The Tomb Raider franchise has come a long way from being a mediocre third-person shooter wrapped around a sex symbol. It took nearly 20 years, but the series’ heroine, Lara Croft, has finally transcended male fantasy and reached the status she deserves as an all-around badass. Even though it does suffer from a few of the narrative problems that often befall summer popcorn movies, Rise of the Tomb Raider delivers all the intensity of a blockbuster action film.
Following the events of the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider has Lara trying to reclaim her father’s dignity after he lost all respect in archeological circles due to his obsession with an artifact called the Divine Source—something that eventually drove him to suicide. Lara’s recent supernatural adventure in Yamatai opened her eyes to the reality of her father’s fixation, and so she goes on her own the hunt for the artifact, which supposedly holds the secret to eternal life. Along the way, Lara enlists the aid of a tribe of Siberians who have come under fire from an evil organization, unimaginatively named Trinity. The shadow organization, led by the delusional Konstantin, is willing to destroy anything that gets in the way on their quest for the Divine Source.
It’s a simple story that takes a few too many cues from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but at the same time manages to get tangled up in itself, never fully explaining the motivations behind many of its characters. Those of you hoping to find a fulfilling narrative from Rise of the Tomb Raider will be sorely disappointed. Considering the risks that the 2013 reboot took in reimagining Lara’s character, it was disappointing to see Rise fall into the formulaic pitfalls that plague so many triple-A games.
But if you’re looking for a story that will get you from point A to point B, then Rise’s will serve you well. You’re taken from one beautiful set piece to the next, and while there are some framerate issues and heavy aliasing at times, for the most part the game is a sight to behold. Lush fields and forests are contrasted by snow-capped mountains and dank tombs, all offering gorgeous new areas to explore that never get repetitive. No two locations in Rise of the Tomb Raider feel the same.
The new open-world-style hubs also offer plenty of chances to explore how beautiful the game can be. They’re densely packed with secrets and simple quests that usually don’t amount to more than busy work when you’re trying to gather up enough resources to upgrade your gear. Hunting down animals is a great pastime, though. Deer limp away after being hit and rabbits skitter off at the sight of an arrow. The beasts really do a lot of the heavy lifting in convincing you that Rise of the Tomb Raider’s world is truly alive.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s narrative shortcomings are largely forgivable due to the complexity offered by its gameplay, highlighted by numerous optional tombs that offer intricately designed platforming puzzles, many of which had me flexing my brain for a solution. The themed tombs each have their own atmosphere and add a lot to the value of the game. In fact, they’re so good that I’m surprised that Crystal Dynamics would allow players to potentially bypass what is easily one of the best parts of their game.
Time outside of tombs and hubs will be spent fighting your way through enemy-ridden territories. Since Lara is often outnumbered, her best option is sneaking around, a system that is difficult, but deeply rewarding. I found that getting past a large group of enemies undetected was often even more satisfying than gunning them all down, but it’s comforting to know that once you’re spotted you have the tools you need to get out of a rough patch in the form of some fully automatic weaponry. And while you might die several times trying to sneak past foes on harder difficulties, areas are designed with several routes in mind, so instead of repeated deaths standing as walls in front of the next goal, each one was a chance to employ another tactic. Rise of the Tomb Raider offers players plenty of options, whether that’s blasting enemies head-on, stealthily taking down baddies from the bushes, or avoiding foes altogether by jumping from tree to tree.
And when things do get hairy, gunning down enemies has just as much variety as when you’re choosing your angle of approach. Many weapons have multiple ammo types that make combat a situational endeavor. Knowing to take down armored foes with explosive shotgun shells and reserving your poisonous arrows for when weaker enemies are grouped together requires conscious thought. Rationing special ammo is important, but at the same time I was never left waiting for that perfect moment to whip out specialty ammunition. Every engagement was important enough to warrant the use of my entire arsenal.
Experience and levels are earned either by taking down or stealthily evading enemies, which can be used to bolster Lara’s abilities at campfires. Enhancing weapons as well as Lara’s skills allow players to deck out Lara to fit their own playstyle, although the variety of builds is somewhat small. You’re basically limited to making a choice between shooting or sneaking. Some upgrades, such as ones that boost the amount of XP you get from certain actions, felt like padding on a rather skeletal RPG system, and it never felt like I was building a version of Lara that was specific to me.
Rise of the Tomb Raider works its robust single-player into its arcade style mode, called Exhibition, replacing the 2013 reboot’s forgettable traditional deathmatch-style multiplayer entirely. Players compete for high scores on maps from the campaign. While player ability is judged by speed and kills, your total score can be increased by instating handicaps at the start of the level using game-modifying cards, which are obtained from packs that are either garnered using points earned in the game’s campaign or purchased through the in-game store. Cards that disable Lara’s health regeneration or grant enemies bonus armor increase the score at the end of a match, while cards that empower Lara, such as those that unlock more powerful weapons, lower the bonus obtained at completion. The variety of cards adds an interesting flavor to the missions you’ve already played, but you’re more likely to enjoy dipping back into Rise’s campaign to explore tombs you might have missed than chasing points in Exhibition mode.
Even though I was disappointed by its overhyped narrative, Rise of the Tomb Raider is an undeniable improvement on its predecessor. Even after completing the game, I’ve got an absurd amount of collectibles to snatch up and tombs left to explore. Anyone who came to the party hoping for a deep analysis of Lara’s psyche may be disappointed, but if you’re looking for a an explosion-filled romp through the mountains of Siberia, then Lara’s latest adventure is a surefire way to get your kicks.
|Developer: Crystal Dynamics • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.10.15|
Whether you’re in the mood for stealth or all-out action, Rise of the Tomb Raider has got you covered, but when it comes time to put down the guns and start talking, the game screeches to a halt. Even so, it’s hard to deny what a blast it is to slip into Lara’s shoes once more.
|The Good||Puzzles that genuinely force you to think.|
|The Bad||An unrefined story with easily forgettable characters.|
|The Ugly||Where are my dual pistols?|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider is available for Xbox One and Xbox 360, with versions for PS4 and PC coming next year. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this review.|