Despite its fame the Tomb Raider series has always been one that is synonymous with inconsistency. Over close to two decades the series has managed to hit both dizzying heights (the original 1997 Tomb Raider) and dismal lows (looking at you Angel of Darkness) under a handful of developers. It was to the delight of all then when Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix successfully rebooted the iconic series in 2013 with their aptly named game: Tomb Raider. Releasing to both critical acclaim and commercial success having sold over 8.5 million copies (in fact Tomb Raider was a strong contender for Game of the Year until a little title called the Last Of Us turned up), we all knew a sequel was inevitable. What we didn’t foresee was that Microsoft were going to dig their tenterhooks into the series by securing exclusive timed rights to the sequel, most likely in a move to combat the popularity of Sony’s Uncharted series. So now we have the highly anticipated follow-up Rise of the Tomb Raider releasing exclusively (for the time being) on Xbox One. Microsoft’s cunning (and most likely expensive) decision will most certainly pay dividends, as Rise of the Tomb Raider is a brilliant and beautiful adventure game that is both mechanically flawless and technically polished. While Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game that sticks close to the style of the original reboot, it takes the elements of what made that game a great experience and manages to improve upon it in almost every way.
The Prophet’s Tomb: Hidden away in Syria
Like the majority of Tomb Raider games, RotTR is about Lara’s quest for an ancient artefact whose mysteriousness is only matched by its power. The artefact is linked to the Prophet, an enigmatic historical figure who bears many similarities to Jesus Christ. While the Prophet’s tale has been relegated to the realms of myth and lost in the echoes time, there are still some who believe the Prophet did indeed have access to an extremely powerful artefact that allowed him to perform miracles and that the artefact and perhaps the Prophet himself are still out there. Lara Croft’s father is one such person who believed in the supernatural power of the Prophet and it is this fervent belief (which slowly became an all-consuming obsession) that saw this once famous archaeologist and explorer become somewhat of a joke in the eyes of society at large. While he never managed to prove his assertions that the Prophet and his instrument of power were indeed real, his daughter is convinced that she can pick up her father’s research and prove to society, and herself, that he was not the madman that he was made out to be.
Whatever is up there I want it
This is why I never get my games shipped
One thing that Crystal Dynamics clearly understands in this setup is the importance of characterisation and motivation. While at its heart this is an adventure game and its plot adheres to many familiar conventions of the genre, there is a well-crafted emotional backdrop that gives Lara’s actions an important sense of meaning and weight. While her innate curiosity as a now seasoned explorer drives her, her burning desire to clear her father’s name also forms part of her single-minded resolve. Feisty, intelligent, strong and capable, Lara is a likeable and relatable protagonist who anchors the fun adventure story and gives it a sense of personality.
The gameplay follows much the same style as its predecessor. Primarily you’ll spend a lot of time climbing and solving puzzles as you explore various exotic locales. As mentioned previously this is an adventure game foremost and you are invited to fully explore the environments to uncover the many secrets they hold. From the icy remnants of an old Russian Cold War facility in Siberia to the glittering lost city of Kitzeh, the more you explore and uncover, the more you will learn and gain in the form of skills and XP. One criticism levelled at the 2013 reboot was that despite its name, there was a distinct lack of actual tombs to explore. RotTR rectifies this by giving you nine tombs and a multitude of crypts belonging to the Prophet’s disciples to poke around in. Save for the first tomb you encounter, all these are optional, and their hidden entrances must first be located before their secrets may be plundered. Each tomb features an environmental puzzle that must be solved and upon completion you are bestowed with a specific skill like fast-healing or being able to rapidly fire two arrows without having to redraw from your quiver. While a few of the puzzles were a little elementary and some of the skills prove more useful than others, systematically exploring the tombs is still incredible fun and essential for any aspiring tomb raider. RotTR borrows from Metroidvania-style games in that some tombs and other secret areas can only be accessed once the appropriate skill has been acquired. This encourages backtracking to previously discovered areas which is made fairly painless by a generous fast travel system where you can travel to and from any camp site you have previously visited.
While at its heart this is an adventure game and its plot adheres to many familiar conventions of the genre, there is a well-crafted emotional backdrop that gives Lara’s actions an important sense of meaning and weight.
RotTR really captures the sheer pleasure of simply exploring a game world completely of your own volition. This is not simply an empty checklist experience where you are thrust into an open-world and given a bunch of uninteresting things to collect. Rather, I found I was motivated more by curiosity as to what each area contained as well as the promises of tangible rewards. I found hours would simply melt by as I wandered the map searching out all the hidden nooks and crannies, uncovering documents, survival caches and completing challenges and missions. As you discover and complete these you are constantly granted XP which gives you access to a variety of new skills based on combat, hunting and exploration. It’s a simple progression system that constantly rewards you as you play in a fashion proportionate to your eagerness to explore. Many missions and crypts will also give you exclusive items and weapon upgrades and it is highly recommended you actively seek them out and complete them if you’re looking to outfit Lara with the best gear.
While the exploration for the most part takes centre stage (as it should in an adventure game), you’ll also dabble in a significant amount of combat against the ruthless agents of the shadowy enterprise Trinity that similarly seeks the Prophet’s artefact. The action includes both stealth and full-frontal engagements, with the former being far more rewarding and enjoyable in general. The stealth mechanics are something that has seen the greatest improvements since the reboot and takes a leaf out of the Assassin’s Creed books. Lara is now deadlier than ever, being able to stalk her prey from the ground while crouching in the bushes or leaping down from a tree branch to deliver swift and silent death upon her enemies. By using Survival Instinct vision initiated by clicking the left thumbstick, Lara can also ascertain whether the guards she is planning to kill are in each others’ line of sight and if she’ll be detected when taking them down. She also has a few tricks at her disposal such as arrows that release a cloud of poisonous gas or rigging enemy radios to attract other guards and promptly explode when they get close enough. With all these tools at your disposal, the stealth tends to be a little on the easy side, but it is nonetheless extremely pleasurable and you gain extra XP for taking down a group of guards while remaining undetected. Of course, if the elegant art of stealth is not your style, Lara is more than capable of taking multiple guards head-on and simply shooting everyone until they don’t get up again. While this aspect tends to be weaker than the stealth, as the game continued I found myself warming considerably to the gunplay. As your offensive capabilities increase you gain access to increasingly more powerful weaponry which may be upgraded using salvage and other materials you find around the game world, but as with the reboot your trusty bow and arrow is your best friend. This can be upgraded for maximum lethality and is useful in both stealth and direct assault scenarios. The explosive-tip arrows in particular are likely to appeal to that inner Rambo you’ve been nurturing.
It’s a little unfortunate that you are often forced into certain encounters without the option for stealth, but towards the end of the story as the climax builds and combat becomes more frequent I found myself embracing the chaos of the direct assault and going with the flow. Your array of weaponry is both interesting and powerful enough to make these scenarios an enjoyable experience, and it should be noted that the combat sequences that do occur are always balanced excellently against platforming, exploring
Worst. Rave. Ever
Ice and shadows
and puzzle-solving sequences; the combat never feels like it overstays its welcome. Thankfully, for the most part Tomb Raider also avoids the trap of tonal disconnect brought about by excessive, violent action in adventure games. In my opinion, the related Uncharted series’ greatest weakness is the preference of action over adventure; Drake’s willingness to murder scores of enemies in the blink of an eye during countless uninspired cover-based shootouts exists at odds with his character. The same problem is present here to an extent but the prioritisation of exploration and platforming over gunplay works in its favour. Although Lara only kills out of necessity, she kills with an unnerving, brutal efficiency and her character is a far cry from the vulnerable, reluctant killer we met in the reboot. While her unflinching attitude in the face of violence clashes somewhat with her character, it isn’t to a ludicrous extent and our heroine doesn’t descend into becoming an unrepentant mass murderer.
Although Lara only kills out of necessity, she kills with an unnerving, brutal efficiency and her character is a far cry from the vulnerable, reluctant killer we met in the reboot.
While it’s not Shakespeare, Lara’s tale in RotTR is an enjoyable adventure nonetheless. There is a great sense of pace and balance to the story and a few twists and turns to keep you guessing. Unfortunately or not depending on the case, a lot of the backstory is hidden in the litany of documents strewn throughout the game world. Personally I obsessed over gathering these, and I loved how each document you picked up had the text believably read out by its creator. I do however wish I could listen to it being read while I was on the move rather than have to stare at a static screen. If you don’t seek these documents out and at least skim them you’ll likely miss a little bit of the subtlety and nuance to the world as well as some of the deeper motivations of the characters.
Hang in there kitty
RotTR features quite a satisfyingly lengthy story and if you’re keen to see everything then you’ll be spending upwards of 15-20 hours. Once you’ve finished the story you can revisit sections of the campaign in the Expeditions mode. This allows you to replay certain sections with modifiers applied using cards which alter the difficulty and add score multipliers. These card modifiers range from the pedestrian, like no health regen, to the sublimely ridiculous, like everyone having massive heads or Lara being able to wield exploding chicken arrows. Cards can be earned through normal play or bought with credits acquired during the normal story mode or by completing Expeditions. It’s a surprisingly robust system that adds replayability and allows you to compete against your friends for high scores.
Heroes of Stalacmites and Magic
Building on the strength of its direct predecessor, RotTR does all the right things and delivers a consistently fun and engaging experience. Its stunning graphics and polished mechanics couple beautifully with a rollicking adventure that is given a personal touch by excellent characterisation. This is a must-buy game for all Xbox One owners and demonstrates the potential of the console in delivering a true current-gen experience. Lara Croft is back on top.
Reviewed on Xbox One