Rise of the Tomb Raider quickly crept its way into my list of top games of 2015. I knew it would be a good game – every indication, every preview, every “one hour of Rise of the Tomb Raider gameplay” video told me that I would be getting more of the same – more of an already good predecessor. And that’s what I got. Yet the game turned out to be so much more.
The Tomb Raider reboot was a phenomenal revival of an ailing franchise. Crystal Dynamics created a combination of Uncharted-style climbing and fun, rewarding bow combat that brought what was once a character that I could not care less about right back into the spotlight. With Rise, you get all the same things that made the 2013 reboot successful on a slightly bigger scale.
It’s the strength with which the game demanded my attention that truly stood out. It launched on the same day as Fallout 4 and I fully expected it to take a back seat to the wasteland survival RPG I’d been eagerly awaiting. Instead, it was Fallout 4 that got put on the backburner while I proceeded to play 30+ hours of Rise.
The game centers on a post-origin story Lara Croft, who in the first game bumbled around caught in circumstances outside her control and ended up on top through strength of will and a seemingly indestructible body. This time around, Croft is a good deal more self-assured and confident, instead charging headlong into a conflict that she could just as easily choose to avoid. Her obsession for finishing her father’s last work before his death and absolving him of his failures is the root of her newest bout of exploration. And while a stronger character is brilliant, the second entry in the rebooted series feels a bit more like the second part of an origin story than it needed to.
Beyond that characterization, the narrative features all the same old tropes and hallmarks of this type of story, resulting in a rather predictable plot. The one big bad organization (Trinity), the psychopath trying to kill you (Konstantin), the shocking betrayal, the native rebels defending their homeland from invasion, and a dash of magic – it’s all there in spades. The story is told competently and confidently, and the acting is on point, if a bit breathy. Camilla Luddington does a great job as the protagonist. And yet it is not the most compelling part of the game.
What truly brings you back to play Rise of the Tomb Raider for hours on end is the gameplay. The bow and arrow combat feels miles better than it did in the 2013 reboot, and that’s saying a lot considering how great it was beforehand. The bow can be upgraded by gathering resources throughout the guided, semi-open world, as well as through story-based development. Shooting a bow felt impactful and challenging in a way that made me entirely forget that any other weapon even existed. Yeah, the assault rifle, pistol, and shotgun are useful. Yeah, you can craft makeshift smoke bombs and fire grenades from tins and gas canisters you find on the ground. But why would you want to when it’s so damn fun to move from cover to cover, pop out to pin a guy’s head to a wall, and move on to the next one?
You can choose to play the game all guns blazing or take the stealthy route, but I found that a healthy mix of both was the optimal way to go. Sometimes you can see a leaking gas container that you can light on fire and take out half the baddies before destroying their shocked friends. Other times you can sneak from one bush to the next and break necks without a sound. Both are brilliant in their own way, and both deserve to be experienced in a single playthrough.
The map is peppered with little side challenges, quests, and collectibles that you can both obtain immediately and occasionally have to wait for future upgrades. Typically, this frustrates me in other games. I’m not big on the open world collect-a-thon games that have you bumbling around ignoring the main plot to get meaningless side trinkets. But in Rise of the Tomb Raider, each trinket you find is well-characterized and given a place in the plot, explaining the overarching histories of the Russians, Atlas, the natives, and even Lara’s father. They feel meaningful to discover, which you don’t often find in other games.
Then there are the challenge tombs. There are nine of them in the entire game, and all nine have different physics-based or logic puzzle challenges that you need to complete in order to get to the end. The reward in each is a skill, often overpowered compared to the rest of the skills you can obtain in the progression system but never so much that the game becomes too easy. The tombs are fun to play and experience, and the scenery is gorgeous, but I did find each one either a bit too easy or a bit too short. As a whole, they’re nine extras in the game that should be experienced, even if individually they can be a bit shallow.
Graphically, the game is stunning, boasting some of the most beautiful environments I’ve seen on Xbox One. Texture work is not without its flaws, but the vast majority of what you see has been worked on with such meticulous detail that you won’t care about the small oddities. The in-game framerate is generally a stable 30fps with some occasional drops when you make too many things go boom. That can’t be said for the cutscenes – the most glaring technical problem with the game – which run at a lower resolution and frequently drop to what feels like below 20fps, resulting in a choppy and jarring experience. Overall, however, Rise is absolutely gorgeous.
Simple and predictable story and minor technical flaws aside, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like a tremendous success on the part of Crystal Dynamics. They gave us a game that feels like more of Tomb Raider 2013, and yet improved on the formula in every way, from the character development to the graphics and even the gameplay.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted using a physical copy of the game on Xbox One, purchased at the expense of the reviewer.