The best part of this year’s Rise of the Tomb Raider is the tomb raiding. This may seem like a banal observation, but there’s a large percent of the game that’s spent not tomb raiding. I do highly recommend the tomb raiding, though: well-balanced self-contained puzzle areas, discovered organically by searching through the environments.
The environment design in the game is lovely: big sweeping vistas, idyllic forests full of deer and hopping bunnies, gloomy caves, wet glistening icefalls. The views took my breath away several times in the game’s opening sequences, until I got used to it all. Lara’s task is to traverse these intricate environments as they inevitably crumble around her. Sometimes she must stop to collect a shiny collectable thing, because there are a lot of those.
It’s best if you don’t ask why. The story is mostly serviceable Indiana Jones pulp stuff. It’s in the manner of Uncharted, though without any of Nathan Drake’s wit. I was happiest mostly ignoring it, though it really asserted itself in the last quarter or so of the game and I was forced to pay attention to it for a bit. Mostly, I worked my way from waypoint to waypoint, wandering off track whenever possible, sometimes even during dialog that was supposedly important.
The game alternates between quiet moments and intense moments, but I felt often like I had to create the quiet moments myself. Campgrounds in the game serve as fast travel points, and traveling back to an area that was previously crumbling and/or on fire allows the player to see it in a different light, as well as pick up a few shiny drops she otherwise would’ve missed. Following the story straight without doing any backtracking, there are more urgent life-or-death moments than peaceful exploration-based tasks. Lara is nearly always in danger of tipping off of some falling structure, or being gunned down by seventeen mercenaries. Sometimes, she stops to pick up an old vase while she’s in the process of running away from enemies, which can come across as jarring.
There’s a moment in a very early cutscene that stands out. In this scene, Lara is revealing the hook of the plot to her friend Jonah. I can’t tell if it’s because of the writing, or the directing, or just a quirk of the voice actress, but Lara sounds out of breath the entire time. It sounds as if she’s just run a marathon, even though she’s merely looking through books in the comfort of her own home. It’s a tone-setter, because Lara is out of breath a lot in Rise of the Tomb Raider. New Lara is different from Old Lara in the sense that she rarely seems to be having much fun. In the quieter moments, I would describe her tone as “grimly fascinated.” (“Think of all the people that must have died here!” Lara mutters to herself on more than one occasion, still breathlessly.)
Speaking of death, did I mention the shooting? There’s a lot of it, and Lara has an ever-growing highly lethal toolbox at her disposal to handle the game’s endless armies of resistance. I didn’t find the game’s pistols very useful long-term, but I used the rifle and shotgun a lot, especially when I was getting swarmed by baddies in the game’s later stages. The bow and arrow, which has become Lara’s new signature weapon, is the best choice for a long distance engagement because it has multiple ammo types, and Lara can craft all the ammo for it. She can also craft weapon upgrades, one-use grenades, and other useful items by adding yet more shiny components to her inventory as she wanders around.
Rise of the Tomb Raider has some stealth segments, but I didn’t find those as successful as the straight-on shootouts. This is mostly because I’m terrible at stealth; this is why I’m not writing about Metal Gear Solid V right now. But also, the stealth AI has an interesting quirk where once it’s spotted Lara, it never loses her until the map around her is cleared. Do you remember how in Skyrim, a stealth archer could shoot a patrolman in the back, and after a few seconds, he’d go “huh, must’ve just been the wind” even with an arrow visibly protruding out of him? Rise of the Tomb Raider is the opposite of that. Hit one guy without instantly killing him, and mercenaries for miles will magically intuit Lara’s position until they are all dead. Unless the setup was tremendously simple, I didn’t bother too much with stealth.
It’s funny, because, when I look back, I didn’t even much like Uncharted, and this game is really not that different from that one. I think it’s polish on the formula, and some lessons learned by developers, that help this game out. What makes the biggest difference in Tomb Raider is that the Survival Vision mechanic (which I mentioned as a highlight of the 2013 reboot version) makes affordances much clearer during platforming and puzzle-solving segments. There’s also a clear textural similarity between parts of the platforming designed to be interactive. It’s not always subtle, but it doesn’t need to be. What bits of the puzzle room are the interactive bits are clearly delineated in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and puzzles were clearly play-tested to eliminate lots of frustrated meandering. I appreciate that. There’s also waypointing, so I don’t get turned around as much. These extra interface elements are a necessity in dense environments.
I generally try not to write reviews for games too closely affiliated with Microsoft, because I work there. But Rise of the Tomb Raider is merely a timed Xbox exclusive, and those eager to play it on PC or PlayStation can have the chance next year. Still I should mention that Microsoft published the Xbox versions, if that influences your opinion of whether or not I should write about it.
I found the free exploration parts and the optional puzzle tombs to be the highlights of Rise of the Tomb Raider. My suggestion is, if you pick this one up, don’t rush too fast through the story and try to play at your own pace. The game isn’t extremely different from the previous Tomb Raider reboot title, but it has streamlined some mechanics and relies a lot less on Quicktime Events for tension. It’s a fun play if you want a game that’s large enough to entertain for several days, but not large enough to entirely suck out your entire social life for the rest of the year, like some other games everyone’s playing right now.
Developer: Crystal Dynamics | Publisher: Square Enix/Microsoft Studios| Released: November 2015
Available on: Xbox One and Xbox 360 now, PlayStation 4 and PC later | Time Played: 14 hours (Xbox One)
Email the author of this post at aj@Tap-Repeatedly.com.