Rise of the Tomb Raider is a grand adventure that you won’t want to miss, even if you’re one of the people who has overdosed on the stereotypically sexy and swaggering Lara Croft in the past. This multiplatform release, coming out first for Xbox One (reviewed here) on November 10, is part two of the continuing reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise from developer Crystal Dynamics. It’s an adventure worthy of time and attention during a crowded holiday season. Croft’s latest quest is full of action, and it tells a great story.
This review contains some story spoilers, but I’ve tried to minimize them.
Tomb Raider has a loyal following of hardcore gamers, with sales of more than 45 million units over time. But the latest releases in the series feature a realistic, determined Croft who is now much more a symbol of female empowerment than just a sex symbol. The heroine is still in her formative years as a young adult, determined in her abilities and tenacious in her resolve but not as overconfident as in her later years. She’s likable, and that should make this title more appealing to a wider and more diverse audience than previous games in the franchise. Her determination is an inspiration not only to female players but to anyone who wants to push beyond the boundaries of what humans can do.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a much-needed (temporary) exclusive for Microsoft’s Xbox One video game console, which has been outsold almost two-to-one around the world by Sony’s PlayStation 4. With Halo 5: Guardians and Rise of the Tomb Raider, Microsoft is throwing a one-two punch at Sony in time for the holidays. And of the two, Tomb Raider has the better single-player campaign in terms of a well-crafted narrative. In fact, it’s one of the best games in Tomb Raider’s 19-year history. And I should know since I’ve seen all of it.
It’s debatable whether Lara Croft can convince Sony fans to switch to the Xbox One now instead of wait for the PS4 version. Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t have multiplayer, and it is a timed exclusive. The game will launch on Windows in early 2016 and on the PS4 in late 2016. Still, it’s a nice little victory for Microsoft to claim in the console war, as it looks like fans of the series are going to love this title. And, after all, console wars are still won one game at a time.
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But it’s a more definite bet that you’ll like this Lara Croft. Her tale has a lot to offer, and it continues the evolution of a deeper, more admirable character. In 2013, this title’s predecessor, Tomb Raider, reconstructed the origins of Lara Croft. In that game, Croft was just 21 years old, starting out far more innocent and vulnerable than the confident Angelina Jolie, who played the character in two Tomb Raider movies. At the start of that experience, she was trusting but not naive. She believed in people and wasn’t cynical. But she was put into an emotional crucible, shipwrecked on an island full of menacing mercenaries. She had to learn to survive one ordeal after another, starting from the opening scene.
Croft’s behavior was touching at first. When she killed a deer for food. She apologized to it. By the end of that ordeal, adversity had transformed her into a killing machine, as she took the battle to the mercenaries and uncovered secrets of the tombs hidden on the mysterious island of Yamatai. She had survived an adventure of a lifetime and ended the story more determined than ever to seek out new endeavors. The story was compelling enough to sell 8.5 million copies of the 2013 release.
“The first one was sort of the origin story. But we still had room to see her begin to grow into the hero that she becomes,” said Noah Hughes, creative director of the game, in an interview with GamesBeat. “In this case it’s a fulfillment of beginning to realize her identity as the hero. We inspired ourselves with real-world explorers like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest. We wanted that sense of an epic expedition.”
He added, “Part of what we asked ourselves this time is, how can we continue to reveal facets of Lara’s character? One thing I love, even in the original Tomb Raider, is that sense of determination that Lara has. We expressed that in the last game, but we also have that archaeological brilliance, almost like a Sherlock Holmes or something. She’s an intellectual hero as well as a physical hero.”
What you’ll like
A great epic adventure
A few years have passed. Croft has become more of an adventurer, but the survivor is still tugged back toward a much safer world by friends who want her to give up on her wild dreams of adventure and crazy quests for old legends. She is haunted by a secret that her father took to his grave. He sought the secrets of immortality, as embodied by a prophet who created the ancient, hidden city of Kitezh. Built by Georgy II, the grand prince of Vladimir in the 13th century, the city has been lost in the Siberian wilderness.
We learn that a prophet from long ago won over a huge following wherever he went. He was said to hold the secret to immortality, and he went on a journey from Constantinople to Siberia, fleeing those who pursued him. He hid his secret in Kitezh. Croft chases after the secret, under a searing desert sun, or with the snow crunching under her feet in a freezing forest.
Croft’s father wanted to find Kitezh, but he never got there and was humiliated by other academics. Croft wants to restore her father’s reputation, find Kitezh, and prove that he wasn’t just a crazy old man. This quest is thrust upon her, and it almost costs her life many times. But she never gives up on it.
A brand new enemy
Tomb Raider wouldn’t be fun if Lara Croft was simply fighting hostile environments. She discovers she’s on to something — and her father was too — when agents of a sinister society called Trinity try to steal her father’s documents. That convinces her that she must find Kitezh before they do, and that leads her to the Siberian wilderness, where we find her at the beginning of the game. Croft barely survives an avalanche and finds herself in a remote forest with a base camp. There, the agents of Trinity are already present, and she must escape them through stealth or fight them in direct combat.
This secret society is led by a brother-sister team who have vowed to use the immortality they seek to cleanse the world of infidels. They’re not necessarily evil at the core, but they make evil choices and spare no one who stands in their way. They have an army of followers, from lightly armed mercenaries to heavily armored soldiers that Croft can’t possibly take out unless she uses her wits. She finds allies to help her, but the battle is like pitting Stone Age warriors against a high-tech modern army. These soldiers put Croft through so much grief that you really can’t wait to turn the tables on them in the latter part of the story.
A character in search of herself
Croft is stunningly rendered, down to the sheen on her hair. Her body moves realistically as she climbs cliffs or ducks blows. When she runs in the freezing cold, she brings her arms up to her chest as if she were freezing and trembling. That’s the kind of subtle, vulnerable reaction that makes Croft seem like a real person on an incredible journey.
She’s at her finest during the quieter moments, when she is reflecting. Croft’s voice-acted dialogue with herself — where she steels her courage and digs up the memories of her relationship with her father — are still the most interesting moments in the game.
She pushes away the people who try to dissuade her from her quest, and yet she finds companions among the rugged Remnant population of Siberia. Characters like Jacob, the leader of the Remnants, try to make her see the choices she faces. Croft has to find the secret of Kitezh and immortality before her enemies do, yet she must also think about the consequences of exposing the secret to the world. She’s confident but not yet arrogant. She pushes forward without thinking, but she also has to decide about the right thing to do.
Taking on wild animals
Lara Croft had to deal with dangerous wolves in the previous game. And she still hunts deer and rabbits in this one. But the developers took it up a notch this time with fights with tigers and one heck of a big brown bear. The bear is absolutely huge and terrifying, and Croft looks tiny next to it. But if you follow the hints and craft the right item, you can deal with the beast. The fight is still very difficult, but it’s not as impossible as it seems after the first few times the bear kills you. The tiger fights are a little more difficult, but if you can get to high ground, you’ll be in much better shape. These battles are unpredictable, as the animals are much more maneuverable than human enemies. It’s almost like one-on-one gladiator combat.
Outstanding and brutal action scenes
Croft is best as a silent killer, hunting in the Hunger Games style with her bow. But she’s not afraid to stir up a hornet’s nest of enemies when she has no other choice.
The title has some outstanding action scenes worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Croft is almost always moving in this game, and the action is brutal. Crystal Dynamics sets up some great dramatic moments, like when Croft swims underwater and sneaks up behind a heavily armored soldier. She grabs him around the neck, pulls him under, and proceeds to drown him and break his neck at the same time. Scenes like this keep you on the edge of your couch.
Sometimes you’ll fight battles over and over again, particularly with boss-like creatures, before you can be victorious. Whether you’re riding down zip lines or simply trying to jump from one ledge to another, it’s always a breathless, cinematic experience. I noticed very few glitches during the gameplay or the cinematics, and that’s pretty rare.
A good combat system
In a brutal game, you need good combat. Close combat is sometimes really hard to stage correctly, but Crystal Dynamics’ developers did a good job with it. They use a blend of direct action, such as using the stick and trigger to fire, as well as button-based actions that would otherwise be just too complex for people to pull off. For instance, if a soldier passes underneath Croft while she is hiding in a tree, the player pushes the Y button. Then, croft executes a silent execution, jumping down from the tree and taking out the enemy with a knife in one fluid motion. You can also fight at longer ranges, using the bow or guns.
You never have an overabundance of ammunition. That means you have to switch between weapons, such as the trusty pickaxe, the bow and arrow, a pistol, a shotgun, or an assault rifle. In each battle, Croft barely survives, and she is almost always outgunned. She has to craft together tools like poison arrows. She can use fire and Molotov cocktails or makeshift bombs. Croft has to hide behind cover or get mowed down by bullets. Too often, you find through trial and error that head-on assaults will only end in death.
But the levels are large, almost like open worlds. Croft has a lot of room to maneuver in secret. During this action, the animations look awesome and the gameplay is fast and furious. That’s a hard combination to execute in a video game.
An abundance of puzzles
When Croft traverses sheer mountain cliffs with her pickaxes, we get a sense of her athleticism and physical heroics, Hughes said. But when she’s solving archeological puzzles, we’re exposed more to her brilliant mind and academic knowledge. You have to be just as clever as Croft. You have to figure out how to get stubborn doors to open or cause huge structures to collapse. You have to break down gates with huge trebuchets — but only after you’ve figured out how to shake them loose and aim correctly. Some of these puzzles are maddening. But I always managed to figure them out without going to a tip sheet for help.
You can find relics hidden in the landscape that tell the story of those who came before Croft, searching for the same prize. You can uncover maps that show you hidden elements like resources or alternate tombs and caves. You can go back to places you’ve already visited and find everything in that location. An interesting fact about the sheer volume of material in the game: I finished the main story, and I was only 66 percent done with the content.
What you won’t like
Sometimes, you’ll feel like you’ve seen this before
You’ll do a huge amount of climbing in the game. And as I mentioned, it’s kind of fun. But it gets old. And I always feel a sense of deja vu. It reminds me of Nathan Drake, climbing the buildings and rooftops of the Uncharted titles. When you walk along ledges and almost fall off, it feels like Uncharted. And Uncharted itself can feel like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The secretive Trinity organization reminded me of the sinister secret society in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. And heck, an annoying helicopter gives Croft a hard time on multiple occasions, much like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. When I get these feelings, it makes me feel like adventure titles are derivative. I could use a lot less of this tiresome traversal and these scenes I’ve seen before. These derivative situations make me feel like I’m in a video game, caught in an endless loop, and not in an immersive virtual world. I want more story material that makes Lara Croft’s experience like no other.
This gets me to another complaint. When Croft finds a hidden passage, she hits it with her pickaxe and pulls it open. Stones fall to the floor. The first time you see this, it’s kind of cool. The 20th time you see it, you say, “Couldn’t they have created some other kind of animation?” The same feeling arises when you see Croft die. She falls into a pit and is impaled on a spike. It’s a gruesome image. Do I have to see it every time I fall into a pit?
The alternate tombs can be maddeningly difficult or extremely easy to explore
Sometimes, when you’re in a rush to finish the story, you can opt not to explore alternate tombs. These can be fun adventures, but they aren’t necessary to the completion of the story. In one alternate tomb in the midst of the caverns of Siberia, I finished the quest in just a few minutes. Sometimes I skipped the alternate paths, only to run into a brick wall in the main story. It made me wonder if the solution was hidden in the alternate path. So, I would go back and spend a long time searching the alternate tomb, only to find it held no answer for me.
Lara is a little too tough
I like Lara Croft because she’s tough. But she’s a little too superhuman at times. She falls down cliffs, gets buried in avalanches, gets knocked around by bad guys, and gets shot a lot. But she doesn’t die. She bounces back. And in no time at all, she’s OK. I realize this is a video game. But it ought to be a little more realistic. Like in our last review of the 2013 game, written by former GamesBeat writer Rus McLaughlin, “Somebody must have recorded a thousand hours of assorted grunts, groans, gasps, screams, shrieks, whines, sights, and labored panting for Tomb Raider.”
The lack of multiplayer
Multiplayer for the previous game was acceptable, but it wasn’t nearly as fun as some other titles. After all, not everybody can be Lara Croft in a multiplayer match. That’s the problem of having such a strong and iconic character. It was probably the right decision for Crystal Dynamics to focus on making the best single-player campaign they could. But it probably means that people won’t play Rise of the Tomb Raider for a long time. You’ll be able to compete in some ways with your friends through challenges, but that’s not much of a consolation. Still, what’s missing in multiplayer is more than made up for by the replayability of the campaign.
Each setting is big, but we should have more of them
The game really has only three environments. These include the desert of Syria and the dangerous snow-capped mountains of Siberia. In particular, we spend an awful lot of time at an old Soviet gulag installation before moving on to a third location. The problem is that the Soviet installation isn’t all that interesting. I treaded over the same old ground many times, going back and forth, more than I really wanted to. I’ll explain that more in the next section. Rather than retread some old place, I would rather stumble upon something brand new. When I’m playing as Croft, I want to see the whole world, not just a Siberian gulag.
You find a new location, then go back
This problem first hit me when I climbed to the top of a cliff around the Soviet installation. I came to a wall that I couldn’t traverse. I was duly notified that I needed “climbing arrows” in order to make further progress. These are arrows that are so sturdy that you shoot them into a wall and then stand on them to climb up. So I had to go down, find out how to get those arrows, and do many other tasks. I eventually found the climbing arrows and had to go up the cliff. That was really a waste of my time.
I also had to do the same thing when I came upon a barrier in a cave. I was told I needed “rope arrows” to proceed. You shoot these arrows into a set of ropes, tug on them, and bring down an entire structure. Still another time, I had to burn away a barrier. This was my own fault. But I didn’t realize that I could take a bottle, light a rag, and turn it into a Molotov cocktail. Once I figured out how to do this, I had to make my way back into the depths of a tomb to burn the barrier in question. I had simply missed the prompt that showed me how to do it.
Even worse, sometimes you use all of your ammo in a firefight, and find you have too little to fight the next boss. These are small things that really annoyed me, and it lessened the whole experience.
Lara Croft has grown up. She’s a one-woman army who shouldn’t be underestimated. All of the forces of Trinity are arrayed against her, and yet she finds the courage to take them on. She raids tombs but not in the name of enriching herself. She’s trying to uncover ancient secrets and fulfill the goal that her father failed to reach. She has lost both parents, but she still wants to make her father proud. She’s so much more likable than the cocky Lara of later years. I hope she doesn’t grow up too fast. I would gladly play another title in this coming-of-age saga.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is an epic adventure, and it’s a story well told and well played.