Rise of the Tomb Raider is a goddamn masterpiece.
Forget Master Chief. Forget Marcus Fenix. Lara Croft is the ultimate reason to own an Xbox One. Surpassing Crystal Dynamics’ franchise reboot in 2013 in almost every way, Rise is a stunning example of adventure gaming in 2015. Not only that, but it’s a very strong contender for my personal Game of the Year.
I say Rise of the Tomb Raider surpasses the reboot in almost every way because there’s a couple of slightly disappointing elements. In Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is on her first-ever expedition. She’s young, inexperienced, scarred, shipwrecked and fighting for her life. She’s never killed a man before and she certainly comes out the other side much worse for wear. With that in mind, I was excited to see how Crystal Dynamics used this deep well of story potential in Rise. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Lara is tougher, fiercer and braver and she’s certainly not so wide-eyed and innocent, but aside from one throwaway collectible, there’s nary a mention of the trauma she’s suffered.
It’s a bit odd that given such heavy focus on Lara herself in the reboot and the personal nature of Rise‘s plot that what came before would seemingly be ignored. What it leaves is the telling of this story from a place of weakness. I’m not invested in Lara’s father or her quest to clear his name and prove him right. The Croft I’m interested in is Lara; how she views the world and how she’s been changed by her choices. The narrative in Rise is easily its weakest link and, while still a decent enough story on its own merits, falls flat compared to the reboot.
The other negative in Rise of the Tomb Raider is its two-part end boss. While I won’t spoil it here, suffice to say I found the encounter lackluster and anticlimactic. The fact that the character you’re battling has barely managed to raise an eyebrow’s worth of interest for the duration doesn’t help, but there’s a bigger problem. Essentially, the gameplay in Rise of the Tomb Raider simply doesn’t suit the classic end boss. Rise is an incredibly complex, impeccably made video game and one of this era. End bosses are antiquated and superfluous. So while it’s more a problem of the expectations of an end boss or some final confrontation, no new solution is offered here and what is offered is a disappointment.
That being said — and with those two very minor issues out of the way — let’s get onto the good stuff. I fucking adore Rise of the Tomb Raider. This is a game that I played. A lot. Humble brag time: I even managed to get 100% completion, pre-release. On several occasions I only noticed how long I’d be playing because the sun had set. Did I mention that I was starting these sessions mid-morning? It’s not often that a video game so completely captivates me in this way. Only two others this year – Bloodborne and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – have managed the feat.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is in this same league. What’s more, it’s set an incredibly high benchmark for all future action-adventure titles (I’m looking at you Uncharted 4). Elephant-in-the-room time, I am a Sony fanboy and I was one of the chorus of players outraged that this title would be a timed Xbox exclusive. But look up to the top of this review. I’ll write it again: Rise of the Tomb Raider is the first legitimate reason for me to recommend an Xbox One. I can’t put my finger on it, nor understand what it even means, but this feels like an Xbox game. Lara feels like an Xbox character. If you can’t trust that from a Sony fanboy, I don’t know what else to tell you.
Beginning her quest to find the lost city of Katezh in Syria and finding her way to Serbia, Lara is once again on the trail of something magical, mystical and with the potential to change the world. While her trip to Syria serves as a prologue/tutorial it emphasises Rise’s shifted focus on puzzles and exploring over Tomb Raider’s combat. Don’t worry, there are still loads of combat, but in Rise, Lara actually feels like a Tomb Raider because she actually raids tombs.
The change is immediately noticeable and permeates the design of the entire experience. Exploration is Rise’s main focus, with combat a subordinate. All of Lara’s climbing and movement skills make a return, with a few new ones thrown in the mix. Broadhead arrows, for example, allow Lara to climb soft wooden surfaces. It’s really just another way to lock certain areas off until the game is ready for you to enter, but there’s a reason why Super Metroid is so popular and there’s a reason why the same design was applied in Tomb Raider. While backtracking for collectibles still occurs, Rise features much less so than in the reboot. This is largely due to the wide-open hub areas that are a predominant feature of the game world. While Tomb Raider had some hubs, they’ve got nothing on Rise.
This is a significantly larger game than the reboot, with three massive hub areas connected by a large number of smaller areas. It’s here where exploration is king. In each of these hubs (and even in some of the smaller areas), there are multiple Base Camps used for fast travel, upgrades and the like. There are also multiple tombs which, when completed, offer Lara some ancient wisdom with which she can apply as a perk. A nifty feature of the tombs is that they each have their own base camp, meaning players are able to fast travel out of the tomb quickly to get back into the game once they’re completed. If the tomb is proving too difficult the base camp provides a quick exit so players can come back later. Alongside the tombs, each hub (and area) includes a huge number of collectibles – Relics, Documents, Coin Caches, etc – and challenges. There really is so much game on offer that I often forgot about the story and Lara’s motivations and instead simply explored. This speaks to both the wildly entertaining gameplay and the bland narrative. Seriously, just running and climbing through this world is a treat and is the chief culprit in the theft of many of my precious hours in this last week.
Alongside collectibles, the game world is littered with crafting items which are used in Rise’s all-new crafting system. In Tomb Raider players cold craft weapon parts from salvage, but in Rise players craft almost everything: arrows, medicine, grenades, bullets and more. In a similar vein to The Last of Us, each item requires a certain number of different ingredients and once Lara has these the item can be crafted. This can be done on the fly or at base camps with the former replenishing only a few of each at a time while the latter lets players instantly craft the max they can hold or have the ingredients for. It’s yet another driving factor for players to explore every inch of the hubs, to hunt animals and to take out enemies; since they drop precious salvage and they’re not giving it up without a fight.
As in Tomb Raider, combat is a mixture of stealth and action and depending on a player’s preference most situations can be approached in either fashion. There are of course classic set-pieces and kill chambers, but they’re not oppressive, overly difficult or even very frequent. In fact, combat and exploration are so well-balanced against each other in Rise that I would struggle to even compare it to anything else. Many games in this genre tend to end up throwing way too many goons at the player, but Rise avoids the temptation and instead offers a balance throughout. Lara’s trusty bow makes a return, as do a range of guns, but if you favour stealth you’re going to love the poison arrow and its ability to clear out enemies regardless of armour, strength or weaponry.
Being a cross-gen title, Rise does occasionally suffer from less than stellar textures and character models on Xbox One, but for the most part it’s gorgeous. Light and shadow play an important part in the story, and lighting effects in-game match. Everything is crisp and sharp and exploring Siberia is a visual delight. Special note must go to Lara’s hair too, which takes the award for most realistic video game hair ever. Once again though, everyone else’s hair looks atrocious in comparison — almost like LEGO man hair — but thankfully, NPCs hairstyles don’t detract from gameplay one iota. The framerate does stutter and slow down on occasion, but for the most part it’s smooth and solid, keeping gameplay front and centre.
Is Rise of the Tomb Raider the best looking current-gen title available right now? No. But does that matter? Also no, because this is the defining action-adventure game of this generation. It is frequently incredible and occasionally flawless, but always a damn good time. Where Tomb Raider succeeded, Rise perfects. It treads a well-worn path where countless others have gone before and takes detours that lead to places you never thought of. It’s at once a reinvention and refinement of the genre and stands proudly as a enormous achievement in game design. While Tomb Raider made us care about Lara Croft again, Rise is a bold statement that she is the undisputed ruler of action-adventure.
20th Anniversary Edition update
One of the larger surprises of 2014 was the announcement at Gamescom that Rise of the Tomb Raider would be a timed exclusive on Xbox platforms. Now almost 12 months after its initial release to Xbox 360 and Xbox One owners, it’s finally available to PlayStation fans. The core game remains unchanged save for the inclusion of all previously released DLC so rather than review the whole game again, we’ll let Rise hold on to its near perfect score and focus on the new content on offer this time around.
The most prominent addition in the PS4 version is the mission entitled “Blood Ties”. In this walk ‘em up explorathon you take a casual stroll through Lara’s home, Croft Manor. The sequence opens with Lara reading a letter from her jerk Uncle Atlas staking claim to her father’s estate. Your role is to stroll through her parents mansion in search of her father’s will so Lara can take ownership of what is rightfully hers. As we all know Tomb Raider is all about jumping, climbing, combat and puzzles. In “Blood Ties” there is no combat, there is no climbing or jumping — instead only walking, collecting and some basic puzzle solving.
This mission takes roughly an hour and a half to complete with a large portion of that time spent listening to audio logs and reading diaries scattered around the house, and while this content provides some insight into the history of Lara’s parents, and gives an ever so slight look into lara’s childhood these snippets of information are mildly interesting at best. The story on offer here fails to give any real insight into Lara’s development as a person which is where the past two Tomb Raider games have previously excelled. The key focus here is the puzzles which unfortunately all felt too easy. With each clue collected the events that follow are all too predictable. Further to this, as if the puzzles weren’t easy enough, Lara’s internal monologue -which is very poorly delivered when compared to the main game – tells you exactly what you need to do like you’re some kind of idiot. You’ll play “Blood Ties” once and – unless you have a PlayStation VR – will never step foot inside Croft Manor again.
That is, if not for “Lara’s Nightmare”. Croft Manor is also the locale used for Crystal Dynamics’ zombie mode. No really. If you were to take Call of Duty’s hugely popular offshoot and take out roughly 85% of what made it fun, you would get “Lara’s Nightmare”. There’s only two reasons you might play the mode more than once. The first being the PS4 trophies (if you’re so inclined) and the second is so you can warn your friends to stay away from it, thus saving them from wasting 20 minutes that they won’t ever get back.
In this mode you face slow moving zombies, some of which are wearing helmets or carrying shields whilst searching Croft Manor for three skulls. Once all three skulls have been found and destroyed you face off against an end boss which rips off every typical boss fight that’s taken place in the past 10 years. You’re encouraged to replay “Lara’s Nightmare” thanks to modifiers that come in the form of cards, some of which will make you a more powerful foe but decrease the rewards earned at the same time, and others that do the opposite. But as stated above, you’ll probably play this once and then be left wondering why they included this content in the first place.
What wasn’t touched on in our previous review of Rise of the Tomb Raider is the Endurance mode. This is essentially a dumbed-down version of Don’t Starve where you search for relics in the freezing Siberian wilderness but are subject to starvation and hypothermia. Hunting for food, building fires, fending off bears as well as human enemies all play a role here and it’s quite an interesting idea. Endurance was included with the Xbox version of the game last year however with the PS4 release this can be played in co-op. At the time of review we were unable to connect to the game servers but anticipate this could be quite a bit of fun with a friend.
If you already own Rise on Xbox One or PC, there’s no reason to buy it again. The new content is absolute crap and neither the additional skins, nor the included DLC warrant buying this game again. That being said, the core game remains excellent in almost every way; if you’re solely a PS4 owner, now is your time to experience the next chapter in Lara’s epic tail.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One and PS4, as provided by the publisher.
Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider