It’s been a week since Rise of the Tomb Raider was released for the Xbox One and Xbox 360 here in Europe and what a week it’s been. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t sent Lara back to Syria or Siberia in search of elusive collectables. And even after a good 30 or so hours of exploring Rise’s vast hubs, I’m still at 96% game completion.
If there’s one thing that can said about the game it’s that you’d definitely be getting value for money. And that’s without taking the game’s various Expedition modes into consideration.
Now, I admit it’s taken me a long time (two years to be exact) to warm up to Reboot Lara and truly appreciate the direction that Crystal Dynamics are taking the series in. Even now, I still feel that the 2013 game is a bit of a “misery fest” that had more to do with killing cultists and rescuing best friends than raiding tombs. When I saw the E3 2015 and Gamescom demos, I was worried that the sequel was going to be nothing but a retread of its predecessor.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Rise of the Tomb Raider wasn’t just a great game; it was also one of the best Tomb Raider games to date. And, trust me, as a huge fan of the Classic era, this is high praise.
It’s been a while since a Tomb Raider game has captured my attention so effectively and kept me glued to the screen. I had to take long breaks during my initial playthrough of the 2013 game as I found the seemingly endless combat sequences exhausting, Legend was largely enjoyable but far too short, Anniversary turned out to be a pale imitation of the original game, and I never finished Underworld because of a game-breaking bug in Southern Mexico that meant I’d have to re-play a sizeable chunk of the game… which I quite honestly couldn’t be bothered to do. Perhaps I’ll get around to finishing it someday.
And then there’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, *the* Tomb Raider game I have been waiting for for years. I know the Microsoft exclusivity deal has killed many people’s enthusiasm for the game and has led to less-than-spectacular sales so far but let me just explain why you need this game in your life, whether it’s right now if you’re an Xbox console owner or in a few months’ or a year’s time if you’re not.
Before I continue, I’d like to point out that I have kept this review as spoiler-free as possible. The screenshots used in this article were taken from the various promotional videos released by Crystal Dynamics in the lead-up to the game’s launch and no major plot points will be discussed below (I’ll be saving those discussions for future articles).
Lastly, this review is based on my playthrough of the Xbox 360 version, which I got as a birthday present from my husband, i.e. not a review copy. However, most, if not all, of the points below also apply to the game’s Xbox One counterpart and, I imagine, to the eventual PC and PS4 releases.
Now, let’s dive in…
A Captivating Tale of Ancient Mysteries and MacGuffins
Rise of the Tomb Raider is set roughly a year after Lara’s ordeal on Yamatai. Her best friend Sam is in jail after assaulting a stranger on the street (see Tomb Raider #18) and Lara is struggling to make sense of what she had seen on the island, turning to her father’s notes to review his research on immortality myths.
Realising that her father may have been onto something and desperate to find answers to her questions, Lara sets her sights on travelling to northern Syria to locate the Prophet’s Tomb. Unfortunately for her, Trinity gets wind of her plans and dispatches a team, led by chief antagonist and all-round psychopath Konstantin, to put an end to her adventuring. Permanently.
One lucky escape later, Ms Croft returns to London, where it dawns on her that she’s been looking for prophets in all the wrong places. The clues now point to Siberia, specifically to the mythical lost city of Kitezh, and she soon manages to persuade her friend and former Endurance crewmate Jonah to join her on her latest quest.
An avalanche strikes, separating the two and casting Lara into the frozen Siberian wilderness. Surrounded by Trinity forces and eager to find the magical MacGuffin at the heart of the story before they do, we see our heroine explore (and fight) her way through abandoned Soviet bases, crumbling ruins, and a lush geothermal valley in a bid to uncover the secret to eternal life.
Since this is meant to be a spoiler-free review, I won’t go into any great detail about the plot or the game’s secondary characters but the game certainly has an air of a classic action-adventure movie about it. Religious themes? Check. Mystical MacGuffins? Check. Surprising character reveals and plot twists? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Gorgeous, breathtaking ancient sites? Check.
And what of our heroine? Well, it’s safe to say that Lara’s grown as a character since we last saw her. Gone is the reluctant killer we saw on Yamatai. In her place, we have a Croft that is markedly more confident in her abilities, a woman who’s almost single-mindedly driven by her desire to salvage her father’s reputation and prove herself as an archaeologist. There are times when the gamer will begin to doubt Lara’s intentions and sanity, especially when it becomes crystal clear that her actions could have dire consequences for those around her. Are her intentions really as noble as we’re led to believe?
The secondary characters are also worth a spoiler-free mention. Konstantin’s ruthless, sadistic nature marks him out as the obvious antagonist but as the story develops, the gamer will begin to understand what drives this cold-blooded killer and, dare I say, maybe even feel a smidgen of sympathy for him. The Remnants, with the exception of spiritual leader Jacob and his headstrong daughter Sofia, are a little nondescript but the writing team still do an excellent job of introducing us to their way of life, fleshing out their tragic history, and rallying us (and Lara) to their cause.
It would be remiss to ignore the voice actors’ role in bringing this compelling tale of survival adventure to life. Camilla Luddington and Earl Bayon reprise their roles as Lara Croft and Jonah Maiava respectively and while I found Luddington’s shaky accent and overly emphatic acting in the 2013 game a little distracting, even off-putting at times, she truly owns the role this time around. She infuses Lara’s comments with just the right amount of snark and scepticism to make Classic Lara proud and her almost-innocent sense of wonder during the game’s key moments are downright contagious.
Bayon’s soothing, encouraging Jonah is the perfect counterbalance to Lara’s fiery temperament and you can sense his concern for his wayward friend, while newcomers Zack Ward (Konstantin), Philip Anthony-Rodriguez (Jacob), Kay Bess (Ana), Jolene Andersen (Sofia), and Michael Maloney (Richard Croft) all do a commendable job of making the gamer genuinely care about (or utterly detest) their respective characters.
Finally, fans of the late Terry Pratchett should keep an eye out for a heart-warming tribute courtesy of his daughter and Rise’s lead writer, Rhianna Pratchett. Guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye.
So lots of sites have reported that I imbedded Dad's favourite memory into one of Richard's diaries in Rise, but has anyone found it yet?— Rhianna Pratchett 🇺🇦 (@rhipratchett) November 17, 2015
Tombs With a View
Rise has a total of 9 optional tombs scattered throughout the game, some of which are set in fairly industrial settings while others, such as the visually stunning “Voice of God” tomb, look wonderfully ancient and wouldn’t look amiss in an Indiana Jones film or in any of the older Tomb Raider games.
While this doesn’t seem like a huge number and, like their 2013 predecessors, they’re optional, the puzzles are a little more complex this time around (though some will be a piece of cake for veteran Raiders) and gamers will be rewarded for their efforts. The codices contained within will grant Lara “ancient abilities”, such as the ability to fire two arrows in quick succession or the ability to heal faster. These aren’t essential for completing the game but they will make life easier for you, especially if you’re playing on one of the harder settings, and you’ll be rewarded with credits, Byzantine coins, and even a new outfit further down the line.
If the optional tombs aren’t enough for you, there’s also a number of crypts to unearth, relics to uncover and study, murals to interpret, ancient monoliths to decipher, deadly traps to avoid, and countless breathtaking ruins to explore in your quest to find every last collectible item and unlock every last achievement. In short, an archaeologist’s dream…or nightmare.
Things to Do, People to See
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent over 30 hours playing this game and I still haven’t attained 100% game completion. Granted, some of this is due to my innate curiosity (and clumsiness) but much of it is down to the fact that there is just so much to do within the game. The main campaign can be completed within 15 hours depending on the difficulty setting and your skills as a gamer but you can easily spend days, even weeks discovering everything that Rise has to offer.
For review purposes, I avoided deviating too much from the story, leaving the bulk of the optional tombs and collectables for later, and only attained around 34% game completion. This should give you a rough idea of how much there is to do in Rise.
You could easily spend a good 10 hours or more tracking down the hundreds of documents, relics, survival caches, coin caches, maps, and backpacks scattered across the various hubs. There are also crypts to uncover, tomb puzzles to solve, challenges to complete (most of which involve tracking down and destroying certain items), and several fetch missions that will get you in the Remnants’ good books.
As with the 2013 game, you’ll have the option to return to any section you’ve unlocked by making use of the Base Camp’s Fast Travel feature. There’s a total of 43 base camps and, aside from the opening level, pretty much any section of the game can be revisited at a later time, so don’t worry too much if you missed anything during your first playthrough. If you go back into the game after playing it through to the end, you’ll be treated to an additional cut scene and will have the option to continue upgrading your skills, gear, and XP. Enemies and animals respawn fairly frequently so the killing needn’t stop after the game is over. 😉
And, of course, there’s the game’s Expedition modes. While the 2013 had a competitive multi-player mode, the development team have done away with it this time around and replaced it with four Expedition modes: Score Attack, Chapter Replay, Chapter Replay Elite, and Remnant Resistance. I’ve only had a quick gander at the Score Attack mode and have yet to try out the other three modes but I’m sure many gamers will relish the opportunity to play around with the various settings, put the Expedition cards they acquired (or bought) to good use… and give Lara a giant bobble head if they so wish.
On the subject of Expedition cards, let me just point out that while Rise of the Tomb Raider does allow you to purchase Expedition cards with real money, this is entirely optional. These cards can also be purchased using in-game credits, which can be earned by completing missions, raiding tombs, completing the game, or successfully completing Expedition mode challenges. There is absolutely no need for you to part with your hard-earned real-world cash unless *you* actually want to.
I know that this review of sorts is slowly turning into a thesis but it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the game’s new crafting features and improved skills progression.
As with the 2013 game, gamers can choose to upgrade Lara’s skills as a hunter, brawler, or survivor in any order they wish and this, combined with the greatly-improved stealth feature, will allow them to customise their Rise experience to suit their own play style preferences. It’s now entirely possible to sneak through enemy territories without killing every last NPC or attracting unwanted attention. If you find the idea of picking and choosing which skills to upgrade a tad daunting, check out this handy guide put together by the guys over at Game Informer.
The crafting features are a new addition to the Tomb Raider franchise and it seems that people either love them or hate them. For those who have limited free time for gaming, collecting resources and crafting ammo and gear may seem like a chore and time better spent on raiding tombs or tracking down relics. But, thankfully, there’s always a lot of ammo lying around for the time poor. For the rest of us, it’s a relief to be able to craft much-needed ammo or heal wounds on the fly, especially in the heat of battle.
And, last but not least, there’s my favourite new feature: language XP. Reading documents and studying murals will boost Lara’s proficiency in three languages – Ancient Greek, Russian, and Mongolian – and allow her to decipher monoliths, which reveal the location of buried coin caches in the vicinity.
While this adds an extra element of authenticity to the whole tomb raiding experience, I feel the developers could have taken this a step further by forcing gamers to decrypt some of the inscriptions for themselves, making them rely the information contained within the collectable documents for clues to their decryption. Though perhaps I’m just asking for too much.
Some Final Thoughts
You might be wondering “Well, it sounds like a good game. But is it a good Tomb Raider game?”
The answer, in my very humble opinion, is “Yes, yes it is”.
While certain sections of the game might seem like a retread of the 2013 game, the development team has clearly listened to the fan community’s request for “more tombs”. And they have delivered. The visually-impressive level art and spectacular level design should satisfy even the most demanding of fans. The game’s vast ancient spaces recall the St. Francis’ Follys and Cisterns of yesteryear and it’s all too easy to lose yourself amongst the ruins, mesmerised by a soundtrack of falling drops and crackling ice.
Those who were put off by the ubiquitous combat sequences of its predecessor will be pleased to know that these have been toned down and kept to a minimum in Rise. The game’s improved stealth feature allows for a less confrontational approach and there are long stretches of combat-free gameplay, granting gamers the freedom to explore the game’s sizeable hubs at leisure.
(Added on 10th January 2016) What’s more, the various Expedition modes offer countless hours of extra gameplay and numerous new ways to kill off Ms Croft in the unforgiving but oddly addictive Endurance Mode. New story-based DLC will be heading our way in January 2016 in the form of the horror-inspired mini-adventure, Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch.
In short, there’s plenty to keep you busy long after you’ve completed the game proper.
So, if you own an Xbox One or 360 or have the means to borrow one for a week or two, go get yourself a copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider and discover all this (and more) for yourself.