Games

Being Lara Croft in VR Is Basically ‘Tomb Raider: Gone Home Edition’

Because standing around, looking at old photos and dusty busts, is totally the Tomb Raider experience VR was waiting for.
September 23, 2016, 2:00am
“Blood Ties” ‘screenshots’ (you don’t see Lara like that) courtesy of Square Enix

"Blood Ties" 'screenshots' (as you don't see Lara quite like that) courtesy of Square Enix/Crystal Dynamics

Tomb Raider's never been about standing still. Play the latest instalment in the 20-year-old series, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and it's all motion, all energy, all the time. Pillars collapse around you. Bullets fly. Walkways fall apart beneath your feet. Hungry bears fancy you for their lunch. Pausing to look at things, whatever their age or value, is a relative rarity. It's certainly not something you'd ever imagine a Tomb Raider to be built around.

Yet here I am, PlayStation VR headset wrapped around my glasses, exploring Croft Manor as Lara herself, stopping constantly to poke my face into cupboards and crevices, drawers and dressers. When something's glowing gold, I press square to zoom in on whatever it might be – a photograph, a legal document, a love letter, or some other artefact from my family's history. I spin the item around, looking for further information – a note on the back that reveals a telling date, or an inscription of hunch-confirming detail. All the while I'm trying to support my claim on this dilapidated mansion – it might be falling apart, but it's my home, my heritage, and I'll be damned if Uncle Atlas is going to steal it away from me.

This is "Blood Ties", an additional piece of #content ostensibly developed for the forthcoming PS4 release of last year's then-Xbox-exclusive Rise (which was very good). It's a first-person standalone experience, albeit one chronologically situated somewhere between Syria and Siberia in the main game's story, where Lara must assemble evidence to confirm her right to her family home, and ensure that her uncle, Atlas DeMornay, who held no small grudge against her father, doesn't get his hands on it.

If that sounds about as thrilling as the proposition of paperwork in any other situation, well, I can see that – and your mileage here is going to be measured entirely on how into the lore of Lara you are. Do you yearn to know more about her late mother and father, and the things she got up to with them, as a child? "Blood Ties" is aimed squarely at you. It's the Gone Home-style expansion few could have seen coming for this action-adventure franchise: just you in an empty house, memories written on paper and painted on canvas, cobwebs and broken windows lending everything an eerie, almost Resident Evil atmosphere. Not that you need worry about undead nasties popping up – they're reserved for another new game mode, "Lara's Nightmare", a third-person horde-style setup set in the same mansion, with limited ammo and loads of zombies. (It's fun for fifteen minutes or so.)

Neither "Lara's Nightmare" nor "Blood Ties" are PS4 exclusives – you can add them to the Xbox and PC versions, and if you've already bought a season pass (why, why do you do these things?) then they'll be available for "free" in due course. But it's only through PlayStation VR (so the in-attendance Crystal Dynamics rep tells me) that you can become Lara, playing through "Blood Ties" in full immersion. And it's the best way to do it, really, making an otherwise fairly dry hour-long extra feel less like a simple session of fetch questing, and more like you're trespassing somewhere you shouldn't be, leaving your prints in years of dust, spilling vintage wine down in the cellar.

And that's because, with no visible hands on screen and no body to look down at, when you're being Lara you feel less attached to her than when playing in the third person, pony tail bobbing in the foreground. You just feel like you, going through her parents' stuff, turning it over and then chucking it on the floor. Which is a little disappointing, especially given how Batman: Arkham VR shows how easy it is to put you in a pop culture icon's shoes. Perhaps "Blood Ties" needed its own mirror moment, something to firmly put you in the role – as the 2013 reboot did so well in its intro, actually. But if there is one such opportunity to reflect on who you are, I don't catch it.

How you go through the detritus of these lives already lived, though, is fairly neat: this is perhaps the first PS VR game I've played that allows limited movement – as in, you can take a few steps forward and back, to get closer to a fireplace or keyhole. It's like a "lite" version of what more expensive kit like the HTC Vive can offer; and it even mimics that headset's grid-like barriers should you move your head beyond acceptable – i.e. readable – boundaries.

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You play "Blood Ties" on a conventional screen using standard first person controls, but for VR there's a so-called Comfort Mode, which is the only one I'm allowed to use. It employs the same teleportation-for-movement system seen in many other first-person VR titles, like The Assembly, Arkham VR and Wilson's Heart for example, and you turn 90 degrees using the shoulder buttons. It's an easy mechanic in theory, but in practice the aiming of Lara's "ghost" – the position where you want to stand next – can be fiddly as furniture gets in the way. I'm told that free movement around the Manor, in VR, is a little much for most. But when I get the chance to play this again, that's how I'm going to do it, for that full Gone Home (in a creepy, old, broken-down English mansion) vibe.

And if I throw up, well, that'll be some excitement at least. "Blood Ties" is a cool extra for super-fans wanting to rummage around in Lara's past, but for most it'll be only the briefest distraction from what remains, a year on, a terrific main game, right up there with Uncharted 4 for its genre. If you're a strictly Sony-only kind of player, I can't recommend Rise enough when it finally transfers to PS4 in October. I'm not totally sure it needed all these extra bells and whistles, though, as competently put together as they are.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is released for PlayStation 4 on October the 11th, and is out now for Xbox One and PC.

@MikeDiver

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