Rise of The Tomb Raider PC Review
I liked Tomb Raider (2013) more than I realised while I was playing it. The ways in which it divorced itself from the Tomb Raiders before it were distracting to me at first – pairing back the puzzle elements, streamlining the platforming, adopting scripted sequences and trading globetrotting for a single, inherently more samey location – but its achievements ultimately made me appreciate the transformation. Not as a substitute, but as something new.
It managed to combine the gated backtracking of a metroidvania and the sense of place of an open world game, and arrange those things in a linear structure – reducing the tendency pure open world games have of making you run crisscross all over for no real reason, and making sure new sights and sounds were portioned out over the course of its campaign. While jumping and climbing felt more directed than they did in the preceeding trilogy, the core mechanics and character control still felt really good, with a decent amount of physics-defying aftertouch maintaining more dynamism in the platforming than its more realistic veneer would suggest.
With a solid foundation in place, Crystal Dynamics have had two years to further develop what worked about the predecessor, and Rise of The Tomb Raider (joining those Planet of The Apes movies in backwards naming conventions) is a sequel that, beat-for-beat, delivers exactly that. That makes it a tad predictable, perhaps, but I musn’t understate what a thoroughly enjoyable game it is even so. What “worked” can be subjective, though, of course, so I should clarify what I mean by that exactly.
First of all, simply steering Lara Croft around the world feels really good, and even during brief semi-on rails scripted spectacle your full attention and participation is expected, maintaining a sense of peril. Jumping from one ledge to another, Lara’s hand occasionally slips, and you have to press a button to have her find her grip. It’s a little detail introduced in Tomb Raider Legend that keeps you on your toes, and makes even the more straightforward jumping sections into parts you can’t just sleepwalk your way through. Whether inside a more linear environment or out in the open spaces, modern animation systems ground Lara in the environment, but the game’s adherence to arcadey movement sensibilities makes it responsive, snappy and a delight to play. Tomb Raider (2013) was my favourite mix of new and old video game influences since InFamous, and that remains true about Rise of The Tomb Raider.
The structure of the game remains the same as the last one, but each component has been expanded. The hub areas in the game are bigger, giving you a slightly more fleshed out miniature open world in each. This is no Arkham City to the first game’s Arkham Asylum, however – no almost genre jump. Rise retains the feel and appeal of the first game, and the sense of discovery is maintained for the length of the adventure. Crafting and the XP system return, and you’ll unlock new abilities as well as improve on old ones over the course of the game.
The optional tombs that served as hidden niblets of classic Tomb Raider puzzling in the previous game were usually little more than a room containing a physics based predicament. Now they’re more fully realised, and while it’s a little bizarre to find so many intricate puzzles and breathtaking locations dotted all over, it’s absolutely appreciated from a gameplay standpoint. Some of them truly evoke the room puzzles of past Tomb Raiders. Though optional, successfully navigating these tombs grants abilities and upgrades that feel worthwhile, lending your discoveries some gameplay level weight in addition to their ascribed contextual significance.
Hunting and resource gathering are also expanded on, and this is perhaps the one aspect that threatens to become inane open world busywork. Especially the way the skill tree relating to hunting and gathering trivialises your learning to look for those things, making their inclusion in the first place seem like a deliberate nuisance in retrospect. This is a problem I have in general with including a gameplay element that you can get good at, and then providing the marginalisation of it as reward. Unlike a jittery reticule and erratic accuracy, these aren’t entirely randomised circumstances that you work to make less so – they’re proposed systems you work to simplify. I don’t know why games dump tasks in your lap that they know are annoying and boring rather than stimulating and fun, and then offer means to spare you. Regardless, it feels somewhat out of place in a game that otherwise is great about opening up more options, enriching the experience as you go.
In fairness, even when hunting and resource gathering are reduced to chasing glowing markers to fill a quota, it’s in service of crafting upgrades to weapons and gear, which impacts the game in more or less meaningful ways. So even though any inherent sense of accomplishment disappears, the systems feed back into the gameplay loop.
The metroidvania influence lends proceedings that now somewhat familiar feeling of steadily growing into a more formidable character, giving you new abilities to traverse previously obstructed pathways. It’s a more prominent style of game again – with Shadow Complex, Arkham Asylum, Guacamelee, Axiom Verge, Ori: The Blind Forest, and a bevy of other games ready to pick up the (morph?) ball where Castlevania and Metroid both dropped it – but it’s a setup whose appeal has yet to wane.
Tomb Raider games have wrestled for a long time with the notion that Lara is required to fill the modern action-adventure game quota of combat encounters. Most fans would tell you that combat is – and has always been – their least favourite part of the series. Where you stand on this is obviously up to you, but while there is a lot of combat in this game, it’s relatively good about not being a constant noise and flooding each and every new room you enter with enemies. You do a downright remarkable amount of quiet exploring for a game categorised as a modern third person shooter, and when enemies do appear they’re either animals that you choose to engage for resources, animals that hunt you, or enemies whose deployment is adequately justified by their presence in the story. This is unlike Tomb Raider Legend, in which, for as much as I love that game, enemies just seemed to magically be everywhere to the point where it sometimes compromised the sense of isolation and discovery.
I liked the combat mechanics of 2013’s Tomb Raider a lot, and I still find them thrillingly chaotic. They felt intense and oppressive in the way that the same year’s The Last of Us did, in that you were almost constantly being pressured into taking cover, opting for melee kills to conserve ammo, and scrambling to build makeshift grenades on the fly – but there was an extra dimension of frenzy thanks to the Alan Wake-esque dodge movement. Initially, Lara was just wildly rushing out of the way of harm, grabbing for a stray rock on the ground and clobbering people to death as a desperate counter action. As you progressed, animations and the nature of the combat moves changed, becoming more structured, steady handed and effective. This continues in Rise, but while Lara is certainly growing into a formidable fighter, combat is still a violent struggle rather than a slick gun ballet, and that is effectively brought across mechanically. I can see how someone could feel overwhelmed in encounters, because they are overwhelming – but they feel deliberately so by design. Conflict feels like an arduous ordeal, but in a really satisfying way.
You can also tell that Crystal Dynamics have understood the importance of justifying the killing in the narrative. They waste no time setting the enemies up as ruthless, and making sure that every combat encounter is motivated by something bigger than simply the protagonist’s personal gain.
The first game took a bold stab at grounding Lara Croft in harsh reality–a harsh reality it perhaps over-committed to a bit, considering that you had a cutscene/canonised iron bar through your abdomen within the first 5 minutes. Characterisation was valiantly attempted, however, and while inconsistencies between in-game Lara and cutscene Lara could be scrutised and debated, and it’s easy to just be cynical about that, I reckon it was an effort that deserves some admiration.
Lara pursued adventure in the previous story, but she quickly found herself all but consumed by simply surviving the situation. In Rise of The Tomb Raider she actively chooses to engage with the perils from a place of better understanding, and even when there’s adversity and horrible odds, she pushes through with newfound purpose and determination. You could argue about whether all of this lines up with how you personally choose to play the game, but to the degree that can be expected, I find that the character development works. The most important thing for the story to establish is why Lara, by choice, would put herself though something like the first game again in a million years. Without spoiling anything, early on in the game there’s a line – a sentiment that I absolutely love in its simplicity – that speaks directly to this, and immediately afterwards I was nodding my head going; yep. Of course that’s how she’d feel after the first game.
But the story doesn’t suffocate Rise of The Tomb Raider at all, it merely frames what the game is actually about. It is a game that wants you to play it because it’s a video game – and you do. You play it because simply getting around feels good, solving puzzles feels good, efficiently dispatching enemies as an increasingly effective killer feels good – and walking into a dark cave, light stick in hand is something you do out of honest-to-God curiosity. Beyond that there are numerous audio logs and scraps of text to engage with to learn more about the lore and intricacies of the back story, should you want to. At the end of Rise of The Tomb Raider, the events of the game further inform who Lara is, and the set up to the next game will be able to use that to launch its adventure. The restrained use of surface narrative is elegant.
Given that this game has brought back some of the older staples of Tomb Raider games, and successfully integrated them into this new guise, it’s easy to see where the franchise can go, even by simply continuing its return to a sort of status quo, mechanically. That’s not a slight against this game, but rather an observation about how the series still has a lot of room to grow and evolve. Among the abilities new to this game and returning from older ones is swimming, but in its current iteration you basically only dive under the surface – or not. I half expect the next game to contain a more involved version of under water navigation. Its baby steps in some of these areas are a little odd, considering that there were fully realised versions of them in previous games, but perhaps the idea is to teach a new audience about these things just as much as it is about re-introducing them in the series and for Lara.
But let’s take stock. Here is a sprawling, compelling game made with impressive confidence – masterfully paced and expanding on its predecessor without for a moment losing track of its appeal. It’s a game that has kept its integrity intact while navigating the weird waters of mass market appeal, and one that retains a real undertanding of fundamentally enjoyable mechanics. Rise of The Tomb Raider is exceptionally easy to recommend.