Reviewed: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Reviewed

In an effort to be as open as I can about my experience with this game, it did start out somewhat rocky. I received a review code from Square Enix a few days before its release, but was under an embargo, which was moved up by a day. As a result Nvidia had not released the drivers for the game and as a result, my first few hours were plagued with random crashes, terrible frame drops and just general instabilities. Once Nvidia released the correct drivers my experience drastically changed. All things cataloged below are in reference to my experiences with the game after the Nvidia driver updates as well as a release update for Rise of the Tomb Raider itself about 24 hours before the game went live on Steam. The hardware that this game was reviewed on will be listed at the bottom of this piece.

Last week PC gamers finally got their hands on copies of “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” The game was originally a timed exclusive for the Xbox One, much to 2016-01-25_00082the disappointment of many. While the Xbox only has a few short months of early access to it, it was enough to have a few gamers chomping at the bit and with good reason. Crystal Dynamics did some really good work with this latest rendition of Lara Croft. Nixxes, the company that was charged with bringing the wonderful and intricately designed “Rise of The Tomb Raider” to the PC certainly had their work cut out for them. Gamers who had the chance to play Rise of the Tomb Raider already know what to expect, but does the PC port meet requirements for a Tomb Raider game and does it meet the strict expectations that PC gamers have for ported content?

The game’s story is par for the course for a Tomb Raider, it’s an adventure game so the story arc isn’t likely to be delivering any mind-bending twists or surprises. Rise of the Tomb Raider does deliver on what is promised though, an exciting, if not somewhat predictable experience. The game is paced wonderfully, with moments of action and suspense and just good old satisfaction throughout most parts of the game. Lara takes it upon herself to pick up where her father left off and find an ancient artifact that can supposedly save countless millions. Of course a shady, extremist, shadow organization wants the same artifact and they find themselves in the cross-hairs of Lara’s vengeance. What does make this game feel special is the the level design, landing somewhere between a free roaming explorer and an on-the-rails, narrative driven action adventure game. There is plenty of freedom as well as incentive to complete the story in Rise of the Tomb Raider that keeps things fresh throughout the experience. 

Exploration is the key to getting the full enjoyment from Rise of the Tomb Raider. 2016-01-27_00040There’s hidden items that are needed for crafting things like ammo and bandages as well as components to upgrade or outright making new weapons that Lara can’t get otherwise. The compartmentalized zones coupled with a convenient fast-travel system makes it easy to get around, without stifling the need for continued exploration. The game’s challenge tombs that are scattered about the world make for a nice change of pace and allow you to just explore, as the Lara finds rewards hidden in the caves and ruins dotting them map. While they are completely optional, I feel like skipping them would be missing out on a fairly major part of the experience. You are in fact the “Tomb Raider,” so why not play the part? These hidden sections also give Ms. Croft the opportunity to add new skills the player would miss out on, there is quite a lot of incentive to simply take a few minutes to look around. Many of these abilities are pretty useful as well. Having the ability to see traps or zero in on an enemy’s heart isn’t necessary, but these skills do add quite a bit of depth to the game.

So, is “Rise of the Tomb Raider” a good port? The short answer is ‘yes,’ the longer answer is a bit more complicated, but still favorable. First of all, the game is absolutely stunning. Everything from the textures, modeling and lighting come together to craft an experience that’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. All of these major components coupled with a healthy dose of subtlety in design helps the latest Tomb Raider stand out. Motion capture for Lara and many other characters are precise and fluid. 2016-01-25_00036Facial expressions and body language is done with a very careful attention to detail that is frankly impressive. As an example, when Lara’s cold, she shivers and wraps her arms around herself, rubbing herself furiously in a bid to hold onto some of her body’s warmth. Croft’s lip quivers and in some instances players may even hear her teeth chatter uncontrollably. Lara’s expressions are bright-eyed, full of excitement and wonder as she begins her journey. Most of these details are revealed in the game’s cut-scenes that are a treat to watch. While there is a lot of features throughout the game, players have the opportunity to take it all in an appreciate the things that may be missed while they’re running for they lives, or fighting a vicious cave bear. It’s possible for players to choose to skip these scenes, but in most cases you’ll probably want to kick back and watch. Crystal Dynamics definitely did a wonderful job at bringing our younger Ms. Croft to life, and Nixxes did a stellar job in porting this game so well. Rise of the Tomb Raider is absolutely brimming with details both large and small that makes the experience something worthy of playing.

Graphics options in Rise of the Tomb Raider are pretty robust, especially for a console port. All the standard things are there, Texture, Shadow and level detail are present and ready for gamers to tweak and play around with. There is also a healthy selection of Anti-Aliasing options as well, with FXAA, SMAA, SSAA 2x, and 4x. Anisotropic Filtering has quite a few available settings, starting with Trilinear, 2x all the way up to 16x so you can clean up some of the textures and make it look even better; as long as you’ve got the horsepower for it, that is. The game still looks very good on it’s lowest settings, but you’ll miss out on some of the weather, shadows and light effects if you don’t have a good enough graphics card to run the game at some of it’s highest settings. Gamers that have an Nvidia Titan or 980 card will run like a top and shouldn’t expect to run into too many problems at ‘very high’ settings, even with all the bells and whistles enabled. Unfortunately for many of us, lesser hardware will have to trim back some of those settings, in some cases quite drastically. Once a gamer steps outside of the settings that work for their rig, they’ll see the effects almost immediately. 2016-01-25_00032Lara is a hungry woman with expensive tastes and the only thing that will satisfy her is more of your computer’s precious hardware. If you’ve got settings that are too high players will more than likely start being greeted by system memory warnings and crashes to the desktop without even so much as an error. In some cases these crashes are bad enough to warrant a restart. I experienced a few cases where my video drivers did not automatically recover after a crash, upon investigating a bit further I discovered that my cards were reporting an an error code 43 in the Windows Event Viewer. A restart solved the problem, thankfully. Tuning to the proper settings for your hardware may wind up being one of the more frustrating moments if all you’re looking to do is to hop in and get right to the action, however you will definitely want to take the time to do some tuning. Tweaking graphics options will pay off in the long run and save you a lot of headaches while gaming that could otherwise give you a negative experience.

Rise of the Tomb Raider’s controls are done well. For the most part it’s responsive and well-organized. Remapping keys definitely isn’t something that is a necessity, but nonetheless is easily done on the fly. In some cases, it feels like the controls may be a bit too sensitive. Aiming at something from long distances got a bit shaky at times. This seemed to especially be an issue when zoomed in, but in a world where ports are often second-rate hack jobs and things where control design and functionality is often an afterthought, Nixxes did a solid job here as well. In my experience, controller support was great and as long as Windows detects the controller that’s plugged in, you’re pretty much good to go.

2016-01-25_00040Audio in Rise of the Tomb Raider is pretty alright. The sounds of nature, the birds, running water and other wild animals are done very well and all of this background audio mixes together nicely to add to the game’s atmosphere. The dialogue is full of emotion and delivered with clarity, which helps to sell the experience. Unfortunately a lot of the combat audio is lacking. Weapons fire in particular sounds more like hollow pop-guns, especially with the automatic weapons. For some reason pistols bark loudly as if Lara were standing out on a large, flat plain. The crack is heard as if it were fading out in the distance, which just doesn’t match the usual closed off environments and snow covered mountain tops that would insulate such a reverberation or cause it to echo more closely to the wielder. The audio queues stood out as being one of the weaker points of the game to me, but even that can be taken lightly, since it’s passable and is something that most players may miss altogether. It hardly breaks the illusion that’s been presented and at most is only a minor inconsistency in the games veneer-like finish.

For as good as the game is however, there are a few minor missteps that Nixxes took. SLI support is pretty messed up and is basically just not there in any meaningful sense. There aren’t any options in-game for it and currently gamers like myself are reporting problems getting to working at all. It is worth noting that some people have found some tweaks for this to get it working better, but it’s still not fully supported.2016-01-25_00077 At this point, the best graphics options available are limited to those who have dropped at least $650.00 on a video card. while the game does look great, the design effectively blocks those with multiple lower-end cards from getting the most out of their available hardware. Another issue which is probably a bit more impactful for the player is an apparent lack of optimization. While it looks polished, it sometimes doesn’t run so polished. As is the case with having a high-end video card, if you don’t have the bleeding edge of GPU technology you’ll most likely see some problems. Rise of the Tomb Raider suffers from seemingly random frame rate plunges, especially when a player moved from an area with a short to far sight line. It was not uncommon to see my frames drop from 60 right down to about 40, at times even less. Much of the time the game won’t get a solid 60 frames, but will hover somewhere between 50 and 60 fps. While the game is certainly playable, it does take away from the experience when there is stuttering and frame hiccups that show up randomly throughout play. Hopefully these optimization problems will be something we can expect to be smoothed over as the game matures a bit on the new platform. It’s not uncommon for console ports to have a few small bumps in the road after release and is typically only a real problem when they go unaddressed.

All and all, I really can’t help but give this game a glowing recommendation. It’s a  representation of an stellar action adventure game and is a superb addition to the Tomb Raider series. It’s good to see a young, vibrant Lara trudge out into a frozen mountainous tundra and kick total ass the entire way. The game is a fun ride that gives us what we want in an action adventure title. As a port, the game works wonderfully and is something that will stick in my mind for quite some time as a textbook example for how a port should be done. While it’s certainly got a few problems, they are minor and will hopefully be fixed. Even if they aren’t and the game is completely finished, never to be updated or touched again by Nixxes, I would still have no problems recommending this game to anyone who has a taste for adventure.

System Specs:

Motherboard: Asus Maximus VII Formula
Processor: Intel Core i7 -4790k: Devil’s Canyon Quad-Core 4.0 GHz
Video Card: SLI EVGA GeForce GTX 970 FTW
Hard Drive: Samsung 850 EVO 500GB SATA III
Memory: Corsair Vengence Pro 32gb (4 x 8GB)
Cooling: Enermax LiqTech ELC-LT 120

 

Reviewed: Just Cause 3

Reviewed

Avalanche Studios and Square Enix are back to continue their destructive love affair. The high-flying and explosive continuation of a franchise, ‘Just Cause 3’ is the post-child for mayhem and chaos looks to up the ante with the latest release. Players can look forward to strapping the boots of Rico Rodriguez again, as they run and gun their way through Rico’s home, Medici. We’ll be taking a look at some of the additions to the game, how it plays, looks and how it stacks up to it’s predecessor in varying ways. Just Cause 3 has had quite a few PC gamers waiting patiently for it, but does it stack up to what we saw before and does it stay true to the ‘Just Cause’ franchise?

2016-01-09_00015One of the first noticeable improvements to the ‘Just Cause’ series is the voice acting in the latest game. Without really mincing any words, Just Cause 2 was terrible in this regard. It was so bad in fact, that it could be distracting and in a weird way was one of the reasons to actually play it. There is one rebel in particular from the second game that comes to mind. Her name, ‘Bolo Santosi.’ This infamous character’s accent landed somewhere between South American and African in varying degrees. The voice actress also seemed to deliver the emphasis of every sentence on just about all of the totally wrong words. Suddenly, the overly serious nature of the game is comical. The dialogue of JC2 was funny in a way that a bad movie ends up being rifted on, like Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Thankfully that’s something we don’t have worry about in Just Cause 3. Yes the voice acting is much better, but the game also hits the mark well. JC3 strikes a happy medium between serious and comic dialogue, balancing a relatively serious plot direction of a violent civil war and just outright ridiculous action and devastation on a scale that would send your average populous running for the boarders.

Avalanche Studios has embraced all of the ridiculousness that embodies a game like this. The supporting characters, like Mario, Rico’s best friend is always cracking jokes.2016-01-09_00017 There is an odd juvenile machismo between the two that actually comes across as quite endearing. While you shouldn’t expect a classic, heart-warming tale told from these two, it is nonetheless refreshing, especially when compared with JC2. There is plenty of banter that bounces between Rico and his NPC friends throughout the game that just feels natural. With plenty of other little touches during cutscenes that add to the game’s’ almost cartoon-like approach to mass-murder and destruction, this is a definite improvement from previous titles in the franchise. Somewhat surprisingly, JC3 is an incredibly lighthearted and playful game which does wonders for it’s pacing. These interactions between characters slows the game down down, which isn’t a bad thing with the almost non-stop action. The more easy going, fun-loving Rico is a nice touch to the high-stress, deadly serious ‘Scorpio’ from JC2.

For the most part, core game mechanics in JC3 are largely unchanged from the previous title in the series. There are a few added options, like a wingsuit and some new mines to play with that make for a nice addition. It’s always good to have a few more options right? The biggest addition to JC3 is the ability to tether targets and objects together with Rico’s grappling hook. This flexible new tool adds the most function in the game and is frankly a blast to just play around with. Instead of simply using it as a way to get around an area quickly, now it’s an offensive weapon that can be used to tear down target objectives, pull helicopters from the sky and even turn an unwitting enemy soldier into a human rocket by attaching him to a tank of flammable gas. The newly updated grappling-hook system coupled with the wingsuit adds to Rico’s mobility as well. Most of us will remember pulling ourselves around with the parachute deployed, while grappling to the ground for leverage. The same thing can be done in JC3, except now players can use the wingsuit and can now is a snappy way to get around. I’ve found it to be my preferred form of transportation so far.

2016-01-09_00007Unfortunately driving hasn’t really had too much an improvement from JC2 to the latest game. Most vehicles feel incredibly stiff and difficult to maneuver, especially if you happen to be using a keyboard to play rather than the controller. Vehicles feel somewhat unresponsive when trying to turn and stop, resulting in plenty of accidents and possibly even comedic deaths for Rico. You would expect High-end sports cars to have tight, precise fell, however they tend to feel more like rocket propelled piece of lumber with wheels attached to them. While the driving controls did seem a little better with a controller, comparing this to other open-world games like “GTA” or even “Watch Dogs” that have a similar amount of driving, there is quite a lot to be desired in JC3 that just doesn’t seem to be there.

Just like JC2 however, JC3 shines with all of the destruction and havoc that can be unleashed on just about every corner of this small island nation. Weapons are introduced almost immediately to the player that allows them to unleash a healthy amount of destruction on both Rico‘s enemies as well as his surroundings. There’s bound to be collateral damage, but unlike most games that make players feel like they’ve done something wrong, this game just goes with it. Cars, people, bus stops or just random shit on the side of the road. All of it is fair game and just adds to the feeling of being able to raze just about everything you see. In a somewhat fashion however, just about all buildings can take a punishing blast from heavy weapons or tanks without even so much as a scratch. While the level of destruction is indeed vast, it does have its limits.2016-01-09_00003

The game’s stunning location with a mixture of bright and colorful surrounds really makes JC3’s visuals something to enjoy. The mountains and rolling hills on the islands are broken up by small towns, villas and of course strategically placed military bases. No matter where you end up with Rico, it feel like you’re never too far away from something the players can interact with or simply look at and admire. The game has fields full of red flowers that have a nice, serene look to them, that fits right in. These stunning sections of the game also help tp balance the constant intensity of the game. There’s also sprawling fields of sunflowers that are just as nice to  look at. Players have the added bonus of being able to drive through the fields full-bore, cutting a haphazard path to whatever exits they choose to make. The Mediterranean beaches and ocean water look amazing, with waves gently washing up over the nearly golden sand. It’s really a pleasure to be tearing through this surreal location and even with all the havoc players release on this game’s setting, it never stops looking beautiful. Just about every spot seems to make for some great screenshot opportunity whether you’re standing calmly, looking out over the ocean or blasting a military base to smithereens.

Just Cause 3 is not all roses and sunflowers though. The elephant in the room that is Just Cause 3 is its repetition. The same thing that makes the game enjoyable in the short term may be something gamers tire of quickly. You may find yourself blasting the everloving shit out of an enemy compound only to unlock a “frenzy” mission where you have to use a specific weapon to blow the shit out of it all over again. It’s not too bad the first few times, but after awhile it does start to get a pretty old.2016-01-09_00010

A lot of the non-story driven missions have players jumping through hoops, literally. If you’re not gliding through the air on your wingsuit, your driving or piloting something through the very same hoops. Not only does this get boring quickly, it feels like the game’s environments go wildly underutilized. While the main story missions are pretty well developed, all the extras that would keep players coming back tend to just drag on. There are only so many circles you can fly through and fortresses you can blow up multiple times before the repetition becomes wearing. The fast-paced combat and all the pretty explosions can’t mask this problem of ad nauseum that Just Cause 3 suffers from. This is unfortunately the biggest problem with the game, it’s same strengths are focused on so heavily that it’s hard to keep up for long without it losing at least some of its appeal. While I can’t say that it goes far enough to get completely boring, it does lose a lot of its satisfaction as the game goes on. With such a wide area to cover, it’s really too bad since most players will start noticing these repetitive tasks before they’re even off the first island. There are a few side missions that are pretty entertaining, but they don’t come up too terribly often. It may be why these sparse mission-types so fun to being with. Without having a wider variety of missions available it may be difficult for some gamers with less time or shorter attention spans to commit to JC3 for any extended period of time.

2016-01-08_00011JC3 really isn’t going to turn many heads with new features, but it’s a good addition to the Just Cause family. The game does more than a few things right, and Avalanche Studios has made quite a few subtle improvements that have a positive effect on the game and it’s playability. Unfortunately in some cases it may not be quite enough for someone who is looking for an open-world game that does things differently. With games like Metal Gear Solid 5 and Grand Theft Auto 5 that are available on the PC, there is some stiff competition for gamers who may not have made their way through these other games yet. JC3’s focus also makes it the title’s weakness in the long term and at some point players may be asking themselves if it’s really worth continuing. If you’re someone who has any reservations about a game like this, get distracted easily or are short on that cold hard cash, then I’d wait on the latest Just Cause. If you’re one of the many gamers that don’t find repetitive tasks too troublesome and you’re looking for a reason to blow some cash while blowing up half of a small, fictitious country then look no further. Otherwise, wait patiently. The game is worth playing, but maybe not at it’s $60.00 price-point for now. It is a beautiful game, but ultimately the world does feel woefully under-utilized and that’s hard to look passed.