Here’s the thing, comparisons aren’t always a bad thing. When the Tomb Raider reboot was released in 2013 a lot of people went out of their way to point out that the cinematic presentation, scripted action set-pieces, and even combat, was reminiscent of Uncharted. And although accurate to a degree, these sentiments could just as easily be taken in a positive light. Because hey, the Uncharted games are quite possibly the high-point in recent interactive cinematic adventure. So even though Tomb Raider was a little bit like that something else, it was also fun, challenging, cinematic, intense, and memorable in its own right. And by focusing the story on the gritty archaeological exploits of a young Lara Croft, and a slightly off-putting fixation with physical abuse, developer Crystal Dynamic’s take on the Tomb Raider franchise felt like a breath of fresh air.
Plus, it made an aging ‘90s gaming icon relevant. Again.
At numerous points, whilst taking in the sights and sounds of some wonderful ancient architecture housing an equally ancient puzzle, playing Rise of the Tomb Raider was reminiscent of some classic The Legend of Zelda dungeon-action. Again, comparisons aren’t always a bad thing. And in the case of Rise of the Tomb Raider, we have a game that improves on the 2013 reboot in just about every way. A new Lara Croft adventure that is at once grander, more intimate, surprising, and more confident. And it’s this sense of confidence that is worth taking note of. In terms of design, the results are moments when you’re exploring a tomb where it can be reminiscent of something else. In the case of that something else being The Legend of Zelda, that’s merely a personal connection.
In real terms it roughly means that the tombs you get to explore feel real, ancient, mysterious, and fantastical. And often, all at the same time. In contrast, the tombs in 2013’s Tomb Raider felt like adjacent puzzle rooms. Visually impressive extensions to the environments you got to explore, but ones that nevertheless rarely rose to the same height of what’s on offer here. And don’t take that the wrong way, the Challenge Tombs in the original were indeed fun and challenging. They just felt a little tacked on. So it definitely comes with a sense of relief that Rise of the Tomb Raider features considerably more exploration than its predecessor. Simply getting to one of these Challenge Tombs may require delving deep into a mysterious cave, an adventure in its own right. An act that immediately that feels more true to the archaeological intention of their inclusion.
The Tomb Raider series was never really about combat or action, or dinosaurs for that matter, so when the 2013 reboot leaned a little too heavily on action set-pieces and scripted ‘Quick press X before you die!’ quick-time events, something felt off. More so than the time Lara Croft fought a giant T. Rex in the 1996 original. And again in the sequel the following year.
In Rise of the Tomb Raider it actually takes a fair amount of time before Lara gets to kill her first human being. Out of self-defense of course. Or, self-preservation. Instead the game is quick to set up not only the different types of collectibles and interactive thingamajigs you can come across whilst exploring an ancient ruin, but to also insert some context. Which works wonders in elevating documents, relics, murals, and old-timey currency into more than just icons on a map. Another lesson learnt from the first outing, where certain collectibles served no real purpose other than flashing things to pick up. Here the context is there (where it wasn’t before), or more pronounced than ever before. Ancient relics, murals, and documents serve both the historical and archaeological interests of Lara. They’re rarely uninteresting and often help fill out the fascinating (and entirely fictional) religious story-line with historical context spanning multiple centuries.
Even the Challenge Tombs offer new fascinating abilities upon completion, under the guise of uncovering some ancient and powerful knowledge.
On the other hand you have crafting items to scavenge, weapon parts to discover, mushrooms to pick, and various exotic animals to hunt. There are even side-missions to complete on behalf of a group of natives integral to the story. These all serve to help flesh out the survival aspect. One where Lara is no longer the physically abused rag doll of the previous game. Something Crystal Dynamics would no doubt attribute to a general lack of real-world archaeological experience on Lara’s behalf. Lara is not only more confident in her abilities this time around -- and seemingly more intelligent, thanks to a general understanding that surviving the Siberian wilderness requires a thick coat and not a tank top -- but she’s just about the most accomplished weapon-crafter this side of a Level 55 Orc Blacksmith. Not only in terms of fashioning upgrades, which the game sees fit to carry the weapon-tree system across almost verbatim from the original, but in the ability to pick up a walkie talkie mid-combat and whilst hiding behind cover quickly transform it into a proximity grenade. Cue, explosion.
Or, take one part oil, one part mined ore, and one part err, metal part, and construct some exploding arrow heads. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is an action hero. And a worthy one at that.
So even though percentage-wise there’s less combat this time around what’s on offer is immensely more satisfying. In fact, unlike the original you’ll be left wanting more. Because there are at least a half dozen ways to take out a group of evil and mysterious Trinity bad dudes. There’s stealth, there’s cover-based projectile ping-pong, there’s a combination of the two, and then there’s making sure you set each and every bad guy on fire. Just in-case. Look, they’re the ones that are “evil and mysterious” so it’s best not to dwell on a sudden and teensy-bit alarming case of Lara-pyromania.
The only real problem with the combat in general, is how easy it all becomes for those that spend the time to explore and improve their equipment. It makes playing on a hard difficulty almost a necessity this time around. Which is something yours truly rarely, if ever, does. Thankfully the game drops the multiplayer in favour of an ‘Expedition’ mode which can be tailored quite extensively to make the combat (and exploration) more challenging. With the added bonus of Big Head mode.
In terms of story, there’s no point clueing you in on any of the big story beats. After all, any story of this nature is worth experiencing fresh. But, the setting of Siberia is absolutely worth talking about. It’s truly a great location for the supernatural and religious story. The rugged wilderness, harsh environments, World War II-era Soviet installations, and ancient underground ruins and caves look to put it simply, amazing. From beginning to end the breathtaking vistas the game offers up never fail to impress, and not because they’re made up of ‘advanced-light-polyester-sauce-translucent-filtering-objects’ -- although the lighting, where the orange glow of Lara’s light-source lights up a glacial cave full of rock, ice, and water is technically some of the best in the business. It’s because Siberia works as a whole. It looks and feels seamless. It’s a testament to the peerless art direction and attention to detail. Something that was again, hinted at in the original, and brought to fruition here.
Looking at old stuff has never looked better.
Which brings us back to the sense of confidence, this time on the part of developer Crystal Dynamics. And something you can feel in just about every aspect of the game. The story takes bigger risks, and is all the better for it. By no means is it perfect, but the negatives are so slight they don’t really warrant full disclosure. This is a bigger, meatier sequel, one that improves on an already great game. And again, it gets the balance right. The balance between survival, in terms of facing off against an army of foes as well as giant killer snow bears, and exploration, in the form of archaeology-by-the-way-of Lara being genuinely excited when she comes across an ancient trinket or mural. And story. Rise of the Tomb Raider is the sequel you were hoping for. More tombs, bigger areas to explore, and new abilities to discover and master. In terms of what a blockbuster sequel should look like, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a definite candidate for a sequel done right.
It’ll be fascinating to see where this series goes next.