Rise of the Tomb Raider has probably become more well known and discussed among the community because of its temporary exclusivity than because of its gameplay, but having finally been able to take my time testing the game, I can definitely say that such focus needs to be shifted back where it belongs, because there’s really a lot to enjoy in Crystal Dynamics’ latest game.
The story of the title focuses on Lara Croft following her father’s footsteps in a quest for an artifact supposedly linked to the idea of immortality, and the prophet who wielded it in Byzantine times.
While it may sound a little cliche (ok, more a lot than a little), Crystal Dynamics approached it from the right angle: if there’s a concept that can cause obsession and paranoia even among the best of men (and women), that’s immortality, and that’s exactly where Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s plot is at its strongest.
Lara herself is definitely enjoyable in her newest incarnation. On the outside, she’s strong, determined and basically unbreakable. She goes through the worst abuse a game developer could send a character’s way, and pretty much always manages to stand up and walk on.
Yet, Rise of the Tomb Raider is not afraid to show Lara’s more vulnerable, inner side. When you shed the dirty, rugged Indiana Jones clothes, she’s a quite vulnerable young lady with a massive father complex and quite a few relevant flaws. What makes her character design great is exactly how she works through those vulnerabilities and comes to terms with some of them little by little.
The main antagonist Konstantin is also great pretty much for the same reasons applied to a very different character. He may seem unoriginal at first, strong, stern and determined. He’s a true man on a mission, but progressing through the story reveals great depth in the layers of his personality, that isn’t often found in a villain.
Another extremely strong point of the narration is the fact that you’ll find a myriad of relics and documents during your explorations, creating an extremely rich backdrop of lore that definitely adds to the enjoyability and depth of the story.
The game’s visuals are definitely another of its strong points. While there’s a bit of aliasing here and there, they’re extremely pretty across the board.
Unsurprisingly, considering the theme of exploration, environmental design really shines. After you laboriously climb to some of the highest spots on the maps, it’s hard not to be left breathless as you pan the camera around, and take in just how much love and care has been put into crafting every location.
All that beauty is crowned by the fact that you’ll see each location in various expertly crafted lighting conditions. Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t have a dynamic day and night cycle, but at the story progresses, so does time. This means that a map first visited a night, might be bathed by sunlight when you go back to it after a while.
Another element that really looks great is the animation. Despite a few strange glitches here and there (the kind that often happens when animations are extremely dependent on physics), Crystal Dynamics did a wonderful job in making Lara feel natural. I’m not even talking about basics like walking, crawling or shooting. I’m pointing to small details like adjusting her hair after swimming, or scrambling on the floor to avoid incoming bullets.
Lara feels, by all means and purposes, one of the most lively characters I played with in the past few years.
The audio compartment is just as strong, with a soundtrack that definitely sets the mood for adventure and exploration, even if voice acting is the real clincher. Especially the performance of
Camilla Luddington as Lara captures the character perfectly, mixing spot-on introspection with an absolutely adorable English accent.
Gameplay is a very well balanced mix between platforming, puzzle solving, exploration, combat, shooting, stealth, crafting and pseudo-RPG progression, and that means that getting bored in Rise of the Tomb Raider is very, very difficult.
The first couple of levels are linear in nature, introducing the player to the basic mechanics and story. As a result they’re very misleading on what the game has to offer. While I wouldn’t call this game a fully open world title, it does offer rather vast areas ripe for exploration, and the ability to revisit them at any time makes it feel even more open ended.
Exploration is, in fact, one of the most enjoyable elements of the title. There are a gazillion of secrets to find, scattered around the world. All will reward you with precious experience, and also provide resources or additional lore.
Not all of them are accessible the first time you visit an area. The game uses the old trick of the tools unlocked via the story to encourage you to go back to previously visited areas to open up paths that you weren’t able to check out during your first visit.
The only slight issue, if we can even call it an issue, is that your memory will be constantly challenged to remember which paths were blocked, and which tool was required to open your way. I found myself going back quite a few times only to find that I didn’t remember the place quite as well as I thought, and I actually needed something else as opposed to what I had just unlocked.
Platforming and puzzles go hand in hand, and they’re absolutely spectacular. As a matter of fact, they’re hands-down the most entertaining part of the game, and they’re one of the best examples of that kind of mechanics in recent years.
There is an extremely large variety in the kind of puzzles and traversal challenges you’ll have to face, and that breadth is enhanced further by the fact that many enigmas are at least partly based on physics.
Many games of this genre simply give you triggers that provide unchanging results, prompting you to do the right thing in the right order to get you through a section of a level. The addition of physics means that you’ll have to do the right actions, in the right order, in the right way, and often with the right timing. Not only it’s more challenging, but makes the solution of the puzzles less obvious and more enjoyable.
This concept is amplified in the optional challenge tombs, which may be optional, but they’re simply the best part of the whole experience. The fact that they provide handsome rewards in the form of special ancient skills is almost irrelevant, because you’d do yourself a disservice by not playing them simply because they’re so much fun.
The fact that they’re also some of the most visually impressive areas of the game doesn’t really hurt either.
Platforming and traversal interact very well with Lara’s enhanced arsenal, with the rope arrow taking front and center, even if my favorite are still the climbing picks, that you have from the very beginning. It’s simply very enjoyable to take massive leaps across deadly chasms, and then have to press X with loose timing to drive the blades into the soft rock and continue your climb.
Gunplay is rather satisfactory, even thanks to the relatively wide variety of firearms included in the game, and to the attachments that allow the player to modify and evolve them, but this game has a bow. If you know me, you also know that for what I’m concerned, in any game that has a bow, the bow is king.
Bow gameplay is well designed and balanced. It’s obviously a stealthy weapon, but it can definitely hold its own even in a gunfight, if you’re good at using cover and patience. In Rise of the Tomb Rider there definitely isn’t a “don’t bring a bow to a gunfight” proverb.
Things are made more interesting by Lara’s ability to craft explosives and Molotov cocktails on the fly, simply by grabbing used cans and bottles from the floor, and adding the right ore or a strap of cloth. This definitely requires some suspension of disbelief, and may even sound quite weird to fans of realistic combat, but it’s still fun, and allows you to wade through large groups of enemies rather quickly.
That said, when possible, I’d still advise to take the stealthy approach. Chaining up headshots from hiding is much more satisfying, and provides you with very nice experience bonuses that will speed up Lara’s progression considerably.
A slight flaw is that the enemy AI is at times a bit too dumb. Running circles around unknowing enemies is simply too easy on standard difficulty, and I rarely felt challenged by human opponents. The real in Rise of the Tomb Raider enemy is the environment, and lack of patience, that might often cause you to plummet to your death into some bottomless pit.
Crafting is very extensive, split between consumables and enhancements for your existing equipment and weapons. The fact that it includes a robust gathering component will probably push your OCD buttons rather hard. I found myself wasting inordinate amount of time just hunting for ingredients, and I have no doubt that many of you will, too.
That’s actually a good thing, as exploring every angle of the world with that kind of fanatical fervor will help you in finding all the collectibles. Considering how many of those reveal more of the story, it will let you enjoy the game further.
Lara’s pseudo-RPG progression also feels very satisfying. She’s by no means weak when she starts her adventure, but she becomes an extremely proficient fighter by the end, especially if you have racked up on the experience thanks to collectibles and stylish stealth kills.
One of the most welcome changes from the previous game of the series, is that Crystal Dynamics got rid of the absolutely useless multiplayer, turning this title into a purely single player game. The only form of online competition is done asynchronously via leaderboards, and that’s exactly how it should be.
It’s absolutely refreshing to see more and more developers steering clear of the “multiplayer at all costs” attitude, and that allows for more resources to be spent in what matters (for this kind of game, at least), which is the single player experience.
There’s an “expeditions” mode that allows you to challenge single levels by selecting modifiers and score multipliers in the form of collectible cards that change the gameplay rather massively. While they’re fun to play, I really can’t see them as much more than an afterthought with some limited potential to increase the already rather beefy longevity of the game.
The collectible cards you use to modify expeditions can also be purchased with real money, but it’s so easy to rack up on in-game credits (that also allow you to purchase new card packs), that microtransactions are simply redundant.
Ultimately, Rise of the Tomb Raider is definitely one of the best games released in 2015. It improves on its predecessor massively, and on basically every aspect of the game. It looks better, it plays better, it comes with more and better puzzles, a better story and a better Lara Croft to boot.
While the Tomb Raider we got in 2013 wasn’t by any means a bad game, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the game that finally does Lara Croft’s glorious franchise justice.