Rise of the Tomb Raider Review – Not So Much ‘Rising’ As Cautiously Moving Up a Step

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 (not yet released)
Date of play: 29/01/16 – 8/02/16
Play time: 16 hours

As a franchise, Tomb Raider faded from most gamers’ memories in the last console generation. Sure, games released on those consoles, but nobody really cared. And then the 2013 reboot happened and brought Lara Croft back to the forefront of gaming. While controversial for a number of reasons, such as an increased focus on combat over platforming and a grittier story, I liked it. It was pretty, it was fun, it was engaging, and had high production values. Basically Uncharted for those of us who don’t play UnchartedRise of the Tomb Raider is more of the same. While it’s not an outright sophomore slump, I don’t get the feeling Crystal Dynamics are giving it their all after they aced their first year.

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Our heroine’s kind of, sort-of rise! It’s more like the last game was her bachelor’s in adventuring and this is her master’s.

After the events of the last game (and the spin-off comic I lightly skimmed and immediately put down), Lara Croft has decided to try to clear her late father’s name. Mr. Croft had some theories that got him labelled insane, and it’s assumed that Lara didn’t have much faith in him either. But after her experiences in the last game, Lara is trying to uncover evidence that will restore his reputation. In doing this, Lara runs afoul of Trinity, who are after the same magical artifact as her. Some nice character work is done with Lara, who feels more in-charge and badass than in the last game, but the actual story is pretty by the books and average, even downright inept at points, and honestly feels like it’s too disconnected from the first game. Or even like it is a first game. None of the supporting cast from the first game really matter (most of their fates aren’t even paid lip service), and the references to it are vague enough that it feels like this game doesn’t want to address it. Any closure for the previous game’s plot threads were apparently wrapped up in the comic spin-off, which nobody should’ve expected anyone to read. The plot is fairly predictable–even though I was spoiled for some of the twists, I’m pretty sure I would have figured them out because they’re really obvious–and there doesn’t seem to be an overriding theme to any of it like there was in the first game. Though there’s an attempt to give a moral at the end of the game, it falls pretty flat, and honestly comes off as amateurish. There are also flashbacks to Lara’s time with her dad, but only to those that are deemed relevant to the plot. But none of it actually does feel relevant, and Lara’s relationship with her father feels hollow, to the point that you can’t feel any love there at all. We are given the barest of evidence that she even interacted with him, and all of it feels like a forced attempt at a touching relationship. This is in contrast to her relationship with Roth in the last game, which felt much more like a father-daughter relationship. It’s honestly surprising how much they botched this supposedly important relationship, to the point that it’s easily the least believable or engaging relationship this new Lara has had in two games, or in any game triple-A game I’ve played. And the story is so poorly paced–not helped by its more sandbox nature–that by hour 12, I just wanted the thing to end. All of this together gives the impression that this game doesn’t know what to do with itself.

What doesn’t help is the average performance from the entire cast. Camilla Luddington delivers a decent performance as Lara Croft, but her voice doesn’t quite feel suited to the tougher, more in-control Lara Croft this game presents. The music doesn’t really stand out either, since the only track I can remember is the music played when Lara’s at a camp fire, which is an altered version of the theme from the last game. Surprisingly, one of the better performances comes from the aforementioned Mr. Croft in his audio logs; it’s the only time I can believe there was ever a bond between him and Lara, and sadly, this is when the two don’t interact.

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Combat is at its best when it embraces platforming.

If you played the first game, you sort of know what you’re getting into with combat when it comes to Rise of the Tomb Raider. Cover-based shooting with enemies that have very inconsistent AI. Sometimes they’re expert marksman who never let up, other times they’re idiots who will just stand in the open. There are the standard enemy types: goon, heavily armoured goon, melee goon, and shield goon. Combat works as well as it did last time around, with an increased focus on crafting. Lara can craft a variety of items from stuff she finds in the environment, like frag grenades, smoke bombs, and Molotov cocktails. But she can only do this when she finds a can or bottle in the environment, and refuses to carry any of this around with her. It’s obviously there for balance’s sake, but it feels forced. The weapons handle well, with a clear balance between them–bows are best for picking off enemies in stealth (and for special arrows), pistols for accurate shots, assault rifles for crowds and close-range and shotguns for closer range–but what sets Rise of the Tomb Raider apart from other third-person shooters is its emphasis on movement. Rarely is staying still in cover beneficial–since melee enemies will try to flank you–and Lara’s aim isn’t impeded by movement. When the game eventually introduces more vertical environments, the shooting actually becomes really enjoyable. When the environments get bigger and Lara has to climb to lure and reach enemies, it actually becomes one of the most unique third-person shooters I’ve ever played. And when Lara’s constantly under fire but has to keep moving, the game actually becomes probably the best third-person shooter I’ve ever played. It’s a shame that only happens in about the last 2 hours of the story missions.

The progression and upgrade system feels somewhat satisfying, if formulaic. There’s also now a clothing system, so you can dress up Lara in a variety of outfits, some of which give passive bonuses. I mainly stuck with whatever she was wearing in any given scenario, since wearing a leather jacket and hoodie just didn’t seem appropriate for snowy mountain weather, but it’s nice that it’s there.

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Seriously, how could this have happened?

Exploration is definitely a bigger focus, with more tombs to raid, all of which are longer and more challenging than in the previous game. Indeed, it feels like you can’t walk five meters without being told there’s a nearby tomb to explore. The Metroidvania elements return, so the increase in tombs is at least somewhat manageable, though the ways progression is blocked, and the actual gear upgrades, still make little sense story-wise. The tombs are challenging, but navigation is intuitive enough that working out what to do isn’t that hard. Navigation in general feels really intuitive, with wall-climbing areas looking distinct enough to be obvious, but not overly so. While the “climbable things are painted in white” design returns, it’s somewhat less prominent this time around (it’s only on man-made structures this time), but much worse when it is. It’s so strange since the camera already makes a point to point the player towards the next climbable object, so it’s not like we’d be completely clueless. At least this means there’s something to guide the player during big action set pieces, since constant death during those would be really frustrating, especially since the horrific deaths make a return (though are also less prominent). It’s just a shame that Crystal Dynamics are so scared to let go of our hands when it comes to climbing. The big action set pieces feel great to play through, and the fluid movement really helps, with Lara’s new sprint helping add some agency to these scenes. They’re are fun, and surprisingly, have a nice difficulty; not too hard, not too easy. There are also more puzzles, which are also more complex, though they feel a bit too forgiving and simplistic, since I was able to work out some solutions by just guessing at what I should be doing thanks to the presence of ropes, destroyable objects and the like. But despite how game-y it is, Rise of the Tomb Raider really isn’t afraid to let go of your hand during these segments, and I have to admire that about it.

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Game’s pretty… I mean, from the right angle…

 

Of course, traversing looks fluid, with some nice animation work for Lara, who really feels in-tune with her environment; she’ll clean water out of her hair, use glow sticks for darker areas, and shiver in cold weather. This of course makes the poor lip syncing, clipping issues, and bad animations for characters other than Lara outside of cutscenes all the more noticeable, but that’s a relatively minor gripe. The overall presentation of this game is great. It’s a looker, no doubt about that, but what a looker! Snow builds up on Lara, characters will leave noticeable imprints in the snow, and the lighting looks brilliant. The different environments were a surprise, since I expected constant snow past the prologue, but was greeted with some nice variety in locales. From snowy mountains, to dense forests, to an interesting use of bunkers. Even though I couldn’t max out all of the settings (I ran everything on Very High for a while, but at a certain point, the game starts needing a better rig than I can afford), this game is still beautiful. If nothing else, Rise of the Tomb Raider is very, very easy on the eyes.

Something that really makes sense, and does a lot to add a sense of authenticity to the game, is the inclusion of translating to Lara’s skills. Players will run into pillars that can’t be read until Lara’s skill in a particular language reaches a certain level, and this is accomplished by making her use the skill more. It’s a nice touch that makes the series feel for focused on archaeology and discovery. The climbing jargon also helps add an air of authenticity to the game. Artifact examining returns, and also helps keep focus on archaeology, but the camera is very specific and finicky when it comes to focusing on what needs to be focused on, so it just becomes frustrating. There are also audio logs, a mechanic I really thought we’d get over, but they do a decent job building lore and just giving the world history.

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Why is this here? No clue!

I should also quickly mention that there are micro-transactions. There’s some kind of card system at play, which can give Lara new costumes and bonuses. Players can buy packs of cards using money earned in-game, or real life currency. I completely ignored this system, but it is kind of an emergence breaker. It’s implemented in such a half-hearted way, that it’s clear Crystal Dynamics were just following orders, and did so in the least offensive way they could. Sad that it’s there, but it is very easy to ignore.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a good game. Crystal Dynamics have refined their 2013 release into a game that feels much more true to the spirit of Tomb Raider, while managing to keep its own identity. However, at the same time it feels like more of the same. It’s a series that seems to have gotten too comfortable doing what it does, and is content to just keep doing that. It has just enough new toys to warrant a sequel, and it uses those new toys well. It’s pretty, fun, and takes a step up from the last game. Maybe take a bigger step next time, though. If there was less focus on standard combat and more on platforming, even during combat, I could’ve really loved this game. As it stands, I merely like it.

8.5/10
Great

(trying a new scoring system, and no, this doesn’t mean the game would’ve been a 3.75/5 using the old system)

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