Rise of the Tomb Raider Review: Déjà vu All Over Again
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Developed By: Crystal Dynamics
Published By: SquareEnix
Release Date: November 10, 2015
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360
Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider was unequivocally my favorite game of that year. No other game offered that kind of summer blockbuster thrill ride of action, mystery, and wonderment. The gameplay was tight, the new ideas Crystal Dynamics brought to the franchise were spectacular and the production design was second to none. Naturally, its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider – releasing a mere 30 months later – became my most anticipated game of 2015. Could the game live up to the expectations created by its stellar predecessor? In many ways, Rise of the Tomb Raider surpasses the previous game but it also feels like a half-step rather than full on sequel. It hits all the right notes that Tomb Raider did in 2013, improves on many of them. However, it also feels like it’s treading the same ground, and some of its new ideas are only half-baked.
The basic story in Rise of the Tomb Raider is boilerplate adventure fare. Lara’s after a mystical artifact, travels to an exotic local, another, nefarious group is looking for the same artifact and Lara has to stop them. It’s the plot and characters that add the extra layer of depth to the goings on. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the MacGuffin is The Divine Source; an ancient mystical doohickey with nebulous powers that seem to grant the user immortality. Lara’s father was obsessed with finding it, which ruined his name and cost him his life. A death that served as the catalyst that caused Lara to take up the life of an archeologist, trying to clear her father’s good name (though I can’t imagine a world in which anyone really gives much a shit about the “good name” of an archaeologist, but alas, here we are).
The Divine Source may very well be the most MacGuffiny MacGuffin that ever MacGuffined. It’s on the minds of nearly every character in the game, they speak of it as as it’s the greatest and worst thing the world has ever known, and spends 99.9% of the game off screen. The Lost Ark, it is not. It’s serviceable enough incentive to keep the puzzle pieces moving, but if it not for the lead characters, both good and bad, the narrative would barely register.
Lara, by proxy of Camilla Ludington’s performance, shines as a strong, resolute and capable hero. She’s flawed in that she, like her father, is obsessed with finding the Divine Source, and risks everything for the chance to get her hands on it, but she has compassion and will help those in need. While I can’t and won’t get into details of the story, the villains have genuine, believable motivations even if those motivations cause them to be cold blooded killers. In fact, most of the supporting characters are pretty good here with only Jonah, returning from the reboot, not being much more than a very weak and ultimately pointless plot device. I do have to mention, everyone in this game takes everything so seriously. There’s not a quip to be uttered, and humor be damned.
While the narrative is stronger overall than 2013’s Tomb Raider, the real reason why anyone should want to experience Rise of the Tomb Raider is the gameplay. Following and using most of the same mechanics from the reboot, playing Rise of the Tomb Raider is a mostly smooth experience. Platforming feels much touchier this time and doesn’t feel quite as magnetic as it did previously, adding some peril to these sections that was largely absent from the previous game as I often felt like I could actually fall to my death if I misjudged a leap. Some new mechanics like climbing arrows which can either be shot into specific walls and trees or just stabbed into them as you leap or fall, provide some variety to how the player will navigate the world.
And what a world it is. Gorgeously rendered and massive in scope, the level design of Crystal Dynamics’ version of Siberia is nothing short of amazing. Returning to the hub-like world/level design of the previous game, some areas are downright awe inspiring. Also like the previous game, each area is connected to the previous and the next with nary a load screen. It’s always impressive, every single time. Each hub world offers a ton of things to do and discover; coin and survival caches, caves, relics, documents, murals, monoliths. There are tons of secrets in every section of the game, which all add to your XP which you can use to add more skills that aid Lara in becoming one of the most bad-ass characters in games, male or female. The game also adds side missions which require talking to a specific person on the map, accepting their mission, and completing the task. While it does add more to do, it doesn’t really matter much to the game other than giving you XP and credits to spend in the store on cards that add modifiers to your subsequent playthroughs.
One of the areas where the reboot shined was the gun combat. It was tight and responsive and the same remains true here, although at first I was thinking the opposite was true. You really do need to level up your weapons by crafting new parts, which greatly improves the combat as the game progresses. Any AI is very aggressive and they will flank you if you don’t move and move often. Spatial awareness is key to surviving and avoiding where Crystal Dynamics put all of the load times; in between death and restarting the checkpoint, and fast travel. Especially fast travel, oof.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s presentation is nothing short of stunning. From the gorgeous vistas of the mountains and villages of Siberia, the white snow covered ground, the woodland village in the Geothermal Valley, to the character animations, fire effects and crumbling towers as Lara climbs to safety, there is a lot of immersive eye candy on display. Sound design matches the graphics blow for blow, really adding to the atmosphere and ambiance of each and every location, combat situation and conversation. The score by Bobby Tahouri adds excitement to every encounter and serenity to the game’s quiet moments.
Much like the previous game, sections of the map are closed off to you until you either progress the story enough and/or gain a new gadget that allows access to these areas. As I mentioned already, there are the climbing arrows and there is also the wire spool which attaches to your climbing axe to swing from conveniently placed and wholly impractical metal loops in various portions of the game, or to hook on to a ledge and pull yourself up.
While all of these new additions are welcome, they feel somewhat perfunctory; never truly adding anything leaps and bounds better to the previous experience overall. The game feels like Crystal Dynamics used the previous game as a template and added a few new features to the game. In fact, it’s only in the Challenge Tombs where any truly noticeable improvements to the previous game have been made. While not nearly on the level of the mind bending intricacies of the original game’s puzzles, they have been expanded upon noticeably. With a lot more moving parts, and some truly ingenious design, they’re probably my favorite parts of the game and I wish there were more of them.
Structurally the game follows nearly the same exact path and pacing beats as Tomb Raider, right down to an extremely similar final section/climax of the previous game. If you’ve played and remember the climax of the reboot, almost the same exact thing happens here. In fact, it was during this section of the game where the realization hit me that the game wasn’t going to blow my socks off like the previous game did, and instead settle for being more of the same, only in varying degrees of better.
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. I still had a blast playing the Rise of the Tomb Raider and can’t wait to revisit it in subsequent playthroughs. It’s every bit as good as 2013’s Tomb Raider, and in some ways its better. I just wish that Crystal Dynamics were as ambitious with the sequel as they were with the reboot. Instead they settled for improving what they got right the first time while sprinkling in some new things along the way.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
- Lara is back and better than ever
- Gorgeous and huge world of Siberia
- Gameplay is as tight as ever
- Some new mechanics added that all work well
- Challenge Tombs are great
- Feels like a half step foward rather than a full sequel
- Follows a lot of the reboot’s beats
- Climax was too familiar