cracked her head as she fell face first into another pillar before falling to her doom. Another time she couldn't wrap her arms in time around a wire connected to a plane near a cliff, sending her once again off the edge of the mountain. Yet one more time I failed to hit a button prompt fast enough for Lara to sink her metal climbing picks into an icy wall, as if she were Ygrette from Game of Thrones, and she was once again flung into the middle distance. (Sense a pattern here?)
The most brutal death of them all came from a boss battle with a grizzly bear, who blocked the entrance to a cave in the first open section of the game in the snow-covered wilderness. Lara narrowly escaped with her life the first time she tangled with the beast, though it took me several attempts for her to sprint away successfully from the galloping bear. If she accidentally got stuck in deep snow, the bear would maul Lara as if she were a human-sized salmon. The same happens if she fails to dodge the bear's multiple swipes either during action cut-scenes or in third-person combat. It took almost a full quiver of arrows—and a few poison-cloud arrows for good measure—to slay the beast, so I imagine that I won't be the only one to watch the bear take a bite out of Lara once the game finally arrives.
At a certain point, though, the sheer variety of the death scenes becomes almost comical. After fully exploring a temple in the middle of Syria—by finding hidden documents, digging up buried Byzantine coins, and raising the water level to various heights (like a thankfully brief version of the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time)—Lara needed to escape the temple and run away from an oncoming torrent of water. Unfortunately, I bungled this action sequence several times, and each time Lara would drown… but not before a pillar seemingly out of nowhere would smash into her back like an ACME anvil from the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons, her body descending like a starfish into the abyss.
So I reacted the only way I could. I took off my headphones and began to chuckle at the absurdity of it all. Jessica Vazquez, who was playing the game at the station to my left, took one look at me laughing and then another look at my screen with Lara drowning, before silently shaking her head at me in disappointment.
Of course, Rise of the Tomb Raider has more than just entertaining death scenes. The story revolves around Lara's pursuit of the Trinity, an enduring organization seemingly hellbent on erasing all knowledge of a figure named The Prophet and everyone pursuing said knowledge (even to the point of chasing Lara with a military helicopter through the desert), from all public record. Lara's friends and family believe she is following in the crazed footsteps of her father, but perhaps her search for the truth is all she has to live on.
The other interesting sidenote is that Lara will learn languages over the course of the game by deciphering scrolls, hieroglyphics, and other ancient texts. As Lara develops her inner polyglot, she'll be able to locate treasures and artifacts that she wouldn't be able to otherwise. That said, I'm not sure how you're supposed to learn languages that you don't know well by deciphering things you half-understand at best in the span of five seconds, but hey, you know, video games.
The crafting system has received a substantial upgrade as well, with Lara being able to craft everything from silent arrows and poison arrows to larger ammo pouches from a plethora of common and exotic items found throughout the bitterly cold regions of the game. Lara can scour the wildnerness for basics like mushrooms, feathers, oil, and simple herbs and supplement them with rarer goods like magnesite ore, bear hides, and deer antlers. The more supplies she has, the better her gear will be and the more chances she has to craft useful items while she dashes about in the midst of combat. She can also exchange Byzantine coins with a mercenary found near a Soviet installation deeper in the game for special weapons and modifications.
Lara Croft, though slightly more experienced than she was in her last adventure, still dances on the precipice between a wild huntress who can single-handedly destroy camps of well-armed mercenaries and a vulnerable heroine who can perish at any moment. The numerous death scenes spread throughout the campaign, let alone the first three hours of the game, will remind you of this fact without fail, yet these moments emphasize the inherent danger and courage of her journey. Rise of the Tomb Raider releases exclusively first on Xbox One and Xbox 360 on November 10, 2015 before heading to PC in Q1 2016 and PS4 in Q4 2016.