Platforms: Xbox One, PC (PS4 to follow)
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
In 2013 Crystal Dynamics brought an iconic series back from the grave, presenting us with a new Tomb Raider for a new time. And it proved successful with great critical reception and plenty of loving fans who admired the grittier take on Lara Croft’s first forays into adventure. Publisher Square Enix, though, won’t so happy, declaring its sales as being disappointing despite it having sold millions. It was a victim of ever-expanding and absurd budgets, leaving many to wonder if a sequel would happen. If Squre Enix were that unimpressed with its performance, would they be willing to keep going with Lara Croft?
Well, yes, obviously. It wasn’t without stupidity, however, as Square Enix implemented a deal with Microsoft to give them exclusive rights to the game for a short amount of time. It proved to be idiotic and the game sold weakly on Xbox One, again casting shadows over the series future as people wondered if Square Enix will again fund Crystal Dynamics. Now that the game is available on PC, too, and will arrive on PS4 this year some time, it has a chance to do well, providing Square Enix can get their damn expectations under control. Tossing all that nonsense aside what Crystal Dynamics have done here is nothing short of impressive. This is a safe sequel, just tweaking and polishing an already successful formula, doing things like removing those annoying QTEs. Had I been able to check the game out on Xbox One when it first released it would have undoubtedly made it into my top ten games of 2015.
We find Lara as a far more confident and capable person than we last left her, the strange contrast between the story telling us Lara wasn’t a killer and the gameplay showing quite the opposite eradicated by the simple fact that after her experiences on the strange island in 2013 Lara is now more than willing to kill when she needs to. Yet she still retains all the vulnerability, painting a heroine who is both strong and fully able to handle multiple enemies, but is still frequently pummeled and barely managing to hang on as everything around her goes to hell. And hell it shall go, as Square Enix clearly paid attention to past praise of how Lara Croft took quite the beating and once again put her through the wringer, frequently dropping her from heights as the ground crumbles under her feet so often that you begin to wonder if she actually weighs a few tonnes. Importantly, though, during regular play Lara isn’t at the mercy of the world around as she once was. The intro gives her a fair bit of punishment making you wonder if Crystal Dynamics aren’t going to again go for the straightforward option of just having Lara get the snot kicked out of her in order to draw sympathy from the player, but once that’s out of the way and the rhythm is established it feels like she’s got more of a handle of things this time around. Sure, there’s still daft moments where you must a button prompt and fall to your death, only to respawn, succeed this time and then enter a cutscene where everything crumbles and Lara falls anyway, but for the most part Lara Croft this time is more about imposing her will on the world, rather than the other way round, nicely representing her having come into her own.
Once again the developers at Crystal Dynamics manage to sell Lara’s survival wonderfully, partly due to their absolutely fantastic animation work. The small details are impressive; Lara squeezes water out of her hair after emerging from a pond, or accident scratches her shoulder when passing through a small gap. Leaps always look like they are barely survivable, and she scrambles between cover with a manic need for survival. Lara may be more capable now, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t terrified of what’s going on and the developers play that up beautifully.
All credit must be given to the voice acting, too, especially that of Lara herself, as played by Camilla Luddington. Sure, the heavy breathing gets entirely over-used to the point of stupidity and there’s a lot of moments where actors were seemingly told to shout at each other due to heavy weather that doesn’t actually exist. These complaints aside, though, Luddington brings strength, compassion, fierceness, and determination and vulnerability to an iconic character, although at this point it’s almost impossible to truly say that this is the iconic character because the Lara Croft of now is so different to the one of old that they are entirely separate people. This version of Lara feels like a real person chasing a goal she is determined to complete, struggling to survive in harsh conditions in a believable manner.
It’s a shame this sense of realism doesn’t carry over to the stealth and combat where we once again find that Lara ditches her vulnerability in favor of becoming a typically overly powerful videogame character capable of demolishing enemies with very little effort. The inclusion of arrows that can unleash napalm, poison clouds and even cluster grenades is part of the problem. These would be great if the resources required to craft them were rarer, but most of the time you’ll be carrying plenty of these bad boys around and they are entirely capable of taking out entire groups of foes with relative ease, and those foes will often stand conveniently close to each other for the player to take advantage of. Likewise when stealthing around the way enemies are positioned makes it clear who should be targeted first, making Lara feel like a true predator, especially since her takedowns look quite brutal. For one person on her own going up against trained soldiers Lara sure as hell ends up giving folk like Ajay Gale, Marcus Fenix and Master Chief a run for their money when it comes to killing.
At least that killing is a lot of fun. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s combat is nothing special, with Lara taking cover automatically and the typical pop-up pop-down nonsense making up the bulk of the action, but it is incredibly smooth and thus quite enjoyable. Many encounters force you into a fight, but there’s also plenty of opportunities to sneak your way through an area or sneakily stab everyone to death if you prefer, which is appreciated. To aid her in her quest to murder the living crap out of everything Lara can now craft items on the fly, such as a molotov cocktail by grabbing one of the handy bottles of alcohol lying around, or perhaps a smoke bomb out of an urn. It’s a nice addition to the otherwise entirely standard combat and stealth, giving you a reason to look around the environment, although given how easy it is to kill soldiers with your standard array of weaponry which spans a bow, rifles, pistols and shotguns you may find yourself forgetting about crafting stuff on the fly.
The layout of the game is largely identical to that of the 2013 reboot, albeit expanded upon so that we’ve now got a few larger hub areas separated by linear zones that focus on the heavily controlled action seen in the first game, meaning plenty of “cinematic” goodness involving scripted sequences that don’t rely very much on actual player skill so much as they do spectacle. But do you know what? It’s kind of hard to care when Crystal Dynamics pull of set pieces this well. Yes, there is enough of them that despite the excellent pacing you can safely predict a lot of what’s going to happen (seriously, devs, the ground can only crumble beneath Lara’s feet so many times) and when, yet because it’s executed so well I found myself being dragged into the action, thoroughly enjoying myself
The story this time sees Lara chasing a magical source said to provide immortality, an artifact that her father was determined existed but was never able to prove, his theory making him a mocker among the archeology community. All too aware that strange things do in fact exist following her exploits on the island in the first game Lara is determined to find it and restore her father’s name, taking on a much more proactive role in the story this time. In her way are a strange group who seem equally determined to find the artifact for their own reasons, spearheaded by two surprisingly sympathetic villains who would have easily benefited from more screen time. The story itself is nothing special in terms of originality, bringing to the table the typical archetypes, tropes and beats that we’ve all become very familiar with, plus it lacks time for a few side characters. However, like those cinematic moments we were chatting about earlier it’s all done rather well, and thus remains perfectly enjoyable, although the dialogue could do with some general sprucing up.
Upgrading equipment and unlocking new stuff also returns, with the hub environments playing a part in the system. You’ll find parts of weapons in chests littered across the world, both in the hubs and the more linear areas, that once collected give you something shiny and new to play with, like a variation of the bow, because what would a game in 2016 be without not just one bow, but many? Each weapon variation also boasts differing stats, and there’s quite a reasonable armory to be acquired by the patient player. The resources needed to upgrade these weapons can be picked up as you go, but especially in the hubs which also offer up the opportunity to hunt animals for their skins.
These hubs contain side-quests that offer up access to extra weapons and costumes, making their completion feel like a worthwhile use of your time, even if their design is entirely boring. From gathering up wood and deer hides to smashing some radio transmitters or shooting down some low flying drones Rise of the Tomb Raider’s side-quests are as basic as they come, a real shame given the quality of the rest of the game. It would have been nice to see more creative effort put into their creation, rather than opting to add what is clearly just padding into the game. These rote side-quests get entirely overshadowed by the vastly more entertaining optional tombs that are scattered throughout the hub areas, their frequency far greater than the 2013 reboot in a clear response to criticism. These areas contain platforming and puzzles rather than combat, so they’re a nice change of pace. They aren’t particularly challenging, however, the simple solutions eluding you for maybe a few minutes at most. The reward for completing these tombs are ancient tomes (hehe, tombs and tomes. See what I did there?) that grant bonus skills you can’t otherwise get, although sometimes the link between what these books teach and their age is tenuous at best. I’m not entirely sure how an ancient manuscript is supposed to help me bandage myself quicker, but okay, devs, I’ll roll with it. I still find myself missing the more labyrinthine designs of the original games, tombs that truly felt like sprawling mazes and gave players an amazing sense of discovery. In comparison these tombs are small and basic, but they are still quite entertaining.
There’s a hint of the metroidvania design style in that some tombs are locked away until Lara gathers up certain gear, such as a rebreather that magically let’s her remain underwater indefinitely. The game’s sense of exploration is lacking simply because the hubs aren’t that big and while you get the occasional rush of adrenaline from stumbling across something cool in the linear sections it’s not quite the same thing, but getting new gear does at least give you a reason to head back using the fast travel system and investigate previously blocked areas.
Is Rise of the Tomb Raider the most visually beautifully game ever? Tough call, but it is quite evidently one of the most beautiful, boasting sublime lighting, superb animations and amazing levels of detail, all of which get brought to the fore in the frequent breathtaking vistas. My computer can’t run this game with everything maxed out, but even so you can clearly see from these shots that it’s a truly jaw-dropping game to behold, with some of the most expressive facial animations I’ve ever seen. This beauty comes at a price, however. While other reviewers don’t seem to have had any serious problems, I struggled to strike a good balance. My machine would be easily holding 60fps during the more linear sections but hubs would drop the framerate significantly and I struggled to find a nice balance between the two areas.
The audio doesn’t manage to impress as much. While the voice acting is great across the board and music is solid if forgettable, the rest of the audio work is merely okay, the thud of guns lacking the punch you might like and the sounds of Lara maneuvering through the environment not managing to sell the fantasy as well as the graphics.
The final complaint I need to make is that the game does have a small habit of pandering to its audience, and through that tends to get in its own way. The inclusion of survival instincts that highlight helpful objects and things is fine because it’s entirely option, activating by press a key and thus entirely possible to ignore for the whole game. Indeed, I’m sure many players will appreciate its existence. Less reasonable is how the game will quickly drop hints in certain areas if you dare to even stop for a few damn seconds, clearly stating the obvious and entirely unneeded given even the hardest puzzle in this game wouldn’t stump even Donald Trump for more than a few minutes at the very most. Perhaps the dumbest was in one of the larger tombs. Perhaps fearing its size was too much for players (it wasn’t even that big, hehe) Lara would helpfully comment that she wasn’t done in a certain area and would most certainly be coming back. Aside from the fact that it was blindingly obvious, I’d only stepped away from it for a few seconds to investigate something. Damn it, developers and/or Square Enix, have so faith in your players. This is not a difficult game.
The user interface also likes to stick up huge notices, too, which is just….look, just bugger off, will you?
And that’s ultimately my biggest gripe with the game; it’s yet another triple-A title that doesn’t have even a little bit of faith in the player’s skills. From the obvious enemy layouts to the incredible basic puzzles and Lara’s inability to damn well shut up, anybody who had a problem with the 2013 reboot being too controlling is going to have the same issues here. It’s like Crystal Dynamics don’t feel their fans are capable of working out a basic physics puzzle. I can’t help but wonder what Rise of the Tomb Raider could have been like if the developers had let loose and crafted more complex tombs that really tested our abilities, both in platforming and puzzles. Likewise combat and stealth could have been more challenging, and I’d love to see more survival elements brought into the game.
It sounds like such a cliché thing to say but if you enjoyed or loved the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider then you’re going to have a great time with Rise of the Tomb Raider. I was one of those people, and quite frankly I was hooked from beginning to end, something which doesn’t happen often these days as I play more and more titles. The production values really are astounding, it tells its story well and it’s a whole lot of fun to play. Crystal Dynamics have done a phenomenal job of rebooting a series that held me enchanted back when I was but a lad. I suppose really this isn’t Tomb Raider anymore. Not really. It’s so damn different that the two don’t share much in common aside from some names. Regardless, I genuinely loved this game, and hope to Zeus that Square Enix don’t manage to cock this up. If we do get another sequel, and I hope we do, let Crystal Dynamics create a more demanding game worthy of Lara Croft.