Rise Of The Tomb Raider
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The tone, you’ll be relieved to hear, is spot on. For all there was to like about Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, at its core lay a fundamental disconnect between the supposed – and repeatedly expressed – vulnerability of its star and the stack of bodies she left behind her. At the start, you’d see her huddled up against the cold and the fear, apologetically skinning a deer; by game’s end, still apparently terrified, she was spending her skill points on flashy shotgun finishing moves. With the messy origin story out of the way, Crystal Dynamics can devote the entirety of Rise Of The Tomb Raider to Lara Croft as the studio sees her in 2015: Sam Fisher with a ponytail; Marcus Fenix in tight trousers; Nathan Drake with a thigh gap.
The death count is significant, but when you have a combat system this good, it would be a shame to waste it. In battle, this is largely indistinguishable from Croft’s previous outing: there was no need to mess with the meat of Tomb Raider’s combat, and so Crystal Dynamics hasn’t. Instead there are a few subtle but intelligent changes around the periphery. Croft’s Detective Mode equivalent, Survival Instincts, now shrouds nearby enemies in yellow or red to signal if a stealth kill will alert others. Bottles and cans dotted about the place can be turned into molotovs or grenades. Arrows and bandages can be crafted on the fly. This is sequelmaking best practice, building out the possibility space without compromising the already-satisfying core.
The same applies to the platforming, which takes Croft’s 2013 toolset, makes her unlock it all over again for some reason, then throws in a few new toys. She can grapple-hook across large gaps or up to high ledges. Arrows can be embedded in walls, either fired from afar or driven in mid-jump, to form makeshift platforms. They are marginal bolt-ons, adding new things to look out for in this slyly colour-coded land as well as providing new ways for Crystal Dynamics to chop its pseudo-open world up into discrete, gear-gated chunks.
In fairness, it’s quite the world. Rise Of The Tomb Raider looks outrageous at times, especially when there’s ice onscreen. Bright, crystalline and gleaming in the Himalayan sun, it looks almost too good to plunge an axe into, but there’s an avalanche coming and you do need to get a shake on. It is a world of considerable variety, too, with hilltop settlements, old Soviet installations, crumbling ancient cities and no end of caves, mines and underground lakes in between. Like its predecessor, it’s beautifully lit, and hangs together well, the only signs of a struggling Xbox One being a handful of framerate drops as you approach larger areas.
This level of artistry and fidelity is easier to achieve when you are sending the player down a funnel, of course. While many of Rise Of The Tomb Raider’s heartthumping set-pieces are still exercises in holding up on the stick, the expanded platforming moveset means there’s more to think about, and there are enough sharp turns and sudden changes of pace to make you feel you’re doing more than playing along to a cutscene. Elsewhere, allies offer up sidequests, while challenges – disable alarm bells, take down Soviet flags – aren’t delivered and must be discovered through exploration.
The knock-on effect of this gentle broadening of scope is a slower pace. That’s no bad thing in itself, but does mean Rise Of The Tomb Raider takes a while to get into its stride, especially since Croft must reacquire the traversal moveset she learned two years ago. Once she’s limbered up, and the story’s setup is out of the way, things improve significantly. Croft is on the hunt for an artefact, believed to hold the secret to immortal life, the fruitless search for which drove her father to his apparent suicide. Also rather keen on this immortality-granting MacGuffin is a shadowy PMC called Trinity; in between are the natives, whose trust Croft must earn before the fun stuff can begin. Off we go, eventually, to the lost ancient city of Kitezh, where yet another interested party shows up to complicate things. It is, once again, pulpy, predictable and thoroughly enjoyable, a Saturday matinee serial with an X-rated bodycount. Unlike its predecessor, it makes sense. Rather than turn a trembling gap-year student into a one-girl army, Croft arrives here of her own steely will to prove that the treasure whose apparent nonexistence sent her father, disgraced, to his grave is real – and if she has to create a few orphans herself along the way, then so be it. Those hoping for the return of the less combative, more exploratory Croft of the mid-’90s will be disappointed Crystal Dynamics has lost little of its bloodlust, instead finding better justification for it.
No less potentially deflating are the over-hyped tombs themselves, which in reality are pretty much the single-room puzzle chambers of the reboot. They’re better hidden and less blatantly signposted, however, and the journeys to them are gear-gated, lengthy and often complex, hinting at something rather grander than what you ultimately find: a large chamber with a prize on a high ledge and a physics puzzle in the way. The world itself is, in fairness, more full of tomb-like areas than before, especially as you close in on Kitezh.
Rise Of The Tomb Raider is a competent, confident, handsome sequel to a competent, confident, handsome game. This is a gentle refinement, ironing out kinks, sewing on a few accoutrements, and leaving everything else the way it was. It is a little safe, but then Crystal Dynamics is probably entitled to tinker with a series it only reinvented two short years ago. Quite where Croft goes from here is another matter – many will continue to call for a return to the quiet, patient puzzling on which she made her name – but on this evidence she’s in safe, if blood-covered, hands.
It’s quite the world. Rise Of The Tomb Raider looks outrageous at times, especially when there’s ice onscreen