Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

While Microsoft has one of the most iconic video game characters in their stable, the Master Chief, they have been able to snatch up another for the 2015 holiday season. Originally a PlayStation highlight long ago, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is joining the exclusive Xbox roster, at least for a few months. It was only two years ago that Crystal Dynamics created arguably the best Tomb Raider to date, and while people compared it to Uncharted, its tone, gunplay and open world aspects deviated from that format, constructing something that more action adventure games need to take note of. There was one issue fans of the series had with it, though: the lack of actual tomb raiding. Thankfully that changes with Rise of the Tomb Raider, giving players everything they loved in the 2013 reboot and more. The Redwood City-based studio is building upon their formula by creating not only one of the most cinematic Tomb Raider games available, but one of the most immersive, as well.

After the events in the Pacific Ocean, Lara Croft has been coping with her actions with more adventure. Having seen such supernatural elements that could transcend time, the young lady becomes determined to clear her father’s name who was denounced by the historian community when she was young. He became obsessed with the idea of immortality, specifically the Divine Source that’s said to be located in the lost city of Kitezh in Siberia, and like father like daughter, Lara risks everything by going after this power. She isn’t alone, though, as there’s a rival organization under the name Trinity that’s also looking for the same source of power, hoping to use it for their own good. The antagonists of the plot have far more depth than originally thought. They come off as power hungry individuals, but it’s revealed slowly that they do have more genuine reasoning for tracking this artifact down. It’s nice to see a plot where the enemies aren’t entirely evil, especially if you listen to some of their journal entries, but at the same time, they are slaughtering hundreds of natives of the area and constantly trying to kill Lara. Most of the plot isn’t even told through the cutscenes, though, as the logs left behind by Trinity, old Soviet workers, Greek philosophers and even Mongolian adventurers paint a better picture of what is and has happened in this ruined part of the world. They even go as far to identify the benefactor behind Trinity, which potentially opens up additional religious-tied adventures for Ms. Croft.

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The story itself is formulaic for an Indiana Jones-inspired adventure: protagonist goes after artifact, continuously crosses paths with an opposing faction, stumbles upon an ancient race, uncovers hidden secrets and so forth. It has been done over and over again, but what shines here is the protagonist. Lara Croft is very much coming into her own. In the previous installment, while a strong individual, she didn’t really know how to deal with such dire situations and took a beating along the way. Here, she is much more capable in what she can do and how it’s accomplished. She can handle any situations without having to coach herself or stabilize her mental status. Even when she comes face to face with a giant grizzly bear she’s, while I won’t say she’s completely composed, more agile and quick thinking about how to get around the obstacle.

Mechanically speaking, those who have played the reboot will feel right at home with Rise. This isn’t the overhaul the Tomb Raider series saw in 2013, but it’d be too much to expect Crystal Dynamics to experiment too heavily with an already proven formula. The Developers have laid the groundwork for the series moving forward in order to adjust and add to their work, and it comes out well. The platforming mechanics can be a bit finicky at times, leading to more deaths than in combat, but it’s quite satisfying when a series of acrobatic moves are strung together, making you feel even grander than a female Indiana Jones. Lara doesn’t have more tools at her disposal because she basically gets the same arsenal as before, but at least the upgrade paths are more diverse. There are pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and of course bows to equip to Lara with, along with her trusty ice axe that can be quite deadly in certain situations. We are now treated to a tiered upgrade path, requiring our heroine to obtain a certain equipment in order to enhance her weapons to the max. It’s not just weaponry, though, as Lara Croft herself, as per usual, has a leveling system, allowing our ferocious heroine to be even more effective in combat and in her adventures. There are even multiple outfits to fit Lara with, not only allowing players to choose her fashion choice, but also adding boost in aspects such as health regeneration.

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There’s a stronger emphasis on stealth this time around, using the environment around Lara to get the edge on her opponents. So for example, in most encounters, at least outside of the guided and highly entertaining cinematic set pieces, enemies won’t know they’re being hunted unless the player makes themselves known. There are trees to climb to avoid detection, shrubs to move through to silently incapacitate foes and various distractions to use to your advantage. Instead of knowing where you are immediately when engaging in combat, it’s all determined from an enemy’s perspective. If an arrow hits the head of one of their comrades they’re speaking to, they will see the direction in which it came from, whereas if his back is turned, he will only begin to investigate, maybe alert those around his immediate vicinity. There’s even a minimal detection meter that will pop up over enemy heads, but this feels a bit underutilized as it’s just a two state alert (curious and found) and rarely came into play. It’s too bad there aren’t more chances to hide during combat, though, because most situations don’t have an exit plan once you’re spotted.

The biggest enhancement to the formula, though, is the sheer scope of the world. This is something the 2013 reboot implemented and changed how we looked at the Tomb Raider franchise moving forward. It wasn’t this linear, straightforward shooter, but a colossal game with a true emphasis on exploration, something that’s needed in an Indiana Jones-esque adventure. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Siberian wilderness is far grander, having multiple layers to each environment and a vast collection of goodies to find. There are essentially three hub areas in the game, containing an overwhelming amount of extras to delve into, with the remaining sections of the map being more set pieces to the high octane combat scenarios. This opens up a lot of variety and flexibility for combat, now with the ability to craft items such as Molotovs, smoke bombs and grenades, not to mention potentially rigging enemy bodies with poison gas. There’s so much to do in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and while it only took us twenty hours to basically one-hundred percent the game (at least on the Normal “Tomb Raider” difficulty), it was well worth the effort.

One of the biggest complaints with the last Tomb Raider was that it somewhat strayed away from what the series was known for: tomb raiding. That has been fixed with Rise of the Tomb Raider to a vast degree. There are far more tombs to raid this time around, usually visually drastic from one another and tie together various mechanics in a thought provoking manner. You will obtain not only a vast amount of gold, but various new abilities and enhancements to Lara. While a number of them can be a bit challenging, it would have been nice if there were multi-tiered tombs. All of them essentially take place in a single area, and after two or three puzzle solving actions, the tomb can be cleared. A number of them can be completed in under two minutes if you’re smart enough, so lengthier and multi-layered tombs to explore would have been preferable. There are also crypts to raid, but they are straightforward underground graves that don’t really offer up much of a challenge.

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While Crystal Dynamics worked on the core aspect of the reboot, Eidos Montreal created a multiplayer component that, while had its charm, was somewhat of a throwaway experience. For better or for worse, there is no multiplayer experience in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Instead, what has replaced this component is an Expenditures mode in which players are given various objectives to complete in the course of a tomb or mission, allowing them to post a higher score. These are mainly used to compete on the leaderboards, although it does unlock an in-game currency that’s used to buy packs of cards that will have various effects in the mode itself. It’s very similar to Halo 5’s Requisition system, boosting gold acquisition or having the reverse effect but giving Lara more powerful weapons. There are even more comical cards to find, such as your bow shoots chickens instead of arrows, or big head mode. This in itself is not the core experience for what players will come to Rise of the Tomb Raider for. It offers up a decent challenge to compete against friends or people around the world, but it’s not something that will have a lasting effect. At least it sets up potential downloadable content in the form of new tombs.

Visually, Rise of the Tomb Raider can look absolutely spectacular. Personally, I’m a sucker snowy areas and Rise delivers on that, but it has a strong variety of scenery, from underwater ruins to high density vegetation. It’s thick with content for a segmented open world game, always giving the player something to do and something pretty to look at. It’s not all positive as the draw distance does seem to be plagued with dithering during pop-in and the aliasing can be quite noticeable, but both of these only really come into effect in one specific area that has a lot of wildlife and greenery. The frame rate can also take a hit during the in-game cutscenes, but necessarily during combat. Fortunately, it doesn’t drop too much, but when it happens, it’s relatively noticeable. The rest of the game is finely tuned, being a significant upgrade over its last generation counterpart. While the reboot featured a lot of gore and disturbing death scenes, it does seem like that has been toned it down a bit, with few actual instant-kill scenarios. Even then, when Lara bites it, she will usually just ragdoll rather than have some gruesome death scene. The few that actually happen, though, usually coming from ancient traps such as spike pits, will make you cringe. It’s the attention to detail Crystal Dynamics focuses on that makes this such an immersive visual experience.

Closing Comments:

Rise of the Tomb Raider is exactly what we needed. While there has been an influx of open world games over the last few years, Crystal Dynamics have been able to find a perfect balance of cinematic action and strong adventure elements. There are far more tombs to raid this time around, not to mention an open world filled with challenges, artifacts, documents and expansive story elements. Speaking of the story, while it’s not particularly deep, it does contain a strong antagonist duo and an even more compelling heroine. While Lara’s drive becomes a bit obsessive at first, she has grown up to be a capable woman, looking death in the face rather than fearing it. She is slowly becoming the leading lady we’ve come to expect, but with far more depth than ever before. The platforming elements can be a bit finicky at times, leading to various deaths, but when it works, stringing together the acrobatic moves makes the experience all the more exciting. Rise of the Tomb Raider is an adventure like no other, giving players a twenty hour experience that will have them engaged from the moment Lara comes on screen.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider
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