Two years after her well-received reboot, Lara Croft is back in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Expanding upon it’s action adventure predecessor, this latest entry attempts to reintegrate the exploration roots of the original series. With it’s clever blend of puzzle solving, pulse quickening set pieces, and tense third-person combat, Rise of the Tomb Raider is not only the finest title in franchise history, it’s one of the best games of 2015.
Adjusting to her new role as a globe-trotting explorer, Lara Croft has become fixated on her late father’s failed investigation of The Divine Source, a mythical relic that supposedly bestows eternal life. Discovering the hidden city of Kitezh, Lara quickly encounters Trinity, a violent militarized organization with intentions of obtaining the Source. Now Lara must decide between fulfilling her father’s life work or befriended an indigenous tribe from a devastating invasion.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider’s narrative arc is standard adventure pulp fare, it’s Lara’s insecurities that make her quest so compelling. Lara will frequently second guess her actions and abilities, but also her relationship with her father and even her role in his death. This helps ground the otherwise superhuman archaeologist into a relatable and sympathetic character. Understanding her inner monologue makes her unwavering bravery in the face of certain death all the more engaging. Though the main story dips into predictable cliches and inconsequential beats, Lara’s determination is infectious.
But the best stories are often left in the background. Kitezh has seen its fair share of would-be concours in the past, leaving behind a fascinating collection of diaries, letters, and testimonials dating back to the 10th century. These backstories are completely optional but their smart writing and excellent voice cast do a great job of fleshing out the mysterious city. The rise and fall of a Soviet occupation, the journey of a Vatican assassin, and the doubts of a Trinity employee are easily the most interesting story threads in the game.
As a sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider is more of a broadening of the original than a reinvention. Scaling dizzying cliff sides, carefully walking small bridges, and sliding down ziplines are the bassics of Lara’s platforming. But what separates this from many of it’s contemporaries is its embrace of user input. Leaping towards a climbable structure requires properly timed deployment of Lara’s rock climbing gear or quick button prompt to stabilizing her grip. These small touches keep even the quieter moments of the 16 hour campaign engaging and satisfying.
But these concepts are best utilized in Tomb Raider’s lavishly destructive set piece events. Evacuating a crumbling structure and escaping a menacing helicopter are essentially platforming exams, evaluating your ability to quickly adapt to the chaotic surroundings. Best of all, recognizable patterns are used to subvert player’s expectations. Just as you prepare yourself for a wall climb or spot a familiar yellow ladder, the entire structure comes crumbling down. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s execution of these sequences is an excellent exploitation of player psychology.
One of the most welcomed addition comes in the forms of stealth combat. Lara is free to enter a direct fight upon discovering an enemy camp, but silent elimination often produces more entertaining results. Leaping onto unsuspecting soldiers, dragging them into bushes, or quickly firing arrows into explosive barrels is consistently gratifying. Lara’s “Natural Instincts” ability highlights if an enemy can be seen by his comrades, encouraging players to map out the route and time of their attack.
Sadly, stealth is not always an option, forcing players into the game’s inconsistent shooting sections. Lara’s hearty arsenal of pistols, rifles, shotguns, and explosive devices work well enough but it’s her versatile bow that will capture most player’s attention. Spewing out three simultaneous headshots, unleashing a napalm soaked arrow, or devastating a group with explosive tip are the true highlights of these sequences.
Unfortunately the enemies quickly become repetitive due to their limited abilities and defense. Shielded soldiers are the most complex of the bunch with attacks designed to motivate dodges and quicktime attacks. Animals ranging from deer, wolves, bears, and tigers serve as large melee enemies but lack strategy once guns are obtained. That’s not to say the shooting itself is bad, it isn’t, but it becomes less enticing when the overall strategy is to hit some enemies less and others more.
When she isn’t fighting for her life, Lara can explore the many excellently designed tombs peppered throughout Kitezh’s several hub locations. These laid back puzzle sequences showcase Rise of the Tomb Raiders incredible graphics and lighting engine. While most of these stages are focuses on action rather than deduction, the procedures are some of the most engaging moments of the entire game. Accessing the elusive treasure at the end of each tomb is surprisingly addictive.
But what makes Tomb Raider’s constrained open world such a success are its plethora of collectable items, explorable environments, and side quests, each with their own worthwhile incentives. Hunting down animal pelts and scavenging for tree branches and leafs supply Lara’s crafting ability, producing ammunition and medicine. Discovering hidden maps reveals hidden locations of weapon parts, coin caches, and artifacts. Completing town quests gains access to special gear while completing optional tombs unlocks new perks.
Best yet, all of these activities gain Lara experience points which are used to unlock dozens of enhancements and abilities. Outside of the main game, story missions can be replayed in time attack and score based modes with earnable card perks. While it’s certainly an interesting concept, the design of these stages don’t quite lend themselves to speedruns. Still, these goal driven slices are entertaining enough, if only revisit your favorite sections. There’s just so much to explore, obtain, and enhance outside of the main story.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider’s art design and graphical capabilities are some of the best seen this year, the presentation is frequently held back by an inconsistent framerate. Some of the open world’s more impressive outdoor locations suffer from noticeable, especially around flowing water. In-engine cutscenes see the worst of this with important story beats accompanied with choppy models. It’s a shame to see the absorbing animations, writing, and voice performances interrupted by technical distractions.
Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t reinvent itself and it’s all the better for it. By incorporating satisfying stealth sequences and thoughtfully designed puzzle sections, it’s more explosive moments feel like a reward. Yes, the combat levels can lose their initial excitement before the game’s final conclusion, but they’re thankfully spaced out. And that’s really what Tomb Raider is all about, balance. Somber tombs are balanced with dramatic destruction. Intense gunfights are paired with tactical invasions. These are difficult concepts to juggle, but Rise of the Tomb Raider’s brilliant pace and diverse gameplay delivers one of the best experiences of the year.