Crystal Dynamics has created the best Tomb Raider to date.
In 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics released the reboot of Tomb Raider, and it presented some important questions: Can you introduce an almost completely new experience to a franchise that has been around for nearly two decades ? Can you bring immense depth to a prominent character and make an audience appreciate that character in a new way? The answer to both of those questions was a definitive yes, and yet, there was certainly more that could have been offered to gamers in the Tomb Raider reboot. Thankfully, its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider brings improvements in nearly every single category, and it happens to be an absolutely thrilling experience - possibly the best game in the series to date.
Rise of the Tomb Raider follows Lara Croft after she experienced not only a personal transformation from a victim to a warrior, but even her view of the natural world was transformed after seeing supernatural events occur in the Tomb Raider reboot. And it is because of this experience that we see a Lara that is obsessed with finding a supernatural artifact that eluded her late father. Of course, she’s not the only one looking for said artifact - every narrative needs a bad guy. In regards to Lara’s “obesession,” nothing about it seems over the top or out of place. In fact, Lara is consistently grounded, confident, and ultimately compassionate.
Simply put, I was in awe of Lara Croft for the entirety of the game. She stands upon her own merits thanks to the wonderful voice work and motion capture talents of actress Camilla Luddington. Lara is the hero of this story whether she’s in the thick of an intense fire fight with explosions happening around her or she’s comforting a frightened character. I felt a sense of responsibility to not let her die. If I failed to do so, I couldn’t help but feel like I had let her down.
While Lara is given a great deal of depth, that depth is limited to her exclusively. Where this would normally be a hindrance for most games, the story never really attempts to give a great deal of attention to other characters. Sure, the motives of antagonists are explored, but it’s clear that Crystal Dynamics understood that this is Lara’s story and people are playing this game for her story, not that of her allies or protagonists. This was a snare that Rise‘s predecessor fell into, but no such mistakes are repeated here. Antagonists are threatening enough and allies are at least admirable. Neither approaches the annoyance that some of the Tomb Raider reboot’s characters possessed.
While there is a story that unfolds in cinematic fashion, there is also a great deal of gameplay to be experienced. The game’s story and gameplay are able to occupy the same space and work cohesively throughout the entire experience.
The gameplay involves a great deal of exploration. Cliffs are to be climbed, platforms swung across, and ziplines slid down. Throughout the game Lara comes across hub worlds that serves as huge environments to traverse and milk for artifacts, documents, and materials to help upgrade weapons. I would say that 99% of the time my exploration was rewarded. If I ventured off the beaten path to a far off cliff, more than often I’d be the recipient of something that grew Lara’s skills and weapon attributes.
And what good would exploration be in a Tomb Raider game if you didn’t come across a tomb every now and then? This time around, the amount of tombs have been increased significantly and so have their difficulty. I think it’s fair to say that these are probably the most challenging puzzles in the Tomb Raider series to date. And coming across a tomb is a thrill in and of itself. I truly felt as though I had stumbled across a long forgotten treasure. Completing these tombs presents more than experience. They provide new skills. For instance, after “raiding a tomb,” I was given the ability to see traps (highlighted red) before Lara plummeted into a pit of spikes.
Another added portion of this game is its side missions. That’s right, a Tomb Raider game with side missions. The inhabitants of the land Lara finds herself in are in need of help, and you can choose to help them by accepting their requests. None of these serve as a great deal of challenge, but they do reward you with items like the lock pick and a crafting tool. For example, I could hold down R2 and within seconds I had created more arrows.
Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s side missions and exploration for artifacts and tombs created an almost Metroid-like experience where you have to return to certain areas to complete tasks you didn’t have to abilities to do before. Back tracking to old areas really shines a light on just how far Lara has come from
Lara is a diverse character in that you can essentially build her skill set to fit your play style. Rise of the Tomb Raider uses three skill trees: hunting, brawling, and survival. My favorite allows Lara to shoot multiple arrows at a time, for instance. There’s something quite satisfying about pulling off a dual-headshot with the bow and arrow. Another upgrade allows Lara to get more loot off of her fallen enemies. Each skill trees has multiple layers, giving the whole concept a more fleshed out feel.
The leveling up of weapons is pretty simple in design. Over the course of your exploration, Lara will gain parts to weapons or just supplies in general, and these contribute to upgrading weapons. 90% of the upgrades carry over to other weapons, such as when I upgraded my normal pistol, but decided I preferred a revolver I came across. I didn’t have to worry about waisting a ton of time because nearly everything carries over. With all of this said, I still primarily used the bow-and-arrow.
In regards to combat, it’s probably the only portion of this game that is lacking inspiration. Nothing about battling Lara’s enemies feels broken, but there could certainly be more variety. Granted, it’s scores better than games that send wave after wave of bad guys at you. The difficulty ramps up significantly in the final portion of the game, but a gradual build to that increase would have served this game better.
In place of a multiplayer mode is Remnant Resistance. It serves as a sort of remix of chunks of the story campaign. Different challenges can be used to see which of your friends can master your created levels. It’s not something that feels necessary for this title, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the game itself. It’s a mode that there for those who want it.
Now the most obvious commentary about this game is just how good it looks. Lara’s mannerisms and facial expressions have such a natural appearance that I’d swear she was a real person at some moments. And for once, the mouths are synced perfectly to the game’s spoken dialogue. Environments are oh, so very beautiful. There were even a few moments in which Lara might have fallen to her death because I was distracted by the realism and authenticity of these visuals. I was taken aback that this game exists for the Xbox 360. With that being said, the next-gen version of this game is where you should be playing it.
I went into and came away from Rise of The Tomb Raider will a blissful smile on my face. There’s no doubt in my mind that Crystal Dynamics has created the BEST Tomb Raider experience to date. It’s that good. Every part of this game feels balanced. Every bit was enjoyable. And while it might be hard to follow up, for the time being, I’ll just be glad that I was there to experience Lara’s greatest story yet.