We’re standing a few feet into Croft Manor’s wine cellar and are hesitant to move another step. Our surroundings are dank, dark. A single small window at the corridor’s end fails to illuminate the bowels of Lara’s childhood home. Shadows and cobwebs are everywhere. A shiver involuntarily runs down our spine. Truthfully? We’re a little scared.
Such is the immersive power of PlayStation VR.
We’re testing out the headline feature of Rise of the Tomb Raider ahead of release: 10 minutes to explore Croft Manor, Lara’s childhood home. 10 criminally short minutes to experience the action adventure franchise in a wholly new way.
Chronologically positioned part-way through the main story and selectable as one of a handful of additional extras from the main menu, this side-quest sees Lara returning home to unravel a family mystery. Croft needs to explore her surroundings, piece together clues and uncover secrets to learn how to reclaim the dilapidated Croft Manor as her own.
Blood Ties is a purely explorative piece of content, though you can revisit the location in a separate, action-heavy, supernatural zombie-plagued variant, Lara’s Nightmare. And while Blood Ties is playable in standard third-person as well, it’s best experienced in first-person with PlayStation VR. That said, it is worth testing the former before diving into the latter; if only to reinforce just how seismic a difference PlayStation VR makes.
The aforementioned wine cellar is oppressive. We can almost smell the damp. By contrast the manor’s central rooms feel cavernous, high ceilings barely seen in the gloom above. VR fools your other senses to believe in a sense of space far larger than the small demo room we have to remind ourselves we’re standing in. It’s a fairly warm day in September, but we feel a chill on our arms as a virtual draft blows past us.
VR adds an extra dimension to interacting with objects. Picking up items and spinning them round to look for clues is a nice mini-puzzle in-game. In VR you physically turn the object – represented by the Dualshock 4 and its gyro sensors in the real world – to study it. It gives an important tactile interaction that further immerses you in this world. Cool inclusion? The controller also doubles as a freely moveable flashlight on entering darker areas.
And even that we can’t touch we happily appreciate, such is the massive detail etched across every inch of the manor. Admission: We spend a minute unashamedly studying a painting, leaning forward to inspect the brushwork. Archaeologist turned art critic: bet that’s not listed on the back of the box.
There are also Easter eggs galore, nods even to the original era of Tomb Raider, repackaged and given a new universe context. The (yet unseen) Young Lara Croft Chronicles, if you will.
There are two control schemes for the VR experience: free mode and comfort mode. The first is akin to the standard Tomb Raider controls, but it’s the second that we use today. Holding L2 and pointing the controller will allow you to place a virtual transparent Lara anywhere in your field of vision. A tap of R2 will teleport you to that point. Repeatedly press the shoulder buttons to make a 360° pan in small degree increments. It’s quickly intuitive.
In all, it makes for an essential experience for Lara fans and a truly attractive addition to an already robust package, which includes two other side modes. Lara’s Nightmare is an ultra replayable slice of action as Croft needs to hunt down three supernatural – and aggressive – skulls. They’re hidden throughout the manor and the locations of which, like her weapons and necessary room keys, are randomised in each playthrough.
Then there’s the co-op Endurance survival mode. You and a pal are dropped into the middle of a freezing wilderness. Predators are many, consumables and equipment rare. Your health and heat are continually draining. Cooperation is essential. How many in-game days can you survive before succumbing to the elements? It’s an intriguing premise, something akin to a roguelike version of Journey.
But even after supernatural zombies have overcome us, and the cold has leached our will to live, we feel the pull again to explore Croft Manor, to pull on PlayStation VR and dare ourselves to make it further into the bowels of the mansion. And maybe we will this time.