Creating a good sequel is difficult. It needs to be able to improve on the established success of its predecessor while simultaneously fixing everything that was wrong with it. It’s tasked with making progress while holding onto the past – a near impossible feat in a medium where individual parts aren’t easily stripped and changed without consequence to the rest of the system. Making the perfect sequel is nearly impossible.
Rise of the Tomb Raider, however, is exactly that in every sense of the word. It’s bigger, bolder and a far more engrossing outing for Lara Croft in her latest expedition. It’s a game that will probably define her future for year to come.
It starts with expected change though. Gone is the fragile, almost novice Lara Croft, replaced by a determined archaeologist who has a fiercer taste for the unknown after her supernatural experiences on her last outing. Seeing the impossible has led Lara to question a lot in her life – but no more than the once insane ramblings of her beloved father before his unexpected passing prior to the events of the first game. Lara is more determined than ever to prove the impossible now, clearing her father’s name and reinstating Croft into a more favourable side of history.
What this involves seems just as absurd, and it’s difficult not to wonder if Lara’s father was indeed mad at the outset. The late Lord Croft was on the trail of immortality, seeking out the legendary city of Kitehz in pursuit of The Divine Source – a religious artefact that possesses the power to cure all sickness, heal all wounds. In a few words, the end to death itself. A prize that large doesn’t go unnoticed, and a generationally strong religious cult known as Trinity is soon hot on Lara’s trail in a race against time to seek out this single answer to all of life’s corporeal problems.
It’s a tale that wildly swings from one plot twist to the next, but never manages to lose your interest throughout. Part of the reason the entire narrative manages to maintain so much momentum through familiar beats is thanks, in no small part, to the stellar cast. Lara experiences her own personal growth here – coming to terms with what consequences her globe-trotting treasure-seeking travels bring to everyone around her, and how her thirst for the unknown has the dangerous side of becoming an infectious addiction to her own detriment.
On the other hand you have Rise’s most compelling new face – the imposing antagonist that is Konstantin. The leader of Trinity is ruthless in his pursuit of the Divine Source, hiring the worst of the worst to his cause that he deems a holy one. Konstantin is a complicated foe despite his brutish exterior, revealing a more complex character the more you learn about him and his religious obsession. Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t afraid to dabble in some dark themes with him, with ideals of stigmata, messiahs and the question of creation itself not out-of-bounds throughout.
It’s because of this that Rise of the Tomb Raider’s much darker tale feels a lot more grounded too – even if it still steers into the fictional in its 15 hour campaign. There’s a very human side to everyone you encounter, each with their own justifiable motivations and flaws. Most of this is communicated through the many tapes and documents scattered around the game, which provide some excellent insight into the main cast (and unidentified soldiers) through some truly great writing.
It’s writing so good that it borders on the disturbing as times, especially when it comes to analysing some of the ruthless killers that Trinity have hired. Hearing their accounts of kills is spine chilling, and it cements the tone of the title into place very early on.
These little story tit bits only make up a small portion of the hundreds of collectibles on offer too, with Rise of the Tomb Raider making full use of its seamless switch from linear action adventure to sandbox gameplay. In expanding the game’s world, you’re given three massive hubs to explore to your hearts content, filled to the brim with distractions to keep your mind off the main story. Whether it’s taking relatively shallow side missions or hunting the local wildlife, Rise of the Tomb Raider balances exhilarating set-pieces and tranquil downtime with elegance, and it’s pacing that Crystal Dynamics has down to an art.
Of course a main component of this is Tombs – environmental puzzles that force you to make use of Lara’s various different tools in ways that normal gameplay doesn’t really demand. These Tombs are large, sequestered areas in themselves, each with enough visual variety to stand out from the rest. They all involve some sort of physics-based trickery, offering a gameplay-altering reward in exchange, and they’re a massive step up from the ones featured in the reboot. They’re captivating to seek out and engrossing to undertake, and encompass some of the best parts that this sequel has to offer.
These tools also go to great lengths to ensure that exploration isn’t simply trivial, but exciting to undertake too. Lara is able to scale buildings, trees and suicidal mountain cliffs as well as the rest of the pack, but the way Rise of the Tomb Raider keeps you on your feet at all times makes it all the more captivating. It’s no simple matter of jumping and shimmying around. It’s an almost choreographed dance of button presses, demanding good timing, a keen awareness and often tight reflexes to succeed.
Whether it’s hitting X to entrench your picks into ice, or throwing out your grappling hook in the hope that it snags a distant ledge, Rise of the Tomb Raider makes the simple act of platforming and exploration an absolutely treat. To the point where I tried my utmost best to forget about the fast travel system between campsites.
This improvement in control leaks into gunplay as well, which feels a lot tighter than the floaty aiming of the reboot. Getting your eye in with the iconic bow still takes some time, but as soon as your arsenal grows switching between weapons mid fire fight becomes a breeze. And that’s only if you choose to engage in that manner – with Rise of the Tomb Raider often encouraging you to stick to the shadows. Attaining stealth kills from bushes is made easy with the Batman-esque Instincts Vision, but quietly moving around in enemy camps while picking Trinity members off one by one is a treat.
And, this time, it’s doesn’t feel at all at odds with the narrative the game is trying to tell. Rise of the Tomb Raider is dark in theme, and even darker in the events it portrays, not shying away from scenes of torturous interrogation, ruthless executions and one particularly gruesome hall painted red in the blood of enemies. Lara is fighting for her life here, and against some truly terrible people – so it makes a little more sense this time.
And while gunplay might work, Rise of the Tomb Raider still struggles to hold its own when it comes to raw hand-to-hand combat. Here the simple dodge and counter QTE makes a return, but it’s too loosely implemented to be a viable fall-back in case an enemy makes up too much ground too quickly. The camera flicks wildly around and you lose sight of your target far too easily – a disappointing piece of combat that is otherwise as slick as rain.
Fortunately the camera behaves itself everywhere else, which is great considering just how gorgeous Rise of the Tomb Raider consistently is. It’s easily one of the most beautiful titles of the year, blending varied environments seamlessly together while letting them all pop with an incredible amount of detail. The snow-capped mountains of Siberia look absolutely splendid, as do the various waterlogged tombs that you’ll find yourself struggling to solve.
Lighting is exquisite here, and there’s nothing more pleasing than seeing Lara crack a glow stick in a dark cave, only for the claustrophobic darkness to retreat from a warm, amber glow. It’s easily the most beautiful game on the Xbox One right now, and it manages to do so while keeping reasonably close to a locked 30FPS at most times.
The little animation details add to this too, with Lara feeling as human as she’s ever been in Rise of the Tomb Raider. She’ll often ring the water out her hair when you hop out of a small river, and lightly brush her hands against walls you get close to. There’s moments too where she transfers some bloody fingerprints on to passing rocks, as she struggles to keep on her feet after a gruelling encounter. They’re small details that go a long way to making Lara feel real, and they show an incredible attention to detail on Crystal Dynamic’s front. The writing too, cements Lara as a person first, and as an ass-kicking Tomb Raider second – and it’s only made better by Camilla Luddington’s incredible performance as Lara.
With Rise of the Tomb Raider stripped (thankfully) of a soulless multiplayer, there’s a lot of single-player content on offer. Once the lengthy campaign is complete (in an extraordinary final act I might add), there’s the option to tackle missions for leaderboard scores using a variety of modifiers (which can be purchased with real money or earned in-game). You’re also free to mop up any remaining side missions, collect all the parts of weapons you may have missed or simply hunt for any remaining outfits to kit out Lara with. There’s reason to go back – maybe not right away, but it’s an adventure that you’re easily going to want to experience all over again at some point.
Last Updated: November 9, 2015