by Matthew Thompson
I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. It was solid and I enjoyed my time with it, but it was a bit of a letdown too. For one it wasn’t very Tomb Raider-y. It eschewed the adventure-focused roots of the series in favor of a new action-oriented direction which didn’t sit all that well for me as a long-time fan. This would be more forgivable if it was excelling at what it set out to do, but it wasn’t particularly great at being what it was trying to be – a cinematic action game – either. As a result, I went into Rise of the Tomb Raider with tempered expectations – cautiously optimistic due to the developers seeming to say the right things pre-release, but unsure what would come in the final package. I’m happy to report that Rise of the Tomb Raider is better than its predecessor in just about every way, delivering both a superb action/adventure game and something that veers closer to what I want from the series.
Let me start with how it helped inject some of that Tomb Raider flavor that was so lacking in the last entry – in particular Lara engaging in that traditional titular activity – back into the series. Tombs have received a sizable upgrade from the previous outing. For one, they just feel more like tombs this time around. They span a range of different environments from ancient ruins to abandoned mines to the odd structure with old, but advanced technology. Regardless of the way they look, they evoke the sort of wonder you’d expect to find when accompanying Lara into these kinds of spaces. They also deliver more of what tombs should from a gameplay standpoint. That means more clever puzzles integrated with platforming. They aren’t exactly stumpers, but they’re tough enough to make you feel good about solving them. While there are more tombs on the main path a lot of these remain optional affairs, but even the lesser ones in Rise best anything the reboot had on offer. Heck even getting to the tombs is better this time with some nice traversal sequences often utilizing some of Lara’s new gear and tools.
That is just one way RotTR expands the adventure aspects from last time out. They have really beefed up the exploration as well which was probably already the strongest part of the reboot. The hubs are bigger and better here. There are more things to do like side missions. And more places to explore like caves and crypts. And they give you a better incentive to actually search these environments as doing so may earn you new abilities, weapons or outfits. Plus the expanded resource and crafting system means you’ll want to have plenty of the various collectible items on hand to get worthwhile upgrades or to help out in combat. The last game’s gear-gating (light Metroid-esque item progression) is handled better here too with some really fun new items – like the return of the grapple with some fresh tricks up its sleeve – that make traversing your way through Rise of the Tomb Raider a lot of fun. I’d still love to see more (and tougher) puzzling and platforming like the older games had make it into this new series, but this larger focus on exploration is a good fit for Tomb Raider and helps fill the void left by those aforementioned components.
With the emphasis placed back on the adventure in action/adventure, the action has been dialed back which is fine by me. Luckily they have also taken great strides towards improving this aspect, so I didn’t mind when it popped up at all. Combat is similar on the surface with the soft cover system back as well as Lara’s new signature bow in tow. Her mobility remains a huge asset and I wish more characters’ movement controls handled as well as hers in other third-person shooters. The big difference this time out is how dramatically your options in combat have been increased. This includes everything from crafting things on the go like poison arrows, molotovs, and health packs to distracting enemies with thrown bottles so you can sneak by. One time I killed a guy with my knife silently and then set a poison trap on his body. From here I moved off to a safe distance and shot an arrow at the wall near him. This alerted another enemy nearby to investigate. When he saw the body, he ran over to it and was killed by my trap. You can also use your climbing and swimming abilities to get the jump on baddies or bypass encounters completely. And I like that there is less throwing waves of enemies at you and more you coming across them unaware, so you can make use of all these options.
There are some issues here though. I still find the lack of blindfire from cover and hipfire on the run odd. For the bow that makes sense, but not for the other weapons. The AI still leaves something to be desired and enemy variety is lacking. The series’ supernatural elements seem like a perfect opportunity to remedy the latter, but similar to the 2013 game they don’t. Finally I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a slight input lag while aiming. Those not sensitive to this sort of thing may not notice it and the game isn’t tough enough even on the highest difficulty that it will give you much trouble, but it certainly makes it feel less smooth than it should. All these things add up to make it so the sections in open combat are weaker than they could be if some of these problems were remedied. Despite that the combat has made a huge leap forward from its predecessor and RotTR is a much better game for it.
You are in for a lengthy adventure with Rise of the Tomb Raider. I finished the game in about 15 hours and spent another ten or so getting to 100%. There is also Expedition Mode which lets you go after score and time challenges in the game’s many different levels. These add some replay value and are pretty fun. I just don’t love the card implementation. It adds a bit of randomness to the scoring and seems like a way to shoehorn in some micro-transactions. Regardless I like these sorts of challenge modes in games and it is a much better fit than the last game’s competitive multiplayer. If nothing else it is worth it as a quick way to let you replay some of your favorite sections.
The story isn’t anything special and a couple of the twists seemed very obvious to me, but I still feel like it works much better than last time. I think a lot of this comes down to Lara as a character. They don’t have to repeat the clumsiness of that move from reluctant first kill to Rambo Lara this time which helped, but I just like this version of Lara a lot more in general. She doesn’t fall into this survival situation, she seeks out this adventure knowing the dangers involved. And I like Camilla Luddington’s voice-acting better here too. That is partly due to a stronger narrative and better direction for the character, but I think she feels more comfortable in the role and delivers a better performance this time as well.
There are so many other things I haven’t gotten to yet. I love when games can combine linear and more open level design and RotTR does it well and with a fairly unique structure to boot. The art direction is impeccable and the graphics on Xbox One are some of the best out there right now. Action setpieces have never been Crystal Dynamics’ strong suit, but there were a couple of sequences that I came away very impressed with here. Oh and swan diving is back and that just makes my heart happy.
I could quibble about other small things like how they went a tad overboard with the collectibles (the ones you have to dig up are a bit much). And part of me still wishes this was a hardcore platforming series like it was in the past especially with that genre being so depleted these days. But the little issues seem minuscule when looking at the game as a whole. And it is hard to knock it for what it isn’t, when what it is is so fantastic. With Rise of the Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics’ has crafted an excellent, well-rounded action/adventure game that has become one of my favorite games in the series and an easy choice for my 2015 Game of the Year so far.