Many an eyebrow was raised when it was announced that Rise Of The Tomb Raider would be released as an Xbox One exclusive. There was plenty of panic around the Enemy Slime halls until it was later clarified as a “timed” exclusive. Whew, thank god. I enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot from 2013, maybe not as much as some of the others on staff, which initially made me think I might not be the best person to review this one. Luckily my status as “guy who has Xbox One” ultimately sealed that it was my game for the season. And what a game it is.
I should start by saying that I kind of resent the praise that I’m about to dump on this game. You see, the best part about Rise Of The Tomb Raider is that its developer, Crystal Dynamics, took a sizable portion of the feedback they got with the release of the original and then they implemented what was reasonable into the next title. We shouldn’t be applauding a company for following fan feedback any more than I should be showered with praise every time I use a toilet successfully, this is something that should just be expected. But in a time where we have studios like Bioware and Ubisoft shitting out the same stuff every year (or sometimes actively making it worse), it’s nice to see someone actually get a sequel right.
We rejoin Lara Croft one year after she found herself ship-wrecked and beaten to hell in a search for the lost island of Yamatai. Now her thoughts have turned to her deceased father, or rather the legacy he left behind. During his final years Lord Croft buried himself in research surrounding the lost city of Kitezh or more specifically a mysterious artifact that resided within the city known as the “Divine Source”. His belief in an artifact said to be capable of granting eternal life was of course scoffed at by his peers. After a stream of ridicule tarnished his scholarly reputation Lara’s father ended up taking his own life. Now Lara can’t help but pick at the scabs of her family’s old wounds and decides to set off in search of the Divine Source herself. She also has to contend with a shadowy organization called Trinity who will serve a persistent thorn in the side for the duration of the game.
The story can feel a bit goofy at times and for the most part none of its beats are terribly original. I hesitate to say that the plot is better than the original but despite being a little cliche I never found myself rolling my eyes, which isn’t something I could always say about the 2013 title. While Rise of the Tomb Raider brings a little bit more levity to the series than was found in its predecessor this is still very much a straight faced affair, with Lara serving more as an exasperated punching bag than a plucky protagonist.What she lacks in charisma she makes up for in relatability though. Nathan Drake may flash his pearly whites and give a wink before jumping into a firefight, but you’ll never catch the guy screaming the F-word when he misses a ledge or calling his female opponent a cunt to her face. Yes that’s right, my highest praise for Lara is her foul mouth. We’re kindred spirits she and I.
Speaking of which it doesn’t take long for Lara to get back to her old ways. That is to say getting the ever-loving shit beat out of her non-stop. If the original game distressed you with all the grisly ways they could show a young pretty girl being impaled, be warned that it’s still very possible for Lara to meet a number of less than appealing fates. In fact even in the best of circumstances Lara wouldn’t have survived past the first twenty minutes of this game. The woman is a walking sponge for abuse and you can be guaranteed that if there’s a chance for her to take a hard fall off a cliff or an elbow to the face she’s going to bear it and grin. Our hero’s resilience is nice and makes her easy to sympathize with but at the same time I’m sure there are some who will have difficulty with a character who literally should have died twenty times before the opening credits have even rolled.
During the events of the last game we watched Lara go from frightened little girl to unstoppable killing machine and she’s only become more formidable since then. But Lara isn’t just a better killer this time around, she also takes a much more scholarly approach to her new adventure. In the last game there was always time to stop and admire a nice artifact here and there but the overall horrific situation Lara found herself in gave a sense of urgency that’s lightened up a bit in Rise Of The Tomb Raider. Lara can now find interesting artifacts, ancient texts, and abandoned tape recorders that all help to flesh out the world you find yourself in. The game even goes so far as to track Lara’s language proficiency in Mongolian, Russian, and Greek, with a higher reading comprehension allowing you to translate monoliths and uncover more secrets on the map.
Don’t worry of course, there’s still plenty of shit to blow up as well. While Rise Of The Tomb Raider definitely focuses more on exploration and platforming there’s still plenty of murder to go around. As with the previous game stealth plays an important role in combat with plenty of spots where enemies can be completely eradicated without so much as a peep or even bypassed entirely. Of course stealth isn’t always an option and there are plenty of moments where nothing but a big fat gun or an arrow with a grenade strapped to the tip will do. Both stealth and the core combat mechanics (aiming and shooting) feel very similar to the last game, the real differences are in its slightly more sparse appearances and the much more reasonable amounts of enemies it doles out.
As usual Lara has plenty of opportunities to augment her performance, both in skills for herself and upgrades that can be crafted for her weapons. The trees available are similar to the previous games, but there’s some nice new options that will help improve both your stealth and your mayhem game. (A friendly tip, invest in some dodge related skills and you’ll thank me after you finish the back quarter of the game.) A lot of the game’s crafting has been streamlined as well. Run out of ammo? Hold the right trigger and you’ll make more provided you have the materials. Picked up a bottle? Hold the right bumper and it becomes a fiery Molotov cocktail. Healing can be done in a similar fashion on the fly by holding the left bumper.
The game looks and runs phenomenally on the Xbox. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re holding out for the PC release it’s sure to be superior but it’s really remarkable what Crystal Dynamics has got running on the One, especially when you compare it to the shuddering framefests that make up just about any other major release this year on Microsoft’s platform.
If you’re a fan of the original let’s get to the piece you probably want to know about most. This time around the puzzle-laden optional tombs are more plentiful, longer, and feel a lot less, well, optional. Completing each tomb’s puzzle will unlock a different skill for Lara that is not available via the standard skill tree. Most of these skills are incredibly helpful including a ‘second chance’ ability that will restore Lara’s health once before death, or an ability that will improve her five senses and highlight traps in the environment before you run into them. The game also feature a number of crypts, areas that aren’t formal puzzles but instead serve more like platforming challenges where you’ll generally find some powerful pieces of gear.
I adore this game, Crystal Dynamics has done a remarkable job building on their already impressive previous title and has crafted an experience that I might even boldly proclaim is my favorite game in the Tomb Raider series. The game has held its own in its opening weeks despite being released sandwiched between Call of Duty and Fallout 4, and only on a single platform at that. If you have to wait the year it’s going to take to get your hands on this beauty then so be it, but if you have an Xbox One sitting around I don’t think there’s anything it could be doing this holiday season that would be better than this.