Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square-Enix. Released November 10th, 2015. Available on Xbox One (reviewed) and Xbox 360. Review copy provided by publisher.
2013’s Tomb Raider was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It was a complete revitalization of one of gaming’s most iconic characters; one that successfully modernized both its gameplay and Lara Croft herself, repackaging her as a young, strong, intelligent, relatable and above all else, likable protagonist. Some may call it an Uncharted clone, and while that’s not entirely inaccurate, Tomb Raider‘s added focus on exploration, survival and puzzle solving went a long way in establishing the series’ own identity.
Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t stray too far from that identity and at several points throughout the game, feels almost too familiar, to the point of evoking deja vu. It’s a sequel that plays it very safe, and though the few new additions at best feel unnecessary and at worst slightly detract from the overall experience, the core of Tomb Raider carries it a long way.
Rise picks up a short time after the events of the first game, with Lara now being driven by the research of her late father after witnessing first hand on the island of Yamatai that the myths and legends he chased after are all true. Lara’s search eventually leads her to Siberia where she believes she’ll find the lost city of Kitezh, and within it, an artifact known as The Divine Source that grants immortality. But of course, as with most stories involving lost cities and immortality granting artifacts, an evil organization (Trinity) is also on its trail, intent on using the artifact for their own nefarious deeds.
The plot does a good job of filling in some backstory involving Lara and her father, providing some added depth to Lara’s character and giving the player a good understanding of why she’s so determined to disprove the widespread perception that her father was this crazy scholar who chased myths and fairy tales. The present day storyline of Lara trying to find Kitezh is not quite as compelling as her first adventure on the island of Yamatai, but it has its moments, and at the very least establishes Trinity as the “Big Bad” of the series.
Rise of the Tomb Raider will feel extremely familiar to anyone who played the 2013 reboot, but that isn’t to say that nothing’s changed. Crafting is the big new feature that Rise runs with, giving players a total of 16 different materials to find out in the wilderness. These materials will allow you to not only craft upgrades for your weapons and equipment, but also different types of arrows, first aid kits and throwable items.
The problem is, for a crafting system to work, the things you craft need to feel worth the effort of finding the materials, which just isn’t the case here. Craftable weapon upgrades cost a ton of materials and only offer slight, barely noticeable improvements, which makes hunting the materials feel like a waste of time.
That’s not to say there’s nothing worth crafting. The game no longer has a regenerating health system, so craftable first aid kits are a necessity. It’s a change that makes the game substantially easier, since you’re able to restore your health via a first aid kit much faster than you would if you had to find cover and not take damage until you get full health again. The last Tomb Raider wasn’t a particularly difficult game, but it had its fair share of intense firefights that came with a sense of satisfaction after getting through them by the skin of your teeth. Playing through Rise on the second hardest difficulty level, I never got that same level of satisfaction, mainly because any tough encounters were remedied by shoving a surplus of first aid kids down my throat.
Despite being much easier than its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s combat is still a lot of fun, in that blockbuster’y shooter kind of way. The battlefields are almost always littered with exploding environmental hazards and throwable objects that can be crafted into deadly grenades, giving players plenty of flashy options to dispatch their enemies. Those enemies are also very aggressive and constantly rush you down from all angles, facilitating a very fast and frenetic pace to the action.[amazonwidget]
Rise is also packed with spectacular set piece moments that you’d expect from a game that draws so much inspiration from Uncharted, and while they make up some of the most memorable portions of the game, they often feel like new takes on old ideas from the original game. Jumping from platform to platform while escaping a collapsing tunnel, sliding down slopes and grasping on to the ledge at the last second, dropping from zip line to zip line, crawling through a tight space only to have something appear behind you that tries to pull you out… these are all things that we saw in 2013’s Tomb Raider that we see again with little variation in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
A welcome piece of familiarity is in the optional tombs that players can find by veering off the beaten path, which once again are some of the best parts of the game. Each tomb requires the player to solve an intricate and clever environmental puzzle in order to receive a permanent perk along with some rare materials for crafting. The perks received from solving the puzzles aren’t always useful, but the puzzles alone are well worth seeking out these optional tombs. It also helps that many of the tombs feature some of the most stunning art design in a game that is already full of outstanding art design.
The tombs are by far the biggest reason to explore the wide open expanse of the Siberian wilderness, but they’re far from the only things you’ll find. Rise is filled to the brim with collectibles and secrets. While collectible documents fill in some backstory for the various factions that reside in the wilderness, the rest of the collectibles are pretty inconsequential and feel like the equivalent of Assasssin’s Creed’s feathers: Items thrown into the world just for the sake of extending the game’s lifespan for the hardcore collectible hunters.
Replacing the extraneous multiplayer mode from 2013’s Tomb Raider is a score attack mode called “Exhibitions,” which allows players to choose the level they want to play, a series of challenges that will net them a big point boost upon completion, and then five cards that each have a game altering effect, from granting the player a fully upgraded assault rifle at the start of the level, to causing them to take bleeding damage every time they get hit. The cards that give players a benefit will reduce the total among of points they receive at the end of the run, while the cards that make the game harder for players will net them a significant increase in their point total at the end. The catch is, those cards are obtainable by buying booster packs either via in-game currency, or you guessed it, real money.
While I really like the idea of the Exhibitions mode and feel like it has the potential to become something big like Mercenaries from the Resident Evil series, the problem with it is that the levels included are ripped directly out of the campaign, cutscenes and all, which ruins the flow of the mode and makes each of the levels too long. Customized levels designed specifically for score attack would have done a lot to make Exhibitions much more compelling.
Despite the feelings of deja vu sprinkled throughout the 10-12 hour campaign and the flawed crafting system, Rise of the Tomb Raider is still a hell of a roller coaster ride, featuring fantastic gunplay, exceedingly clever puzzles, and a breathtaking world to explore. It may not rise above its 2013 predecessor, but it certainly meets it in the upper echelon of the third person shooter genre.
Recommendation: Fans of the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider, or just fans of third person action games in general will find a lot to love in this sequel.
Bottom Line: Rise of the Tomb Raider is a safe sequel that at times feels too familiar to its predecessor, but still provides one of the most exciting AAA adventures of 2015.[rating=4] [amazonwidget]