Still surviving, still great fun
"We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself, the means of inspiration and survival."
With the release of the excellent 2013 Tomb Raider reboot we witnessed Lara Croft go through growing pains both inside and outside the game world. Even Nathan Drake would be surprised at how the same media so intent on fighting for gender equality would take the game to task over the most miniscule of details. Clouded in arbitrary controversy that questioned everything from how pretty the character should be to how sexualized the violence got, Tomb Raider miraculously survived to continue the tale of the young girl become hardened explorer.
Rise of the Tomb Raider developed by Crystal Dynamics, marks a return to raiding tombs while precariously navigating sheer walls over dizzying drops. Lara Croft has noticeably grown in both confidence and abilities since last we saw her. Although never a damsel in distress to begin with, she exudes a sense of purpose and control that was only beginning to develop in the much more frantically paced previous entry. Determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and clear his name in the process, Lara embarks on a brand new expedition flanked by loyal friend and returning cast mate Jonah (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Giant Bomb’s very own Austin Walker) into the frozen Siberian outback. What follows is a fairly straightforward Indiana Jones tale of finding an ancient relic of immense power. Peppered with a few twists and turns along the way, the narrative serves more as a background justification of the fantastic gameplay rather than a driving force that keeps you playing.
And fantastic the gameplay is. Controlling Lara feels responsive and tactile, with just enough floatiness in the jumps to offer a satisfying and much needed degree of air control. With such a heavy emphasis on platforming over deadly pits, retaining complete control over your character’s movement is key and Rise of the Tomb Raider nails it. The game strikes a perfect balance between knowing when to magnetize Lara towards ledges and when to put the onus on the player to steer our heroine in the right direction. But simply knowing HOW to traverse the world is half the battle, it is just as critical to effortlessly know WHERE to go. Crystal Dynamics have crafted a graphical vernacular that is consistent throughout the game world and seamlessly connects perilous cliffs with climbable walls using subtle visual guides. As the player learns the platforming-language, traversing the world becomes not only satisfying but second nature. For example ledges and handholds are instantly recognizable by the splashes of white paint letting you know where to go next and climbable walls have vertical scratches directing you upward. Each new element, like a foreign word, once learned is instantly recognizable from the background noise. An area you might have passed by a dozen times might suddenly make perfect sense after you’ve been exposed to a brand new upgrade and can identify the platforming elements that were cleverly hidden in plain sight. It’s brilliant design that strays away from artificially glowing handholds and gradually builds throughout the game until the last few areas challenge the player to use all their accumulated knowledge in lengthy, action packed segments.
In order to get anywhere though, you’ll first have to craft the tools to get there. Rise of the Tomb Raider introduces a number of new abilities on top of the already established arsenal under Lara’s disposal. In true Metroid fashion you’ll have to discover, craft and learn most of these skills necessary to open up previously inaccessible routes. For the most part this is done in a linear fashion following the main story throughline, but as you open up more of the game world, optional tombs, crypts and side eddies will likely tempt you to stray off the beaten path in hopes of discovering hidden treasure. Exploration is the name of the game. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a semi open world game gating off progress with gear requirements. Initially you’re set on a straight path, but as you’re steadily introduced to new abilities the map begins to branch out revealing new zones to explore, granted you have the right tools for the job. The main path of progress is always clear thanks to Laras “explorer sense” that highlights your next objective, but finding the entrances to optional tombs or weapon caches isn’t always as obvious. Exploring these nooks and crannies is not only exciting but also rewarding. Optional tombs are more plentiful than before, but they retain their bite-size nature usually requiring you to solve only one short puzzle in order to reach the reward at the end. Each one of these crypts will unlock a unique ability on Lara’s skill tree that can only be gained by solving the tomb. Short and sweet, these side excursions sometimes present some of the more breathtaking level design in the game. One of the very first optional tombs you’ll “raid” is a massive galleon encased in ice and hanging of the side of a frozen waterfall. Climbing the iced over masts and scaling the vertically inclined boat while the whole structure creaks, groans and crackles with every step is an exhilarating experience and a visual sight to behold.
While following the critical path it is in your best interest to keep an eye out for an almost overwhelming amount of collectibles: coins used to buy special upgrades, crafting materials for equipment and weapon augmentation, trinkets that increase your experience towards unlocking new skills, totems, murals, weapon parts, area challenges, not to mention the hunting of animals for their hide.. There is certainly no shortage of glowies to press X on, but they all cleverly feed back into the addictive gameplay loop of upgrading your stuff. Each zone is anchored down by a bonfire that acts both as a fast travel point and a basecamp for Lara to spill a bit of backstory, allocate skill points and do a bit of crafting. Three distinct skill trees are available to invest your preciously accumulated points into, each reflecting a different aspect of the game: fighting, exploring, hunting. Ultimately it’s best to mix and match abilities as they become necessary. Most weapons and equipment are naturally unlocked by progressing through the story, but some need to be assembled by finding 4 different parts in lockboxes scattered throughout the zones. Finding these parts and assembling the different weapons is completely optional though, so you’ll never be stuck having to hunt down stray parts in order to move the story along. More often than not, these new pistols or shotguns aren’t necessarily better than your originally acquired set, but rather present alternative versions that offer a different approach to combat. One shotgun has low damage but a large clip while another deals heavy damage, and you guessed it, only has two shells before needing to reload. As such you’re given options in not only how you want Lara to grow in her abilities, but what type of gunplay you want to invest your crafting materials into. Heavy hitting revolver or fast shooting automatic, a quick SMG or a full assault rifle, so on and so forth.
With all these guns you need something to shoot. Apart from the limited hunting you’ll do in between zones to score pelts for crafting, you’ll be facing goons from the evil Trinity formation that range from light early scouts to the much beefier enforcers down the road that require you to chip away at their armor before taking them down. Combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider is not especially complex but like the rest of the game it offers a wide variety of options and it rarely outstays it’s welcome past the short engagements periodically strewn throughout the story. Gunplay is about what you would expect from a modern third person shooter that features a cover mechanic. Individual weapons all have their own specific weight and feel; shotguns blow goons back with a hefty knockback while what the assault rifle lacks in punch it makes up in speed and quantity. As before the star of the show is Lara's bow which has the most upgrades available and by the end of the game is almost bigger than Lara herself. Apart from being the most versatile weapon in your entire arsenal featuring three distinct types of ammunition and host to several unique skill upgrades, it's also the most fun to use. Almost every encounter can be tackled either head on or with a stealth approach, which simply means running up behind an unsuspecting grunt and executing a stealth kill or using your silent bow. Personally I hardly ever used anything but the bow until the very end of the game when the action meets a violent crescendo, but the option to go full bore with your complete arsenal is there, especially when you’ve filled out all the weapon slots on your dpad. Each weapon has an alternative ammo type letting you set enemies ablaze with dragonfire shells, poison them with special arrows or simply blow them up with a grenade launcher. Tying in the crafting into the combat, you’ll also be able to craft improvised explosives on the go using empty cans and bottles conveniently found all over each battlefield. This dynamic crafting once again incentivizes you to pick up and collect as many resources along the way as possible. A gang of baddies may present a challenge for your slow bow, but why not pick up a stray bottle and mix up a molotov simply by holding down the RB button? Now the bad guys are on fire and you’re already two floors up rummaging through a locker to get those rare nut bolts Lara so desperately needed.
For all these options in the gameplay itself, it’s a shame that Rise of the Tomb Raider seems to take a bit of a step back in terms of diversity. The 2013 reboot had an amazing story justification for mashing up WWII submarine wrecks with ancient temples, creating a bizarre quilt of new and old. You travelled from frozen mountain tops to tropical jungles. There was a sense of danger and mystery as you explored this uncharted island that claimed so many ships along its coastline. Well it seems as if Crystal Dynamics really took all those comments about Lara wearing only a tank top in the snow to heart. Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place almost exclusively in a winter climate and you’ll spend most of the time trudging through deep snow and ice caves, bundled up in various jackets, constantly shivering from the cold. While the graphics are stunning - the ice glitters and refracts lights, the snow leaves deep tracks in your wake and your clothes accumulate frost the longer you stay out in the cold - that is pretty much all you’ll be seeing. It’s all snow, all the time, which can get a little monotonous by the end of the game especially when compared to the 2013 reboot which felt so much more varied. The story is also a lot more straightforward this time around. Previously there was a real sense of desperation as you not only tried to survive, but as you explored an island with real character and a pervasive sense of dread and danger. The mystery simply isn’t there in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Sure you’ll explore a lot of wonderfully designed temples, but it all feels a lot more sterile, dead and abandoned. The excitement of traversing caves outfitted with handmade mechanisms cobbled together from various wrecks, places that felt like someone had just left a minute ago, is simply not there. Likewise the story just doesn’t move along at the same frantic pace. Lara is as determined as ever, but there is a decisive lack of focus halfway through the game as you hunt down the holy relic of the month but get sidetracked by other issues.
All of that is honestly just minor nitpicking. Rise of the Tomb Raider is an excellent experience from beginning to end. Crystal Dynamics brought back a classic character into the modern gaming world with 2013’s reboot and continue to do an excellent job at steadily helping Lara grow, gain new experiences, motivations all without exploiting her in any way. If there ever was a case that gaming doesn’t have any strong female leads, Tomb Raider can proudly challenge it. On top of the lengthy single player campaign, the game sports a score attack mode augmented with booster cards and all sorts of craziness. Personally I didn’t dive into any of that too much, but for people that like replaying levels with various modifiers like big head mode or constantly burning enemies the Expeditions mode offers a robust package for battling friends for leaderboard positions. Whether you’re scaling abandoned soviet radio stations, scouring dark underground temples or sneaking up on unsuspecting Trinity thugs, Tomb Raider is a blast to play and continues to be the best action adventure game on the market. I highly recommend it.