When Crystal Dynamics rebooted Tomb Raider a few years back, there was some fear and skepticism on whether this new origin story for such an iconic character would possibly work. And while I absolutely loved the game, there was some fear in my mind about how they could follow it up.
After all, a lot of the success of the 2013 Tomb Raider rode on the character development of the ‘new’ Lara Croft. A sequel would surely build on that, but you can’t recapture that ‘new’ feeling you get in an origin story. So I stepped into Rise of the Tomb Raider excited, but with a bit of worry about whether it would live up to the very high expectations set by 2013’s Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider’s story picks up a year after the end of the first, with Lara trying to understand what she saw in her first encounter with the supernatural. She is drawn to her father’s research – the research that led to him being ridiculed and his subsequent death – about an ancient Prophet who managed to overcome death. This research leads her to Syria, which is where the game’s story begins.
European History 101
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s story tells the story of an ancient heretic known as the Prophet of Constantinople; his rise to prominence and eventual disappearance… and the endless quest of a religious paramilitary organization known as ‘Trinity’ to uncover the source of his power. The story was, overall, enjoyable but it felt like it had been done before. Maybe it’s just Western exposure, but I’ve heard these types of stories simply too many times and I had a hard time really engrossing myself in the historical element of this game – something that was not a problem in the 2013 Tomb Raider. I found that the history this time around had a sort of ‘generic’ touch to it that kept me from really engrossing myself in it.
Fortunately, the character development was almost as well handled as before. The writing was fantastic, and the voice actress did a phenomenal job of really bringing to life the desperation and mental struggles that Lara is coping with in the aftermath of the first game. Redeeming her father’s legacy quickly becomes an obsession, but over the course of the game she comes to terms with her situation and grows a great deal. You can never quite live up to the character development seen in a good origin story, but Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t far off.
A Survivor’s Arsenal
Crystal Dynamics did an incredible job of really making this game work from a mechanical perspective. The gunplay felt crisp and clean, the climbing – most of the time – was responsive, and handling the improvised weaponry in her arsenal had just the right level of awkwardness. However, what I want to talk about most was the bow. Crystal Dynamics deserves immense credit for how good they made using a bow feel.
I’ve played a lot of games with archer style characters or with bow mechanics, and while it has been done fairly well before, no game has ever quite made feeling a bow feel so right. Aiming was reliable, there were no weird glitches in terms of walls or anything, the draw length was good without being excessive, and the progression made you really feel like Lara was learning over time. Early on, you had to be careful about your aim and the bow’s damage wasn’t terribly impactful unless you hit a headshot… but by the lategame, using the bow made you feel unstoppable. And I loved it. It was so immensely satisfying to pull off the crazy stuff that the game empowered you to do.
The other thing I wanted to mention here was the clever use of alternate weaponry. There are a lot of little things you can craft to give you an edge in battle. While there are the staples, things like molotov cocktails and improvised grenades, what I wanted to talk about were the traps. I really enjoyed being able to rig corpses to turn into poison clouds when someone approached or set up enemy radios as bait to lure in a crowd and then explode. Sadly, as the game typically had you moving forward, there were only a few places where these lovely corpse bombs really came in handy, but when they did work, it was glorious.
They really went all out with the extra content here. There are a ton of fluff collectables, hidden items, and little easter eggs everywhere, of course. But the big content lies in the tombs and caves. There are a ton of tombs of varying intricacy. The simplest just require you to explore until you find the correct path to unlock some interesting goodies. These often reward parts of weapons, currency, as well as the previously mentioned fluff collectables – things like documents, relics, and the like.
However, it is the larger, full scale tombs that really make the gameworld feel deep and intricate. These elaborate puzzles require you to really think outside the box and test both your mechanical and mental acumen. The game gives you just enough hints to make sure you’re never completely stuck with these, but ensures that you still have to put some thought and experimentation into the puzzles. Adding an extra layer of interest to this are the rewards. While the smaller caves and tombs often simply reward items, the larger ones usually give you a long-term passive benefit. For example, one of them teaches you how to bandage wounds more quickly. These types of benefits never feel mandatory, but can have a long-term difference on your play experience.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is an incredibly pretty game. It is definitely one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, both from a character model standpoint and an environmental standpoint. It’s hard to believe that a game with so much snow could be so pretty, coming from a place where snowfall marks the start of the ugliest season of the year, but they really managed to make the varied environments in this Syberian mountainrange spectacular.
One critique I will levy towards the game is that it suffers from a level of ambiguity in what the platforming sequences expect of you. I must’ve died at least a dozen times trying to interpret some vague clue to determine what the game actually wanted me to do. It wasn’t that what they wanted was hard, mind you… it was just that it was often hard to see what they wanted from you. Now, a few of these places were entirely my fault due to forgetting some platforming trick or ability I had access to. But in a lot of cases it was simply a byproduct of the ambiguous nature of the sequence.
I doubted Crystal Dynamics ability to follow up on their impressive reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. For that, I owe them my apologies. They did an exceptional job of not only continuing Lara’s story, but cementing the new Tomb Raider’s legacy. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a phenomenal third person action adventure game, and I eagerly await whatever third entry Crystal Dynamics is almost assuredly working on. Sure, Rise of the Tomb Raider’s historical element felt a bit generic, but overall the game was extremely well executed both from a character development standpoint and a mechanical standpoint.
When you put an excellent mechanical game with a strong main character in a beautiful environment, you get a truly memorable experience, one that makes you almost forget whatever minor flaws the game may have had.