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How the Opening Hour of ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ Expertly Hooks Its Player

Most video games need to get the player engaged quickly, and the newest Tomb Raider's perfect opening does that marvellously.

by Mike Diver
13 October 2016, 10:53am

'Rise of the Tomb Raider' screenshots courtesy of Square Enix

Like most people in my (very privileged) position, I start a lot of video games but finish only a few. There simply isn't the time to see titles lasting over four or five hours to their conclusions on a regular basis – and even linear, narrative-focused adventures like Uncharted 4 and Quantum Break necessitate seriously committed, deep-into-the-AM sessions to see out for coverage purposes. There are not the hours in the day to muddle through the majority of big modern games – but more than this being a time-related issue, there's also the small matter of whether or not the game truly grabs its player at the beginning.

I recently started the single-player content of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in its remastered form. It's a bona-fide classic campaign, I'm told – I've read, repeatedly. So as soon as the code came in, I cracked on with it. But the way it begins is, basically, pretty boring. Here is a training bit where the game gives you a heap of commands to commit to memory in a short space of time. Here's a mission where you follow AI-controlled allies; and here's another just like it; and another. Except, hang on: I'm not the same person now? I'm no longer "Soap"? What's the explanation there, and how come I was just a president being executed in front of a television audience?

Modern Warfare is too crash-bang-wallop to genuinely be a bore, but the game, as spectacular as it looks in its remaster, is let down by dated design. I've experienced some not-really-my-fault fails that modern games makers would be more flexible with. For example, I get caught on the same piece of scenery twice while escaping the sinking ship of the first stage, without any clear messaging as to its imminent happening. And so, my momentum through what is supposed to be this rip-roaring action game is painfully interrupted. That rankles, and it's too easy, with so many other games to play, to switch off there and then.

But Modern Warfare is nine years old, and can be excused, but the brand-new Gears of War 4, less so. Get a couple of hours into its campaign and everything purrs: the moment-to-moment battles with enemies both robotic and organic is forever fierce, and the game excellently measures what it throws at you with what support is available on the field, so it's always fair while seeming fraught. And yet getting through the earliest stages that jump from one time, place and (unnamed, unimportant) character to another set of these elements entirely, is an obstacle that some won't bother to overcome. Like Modern Warfare, it suffers for shifting the player's role in chronologically cartwheeling proceedings: who they are and what their purpose is. Any game's opening hour, the first of many, should be all about meaningful connection between real human and virtual hero – fail there, and what's going to drive the player on?

2016's DOOM almost messed up by giving the player the most pathetic pistol in the history of first-person shooters at the beginning – thankfully you grab a shotgun at the five-minute mark – and the prologue to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, newly repackaged as a "definitive experience", is just the worst slog through sections of scripted spookiness that have little obvious relevance to a lot of what follows. But another game of 2015, given a new lease of life with a special edition of its own this October, shines to me as an example of how to start on the front foot. If you ask me, and by reading this far you are, the opening hour of Rise of the Tomb Raider is just perfect.

The launch trailer for 'Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration'

Inside the first 60 minutes of Crystal Dynamics' sequel to 2013's series reboot, out now on PlayStation 4 (as a "20 Year Celebration" edition) after previously being available on Xbox One and PC, you, as Lara Croft, do a great many things. You survive traps and a bear attack. You uncover ancient ruins and brush up on your Greek. You explore an open hub and collect resources to both make camp and craft new equipment. You escape deadly traps and solve physics puzzles, through a combination of pistol accuracy and quick-time events. You test your agility by leaping from one ice-coated cliff face to the next, swinging an axe into the chunky freeze to prevent a deadly fall. You escape from a collapsing temple, in a genuinely thrilling sequence that mixes firearms combat, speed and timing. You spend time in three distinct locations: the manor belonging to the Croft family, the snowy extremes of Siberia, and the blazing sun secret passageways of Syria. You'll watch flashbacks to a young Lara interacting with her late father, and see how that relationship has affected her adult years.

That sounds like a lot to take in – an overwhelming amount of stuff. But it's served with great consideration for its audience, so that each new thing is given the space it needs to bed in with the player. Here is how you jump and grab. And now do that again. And again. And look, here: this is what happens when you mess it up. Got it? Great. Onto the next thing: here's how you kill man and beast alike. It's a small-plate menu approach to – and I hate the word but here it comes – explaining the mechanics of the experience, but with each taster lingering for as long as it needs to. Which will probably be between 15 and 20 hours depending on how much of the "side-quest" stuff you tick off on your way to beating the game.

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The sights are spectacular, too – within the first few seconds, you can spin the camera around to take in the mountains that surround Lara and her companion, Jonah Maiava, as they climb up to where she suspects a lost city can be found. Even before you move, in the game's first cutscene, you're shown your objective and it's massive: that huge peak, over there, is where you're headed, and there's no way that you're stopping now. That is one hell of an invitation – you've barely had the disc out of the box and the training wheels aren't just off, they've been smelted down into the bullets you'll need for later. There's no Modern Warfare-style here's the basics sequence – it's you, against the extremes, immediately.

Mother nature's own high-altitude dangers of the mountain give way to the removed mayhem of standing at the periphery of a warzone: as Lara so barely escapes a fiery demise on a Syrian hillside, she overlooks a city being rocked by explosions, by combat. This switch of location could easily jar – but with the solid foundation of the canon-iconic Croft remaining under the player's control, perhaps benefitting further from well established relationships through either the reboot or prior Tomb Raiders, it's a very easy segue, and when the game's first tomb presents itself, laden with treasure and puzzles, it's a visual delight on par with the snow-capped peak of just moments ago. It's here where the game's Big Bad is revealed – again, earlier than many a game would show its heroes and villains cards. And the escape from the ruins, as they collapse around Lara, is such a rush: it's not difficult to navigate, combining a set of skills you've already become well drilled in, but nevertheless the relief you feel as Lara pushes herself back against a wall to protect from being swept to a grisly end is palpable. The pad's buzzing, and so is your heart – even on a second playthrough (trust me).

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Playing a second time, I'm more aware of just how, well, wild Lara is in this game. She's desperate to throw her remaining doubts about her father's own explorations, ideas and ethics to the wayside. She's already been through hell once – that was 2013's Tomb Raider – and now doesn't bat an eyelid at reaching straight for a revolver to get the job done. She is close, maybe, to being genuinely a little unhinged, unable to be talked down from pressing on, whatever the costs. When Jonah tells her, "The others, they're done," as they stare up at the first stage's climb to come, she's unmoved: "I'm not turning back." When she hears someone at her door, she immediately goes for a weapon. The Lara that cried after she murdered a man, in self-defence, in the preceding game is gone – in her place, a willing killer. Which goes some way towards making the Uncharted-levels of dead bodies she leaves in her wake rather more believable, if not quite justified.

Rise of the Tomb Raider squeezes so much into its first hour that it feels like you've been playing a lot longer than you have – in a good way. A great way. Everything it asks you to remember, you retain, because of the steady delivery and situational circumstances that only demand the response of one function. Swing. Switch. Shoot. Scramble. It's all laid out like musical notes on a page: press too many keys on a piano at once and the whole song's a mess, whereas Rise... constructs electric melody from its input demands and the result is quite the arresting ride. The sole downside to its early (and sustained) excellence: the done once and forevermore clicking of the right stick to highlight nearby collectibles with a golden glow. A more graceful way to hunt out these trinkets would have been cool, but then, it gives Crystal Dynamics something to work on for Lara's next adventure.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.

@MikeDiver

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