Hip, fresh, and with a far more believable silhouette, Lara Croft is back in vogue. This year’s instalment – Rise of the Tomb Raider – is a timed Xbox One exclusive. With the success of ‘13’s reboot, one would imagine Microsoft paid a pretty penny for that exclusivity. Was it worth it? Is Rise of the Tomb Raider another feather in Microsoft’s 2015 cap? In short, hell flippin’ yeah it is.
Since we last hung out with Lara, a year has passed. The wonder and intrigue of Tomb Raider has given way to doubt and ridicule, and Lara has become obsessed with proving herself to society. Hot on the trail of a (surprise!) ancient mystery, Lara is now tasked with scouring Siberia to discover the secret of immortality while battling bad guys.
It’s a simple action oriented story with plenty of predictable plot twists, but it’s entertaining in a way few other games manage. All too often the main plot feels like a nuisance that gates access to side objectives, but Rise of the Tomb Raider reverses that. Although I’m sure it isn’t the case, it felt like I needed to hurry to the next story beat – almost like there was a countdown timer running somewhere, and the story might be messed up if I didn’t make it in time. That alone is utterly refreshing – a game where you can’t wait to see what happens next and feel invested in the events.
I won’t spoil anything for you here, but I feel obligated to mention how real the characters in Rise of the Tomb Raider seem. From plucky sidekicks and mysterious tribal leaders to mission-from-god nutcases and Lara herself, there is a distinct sense that each character has a deep and diverse backstory. Even if it’s never revealed or the character has few lines, there is an intriguing feeling of depth here that most games fail to deliver on. All the voice actors turn in solid performances, with particular kudos to the voice of Lara – Camilla Luddington – for doing a commendable job at providing insight into Lara’s frame of mind, often with nothing more than a subtle intonation.
“The lack of constantly visible directional arrows makes Rise of the Tomb Raider refreshingly organic feeling.”
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a hybrid of game types. On one hand is the main storyline, which funnels you effortlessly between story beats thanks to excellent environmental design. Just like an expertly paced action adventure movie, Tomb Raider’s main loop of exploring an area, gazing in wonder at an incredible vista, and tackling a challenge of some sort is immensely satisfying. Amazingly, Rise of the Tomb Raider manages this without gaudy objective indicators on screen. Lara’s ‘survival instincts’ can be activated briefly if you’re completely lost, but the lack of constantly visible directional arrows makes Rise of the Tomb Raider refreshingly organic feeling.
The other hand includes all the other stuff – collectibles, scavenging, exploring, hunting, and more – which make Rise of Tomb Raider an almost-open world game. Many of the game’s areas are indeed wide open spaces, but are ones that typically have a specific number of path options rather than the infinite variability seen in other games. Don’t mistake that design choice for easiness or a lack of exploration though, as stumbling across a challenge tomb or side objective still feels great. It’s a guided experience, but manages to maintain the sense of freedom and discovery that gives a gamer the warm fuzzies. It’s a magical combination that makes tomb raiding far and away the best part of Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Since her Playstation days, Lara Croft has been known for puzzle solving. That’s still the case in the 21st century, and they’ve become infinitely more clever. Far from the traditional block pushing puzzles of the 90’s, water flow, explosives, ropes, and more all play significant roles in solving puzzles. The game does a nice job balancing puzzle difficulty, making what needs to be done reasonably obvious, and making how you achieve that the challenge – I rarely felt stuck. Traversal is also important when raiding tombs, and Lara’s skill set is beyond diverse. Ice climbing, rope swings, and grappling hooks are all here, and chaining moves together is a heck of a lot of fun, especially on the run.
Even once the main story is complete, there are a solid armload of other things to do in the game. Most interesting is the challenge mode, where players play through story missions in score attack fashion. Cards (gaming’s current favourite trend) can be earned or purchased to modify the experience and the points multiplier for a given run. For example, starting with no ammo gives a big score boost, but is a serious disadvantage – I can’t wait to see how creative the community gets with this mode.
Where Rise of the Tomb Raider’s gameplay falls down is in combat. When enemies are near, Lara automatically crouches and gets a bit sneakier – nice, but it would have been handy to control her stance manually at times. Gun play feels jerky despite fiddling with the sensitivity several times – lining up enemies from stealth can be frustrating, and getting a bead during more intense fights borders on maddening. Melee fighting is limited to one button with a somewhat inconsistent timing based counter system. By the end of the game, it was still unclear when I needed to dodge to trigger a counter, and I still needed to adjust my aim several times before firing. It’s functional certainly, but it’s annoying to feel like you’re still fighting the controls several hours into a game.
Far from a one trick pony, Lara is always up for learning something new – crafting and skill upgrades play a significant role in this journey. Base camps are littered throughout the world and allow Lara to spend skill points, craft ammunition and equipment upgrades, and weapon modifications using resources found in the world. The really cool thing is that Lara often gives an internal monologue on the current situation while you do your crafting, which keeps it from feeling tedious.
“I don’t know (or care) how many ‘p’ Rise of the Tomb Raider is rendered in, but it looks absolutely stunning.”
I don’t know (or care) how many ‘p’ Rise of the Tomb Raider is rendered in, but it looks absolutely stunning. Lighting stands out particularly, with volumetric effects that make old places feel suitably heavy and claustrophobic, while ice that glints in the sunshine serves to make Siberia seem truly frigid. The game pushes a ton of particles too, with extremely impressive snow, fire, and spark effects. Visual fidelity overall is great, but all those effects have to catch up with the system somewhere. The game chugs a bit during intense sequences, and overly sharp object edges could stand a heavy dose of anti-aliasing, but the balance Crystal Dynamics has struck is good overall, and sticks around 30 frames per second most of the time. This is probably the best looking game on Xbox One, and in the top few on any platform.
Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t the biggest open world game. It doesn’t have the most quests or the most collectibles, and heck, you don’t even climb tall structures without a darn good reason. What Rise of the Tomb Raider has in spades is balance. Everything about the experience screams quality, and every objective has a good reason for existing.Those things make this small, tightly woven world more entertaining to explore than others, and consequently Rise of the Tomb Raider is a freakin’ great experience. I take issue with its combat mechanics, but everything else is so good that action adventure fans would have to be crazy to pass this one up.
- Clever and entertaining puzzles
- Solid storytelling
- Drop dead gorgeous
- Wrestling with combat controls
- Framerate dips