An incredibly fun adventure done right
Rise of the Tomb Raider is perhaps the most fun I've had with a game of this type since Uncharted 2, if not ever. In many ways it feels not only like a truly proper evolution of the first game; better in every single way it needed to be, but its gotten away from direct Uncharted comparisons and is competently offering its own kind of experience, at least regarding gameplay with a refinement and confidence I really hope continues to be expanded on even further in the next follow up as I absolutely love playing as Lara.
Thankfully this time around, despite still being in a lot of crappy situations it doesn't feel like she's being artificially pushed in to the most unpleasant and extreme scenarios possible like she was in 2013's Tomb Raider. There are no abdomen piecing rebar moments in Rise and the game doesn't feel like it gets quite as excessive (most of the time anyway) with its over the top set pieces as one might expect it to which thank goodness as I've become quite tired of sequences like that in games.
I really appreciate the devs showing some restraint in this regard, although I did still find myself laughing eventually at just how often things break the second Lara so much as grazes a single hand on them, poor girl just can't catch a break.
What is immediately apparent from playing the starting sequence is just how nice the environments look, despite the fact snow, dirt, rain and various other weather conditions have long since been well represented in games I still find myself being very impressed by those that are able to showcase the tech so well and make good use of it for more than simple visual splendor. When Lara gets slowed down by thick snow right next to some bad guys who could turn around and start shooting I actually feel like it adds something and seeing her get covered in dirt, snow and water as you traverse numerous interesting and gorgeous environments with plenty of potential ways of dying really helps to make the experience feel that much more impactful on top of a strong fundamental assortment of good game design rather than supplanting that for the sole purpose of showing off graphics.
So it helps that all that cool tech goes hand in hand with some very easy to learn and utilize game mechanics and by far the best level traversal any game of this type has ever had. Whether you're creating ropes to climb or using ice picks to scale perilous cliffs or doing the usual balance on narrow beam stuff playing as Lara both looks and just feels really cool. Puzzles in particular regularly forced me to think cleverly and I never felt stupid getting to the solution.
I don't know why exactly it makes the traversal so much better but actually being capable of falling to your death from a long jump you just made as apposed to automatically sticking to whatever you aimed at really showcases how important having some degree of a potential fail state is to a game so centralized on navigating a 3D space. Where Uncharted is the epitome of feeling far far too automated in that sense Tomb Raider now feels like it's figured out how this kind of game needs to actually play and feel.
With regards to fighting enemies quite often you'll need to rely on distracting one guy long enough so you can knife his friend in the back without being noticed in order to thin the numbers down before a potential battle breaks out and it adds a weight to enemy encounters that is both tense and yet manageable, which when you perform very well at is incredibly satisfying.
Lara is certainly no damage sponge, a few shotgun blasts and you are done but then even with regards to healing in the game although eventually it will allow you to auto regen will still often force you to rely on resources you've gathered to create bandages to restore your health more directly. They combined both standard methods of healing in a game and it's brilliant. Can more games do this please?
And that's what really made this fun, whether you're killing nameless goons or jumping around on cliffs you always feel like their are potential consequences or costs for a mistake and so getting good at your timing, at knowing which button you need to be hitting at just the right moment is actually important. Which I guess is a bizarre thing to applaud a game for doing but big budget titles like this, especially this third person action genre, have become so over saturated with hand holding, linear design and a complete lack of faith in the player to not be a moron it's really nice to have one that doesn't look down on you and encourages you to be experimental with your approach and be aware of what you are doing at all times. How about that? a game that is designed like a real game and isn't just trying to be a vaguely interactive movie.
By the end of Rise I felt like I was Lara Croft; unstoppable bad ass explorer and adventurer and so despite the later enemies being much tougher and resistant to certain weapons and tactics I never felt like I couldn't take them down, in fact I welcomed the increased challenge and then the game goes and gives you a specific ammunition type that does kill these guys every time you use it, but not instantly and so despite being powered up their is still a timing element and a finite amount, adding yet more variety to what you can choose to do and how.
The whole game is quite brilliant from a pacing and escalation perspective surrounding its overall design and progression. Every new weapon upgrade and unlocked ability gave me something different to enjoy on top of things I already did or made me able to more freely utilize another method of fighting I maybe didn't as much previously.
As a result I never went in to any encounter doing the exact same thing as before. Some I would focus on timing bow head shots, some I would utilize my brutal but very short range shotgun or I would spend time finding items to pick up, quickly turn in to makeshift stun or gas bombs for knife attacks or gleefully toss molotov cocktales like a pyromaniac having the best day of his life. I don't know why I enjoy setting things on fire in games so much but I think I've realized its probably one of my favorite things to do in them and Rise has no less than three distinct ways to set people and things on fire and eventually gives you super fire that lets you burn stuff even better. Perfect.
Where the main game does fall short unfortunately is in the general story department. While Lara and all the characters are fantastically voiced, acted, mo-capped and feel as believable as any good game cast should, I never quite felt attached to the overall events surrounding them and it's some of the most predictable been-there-done-that kind of story beats you've seen in countless other games, which were already pulled from countless cliche films as well. If their is one area I wish more games could excel at it is the writing department but what's there despite being so familiar is at least presented very well if nothing else.
Luckily the gameplay by far makes up for it and even if you're not particularly fussed about why Lara is on this particular journey, you will still feel a need to see it to its conclusion if only to enjoy more of its fantastic level design and numerously finely tuned systems.
I really hope in the next Lara adventure we get just a little bit more of the survival elements expanded on, I would love to be able to make clothing out of the animals I hunt and get various stat bonus' for doing so for example. A shame no such system exists here as it would add yet another great layer to an already very fun game.
What I do also have to talk about is an added side story DLC that focuses around Lara's run down mansion and the backstory of her family and how she ended up as she is and it was incredibly engrossing and interesting, almost tear jerking at times despite its simple presentation. I was so wonderfully immersed in getting the next tragic piece of information of how Lara became without parents at a very young age and it really made me empathize and appreciate her as a character now far more so than the original games ever were able to achieve. I almost wonder if it were inspired by the likes of Gone Home it is so different to the main game. Very highly recommended after you finish the main story regardless.
Overall I haven't enjoyed playing a game like this as much as I did in some time, so I absolutely think everyone should play it. The PC port is also tremendously well done, perfectly optimized, looks fantastic, lots of graphical settings, good mouse and keyboard controls and so on. Not a game that should be overlooked if you can help it, and if like me you felt burned and disappointed by Uncharted 3 and 4 this will certainly help with that too.