You know how in the last two Tomb Raider games Lara has that idle animation where she rubs her shoulder? That's the result of a long-term injury she sustained falling off a balcony in the Croft Manor library as a kid. I know this because I've played Blood-Ties, the upcoming addition to Rise of the Tomb Raider - it's bundled into the upcoming PS4 version - half of which effectively amounts to an educational walking tour of Croft lore and history.
It's actually far less stuffy than that makes it sound. It's really, really good, in fact, especially when played in PSVR, in which case the atmospheric detail in the manor’s design absolutely hums with evocative presence, more than making up for the location's absence from the rebooted series thus far.
But Croft Manor isn't in a good way, and neither is Lara. The building has become dilapidated since her parents’ death, making it part warm reminder of happier times, part cold, creepy wraith of a childhood long lost. And worse, Lara's uncle - and executor of the will - is trying to snatch it right out from under her. What results is a largely action-free adventure game, as Lara explores the gloomy habitat looking for clues that might help her, solving puzzles to progress further, and digging up all manner of happy and sad family history along the way.
It's a fun and enlightening adventure, but the really impressive part is the way that it so seamlessly blends puzzles and exploration with storytelling. Voice-over memories pour through the experience, filling in gaps in Lara's history, retroactively making sense of elements of her present and, at their best, dovetailing navigation and conundrum solving into rich and often quite affecting lore.
My favourite moment so far comes when Lara - blocked from progressing further into the mansion - remembers the old servants’ passageway hidden in the wall. This kicks off a reminiscence about playing in there as a kid, which evolves, as you then explore it, into a full-blown remembrance of the childhood mythology she applied to the location with her father. It led through “The Basement of Despair”, but had to be conquered, for it was the only route to “The Library of Knowledge”. And so a life path was inadvertently set.
On entirely the other end of the tonal spectrum are Blood-Ties two action-led additions. Nightmare mode is a zombie survival game set in Croft Manor, the narrative link being that it plays out in Lara's torture dreams. We didn't get to go hands-on, alas, but it looks like a decent mix of Tomb Raider’s flowing guerrilla combat and Resident Evil’s Mercenaries, with the tight, winding corridors of the mansion lending rather a gloomy and claustrophobic air to proceedings.
And then there's the addition of two-player co-op to RotTR’s survival-based Endurance mode, which we did get to play. If you need a refresher, the gist is that you're dropped into the Siberian wilderness and equipped with steadily ticking gauges for coldness and hunger. You can replenish them by hunting for meat and scavenging for fire supplies, but you'll also have to contend with human enemies and the raiding of tombs for treasure. You can call for a rescue any time you like, but the longer you stay around the higher you can score. Though of course, the risk of death goes up exponentially and corpses don't win anything. Oh, and the entire thing is randomly generated, so good luck trying to learn exploits.
In the 10 minutes we got to play, it was obvious that the addition of co-op has more than earned its keep in terms of fun added. Stealthy takedowns of enemy camps now become spec-ops exercises in precision, coordinated headshots. Or alternatively, madcap, flailing panic if it all goes wrong.
Tomb exploration might lose some of the tension with a friend sharing spelunking duties, but with only three ‘lives’ between you, it gains a lot in the all important ‘Oh God no not that way why are you going over the there look out for that trap oh God no now we're screwed’ factor.
After a great deal of blood-drenched slapstick, James and I made it back up to daylight with literally a couple of seconds to spare, both of us clutching our stomachs and shivering ourselves half-unconscious with empty survival gauges. Obviously we died mere moments after our victorious emergence, but that was victory enough for us. We died rich. When they find our bodies in the snow, they'll know that we achieved something.
Anyway, it's Crystal Dynamics’ fault for cheating by not letting us eat the bodies of the goons we killed earlier. I did ask if we could - and it seemed logical that Lara would at least think about it given the conditions - but apparently no. You officially cannot feast upon the flesh of man in Rise of the Tomb Raider's new DLC.
I'd guess it's probably just a balance thing.