Unearthing an astonishing treasure
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a return to form for the long-running series, and Crystal Dynamics manages to pull it off spectacularly. Lara Croft has transcended the relatable, well-rounded protagonist and reclaimed her place atop the throne as one of video gaming’s best lead characters to come around in a long time.
2013’s Tomb Raider was a breath of fresh air into a stale franchise. A cavalcade of terrible sequels and laughable movies seemed to bury the original series legacy in a forgotten tomb. The reboot was bold, and focused more on Lara as a character, which sparked complaints from fans that it had become a husk of Croft’s original adventures. They wanted a return of the puzzle platforms through grand temples and underground cities. Crystal Dynamics covers every angle, by anchoring the world and Lara’s story with its own emotional weight and believable characters.
In denial of her father’s death, Croft sets out in search of the Divine Source, and ancient artifact that grants the gift of eternal life. The ensuing plot is more classically Tomb Raider than the previous game, grounding the player, as the hunt for this mysterious artifact lends the story a clear focus the reboot lacked. This concept isn’t original by any means, but I found myself forgetting about the very trite and overused narrative.
That’s because Rise of the Tomb Raider is loads of fun to play. Lara is no longer required to head-shot every enemy she comes across. An impressive stealth mechanic has been added as well as the ability to avoid combat encounters entirely. Environments are carefully constructed with verticality in mind as well as basic cover objects. Lara can crouch down in tall grass and bushes, or climb trees to gain a vantage point. Both of these positions offer up a one-button take down sequence, a la Assassins Creed. The stealth works well and offers another layer of depth to the mixture of platform traversal and action. Unfortunately, it suffers the same problems many other games with stealth mechanics have, in that there is no reward for avoiding combat. The few times I managed to accomplish this feat, meant that I had missed out on potential weapons and ammunition, along with the peace of mind to freely scavenge the area for supplies.
Enemy AI has also been improved; soldiers now investigate noises from stray arrows and react to the absence of a comrade who has gone missing. Lara’s survival methods have been enhanced as well; she can now identify which of her foes is within visible range of another, allowing you to meticulously plot which enemy to take out and where the best spot is to do so. I preferred playing as stealthy as possible, waiting for soldiers to shy away from their pack before strangling them with a bow, or cascading arrows from a distance at unsuspecting snipers. Objects in the environment play a key role, as Lara’s crafting skills allow you to fashion molotov’s and cans of shrapnel almost instantaneously.
It’s clear Crystal Dynamics knows exactly how these encounters should play out, with making use of as much of the environment as possible and Lara’s fluidity of moving from one cover spot to the next. It may be tempting to camp behind a massive rock and take out enemies with projectiles, but most encounters include grenades being thrown towards Lara’s direction with precise regularity, forcing you to scramble in search of another position for protection.
After just a few hours, the game starts to introduce open world hub areas, filled with wild animals to hunt, which are used to upgrade equipment and weapons. Upgrade paths and skill trees are now quite advanced, and Rise of the Tomb Raider allows you to specialize in a way that wasn’t possible in the reboot. Although the actual process of collecting and hunting quickly begins to become an unwanted chore. Lara can find crafting components and animals by using her “instincts.” This process is done by clicking in the left stick, the environment darkens and the collectibles light up with a golden hue. I don’t mind the system, but it was never a challenge to find hidden coins, shrubs, or birds nest. The map shows dozens of points of interest, but most of these are one button events. Ancient murals, survival caches and relics all require the exact same interaction by walking up to them and pressing X.
One of the biggest complaints from fans about the reboot was the almost complete absence of tombs and puzzles in the game. And while the main story hurls you through some tough platforming sections and epic set pieces, the holy grail is found in the optional challenge tombs. These tombs offer up puzzles that were never too challenging to spark frustration, but instead guided me through there complexity and made me feel like a genius when I had mastered them. The nine optional challenge tombs feel like love letters to what Tomb Raider use to be. Each tomb is beautifully designed and moderately sized, but the challenge itself is fairly small and over much to soon. Doing so unlocks more ancient information of your surroundings, but more importantly a skill point allowing you to upgrade how you see fit. My only real complaint is that Crystal Dynamics understands too well the virtue of the rope arrow, which allows you to interact with objects from a distance and as a result becomes very omnipresent. Shoving this mechanic into most optional tombs takes away from the diversity of puzzles, and makes it difficult to distinguish each chamber.
I’m glad to see the developer find it’s footing with the Tomb Raider franchise. Crystal Dynamics has created a well balanced puzzle platforming action game, and managed to not shoehorn it’s protagonist into the same bland box so many are modeled after. Lara Croft has become a powerfully independent presence, and has cemented her legacy as video games most iconic heroine. Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t exactly what hardcore fans wanted, but it engages the player with diverse game-play mechanics, and exceptional character growth that it’s sure to be a delight for anyone willing to excavate.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360 ; Publisher: Square-Enix ; Developer: Crystal Dynamics ; Players: 1; Released: November 10, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox One version of Rise of the Tomb Raider.