2013’s Tomb Raider was a pretty great game. Re-imagining Lara Croft with emotional baggage and regular-sized body measurements did a great job of humanizing a character which up to that point had been an ersatz fetish symbol. The game wasn’t without criticism and there were a number of frustrations that needed to be addressed in a sequel, but Tomb Raider represented a solid platform that a follow-up could be built upon. Crystal Dynamics appear to have taken these criticisms to heart when developing Rise of the Tomb Raider, as in almost every conceivable fashion this year’s title is a marked improvement on an already pretty great game. Make no mistake, Tomb Raider is no longer a second-rate Uncharted experience; in many ways, Lara Croft has left Nathan Drake in her dust.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a robust title with plenty to do, and a rocket-fuelled story that rapidly propels you throughout the world. Unable to explain the horrifying and at times supernatural scenes she bore witness to in 2013’s Tomb Raider; Lara is wracked with survivor’s guilt and confusion. Unsure of how to proceed, Lara turns to the research of her late father that disgraced him from the academic community relating to the Shroud of the Prophet, a mystical healing artefact. Lara embarks on a quest to recover the Shroud and restore his good name; all whilst dealing with the guilt and confusion that still plagues her mind. The shady, militaristic force known as Trinity are also on the hunt for the Shroud in the valley of Kitezh, and are butting heads against the native people found within. As Lara descends further into the valley in hunt of the Shroud, she is pinballed between the interests of both groups.
Thanks to great characters and strong writing, the story is compelling and somewhat fresh. As each of the three main parties weave in and out of each other’s influence, their paths meet and dissect in increasingly interesting ways. Thanks to a great script and brilliant facial animations, the characters seem alive and their performances can easily be ranked amongst the best in the industry. Even as the story propels Lara forward at a rapid pace, small, subtle moments shine through that flesh out the narrative for the discerning player. Trinity’s efforts are helmed by a brother and sister pairing; whose search for the Shroud appears no more complex than “Trinity Bad, Lara Good”. In one cut scene, however, one gives a cough, before starting to smoke a cigarette some minute or two later. The other gives a concerned look and a small comment before continuing to talk about the search for the Shroud. It’s a tiny moment that sends an engaged player’s mind instantly reeling to fill in the gaps: do they suffer from an illness, or a cancer, and is this the reason for their search? It’s a moment that adds layers of depth for the discerning player who wants a nuanced story, whilst avoiding bogging down the deliberate, “out loud” narrative with clichés if you want to skip straight to the action. It’s powerful, intelligent storytelling and is well worth applauding.
As Lara travels from location to location, it would be difficult to not point out the sheer beauty and variety of environments. From snowy Soviet war bases to green geothermal valleys, the scope of the scenery is simply incredible, and shows off the power of the modern consoles perfectly. Subtle character animation tweaks, like having Lara shiver in the cold when she is wearing inappropriate clothing help the world feel grounded and realistic, adding weight to the actions of the characters.
Each location has a number of interesting collectibles to discover, as well as native flora and fauna that can be hunted or gathered for supplies used in upgrades. All collectibles are used to propel Lara further, whether it is through highlighting new areas to explore or giving tradable resources for later use. Even the myriad of notes scattered across the world are used for non-storytelling upgrades. Not only do they help shed more light on the historic significance of the area, but as Lara grows more proficient in reading the various ancient languages the documents are written in, her cognition of that language grows, and allows her to interact with more linguistic items. When every collectible is given an in-game reason for discovery, the player is empowered to explore the world and see what lies in every nook and cranny. It’s a very smart tweak to an existing mechanic, and speaks wonders about the development team.
One of the major complaints levelled against the 2013 title was a lack of tomb raiding. Thankfully, this wrong has been righted through a marked increased in the number of story and optional tombs available to the player. These various areas rely on quick reflexes and puzzle solving to complete, and in reward for reaching their zenith, Lara is awarded a new ability to help her during gameplay. Similar to the first title, as Lara levels up and unlocks more skills, she becomes a more competent explorer and deadlier killer, crafting new items and adding lethal upgrades to her weaponry. The Lara you meet at the end of the game is a veritable survivalist, ready for any situation.
These upgrades also increase Lara’s mobility and deadliness, allowing her to approach combat situations in different directions and a variety of styles. It’s not as variable as the combat in Halo, for instance, but the player has a little bit of discretion to progress how they would like through the encounter. Mobility upgrades like rope launchers and combat upgrades like bows that can shoot multiple arrows at once give the player control as they find themselves in trouble. The guns and bows feel powerful and take down enemies easily, but Lara is also quite frail – a few shots are all that’s needed to bring her down. The enemy will rush your position, attempt to flank you and smoke you out with grenades constantly, to the point where taking on five or more soldiers at once is an arduous affair. One minor quibble with the game is that without a hip fire or blind fire option with weaponry, the combat can get a little stuffy in close quarters. When presented against the quality of the combat of its adventure gaming peers, however, Rise of the Tomb Raider easily becomes the industry standard.
For players looking for some replayability, the Expeditions Mode is well worth checking out. As the player progresses through the game and completes areas, they become available for score-based replay. Score Attack mode scatters the level selected with dozens of collectible wisps and shootable lanterns that award points based on a combo meter. Every new lantern destroyed, wisp collected or resource found resets the timer and increases the combo meter. The player also selects five different challenges to complete, ranging from not being hit to catching a certain number of wildlife in a short period of time. These change the way the player would approach a level and ensures that there is some variety to the gameplay styles available over time. There are also burn cards than can be purchased with an in-game currency that is awarded for successful completion of challenges, which reward the player with new equipment and gameplay modes. It’s a fun, harmless section that lets the player re-experience some of their favourite levels without detracting from the narrative experience.
With a strong narrative, beautiful visuals, fantastic characters and engaging gameplay, Rise of the Tomb Raider has become the industry standard for adventure games. It’s lengthy, engaging campaign and numerous challenges and upgrades ensure that the player is constantly propelled forward with something new to do or discover. It’s a shame that PC and PlayStation owners have to wait until 2016 to play, as Rise of the Tomb Raider is easily one of the best games of the year. Xbox One owners rejoice, because you’ve got access to one hell of a game.