Reviewing Rise of the Tomb Raider (spoiler-free)

It took a bit of pre-planning and pleading, but over Christmas vacation I was able to play through Rise of the Tomb Raider on Xbox 360. I was also privileged to experience the first few hours of the game on Xbox One.

Actually, I should probably use the word “privilege” to describe playing the 360 version as well because Rise of the Tomb Raider – even on previous generation hardware – is an exceptionally polished game. It is a masterclass example of what a Next Gen Action Adventure should be – gripping, gorgeous, intricately thought-out and essentially bug-free.

The game isn’t without its issues, but developers Crystal Dynamics have clearly listened to player comments after the 2013 franchise reboot, and incorporated much of that feedback into the sequel. Certainly you can’t make claims of ludonarrative dissonance this time around. The story and gameplay are in sync as a slightly more experienced, considerably more confident Lara Croft embarks on a quest for answers to some major personal and professional questions. More specifically, our heroine’s journey sees her travel from Syria to Siberia, to uncover the fate of a Byzantine prophet who evidently held the secret to immortality.

Console comparison
Before examining the game in more detail, I will say that having played Rise on both Microsoft consoles, I found little difference between the two. If your system isn’t up for the demands of the new PC release, or if you don’t own an Xbox One, you’re really not missing out by going with older hardware. I can vouch for Rise still being worthwhile on the 360.

The One version obviously has more visual bells and whistles – realistic shine on walls of ice, and the build-up of snow as Lara wades around in it, for example – but both versions are stunning in their attention to detail. When in Syria, pause for a moment and just scan over the landscape. You’ll notice explosions and smoke wafting from the distant war-ravaged city.

On that note, no screenshots online do justice to the scope of the environments created for Rise of the Tomb Raider. They’re breath-taking.

The only major difference I could note between the two console versions is that your outfit selections carry through to cutscenes on the One, while they are preselected for you on the 360 (drawing you out of the game somewhat). Meanwhile, I had a single game crash on the newer system while I found Rise completely stable on the 360.

So forget fears of rushed, stripped-down conversions. As in all areas of development, Rise has been lovingly optimised for every available format.

Now let’s move on to the gameplay.

The joys of playing archaeologist
Hands down the best thing about Rise of the Tomb Raider is the way that story is embedded throughout the game – waiting to be discovered in the form of relics, documents, audio diaries and journals. Rise takes an aspect present in the 2013 game and builds on it substantially. You feel like an archaeologist (well, without having to dust off several hundred pottery shards), as you piece together historical tales along with Lara’s own backstory. It’s a hugely satisfying process.

The inclusion of more optional tombs and crypts in Rise is already a huge plus. However, it’s made even better by the fact that each of these areas has its own tale – with some stories more expansive than others. While clambering around on an ancient warship wedged in a glacial cavern, you find evidence that explains exactly how it ended up there. It’s not compulsory to hunt for the information, sure, but it adds a lot of flavour to proceedings.

Similarly, Lara’s camp fire monologues, and tape recordings from the supporting cast, provide a great deal of meat for fans and anyone speculating about possible future revelations in the franchise (What did happen to Lara’s mother, exactly?). It’s subtle though, and you have to specifically look for the clues. But the requisite digging does make the discoveries more rewarding.

The addition of an upgradable language skill feature is also a nice thematically appropriate touch. However, I did wish the translation of monoliths and documents was linked to something more interesting than buried coins. Which brings me to…

Everything and the kitchen sink
I'm still a bit sceptical about the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to gameplay in AAA Action Adventures these days. To win as many players as possible (and hence secure vital sales), titles are expected to be everything for everyone.

That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. By adopting such a design, you’re accommodating as many different interests and play styles as possible. In an acknowledgement of complaints that there was too much killing in Tomb Raider 2013, now Lara can stealth through many sections of the sequel. You choose between rushing out guns blazing, or pulling an Arkham Knight and delivering silent stabby death from above.

Player choice seems to have been a pivotal phrase guiding the design of Rise of the Tomb Raider. You can swap out Lara’s default outfit for one of the dozen alternatives, or not. You can explore the several optional tombs, or not. You can run around completing quests for allies, or not. You can craft better ammo, weapons and equipment, or not. You can unearth coins and spend them on better gear, or not. The player freedom in Rise is not dissimilar to that offered by RPGs.

This is all great, but surrounded by options I found myself thinking about necessity and consistency. How easy would it be to complete the main storyline simply by sticking to it; only spending experience points gained by following the narrow narrative path? Is it possible? Meanwhile, why is Lara cutting down skinned rabbits and burning posters, really? It may be more time spent with our heroine, exploring gorgeous, interesting hubs like the Geothermal Valley and Lost City (my favourites), but what does the vandalism really add?

Most people won’t complain about this point, I'm sure; but I did wonder what is possibly sacrificed by cramming in as much fun “filler” content as possible? For example, why go to the effort of introducing deep snow that slows Lara down, but never actually use it? Of course it contributes to the credibility of the game world, but why not have an action scene where the pain-in-the-arse substance impacts on progression through the encounter? Why can’t Lara use it to handicap and ambush her enemies?

My point is that if elements are introduced to a game, they should be used consistently. I would sacrifice a few chicken chuckings if that meant a greater focus on meaningful inclusions.

Another example of feature overload involves Rise of the Tomb Raider’s new craft-on-the-go combat option.

Massively satisfying, this gameplay addition highlights Lara Croft’s resourcefulness, as she can improvise Molotov cocktails from found bottles and cloth, create poison arrows from scavenged wood and mushrooms, and so on.

I thought the crafting feature would be fiddly and painful, but improvised weapon crafting became one of my favourite aspects of Rise. It makes conflict far richer, diverse and psychologically rewarding.

Combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider is a vast improvement over its predecessor, which tended towards repetitive onslaughts of foes. Crystal Dynamics has clearly listened, and the result is a big step-up in terms of satisfaction. Combat seems to have found that sweet spot right before challenge becomes frustration – I certainly seemed to die a lot less this time – and the combination of crafting system and “sneak past enemies” alternative to fighting makes monotony impossible.

This said, once you pass the game’s Point of No Return, crafting is almost entirely excised. As wave after wave of enemies arrive, there is no place for strategic combat, nor items to scavenge. Suddenly you’re back to relying on a well-timed dodge and shotgun blast to survive… just as was required time and time AND TIME AGAIN in Tomb Raider 2013.

Once more, there’s the introduction of something new that vanishes later on. Hmph.

Gripes aside, Rise of the Tomb Raider really does get combat right. If you compare the enemies faced at the start of the game with those in the final act, there's a strong sense of a difficulty curve in effect. Things feel pleasurably diversified.

Meanwhile, adding to a sense of accomplishment is the presence of actual strategic boss fights this time, as opposed to QTE events (although, personally I would have liked three phases to each encounter, as opposed to two, to up the challenge).

For the record, if you were put off by the graphic violence in 2013, Rise of the Tomb Raider is considerably less brutal than its predecessor. Although the animal attacks and trap deaths are still grimace-inducing for players, they aren’t nearly as gory and gleefully sadistic as before.

I may get a bit nit-picky and over-analytical in this review but honestly I only have one major complaint about Rise of the Tomb Raider. That's the camera in close combat.

The Tomb Raider franchise has always prioritised ranged weaponry – Lara is a keep-her-distance girl – but melee is made exceptionally frustrating in Rise by the uncooperative viewpoint. Typically you just end up swinging blindly with your axe when enemies get too close. Most of the time you can get away with it, but it is punishing against hard-hitting higher tier foes and the animal predators.

Also, I was grated by the lack of accent diversity in the game. Granted Crystal Dynamics is based on the US West Coast, and I’m sure there were budget constraints, but I felt more effort could have been made to find more international voice actors. Why would a Syrian driver and people who have lived in the Siberian Wilderness for generations all talk with American accents? Why is Lara’s London therapist also a Yank? It’s distracting and cracks the veneer of believability that has otherwise been so polished.

The lady herself
On the subject of believability, let’s consider the “rise” of Lara Croft herself. Tomb Raider 2013 won over many gamers with a more emotionally accessible treatment of Video Gamedom’s most iconic female character. Much like the Daniel Craig James Bond reboot, the new Lara was no longer supremely cool and untouchable. In 2013, 21 year old Lara could be – and was! – hurt body and soul. Her triumphs occurred despite fear and pain. Her strength of will got her through. Because of this, Reboot Lara felt more like a relatable human being than ever before.

This approach to the character has been retained in Rise of the Tomb Raider, in terms of both physical depiction and underlying psychology.

Again it’s a matter of attention to detail, but Crystal Dynamics have created a wonderfully lifelike Lara Croft model. She reacts to the world around her, and her gestures in unthinking moments have a relaxed naturalism to them. Advanced motion capture technology used for the cutscenes sees her face frequently light up with a sense of wonder at her surroundings. This is fantastic to see after so much “I hate tombs” dourness in the 2013 game. Rise’s Lara Croft is lovely and likeable. And actress Camilla Luddington gives a very strong performance in her second outing as the character.

Delving under her skin, Lara's character evolution feels subtler this time around. She's more mature and calculating in terms of her attitude and actions; not to mention smarter overall.

It’s interesting to note that apart from a few awful falls and rifle butts to the head, Lara is put through a lot less physical torment in Rise, and she generally beats herself up less. I would have preferred if she was a bit more torn up about events relating to Yamatai, but at least she still demonstrates a kind of weary resignation about her nature, and what she is prepared to do.

At the same time, though, I found myself wondering that as Lara grows in competence – as she embraces her Classic lone wolf lifestyle – is something lost in terms of audience connection and emotional investment? Or were her trials in 2013 overkill to begin with?

With Lara put through the wringer less in Rise, is she still an underestimated underdog to rally behind? I can’t recall a stirring “Run, you bastards; I’m coming for you all!” style line at any point during my playthrough. Certainly there are fewer moments in the new game where you air punch in triumph with her. (Although watch out for an encounter with a mammoth piece of ranged weaponry).

The challenge is really how to keep the character of Lara Croft flavoursome in this new universe, especially as her relationships become more situational and short-term? Personally, in Rise I preferred snarky, worked-up Lara to sweet "What can I do to help?" Lara. In fact, my favourite scenes involved a character who excels at giving our heroine a foul mouth and itchy trigger finger. Lara is always more interesting when she is given flint to spark off. I’ve never seen her as a cheerful, continually volunteering errand girl, even if her actions are guilt-driven. At least let her be a little exasperated and impatient about the situation.

Anyway, the same supporting player who rubs our heroine the wrong way also makes a comment about “breaking her.” Disappointingly, nothing ever comes from such a tantalising plot hook. This is a pity, as Lara and the character have a far more interesting dynamic than Lara and Jonah, a likeable but bland St Bernard of a sidekick.

Still, at the end of the day, the pivotal relationship in Rise is really Lara connecting posthumously with her father, and making up for all her years of doubt and resentment. Kudos to the writers for avoiding the clich├ęs that made me want to retch watching the first Tomb Raider movie. Rise could have been an endless stream of “Daddy knows best” moments, but Lara definitely demonstrates agency throughout. Meanwhile, Richard Croft’s emotional tape recordings help to flesh out the character as a credible flesh-and-blood person, as opposed to a mere plot device.

Final observations
Although the puzzles could have been a little more challenging (especially after Lara Croft GO), I was delighted to be back pushing and pulling things around to progress through a Tomb Raider game.

Rise is exactly what a Next Generation Tomb Raider game should be. It’s a beautiful-looking breakneck adventure styled on a Hollywood blockbuster – full of explosions, literal cliff-hangers and boo-hiss villains with megalomaniac ambitions.

On top of this, your level of immersion in the world can be as superficial or in-depth as you like. All it takes is a little exploring and assembly of backstory snippets to piece together the intricate history behind this layered narrative. This offers a kind of cerebral enjoyment to go with the exhilaration of the game’s breathless action sequences.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is slick, sure of itself and – let's also be honest here – market-conscious. This isn’t a bad thing – the game gives people what they want. It’s just that to me at least, Tomb Raider 2013 felt less finessed and, arguably, edgier. For example, it was easy to apply a Lara vs. the Patriarchy reading to the reboot. Three years ago, the new Tomb Raider was a franchise finding its feet, just like fledgling archaeologist Lara. Untested, it could take a few more risks without expectation looming over it. Rise plays out more conventionally as an adventure with an embedded lesson in sacrifice and finding life meaning.

Put another way, Rise of the Tomb Raider is Aliens in comparison to Tomb Raider’s Alien. They're both fantastic, but at their heart they're quite different beasts, with different scopes.

Now of course, what you lose in one area, you typically gain in another. Rise of the Tomb Raider is AAA gaming done as close to perfect as possible. I’m exceptionally happy that starting from tomorrow, more people will have the opportunity to experience it themselves on PC. This will hopefully offset at least some of the damage done by unfair business decisions that muted hype and, again VERY unfairly, hurt sales of what is a top-class Action Adventure.


Chris v Vuuren said…
Ye gods, I have to play this game now :-O

"boo-hiss villains" had me laughing.

This is a pretty good review, thanks
Shalia said…
Nice review. I too loved the crafting system as well as the stealth option. It's interesting how a mechanic so "simple" can really make a difference. The missions were a great addition as well. Honestly I'd rather see more of those than the silly challenges required for 100% completion. Talk about something that adds 0% to the experience. Overall, I also felt the game to be much better than the first in terms of game play and character design and development. I loved the plot of the 2013 reboot but there were way too many characters who I knew just as much about at end of the game as I did at the beginning. This game however centered around only a few and I was grateful for that because as a result they ended up feeling less one dimensional. At the end I actually felt sorry for Konstantine. Well... until he opened his mouth again. I also enjoyed this game's Lara. She felt more confident, determined and driven. It seemed like she cursed more in this game too which was surprising to me but I guess it makes total sense considering the circumstances. It just took some getting use to. I for one will be happy when she resolves her daddy issues though. I don't want her father to end up being the driving force for her archaeological conquests and that was what it was starting to feel like to me. It was a tad bit annoying. Lara was always "whining" during those camp side reflections. Did not like. The whole time I'm just thinking, "Where's Momma Croft and why does no one care but me"? Whats up with that? Finally, why is Jonah in the game? I still don't get it... he felt pretty useless to me. Except for inadvertently helping to expose a certain character's true form. Not that I have anything against him, because I actually like Jonah, but we seriously could have done without him...
Jun Jun Miller said…
Great review!As a long term PlayStation fan, I was so mad when it was announced as an exclusive for xbox... and I eventually giving up and bought the xb1 just for Lara! But I have no regret! I absolutely enjoyed it all the way!
I agree with you, I think Rise has done a great job as a squeal , gameplay is great, graphic just stunning! Another thing I love about Rise was all those outfits!! I love dress up Lara! I lost count on how many outfits I have been collected…
Did you try the DLC? Will you write a review as well?
Fruitbat44 said…
Thank you for a very interesting, and spoiler-free, review. I am currently thoroughly enjoying myself in The Commonwealth,'Fallout 4,' but it's really good to know that I've got something to look forward to. Actually it's very tempting to put F4 on hold and head for Syria . . . hmmm . . . but I have to at least reunite parent and child first. :)

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