Preview: Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Blood Ties is Thoroughly Enjoyable (Just Not in VR)

Hey, Herbians. This article was originally posted over at When Nerds Attack and marks my first gaming editorial for the site. There’s more to come, including an extended preview of Final Fantasy XV. Look for more down the line! That’s right! I took my thumb out of my ass and I’m writing again!

(In the preview Square Enix hosted, I played the beginning portion of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Blood Ties normally, and the second half in PlayStation VR. It should be noted you can play the entirety of the expansion with or without PSVR.)

It’s been 20 whole years since we first met Ms. Croft. We’ve shot at bad guys, navigated ancient deathtraps, fought dinosaurs (archaeology is a hazardous gig), and have, of course, raided tombs.

Since her PS1 days, Lara has gone through many permutations, most recently having been rebooted away from a dual-wielding sexpot and into a grounded survivalist in 2013?s surprisingly great Tomb Raider. Last year saw a continuation of that arc in Rise of the Tomb Raider, an Xbox One exclusive, that’s now finally breaking free of its contractual chains and porting over to the PS4 as the 20 Year Celebration edition.

Despite Lara’s mythos having been essentially reset, you don’t slap an anniversary on your box without having something to back it up. Enter Blood Ties: a side-story that runs parallel to Rise’s narrative that has Lara digging into her family’s past instead of the histories of long-dead civilizations.

The setup is short and to the point: Lara’s uncle has decided to contest her claim over Croft Manor (he’s looking to hawk the Ark of the Covenant on eBay or something), so Lara returns to her childhood stomping grounds in order to find her father’s missing will. The first half of the demo I played at NYCC had Lara, in third-person, scouring the abandoned estate, reading discarded letters, and searching for items you can interact with. You won’t get into setpiece shootouts, nor will you be using Lara’s athleticism to figure out sweeping environmental puzzles.

Blood Ties reigns in the action of the main campaign to weave a smaller, more atmospheric tale as Lara takes an uncomfortable walk through memory lane, having to step through the literal ruins of her past. Whereas bounding through collapsed structures and dilapidated buildings is par for the course in her job description, walking through Croft Manor feels personal and just a little eerie.

Once I pushed through enough decrepit scenery and found myself in the house’s library, Square Enix introduced me to the VR version of their game courtesy of the PlayStation VR rig. Not coincidentally, this is where everything fell apart.

This having been my inauguration into using VR (unless you count Virtual Boy, and I already know you don’t), some initial awkwardness was a guarantee. First, we had to get my positioning right. Two of the marketing people demoing the mode had to come over, mostly just to marvel at how badly I’d screwed up the game. Neon green grid-lines masked the screen like I was waiting for a light-cycle race to begin. Eventually, I was shoved forward, and the PlayStation Eye – oh, sorry, PlayStation Camera because it’s all growed up now – calibrated my position. After some more fiddling, this time with my glasses (the headset isn’t four-eyed friendly), I was now enveloped in a theater of imagery.

This isn’t a knock against Tomb Raider but one geared toward the PSVR rig itself: I was pretty damn surprised howlow the resolution was. I knew it was lower than the Vive and Oculus Rift, but having gone from playing the game in 1080p for the first half of the demo to VR for the home stretch was jarring.

Blood Ties in first-person VR plays out mostly the same as it does in third-person – you’re searching the area for clues while reading yellowed letters from Daddy Croft. It’s an incredibly subdued display of the technology’s power. You’re behind the eyes of a character known for scrambling up crumbling cliffs, felling pirates with precision arrow shots, and, at one point in her 20 year career, fighting goddamn sharks. What does Lara’s first foray into VR have her doing? Reading notes and looking for lost keys.

I get it. The tech is young and developers are still trying to create experiences that, well, don’t make you retch. In an attempt to keep your lunch down, Blood Ties commits its greatest disservice to itself: its controls.

Free-movement, which will be available in the full release, was locked for the demo. Instead, you hold a trigger to project a silhouette of Lara ahead of you. Using the DualShock’s lightbar tracking, you then point Shadow Lara at the spot you want be in, press a button, and abruptly teleport there. I understand several first-person VR titles are using a similar method to zap players around but, let me tell you, it is just the worst.

The result feels like dreams I’ve had where I’m running in place. I understood then why the action doesn’t ante up beyond “opening drawers.” I already felt like I was patting my head and rubbing my belly just to move around. All hell would break loose if I was to contend with an enemy using those stilted controls. The thrill of entering the VR space for the first time quickly deflated and I found myself wanting to just end the demo.

I understand I speak from a privileged disposition – I don’t get motion sick very easily. Car sickness, sea sickness, those little vomit bags on planes… these were mysteries to me as a kid. My heart goes out to those that can barely play a normal first-person shooter without feeling queasy (if you are that type of person, avoid the violence VR is sure to wreak on your stomach). But there has to be a better concession than this “zapping” business. It made the whole affair an utter chore. As is, Blood Ties seems perfectly enjoyable without $400 of plastic strapped to my head, and that’s a sour impression to make amidst PSVR’s formative, and vital, first wave.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is now available on PlayStation 4 for $59.99. PlayStation VR released today priced at $399.

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