When we last checked in with Rise of the Tomb Raider, we got treated to the best the game had to offer in The Temple of the Witch DLC pack. That extra mission made for between two and four hours of extra gameplay, one of the better puzzles in the entire game, and a brand new area to explore. The timing of the release may have been a bit off — playing the DLC mission after finishing the main game made it a little too easy — but there was enough quality content there for The Temple of the Witch to be considered DLC done right. The last DLC pack included in the Rise of the Tomb Raider season pass (also available separately) is called Cold Darkness Awakened. Unfortunately, the name is indicative of the amount of effort put forth.
Note: This review is of the PC version of the Cold Darkness Awakened DLC. It’s also available on Xbox One. The game was played using high settings across the board at 50-60 fps.
Whereas The Temple of the Witch was able to provide more of what works in the Tomb Raider series — good puzzles, good platforming, and light but challenging combat — Cold Darkness Awakened ignores all of that. The mission involves a secret experiment gone awry — an old Soviet facility that was used to try to create super soldiers has been reactivated by Trinity soldiers, the main antagonists of the core game. A toxin got out, and now those soldiers are mindless, enraged, and — well, they’re zombies. No need to split hairs. It’s a zombie survival mission, and while it seems like this has almost become obligatory in AAA games, it’s not a great fit here.
At first blush, you’d think it would be — how would Lara fare in a zombie apocalypse? But, Cold Darkness Awakened just kind of throws zombies at you, sometimes in waves if you stay in one place for too long (there’s no explanation for the zombies figuring out where you are other than the game wanting you to keep moving). Lara is dropped off in a new area (the DLC content is found in Expeditions, instead of being attached to the main game like with The Temple of the Witch), and needs to find supplies and weapons to fend the zombies off, which will come at her in force if they hear her. Sounds good, but the supplies are too often found in crates placed in plain sight. The supporting characters, Nadia and Sophia, are in a helicopter above and point out exactly where the weapons are found, along with prisoners you can rescue. There’s not much reason to explore past finding the documents that once flesh out the story.
The combat isn’t necessarily the problem — Rise of the Tomb Raider does combat gameplay well enough, although like with The Temple of the Witch, a shotgun makes things very easy, and you’ll have plenty of ammo once you’ve knocked off and looted a handful of zombies. The AI isn’t great, though. If you’re up high, zombies will often try to chuck incendiary grenades at you but not put enough arm into the throw, resulting in the grenade falling back down and catching its owner in the blast. In fairness, no one ever accused zombies of being very bright.
It’s more the opportunity cost that rankles — being the last bit of DLC on the season pass, another new area to explore, new tombs to plunder, or challenging puzzles to solve would have been awesome, and would have played to the series’ strengths. Instead, Cold Darkness Awakened is endless combat with minimal exploration and no tomb raiding. What little exploration you can do is uninspiring — unlike the completely new area in The Temple of the Witch, which had some great psychedelic moments and horror-tinged details, the experimental facility in Cold Darkness Awakened is packed with reused assets from the Soviet bases of the main game. Even the platforming elements from the main game are almost completely absent — there are a few ziplines and tree branches, but no walls to scale.
There are a few technical issues present as well, which together make Cold Darkness Awakened seem like a rushed effort compared to the previous DLC release. I saw zombies occasionally disappear during combat or get stuck in midair after knocking them off ledges. Textures are sloppy — while in the main game there were smooth transitions from completely snow-covered ground to rocky ground lightly dusted with snow, the DLC area often just separates the two textures using straight lines. It’s lousy tiling, and it’s indicative of a lack of polish that pervades the entire mission. The frame rate did manage to stay stable even with several zombies attacking, so that was heartening.
It’s not all bad. The voice acting for Lara, Sophia, and Nadia is at the same high level as it was in the main game and The Temple of the Witch, and while I thought there was too much combat and not enough puzzle solving in this pack, the combat is still enjoyable. There are what could be called puzzles, but those involve following basic directions (from Nadia over the radio) instead of thinking, making the exercise feel like a call with tech support. Being an expedition, you can also try to run through the mission multiple times to improve your score on the leaderboard or unlock new cards or rewards, but it seems like that would get tedious.
I think the idea of zombie survival in Tomb Raider could have been interesting, lack of tombs aside, if the area was more open and collecting resources took a little bit more work (and were perhaps more scarce). That would also have allowed stealth to play a bigger role — you can get by the zombies using stealth anyway because their eyes aren’t so good (sound seems to be the main way they find you), but it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it might have been with more freedom of movement. And, one more thing regarding stealth — I can’t quite remember if the main game was the same way, but some of the ridiculous distances Lara can travel in midair to perform jumping stealth kills make it look like she’s putting together a WWE audition. It makes picking off zombies really easy.