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Rise of the Tomb Raider REVIEW – Refinement, not revelation

by Eric Frederiksen | November 9, 2015November 9, 2015 6:00 am PDT

If it hadn’t already been used in the title for the fourth Tomb Raider game, the word revelation would’ve been an accurate description for 2013’s stellar entry in the long running series. It took Lara Croft, a character that had, more or less, been a marketing driven property designed to exploit the young male gamer’s wallet and libido, and totally rebooted her in the best sense of the word. That might sound ridiculous now, looking at how angular she was back then, but it’s true.

Where the older Tomb Raider games sort of told you Lara was badass and just hoped you’d go with it, 2013’s Tomb Raider told the story of how it happened and made the player a part of it, asking them to step into Lara’s shoes and survive in brutal conditions against merciless odds and enemies. It was, for the Tomb Raider series, a revelation.

Rise of the Tomb Raider, then, has a lot to answer for. The question that used to be “how bad will the new Tomb Raider suck” has morphed into “can it possibly be as good as the last one?” Tomb Raider set a standard for character development, visuals, and mechanics the series hadn’t seen. Where can Rise of the Tomb Raider take things from there?

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I get around

Rise of the Tomb Raider just isn’t a revelation. A huge overhaul like we saw with Tomb Raider wouldn’t have made sense or maybe even have been possible at this point. Instead, it’s more of a refinement, and it’s a damn fine one at that.

Everything that made Tomb Raider great has been improved upon and amplified.

The most important thing about a game as open as Rise of the Tomb Raider is that it be fun to simply navigate the map. Whether it’s how much stuff there is to see or how you get there, the ride has to be good enough to stay fresh as long as you’re playing.

In Rise of the Tomb Raider, just getting there is at least half of the fun. That’s not meant to take away from the combat or anything else, it’s just that getting there is really fun.

The areas in Rise of the Tomb Raider are well designed to take advantage of all of Lara’s different abilities, and just enough areas are barred off by a lack of tools that it’s worth going back with your new toys to explore once or twice after you’ve finished an area.

The rope arrow is back and functions roughly the same as before, but there are a few new tools to enjoy, too.

Right from the outset, climbing is more fun. Lara has her climbing axes from the start and never loses them.Climbing is more fun and dynamic as the surfaces you’re climbing on are more likely to fall apart under you, even if it’s still not terribly realistic. Climbing that feels both organic and fun is probably a holy grail for these types of games and one we won’t see achieved for a while yet, but climbing is as good as it’s ever been here.

Lara finds yet another use for arrows in Rise as she picks up some industrial-strength arrows that she can bury in some surfaces to use as a climbing bar. While I think the tool was a bit underused, it was still a fun one.

The best moment, though, came when I picked up the tool that turned the climbing axe into a grappling hook.

The grappling hook is required to get to some areas, but it affects the entire game. Ledges you might’ve missed can be grappled at the last second, meaning that you spend less time watching Lara’s skull get dashed against rocks again and again. There are areas that are inaccessible without it, of course, and those moments are fun too, if a bit scripted. Even without those, the way the tool changes basic navigation was refreshing for me, and made the already fun traversal feel fresh all over again.

A fighting chance

After the first big gameplay showing from Rise of the Tomb Raider earlier this year, which focused heavily on combat, I was a little worried the game would put too much emphasis on Lara’s quickly growing repertoire of murder methods.

Combat is definitely there, but it’s not overwhelming most of the time. Many of the sequences can be handled quite nicely with stealth, and the stealth works well enough that it’s satisfying and fun. At the same time, though, I didn’t feel the need to load from a checkpoint when things went sour. The gunplay has been tightened up and feels better than ever, and it was more fun to work through an area that way once I was found than to sit and restart over and over.

The combination of functional stealth (that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it really isn’t) and tight combat ended up giving me a nice balance between the two. You’re definitely forced into combat a few times, but the times where it felt forced were few and far between.

Now featuring actual tombs

Tombs are a big part of Rise of the Tomb Raider. They don’t make up a majority of the time, but some quality time can be spent with them and they’ll end up taking a few hours of gameplay depending on how fast you whip through them.

They don’t feel like cheap last-minute additions, either. There was no moment during the development process where someone said, “Oh we should probably put some tombs in this game too.”

The story, which I’ll go into more depth on below, explains the presence of so many tombs so close together in a way that unifies them in both story and design. The game has Lara searching for a lost city, and this city was once a flourishing place and the tombs are devoted to the people who helped make the city happen. The way they’re presented and spread out feels like the same way pharaoh tombs are distributed in Egypt

The puzzles are fun, too, and they’re not magically immune to the systems the game has put in place, either. If you miss an early tomb and head back with your grappling hook and explosive arrows, it might be a very different (and quicker) experience, and this helps make the game feel more like a breathing world.

She’s not a kid anymore

Part of what made Tomb Raider such a revelatory experience was the way Lara was written and the characters she was surrounded with. Her growth felt, for the most part, very believable. She went from her first kill to just murdering dudes all over a bit fast, but that whole opening area of the game, from the survival elements to the first kill, painted such a convincing picture that I fell in love with the character right from the start. By the end of the game, the killing made sense. Lara was pissed and ready to go. You could actually see the events of the game scarring her, both physically and emotionally.

My hopes were up, then, when the first trailers for the game had Lara talking with a therapist about what she’d been through. I’d hoped the game would deal with those scars through the story and writing. That not the case, unfortunately.

The phrase “gritty reboot” is a bit of a joke at this point, but Tomb Raider got it right in all the same ways Casino Royale did for James Bond a few years before that. It took the character and showed us a new side of them while putting them in an environment that didn’t feel like an amusement park.

Rise of the Tomb Raider, unfortunately, feels a bit like old Bond movies like From Russia with Love. It isn’t campy, but the brutality just isn’t there. The comparison continues to work as the game puts a heavy emphasis on Lara’s adversarial relationship with a secret organization called Trinity.

Again, it isn’t ever campy, but it doesn’t feel quite like the character we got to know last time around. Lara is absolutely as capable as I want her to be, and responds realistically to the supernatural situations and caricature villains we’re presented with. She just isn’t given room to grow.

As much as the traversal, combat, and visuals – this game is gorgeous, by the way – felt like good progression for the series, this felt less like a mainline entry and more like something we’d be seeing in a comic meant to bridge between a couple games.

Where Tomb Raider was brutal and unforgiving, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels a bit sugary by comparison despite the harsh Siberian environment so much of the game takes place in. Also, Lara really needs to wear a hat.

I loved my time with Rise of the Tomb Raider. I’ve already started a second playthrough on the hardest difficulty so that I can enjoy the game all over again. It’s a refinement in almost every sense of the word, and there’s also been a cutting of fat, too. Multiplayer is gone completely, replaced by an Expedition Mode that lets you play the game competitively on leaderboards, replaying game segments or accomplishing missions in custom areas. This lets the game play to its strengths while still having a social element. It also means that focus wasn’t taken away from the single player’s development.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a better game in just about every way. For now, it’s also a great Xbox exclusive. Once it hits PC and PlayStation 4 – likely with the DLC included in the latter – it’ll be worth picking up there, too.

Buy

Disclaimer: We received a copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider for the Xbox One from the publisher. We completed the campaign, restarted it, and tried the other modes before writing this review.

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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