Review: Rise Of The Tomb Raider Soars To The Occasion
Rise of the Tomb Raider sees the rebooted Lara Croft returning to action; it might sound like a prelude but it's actually a direct sequel to Tomb Raider. But is it a good one?
- Worth The Time?A surprising amount of time, but definitely.
- Things LovedCrystal Dynamics really know how to craft a deliciously fun world, both to look at and explore; Lara is breathtakingly well-rendered; There's a hell-of-a-lot to do here, and some neat new ways to get around; Customisation and crafting gives you a reason to care about collecting and resource-gathering; Tombs have returned in a big way.
- Things HatedThe story's okay, but it's not particularly great; The game still suffers from dissonance between narrative and gameplay; It all feels a bit formulaic at times.
- RecommendationRise of the Tomb Raider is an easy purchasing recommendation, as it offers a compelling (if somewhat standard) narrative, together with a magnificently rendered game world to run around in, and tonnes to collect within that game world. You won't mind the issues the game has because you're just having a good time playing it, that is, assuming you enjoy running around and climbing things.
- Name: Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Genre: Action Adventure
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Leaderboards
- Platforms: Xbox One (PC, PS4 in 2016)
- Developer: Crystal Dynamics
- Publisher: Square Enix / Microsoft Game Studios
- Price: $60
- Reviewed On: Xbox One
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a direct sequel to 2013’s Tomb Raider, the reboot of the long-running franchise that was acquired from Eidos by Square Enix. Why is it called “Rise of” if its a sequel? Well, I can only assume whoever named the game was also responsible for naming the Xbox One.
Rise of the Tomb Raider follows the events of Tomb Raider, albeit rather vaguely. Lara is a little older, a little wiser, and a little more dead-set on following in her father’s footsteps now that she knows he’s not a total loon… see, her old man used to go on about ancient secrets, guarded treasures, holy artefacts, that sort of thing. You’ve watched National Treasure, right? That. Having survived the island and its supernatural forces in the first game, Lara has returned home not just believing her father’s old stories had gravitas, but wanting to prove their accuracy for herself. Being Lara the overachiever, she naturally decides to pursue her father’s life work, picking up the trail from where he left it after he died; she follows the trail all the way to Siberia, to try and find a lost city that is said to contain the secret to immortality.
That’s the basic set-up for Rise of the Tomb Raider, and if you’ve forgotten the events of the previous game then all the better for you because some fan-favourite characters are conspicuously missing here, together with Lara’s repertoire including the dual pistols she sported at the end of the first game. It’s a bit of a hard reset, but in a new area, with new reasons to shoot bad guys, but a more composed and resolute Lara. This makes for an entirely different tone to the first game, where Lara was very much a victim of circumstance. Here she is a force to be reckoned with.
Given its “Indiana Jones” type setting, the story found in Rise of the Tomb Raider is actually quite par for the “adventure genre” course. Without spoiling too much, it’s got the ancient holy army of “greater good” types hot on her trail, the native protectors of some sacred location that are suspicious but amicable, some supernatural element that is regularly teased throughout the story, and a few enigmatic characters that provide the character motivations and eventual twists throughout the game. While it might not win awards, it’s actually quite serviceable and does enough right that it’s not a chore at all, and actually quite entertaining. Might upset a few religious types though, since it delves quite heavily into Byzantine lore.
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One thing that Crystal Dynamics still haven’t managed to get right is the dissonant storytelling. Like its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider suffers from the same “problem” of the narrative trying to instil a sense of urgency and impending danger, but the open-world exploration betraying that feeling entirely. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, much like Tomb Raider before it, Lara would make it clear that I was against the clock, but once the story gave me the opportunity I would be able to freely meander off the trail and spend hours dicking about. While this doesn’t necessarily break the flow of the story itself — it is after all, entirely optional — it never stops being noticeable. Especially when once you decide to rejoin the story in an area you’ve been exploring, explosions start going off everywhere as if they had just waited for you to be ready for them.
And it doesn’t end there, either. Rise of the Tomb Raider commits many cardinal gaming sins. Having to start out with no weapon/skill upgrades despite ending the previous game fully upgraded felt like an arbitrary downgrade for “game logic” reasons. Or discovering new skills just before you’re required to use them. As an example, early in the story Lara found an item and took it figuring she might need it in future, and the very next room required its use. It felt a bit too “story convenient”. Why couldn’t it have been a bit more natural, like say she first discovered the obstacle and then went back to get the item because she needed it? And that’s not all, either. In story sections of the game there is almost always a very specific path you can climb, leading to a linear feel, almost scripted, which when you think about it… this woman is climbing a mountain, or scaling a building, or making her way across towers. How does everything line up so perfectly? Also why are there red barrels near those enemies I’m about to fight? So yes: Many crimes of convenience to be found in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
That said, don’t for a second take it as a bad thing. Rise of the Tomb Raider understands that it’s a game, so it does some shamelessly game-y things. Some of the things Lara endures in this game would absolutely kill her, but she survives for the sake of entertainment. And to its credit, Rise of the Tomb Raider has entertainment in abundance, whether it’s simple stuff like getting around the place, or more complicated stuff like your reasons for getting around the place, away from the story.
Rise of the Tomb Raider brings back the hub areas from the first game, but much bigger and with a lot more to do. These larger areas play host to a series of story missions in various places, but you can also find the likes of collectibles (including relics, documents, caches, and more), challenges, caves, tombs, and side missions. While all of these remain optional, they all provide some reward as well as experience points which help to upgrade Lara’s skills. For example, relics and documents provide narrative elements, explaining the backstory of her location in intricate detail, whereas caves and tombs provide unique weapon parts for you to collect.
Tombs deserve a special mention here for being just incredible to explore; you get a puzzle you have to solve, and some reward for it, but they also make for some of the most beautiful and enthralling locations in the game. There’s a certain feel to exploring these areas that… can’t quite be explained in words. It’s equal parts claustrophobic and exhilarating, as you nervously dive into the depths below, and it ends with this moment of utter relief when you discover the treasure you risked mortal danger for. Crystal Dynamics have somehow managed to nail this feel with aplomb, and that alone is worth experiencing for yourself.
Hub areas are practically playgrounds for you to get lost in, and there are some cool new ways to get around the place including — finally — the grapple, which makes your life infinitely easier once unlocked. Some are a bit finnicky (like arrows you shoot into walls and then climb, those weren’t much fun) but for the most part they’ve gone and made a good experience great, to the point that climbing things in this game actually becomes quite fun and dynamic. Some areas feel like jungle gyms, and you as Lara are the little kid who gets to find their way through it.
Another thing that has been revamped in Rise of the Tomb Raider is the crafting. Lara is more experienced now, and more adept at thinking on her feet, so naturally she is a PhD-level engineer, and can craft anything from rucksacks to arrows to tinned bombs, yes bombs. Taking a page out of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, Lara can collect more than just scrap metal this time around, and everything can be used in a specific way on-the-fly. In combat, you can craft healing packs for yourself, or arrows for your bow, or molotov cocktails out of bottles. At base camp, you can craft weapon upgrades, inventory items like quivers and pouches, or ammunition. Of weapons and weapon upgrades there are quite a few available to you, but unfortunately still no dual pistols. Perhaps for the better, because the bow is just sexier in every way.
The bow also helps for stealth sections, where you now have a few more ways to kill people including aerial assassinations, and surprise banzai attacks (no seriously, bush kills). While Rise of the Tomb Raider does force combat situations on you sometimes, you’d be surprised at the amount of areas you can quite easily stealth through without killing a single enemy. The choice remains yours.
Lara herself is breathtakingly well-rendered in Rise of the Tomb Raider. At times you struggle to believe that this is a digitally crafted (Crofted?) character, the team that did her animation deserves awards for their talent because it is staggeringly good. Unfortunately TressFX is still a thing, which means Lara’s hair can go from wavy and liberated to downright wonky depending on the situation, and it never quite looks right.
Rise of the Tomb Raider must also get credit for using animations to convey tone and atmosphere. When in colder areas Lara will start to shiver and hold in her arms for warmth. After going for a swim Lara attempts to dry off her hair and face. When exploring, Lara outwardly displays facial expressions such as anger, caution, weariness, and more depending on the situation, even bringing up a light depending on how dark things are around her. She is by far the most believable character I’ve seen in a game this year, albeit somewhat cold towards murder (but hey, game logic!). Even when walking near ledges or obstacles, she contextually knows to step lightly, or holds out a hand Uncharted-style, as she goes along a wall.
In fact this isn’t the only direct comparison to Uncharted. With Rise of the Tomb Raider the two franchises are practically indistinguishable at times. Now sure, she’s not crashing trains or planes, but from the exploration to the animation down to the Henley she can wear, Lara is a like-for-like Nathan Drake, but with a few less one-liners and a bit more outward determination. The game also does what Naughty Dog love to do, and loads levels behind cutscenes. This makes for a near-seamless storytelling experience, once again much like Uncharted. Not at all a bad thing, but certainly worth noting how these series have influenced each other.
Following in Lara’s footsteps, Rise of the Tomb Raider as a whole can be quite breathtaking at times, with both visuals and audio done perfectly on cue. It might not always seem this way, especially at the beginning when you’re wondering why everything looks so bland. But the game does open up, and presents some incredible vistas to behold. Crystal Dynamics claim the game runs at the full 1080p (down to 900p in cutscenes) and in practice, the game is nothing to shirk at. Although I did notice a few occasions of framerate stutter. To be fair, there’s a lot going on in this game, particle-wise.
One issue I had with the first game that seems to have carried over is that of collectible documents, which read out like audio logs, but cannot be played in the background. You have to sit in that screen and listen to the text you could probably read faster. If you go back, it ends, and you’re left without vital information until you go back and sit through it. Not particularly dooming of the game, but an annoyance at times, nonetheless.
Finally, once you’re done with the singleplayer the other mode on offer is Expedition mode, and it’s basically singleplayer again… yes, really. This time around you get different modes including score attack, where you can replay story chapters for points and medals. While doing so, you can also play “cards” which come in different forms, both beneficial and challenging. These can be unlocked by playing through the game, or, naturally, purchased for real money using the Marketplace. Thankfully Expedition mode can be entirely skipped, unless you care about Square Enix’s beloved leaderboards and being better than your friends. Also in the Marketplace right now is a season pass that promises at least three DLC packs, but they do not elaborate on whether those will be story or not.
In closing, it’s true that Rise of the Tomb Raider makes a few uninspired decisions, but what it does, it does in the interest of fun and excitement. And Rise of the Tomb Raider is thankfully short on neither. While its story won’t blow you away, it’s got so much going on in this game that you likely won’t care anyway. Easily twenty to thirty hours worth of fun can be found here, maybe more if you’re fond of getting lost in the wilderness. While it’s not going to give you a Fallout 4 level sandbox, or a Blizzard-level story, if you’re feeling a little starved for some traditional action adventure, you can’t really go wrong with Lara Croft. That’s why I have no qualms with recommending this game as a purchase. Will it ever be the Tomb Raider of old, filled with fantasy locations and fantastic beasts? Probably not, but that’s perfectly fine because this new Tomb Raider is more than adequate. This new Tomb Raider is quite literally something else…