Rise Of The Tomb Raider PC Review: A Slow Climb To A Brilliant Finish

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Posted February 15, 2016 by John Clark in Video Games

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Developed by: Crystal Dynamics

Published by: Square Enix

Available for:  PC (reviewed)

Cost: $60 USD

 

 

In 2013, Tomb Raider underwent its most extreme transformation since its 1996 debut. In the hands of Square Enix after 13 years of ownership by Eidos Interactive, gaming’s biggest female-led franchise was rebooted with the intent of bringing what was being seen as a flagging series into the new generation, while focusing more on the character and backstory of its iconic protagonist, Lara Croft. The reboot wound the clock back to a time before Lara was the pistol-toting badass gamers knew, telling the origin story of how a wealthy british noble became a globetrotting adventurer. This new approach was met with success and criticism in equal measure. Many liked the greater narrative focus and archery-heavy shooting, but some found Lara’s more meek personality and the lack of exploration in what proved to be a very linear game off-putting. In their second attempt, developer Crystal Dynamics seems to have heard what fans were asking for, and made a sincere attempt to improve upon everything the last game was lacking – albeit with some stumbles along the way.

 

Picking up some time after the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider begins with Lara and her companion Jonah scaling an icy cliff in search of an ancient ruin. The opening hour of the game is easily the worst first impression it could give: a series of flashback cutscenes and linear segments that ultimately amount to nothing but holding down movement keys and occasionally tapping E to not fall off a precariously grabbed ledge. Thankfully, by the time Lara’s brought back to present day and let loose in the Siberian wilderness, it’s time to hunt, explore, and seek out the mystery of the ‘Divine Source’, a hidden relic supposedly capable of granting immortality to those who find it.

The locales are truly gorgeous.

The locales are truly gorgeous.

The plot is serviceable but unsurprising, an intriguing look at the concept of everlasting life hampered by predictable twists and excessive melodrama. Lara in particular presents a bit of a conundrum; it’s clear that the writers wanted to develop her as more experienced and willing to fight back against her aggressors than in the last game, but her motion capture and voice acting still paints the picture of a traumatized victim half the time. I want to believe that Lara’s on her way to becoming a total badass, and it feels like the game does, too – but she doesn’t seem to feel that way yet, and it creates a tonal dissonance, just like in Tomb Raider 2013, to have this constantly gasping archaeologist struggle against one man with a pistol in a cutscene only to turn around and obliterate an entire platoon with nothing but a bow and arrow in the next gameplay sequence.

 

If that makes you think you’re in for a lot of combat, you’re right. The cover-based shooting of Tomb Raider 2013 is back, with a greater emphasis on archery than even before. Though there’s an extensive upgrade tree for almost every weapon, the bow once again appears to be the focus, with trick arrows and even the ability to triple-headshot locked on enemies leaving me wondering if Lara Croft auditioned for a part as Kate Bishop or Katniss Everdeen between games. The guns feel a little lacking by comparison unless you upgrade them heavily, especially thanks to their fairly weak kinaesthetics; the sound effects are quiet, the damage low, and only the shotgun really has any kick to it. Fleshing things out is a similarly bolstered improvisation system. Lara can use materials gathered from her environment to turn everything from radios to mushrooms into deadly weapons, evening the odds in some of the longer battles.

"Am I out of touch? No! It's the children who are wrong!"

“Am I out of touch? No! It’s the children who are wrong!”

More interesting is the increased focus on stealth. Unlike the last game, which seemed to take sadistic pleasure in dropping Lara into a field of trigger-happy baddies, Rise often lets her have the jump on her foes. Whether this is used to pick off a few stragglers with arrows, start things off with a thrown bomb, or sneak up behind a few mooks and pickaxe them in the head, it gives a sense of empowerment to the protagonist that the narrative doesn’t. Bit by bit, she’s becoming an experienced predator, less afraid of her foes in gameplay if not in cutscenes. Once she’s detected, cover-based shooting is still the bread and butter of the combat, but I was able to be enjoyably mobile even on higher difficulties, rolling between objects and picking enemies off.

 

To those who are worried that Rise is as linear as its predecessor, I have good news: exploration is an obvious focus of the sequel, and it pays dividends in the form of open ‘hubs’ between linear story segments that contain optional tombs, hidden challenges, and extra loot. The tombs tend to involve only one or two puzzles apiece, but while they start simple, the last few kept me occupied for a good while trying to figure them out. While Rise of the Tomb Raider still feels more like a shooter than anything else at its core, it’s really starting to feel like Crystal Dynamics is bringing back much of what made the old games so appealing.

The atmosphere is nice, of complemented by smart use of weather effects.

The atmosphere is nice, of complemented by smart use of weather effects.

That said, the set pieces and cinematic moments are still a lynchpin of the game, and are boosted by some of the best facial capture technology and graphics I’ve ever seen in a game. Lara’s animations in particular are stellar, conveying subtleties of motion I’m not used to seeing from a videogame character, like accidentally scraping her shoulder when slipping through a tight space. Make no mistake: despite being a port of a title that was on both Xbox One and the now-ancient Xbox 360, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a hell of a looker, with staggeringly detailed environments and characters illuminated by fantastic lighting. Myriad performance and graphics options ensure that the game can run on most machines, and while the framerate struggles on some of the open hubs, it’s easy enough to optimize with a few tweaks. My only graphical quibble is with the smoke and fire effects; they’re flat and lack detail compared to the rest of the visuals, betraying its cross-gen roots.

 

Though it starts a little slow, Rise of the Tomb Raider gets more fun and intense by the minute. If Crystal Dynamics is set on telling the story of Lara Croft, I hope we see her come into her own a little more in the next game, but beyond that, I’m more than pleased by their latest efforts with one of gaming’s most venerable franchises.


About the Author

John Clark