written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
If 2013’s Tomb Raider is the reboot of the origin of lead character Lara Croft, this year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider offers up a tale that returns her to her treasure hunting roots… sans tank top and short-shorts. Driven by a legend that her adventurer father couldn’t uncover, Lara discovers clues to the secret of immortality. This leads her to explore remote and treacherous regions of Siberia in search of it, believe to be in the lost city of Kitezh. When Trinity (a ruthless organization rooted in religious fanaticism) also begins their search for the artifact, Lara is forced to find it before they do… if not to verify her father’s claims but to keep it out of the hands of an organization whose intentions spell out a grim future.
When playing through Rise of the Tomb Raider, much of the first game’s themes of survival will ring true. Once again, Lara has to act as a one woman army against a battalion that is both heavily armed and incredibly dangerous. The story plays out fairly straight forward, but has its fair share of twists and turns. Some of the surprises I anticipated a mile away, others I swear feel like they came out of left field from a stadium across town.
The nuanced narrative of 2013’s Tomb Raider was spot on, this second adventure is rife with themes of survival, who to trust, and fulfilling your legacy. Like last gen’s title, much of Lara’s self reflection moments happen when finding one of those random basecamps littered across the world. These serve to allow the player to catch up with events that have occurred so far while also allowing Lara to replay some of her father’s expedition notes.
The hunt for a mythical object, a shadowy organization on her tail, acting as a one woman/death delivering army… you won’t be wrong if another action-adventure video game franchise comes to mind. Much of what makes the Uncharted series is felt in many of the moments in Rise of the Tomb Raider and the previous title’s gaming DNA. I’ve pointed this out how this is a funny sort of circle of inspiration, since much of what I enjoyed about Uncharted was how it reminded me of the PSOne era Tomb Raider titles. While I drew many similarities between the two adventures, Rise of the Tomb Raider does stand out on its own in many respects.
Gameplay wise, Rise of the Tomb Raider and its predecessor give Uncharted a run for its money. The exciting gunplay from 2013’s title persists in the sequel. Much stays the same in the “pew pew” department, Lara is able to equip up to four different types of weaponry; a bow, a rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. Many of these weapons, and their subsequent upgrades, allow Lara to reach otherwise unreachable points in the map.
Crafting throwable weapons and specialized ammunition give this title a fresh spin, sure you could survive the Serbian wilderness on arrows alone, but say you’re faced against a cluster of guards all looking for you, a poison arrow that releases a lethal fog can help thin the ranks a bit before going into full on gunplay. Molotov cocktails and cluster bombs can be crafted from random bottles and cans you find around your environment. These bottles and cans can also be used to distract guards and lure them into an opportune position to stealth kill them… speaking of stealth…
Stealth gameplay is dramatically improved from 2013’s title. While Lara can sneak around underbrush, she can also go vertical, climbing trees to find the perfect opportunity to stealthily take out an enemy soldier. Some underwater areas also make for perfect stealth takedowns. Say you approach a heavily armed guard with his back to a body of water, you can take him out and stealthily snap his neck in his newfound watery grave. While I mentioned how Tomb Raider weaved many of Uncharted’s game elements in, the stealth combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider felt inspired by another contemporary, namely the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Give her a grapple gun and more intuitive melee combat system next time and we can throw the Arkham series into its DNA.
Skills and upgrades are fleshed out with a skill tree that I feel can’t be completed in one playthrough. This allows the player to perfectly craft their own Lara Croft to fit their playstyle. I’m a stealthier Lara, so I made sure to pour resources into skills and upgrades that allowed me to stay undetected for longer periods of time. There is no wrong way to engage a combat scenario, you can run in all guns blazing like an action movie, or take a more delicate approach to your death dealing endeavors.
I still am not too keen on being forced to upgrade my skills at base camps, while I can’t say I have ever been left high and dry by this gameplay mechanic, other contemporaries allow you to upgrade your characters skills in the open world. Either way, this game allows for multiple routes to reach the same objective, which you choose is completely up to the gamer.
Lara strikes me as more proactive in her approach to combat, this isn’t the same Lara from 2013’s Tomb Raider. While on Yamatai, she was a more reactive combatant; reacting to hoards of crazed cultists gunning for her head, this time she’s confident to run into the danger and responds like a seasoned warrior. Engagements can shift on a dime, going from stalking the underbrush to running around a battlefield desperately looking for cover. Controlling her is a delight and Lara’s varied forms of mobility make her a hard target to pin down.
The map is gorgeous and deliciously next gen, I found myself simply admiring my environment from time to time. From snow packed mountain tops to lush valleys, the world is bigger and more beautiful than 2013’s title. While the core narrative is fairly linear, there is more to do in the world. While not a totally sandbox game, various activities from cutting down flags to completing optional sidemissions yield rewards that can better arm and outfit Lara in combat. Some of these sidemissions require Lara to visit previously explored locales to complete objectives, a simple task thanks to the ability to jump between previously visited base camps.
It wouldn’t be a Tomb Raider game without… well… tombs. Returning from 2013’s Tomb Raider are the optional challenge tombs, while there are a few core narrative puzzles Lara must tackle, these optional tombs serve to challenge your prowess with the game while rewarding players who unlock the secret of these tombs. I found myself scratching my head on quite a few of these and when finally figuring out the secret, these tombs were incredibly rewarding.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a visual feast, a smorgasbord for the eyes and one that definitely pushes this generation to its limits. Just the physics in Lara’s hair feel more organic than an entire character’s body in last gen games. The visual aesthetic stays true here, creating a cohesive look to the characters from last gen to now. Unlike a game like Arkham Knight that took its character designs in a more realistic turn than its last gen predecessors, Rise of the Tomb Raider fits in with 2013’s reboot wonderfully, creating what I feel will be a paramount new franchise we can expect to excite us during each release.
One big absence this time is the multiplayer aspect, while last gen saw games that were traditionally single player games (like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed) tack on multiplayer game types, this gen feels like these games are opting out of the MP add on to better craft a more complete game for the player, though I wish the same can be said for the big guns like COD and Halo which seems this gen to pour all their resources in multiplayer and instead craft a campaign that feels throwaway.
To keep you playing, the new Expeditions game mode allow you to tackle slices of gameplay with various modifiers you load in. Think of this like the scene selection menu from current home video releases of movies. Sometimes you just want to play one particular slice of gameplay again without having to fight through the whole campaign. While games before are able to let you replay certain missions after completing, Rise of the Tomb Raider keeps these experiences fresh by allowing you to modify them to make them either easier for the player or more challenging, the choice is yours. Personally, I’ll take Expeditions over the multiplayer any day of the week.
This game wins in every category, from the breathtaking visuals to exciting gameplay that never feels like its holding the player’s hand. Puzzles are challenging but doable and never feel like they are too easy or too crippling. I have been excited for this ever since its first teaser trailer. 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot was a masterful way to bring back a franchise that could have easily been left behind, Rise of the Tomb Raider does a fantastic job to return Lara to iconic form. In 2013 she was a survivor, desperately teetering between life and death; this time, she’s taking the first steps to becoming a legend again. The Tomb Raider is reborn, and now a whole new generation of gamers can experience her story.
+ varied combat choices
+ improved stealth
+ gripping narrative
+ I <3 Lara...
- still can only upgrade skills at base camps