Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Xbox 360, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: November 10, 2015
In almost every way, Rise of the Tomb Raider is the natural evolution what developer Crystal Dynamics set out to build with its 2013 reboot of the iconic heroine. Similar to its predecessor, Rise is obsessed with a sense of adventure, persistently steering the direction of its narrative and pacing to infuse each sequence with a fresh sentiment of mystery. Lara has come a longways since being stranded on the divergent island which anchored the events of the reboot, as Rise sees her hardened and brave while on the hunt for an artifact promised to grant eternal life. While it sounds rather by the books on paper, Lara’s latest venture into the unknown strikes a natural balance between gameplay and story that third-person adventure games of its ilk strive towards. Rise is elevated by two sides of a very different coin, one of which comes from following the daring archaeologist down a path of escaping her past, while the other transpires from excellent gameplay and design. There are rough patches throughout the journey, but Rise of the Tomb Raider delivers a whirlwind of an adventure that sees to its goals are met. Like the greatest adventures, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t waste anytime swooping you up into its brisk narrative. Led by a precise pace out of the gate, Lara Croft’s motives are explicit and rather uncomplicated to understand, as it’s made clear via flashbacks. She’s on the trail of an artifact along with a lost city, left cold by her late father who swore he was onto something before passing. Much like its predecessor, Rise shows the best of its narrative in its early stages, front-loading what carries the most intrigue and awe. As the adventure progresses, the story becomes increasingly less compelling, gradually bombarding its structure with clichés that overstay their welcome. While the twists can be seen coming from miles away and the cast of characters–with the exception of Lara–are stereotypes we’ve all seen before, Rise’s biggest problem is that it retreads many of the same beats as the reboot. This ultimately hurts Rise more than it elevates it, for in an attempt to recapture the success of the first game, Rise muddles its own narrative goals. Sparks of engaging storytelling come and go, never truly mustering enough confidence to run with interesting threads long enough to develop them. It’s unfortunate considering just how close Crystal was to telling a fresh story with grounded characters, simply held back by the inevitable course of its tried–and–true material.
The saving grace is that Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t too overly dependent on its story. With the exception of a few big plot revelations and cutscenes to break up the action, Rise puts gameplay first, and it’s the constant priority to engage the player that makes the game so great. The foundation present in its predecessor is carried over into Rise, boasting accommodating refinements that polish the overall experience. You’ll still spend the majority of your time climbing, shooting, scavenging, and swiftly traversing throughout the gorgeously realized environments, all of which have seen noticeable improvements since Lara’s last outing. Once having seen the ropes, Rise drops you in an expansive world filled with enemy soldiers and secrets to uncover. The competition comes by way of Trinity, a suspicious and heavily militarized organization after the same treasures Lara finds herself obsessed with finding. Rise is comprised of a set of territories strewn about within the sandbox filled with nooks and crannies worth exploring. These various areas act as expansive hub zones, ripe with valuable resources to harvest and side missions to undertake. Though perhaps the most interesting of opportunities that come from exploring are the secret passageways and stellar puzzles that lie tucked away within the depths of the environment. Occasionally, taking a step back from ducking helicopter missiles and eradicating Trinity soldiers proved to be refreshing, and exploring with the incentive of meaningful reward, provided the perfect pause in action. Combat is as every bit as strong as it was in the reboot, if not superior. The emphasis on precision and planning still win out over more direct approaches, but Rise smartly doesn’t favor one method over the other. Variety is certainly the spice of combat and the options available during any one encounter are extensive. Allowing room for firefights to play out in an array of different scenarios, lends a great sense of unpredictability to battle, one that kept encounters fresh all the way to the end. Stealth proved to be the most rewarding when possible, for the feeling of picking off a half-dozen soldiers without anyone noticing, all while perched in a tree, is hard to beat. Lara’s personal arsenal isn’t the only aspect of combat that allows for terrific experimentation, as the environment itself is ripe with opportunity to seize the moment. Whether it be crafting a molotov cocktail, lethal can of shrapnel, or pulling off the perfect air assassination, Lara is prepared to make use of whats around her, and the results are typically thrilling. The platforming sections remain a high point as well, sporting superb level design and robust controls. In fact, some of Rise’s most memorable moments come from the heart-pounding tension of barely scraping by with your life during any one of the phenomenal escape sequences.
Three skill trees: hunting, brawling, and survival, act as paths to turn Laura into a more effective survivor. Ranging from more straightforward upgrades such as being able to loot more ammo from dead bodies, to more elaborate abilities such as nocking multiple arrows at once; each upgrade feels worth pursuing, effectively changing the dynamic of gameplay for the better. Notably absent from Rise is the largely generic multiplayer mode included in the last game, replaced by Expedition mode to fill the gap. Expedition mode is essentially a set of customizable challenges that drop you back in certain parts of the campaign to top leader boards and compete for unique high scores. The modifiable aspect of the mode via card packs is interesting in theory, but after spending an hour or so with it, the intrigue is lost. It’s by no means a bad addition to the game, just a forgettable one. For the record, card packs containing various tweaks to the mode can be purchased with real money. Simply playing the mode will net you points that can purchase packs, but the inclusion of microtransactions make Expedition mode as a whole feel shoehorned into a package that didn’t even need it to begin with. Rise’s main campaign is competent enough on its own that it doesn’t need tacked on modes to prove its worth, but considering Expedition mode steers clear of affecting the narrative, Rise isn’t any worse for it.Conclusion: Rise of the Tomb Raider succeeds in the ways a sequel should, building off what made its predecessor work, while simultaneously expanding into its own greatness. Crystal Dynamics has built a fantastic world to explore fit with breathtaking vistas, clever puzzles, and show stealing tombs that pay homage to the series’ roots. Rise triumphantly captures the excitement and tension of stepping into the shoes of the legendary archaeologist, reinforcing its impact with refined gameplay and excellent world design. However, its story falls short for the most part, especially towards the end where the pacing begins to slowly crumble. Fortunately, its weaker points manage to keep their distance from Rise’s biggest strengths, allowing the game to come out on top despite its flaws. It’s evident that we haven’t seen the last of this adaptation of Tomb Raider, and while its up in the air where the adventure will take our hero next, the bar of quality Crystal Dynamics has set is abundantly clear.
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