With Lara Croft making a triumphant return in 2013 with Crystal Dynamics' reboot, we were eager to see how the new concept had evolved with Rise of the Tomb Raider. And while it is clear that the studio has taken in all the feedback from their previous effort, it's also clear that this isn't a dramatic departure in terms of concept and structure. At its core it's an action-adventure, with some sandbox elements, lots to explore and discover, and a mix of cover-based action and stealth.
Some time has passed since the story told in the reboot and Lara is now a fully fledged adventurer. Her father, Richard Croft, spent the last few years of his life consumed with the idea of finding the key to eternal life. We're not talking about a clean diet and a strict regiment of exercise, but rather some sort of ancient artefact. Her father was ridiculed in the press for his obsessive quest, and disgraced he decided to end his life. A distraught Lara takes it upon herself to seek out what her father was looking for and redeem his name.
This is the setup for what initially strikes us as a run-of-the-mill story along the lines of Indiana Jones or The Davinci Code - only a bit more straightforward and with fewer ridiculous twists. Lara goes to a tomb in Syria in search of clues, finds the tomb empty and gets interrupted by an ancient order called Trinity. As you'd expect it's now a race of sorts, between Miss Croft and these evil types, to find the clues leading to the coveted prize. It may sound a bit boring and at first we thought we'd have to knock Crystal Dynamics a bit for this, but as the game progresses the story grows more complex and engaging. It's all helped along by the irresistible charm of Lara herself, and in the end it managed to engage us. So much so that it distracts us from some of the brilliant side-content as we rushed to make our way to the conclusion of the narrative.
You could describe the game as a series of smaller sandboxes along with a couple of larger ones. You progress through missions that typically open up new areas to explore. It really is a happy marriage between a more focussed and scripted action-adventure, and the open world exploration.
An area that has been expanded upon since Tomb Raider are the Challenge Tombs. There are nine in total and these closed-off sections that focus solely on puzzles are perhaps the single greatest aspect of the game. While not exceedingly difficult they do require a bit of thought, and they provide a nice breather in-between story bits. The rewards at the end of each tomb are skills you cannot unlock elsewhere in the skill tree, and these certainly make life as Lara Croft easier, even if they're not necessary for completion of the game. These tombs generally make use of mechanics in a deeper, more thought out fashion. We'd like to offer particular praise to one called Old Cistern, which offered great puzzle design while remaining perfectly logical all along. This is classic Tomb Raider in modern form, and it provided us with our most enjoyable moments during the play-through.
One thing that Rise of the Tomb Raider is full of is collectibles. There's even collectibles to unlock other collectibles to further add to your horde. We haven't seen this number outside of the Assassin's Creed franchise. Some of them are more engaging than others, for instance there is a language system where you read various documents or murals to level up your understanding of a certain language and that in turn will allow you to read monoliths to unlock rewards. It's a really neat system, but other collectibles like coins and survival caches are more or less busy work with achievements as rewards for those who really want to conquer the entire game.
Combat is highly varied, offering plenty of options regardless of whether you prefer to sneak or take a cue from Han Solo and want a straightforward fight. We preferred to take a stealthy approach using Lara's sneaking skills and her bow, but the game does throw you into certain scripted scenarios where stealth isn't an option, so rather than being a game where the player freely decides his or her play-style, this is more a case of providing a varied experience where you have options most of the time, but not always. This is a bit of a shame as the gameplay is more enjoyable when stealth options are available as opposed to when it becomes more of a standard cover-based action game.
It's not a poor cover-based shooter by any means, it just simply doesn't elevate itself above the pack and tired clichés such as "the heavy equipped with a shield" and "flamethrower guy with explosive tanks on his back" don't help matters. It's not that one or two clichés aren't justifiable, it's just that it feels like we've played better versions of these encounters in decidedly older games. There are, however, also examples of inspired set pieces; we won't spoil things for you, but there's one that's sort of ice-fishing themed that we really enjoyed as it mixed stealth and action nicely.
Crafting and hunting is part of the package here. Rabbits, squirrels, bears, birds, deer, mountain lions... The list goes on and on. It works much like in Far Cry where you need a certain amount of pelts to produce a pouch, and certain prey only appear in specific areas. It works well overall, although certain items require a bit too much rabbit-grinding for our tastes.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is visually stunning with gorgeous environments and the heroine herself is realised with incredible detail. You'd think that setting an adventure in Siberia (for the most part) would result in rather repetitive scenery, but that's not at all true. In fact, the snowy sections are mixed in between more lush environments, water sections, caves, temples, and more. And there's probably no small degree of hair envy going around the rest of the cast as they clearly haven't had as much attention paid to their looks.
There's no mistaking who the star is, and no matter how dirty or cold she gets, her hair is always at its best. Perhaps the tiny little detail that she quickly rinses her pony-tail after taking a dip is the icing on the cake. Elsewhere we did encounter one or two minor glitches during our time with the game. It froze once and there was a weird physics-related bug after an explosion, but nothing major and nothing that really detracted from the experience.
The audio side of things is a tad predictable perhaps, but highly competent. That said we would like to give a shout out to the audio cues that sometimes are just as helpful as the visual ones. Overall a lot of thought has gone into helping players read the environments without resorting to glowing golden arrows and the like (though Lara's "survival instincts" can be used to identify key objects and clues). After a few hours of playing these cues become second nature and you'll have no issues navigating or understanding the layout of the world.
One area that has been changed up since the last game is the extra content in addition to the main campaign. Instead of a less than inspired multiplayer mode, there's an interesting thing called expeditions where you can replay missions in different modes (score attack, chapter replay, etc.). To make things even more interesting there is a collectible card system and you deck out Lara with cards (be it adding abilities, armour or reducing health) - they all feed into the scoring system and will also be challenges for you in score attack. It's a very deep system and an enjoyable way of adding extra lasting appeal to those who truly want to master the mechanics.
Perhaps most interesting is the Remnant Resistance mode where you're able to customise a mission and the greater the challenge you set, the larger the reward. You earn packs as well as credits to buy more packs by playing the campaign and expeditions, and while there is an option to buy extra for real money, you'll earn a nice selection of cards simply through normal play - so it doesn't come across as greedy.
At the end of the day Rise of the Tomb Raider is another strong showing from Lara Croft and Crystal Dynamics. It may not expand greatly on what was already a great concept, and there are one or two things that keep it from an even better score, but it certainly entertained us. Microsoft paid a pretty penny for this exclusivity deal and it seems they made a wise investment.