— SPOILER WARNING! —
After the fire of my excitement for the game was well and truly doused by that exclusivity deal, Rise of the Tomb Raider had some work to do to prove itself to me. I realise that’s petty, that the deals made around it are not the fault of the game itself — nor of the artists behind it — but I could never quite shift that shard of resentment I felt.
This predisposition to be less than impressed was only compounded by my feelings towards Rise’s 2013 predecessor — great game, not-so-great Tomb Raider title — and the fact that Rise itself looked, from some previews, to be, at least in part, more of the same.
As it turns out, much of Rise is more of the same — but, it also turns out, this is not a bad thing. I should have known better. Despite my issues with its portrayal of Lara, I found Tomb Raider to be an incredibly satisfying game to play — and its successor is no different. Not only that, but Rise takes much of what was good about Tomb Raider, and improves it.
In fact, presented with them in this refreshed context, I found myself loving gameplay elements which had failed to win me over in the first game, appreciating that which I had previously scorned.
From the very beginning, Rise states its intent: this is going to be a different experience. This first hour or so features next to no combat, placing the focus more on exploration and spectacle by throwing players into a huge set piece and two spectacular tombs, the first of which — the Prophet’s Tomb — serves as a launchpad for the game’s story.
The overarching tale told by Rise of the Tomb Raider sees Lara set out to save her father’s ruined reputation as she continues to search for answers about what she witnessed on Yamatai. On the whole, despite my overall feels about the game, I found the story to be a little lacking. It’s undeniably an entertaining tale, but it falls back on tired clichés too often in the telling, resorting to predictable twists and turns where it feels like there could have been fresh ideas.
That’s not to say it’s without its strong points, though. I loved the sense of forward-motion conveyed in the game’s opening moments, and couldn’t help grinning from ear-to-ear as Lara declared that she was going to find the Prophet’s tomb.
I loved the obvious change in character Lara has undergone since her last adventure. It becomes very clear, very quickly that she will — to put it bluntly — be taking no shit this time around, and that she’s well on her way to embodying the absolute, single-minded focus displayed by the women who share her name. Not only does this make for an infinitely more satisfying character to watch, but it also provides some interesting moral dilemma as the story goes on.
During the marketing of Tomb Raider: Underworld, the developers spoke of the game’s story being one in which Lara would have to struggle with the fact that pursuing her goals could potentially drag the whole world towards a catastrophe situation. Though that may have been the intention, I never really got that impression from Underworld — but I did from Rise. As the story marched on, Lara’s determination to reach the Divine Source became increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Doubts about whether she was doing the right thing began to creep in.
Combined with interesting tidbits of backstory gleaned from various documents, overheard conversations — how about that Yamatai cleanup, eh? — and other such records littered around the world for players to find, this provides a satisfying sense of depth to a tale that otherwise lacks it. As I stated above, a thread of predictability runs throughout Rise of the Tomb Raider, keeping its story set firmly in the good camp, but preventing it from reaching the great.
I suspected Jacob would turn out to be the Prophet from the very scene in which Lara meets him. Despite a strong backstory, Konstantin — through both actions and portrayal — comes across as overtly villainous, and the revelation that Ana had been behind his driving, stigmata-like affliction all along (stated, and swiftly moved on from) has nowhere near enough impact. Trinity’s presence as the archetypal, sinister-sounding voice on the other end of the phone is way too on the nose.
And then there are the Deathless Ones.
I really wasn’t a fan of the Deathless Ones. The concept is sound, but I feel like they come across as too much of a rehash of the Oni from Tomb Raider. From their enormous size to menacing shouting, the whole experience was much more familiar than I would have liked.
As predictable as much of the story was, however, there was one revelation that caught me completely off-guard. It came in the closing moments of the game, and helped me see part of Tomb Raider in a whole new light.
Prior to Tomb Raider’s release, there was some debate about the fact that Lara’s, ‘A famous explorer once said that the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are…’ quote wasn’t actually spoken by anyone in the real world. A few quotes come close, but none could be definitively pointed at as being the one she was referencing.
Four and-a-half years later, Rise of the Tomb Raider settles the debate. The ‘famous explorer’ doesn’t come from our world, but from Lara’s. It was her father, Richard.
I don’t know why this hit me the way it did — other than the fact that I love it when stories carry such perspective-shifting revelations — but I found it enormously satisfying, another moment of depth and resonance in Rise’s thin narrative.
Story aside, one of my biggest issues with Rise’s predecessor was that, despite moments of excellence, some of its vocal performances were all over the place. Whilst those of Rise itself are far from perfect, they go a long way towards righting some of Tomb Raider’s wrongs. First and foremost, Camilla Luddington delivers a much stronger performance as Lara than she did on her first outing. It isn’t without out its problems — ‘Ana! I’m so sorry!’ — but, this time around, they’re more than outweighed by positives.
Simply put, Lara just sounds better, richer. Her lines are delivered with more clarity, and the fierce determination she displays sounds absolutely believable. Being the ardent fan of Keeley Hawes’s Lara I am, I don’t think I’ll ever be a true advocate of Luddington’s efforts, but if she continues this trend of going from strength-to-strength, I can at least consider her a worthy successor.
As stated above, I’m not a fan of Konstantin’s overt villainy, nor of Trinity’s sinister raspings, but the rest of Rise of the Tomb Raider’s cast do a respectable job with their roles. Truth be told, I couldn’t stand the side-characters of Tomb Raider. I found that game to be at its weakest when Lara wasn’t the only character on the screen, but I didn’t have that problem with Rise. It’s a welcome change.
And while we’re on the subject of welcome changes: the soundtrack, which, in most cases, is a considerable step up from that of Tomb Raider. Whereas I did enjoy it, I felt Tomb Raider’s soundtrack lent a little too heavily on the survival horror aspects of the game. It had its moments, yes, but it never really conveyed a sense of pure adventure. Rise’s soundtrack does — and does so, to use that most overused of descriptions, epically.
There are moments in the game at which Lara reaches certain points — the world opens up to some gorgeous vista, the soundtrack kicks in, and though the game might not achieve greatness with its story, it more than reaches it in these moments.
It’s a good thing, therefore, that Rise’s visuals make these vistas a sight to behold.
Snow crunches underfoot, ice glistens, Lara’s skin glows with life. I can’t comment on the 360, version of the game, but playing on Xbox One, Rise packs a huge visual upgrade over its predecessor. I could go on about its visuals ad nauseam, about how the draw distance seems to go on forever, about the breathtaking contrast between sun-soaked Syria and frozen Siberia, but I think some screenshots might do a better job of making my point:
As impressive as it is, however, Rise’s presentation is not without its issues.
Though Lara’s model is, without exaggeration, stunning, the facial animations applied to it aren’t quite up to par. This imbues a number of the game’s scenes with a sense of something not being quite right. Though Rise’s animations are leaps and bounds ahead of those of Tomb Raider, they nonetheless result in frequent trips to the Uncanny Valley.
It is, however, a testament to how the game looks that this is the most general criticism of its presentation I can come up with. The rest of its issues are, I feel, the unfortunate fault of the platform on which it was released. There’s no skirting around it: Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t run well on Xbox One. At all. Its performance is passable, and nothing more. The frame rate stutters with distracting frequency, and the game falls victim to, frankly, horrendous aliasing.
It’s especially noticeable in the Copper Mill Yard area, but the reality is that ‘jaggies’ are so common in Rise of the Tomb Raider that there isn’t a single area where the image doesn’t appear to sparkle as the camera moves.
There’s little doubt that Rise will both run smoothly and look incredible when it releases on PC, but I’m much more interested to see how it will perform on PlayStation 4, whether the extra power Sony’s console packs can provide any noticeable improvements.
Given that I have little change of getting my hands on a PC that could do Rise the justice it deserves this century, I hope the PlayStation 4 can squeeze a little more from the game that its rival. But even if it can’t, even if the game is exactly the same when it’s finally available for Sony’s console, I am absolutely going to play it again when it is. From start to finish. 0% to 100%.
Because of how it plays.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s gameplay is both its greatest triumph and its biggest flaw. I want to close this review on a positive note, so I’ll address the gameplay’s flaw — singular, because there is just the one major issue — first: the combat.
I played Rise on the hardest difficulty available, Survivor. This disables the game’s auto-aim feature, but even with said feature enabled, I found Rise of the Tomb Raider’s combat to be a terrible experience. It’s slow — even with the sensitivity increased — clunky, and altogether unpleasant. Something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
For comparison, I went back and played through portions of Tomb Raider — both the Definitive Edition, and the last-gen original — to find out whether I was simply misremembering how it felt to play. But I wasn’t. Combat in both versions of that game feels orders of magnitude better than that of Rise. I don’t know what exactly the developers tweaked about it, but I sincerely hope that they can rectify it — if not through a patch for Rise, then definitely before they get to work on the inevitable sequel.
The saving grace, here, however, is that Rise places much less focus on combat than Tomb Raider did — and when you’re not struggling to take down enemies, the gameplay shines. Like the sun.
Rise of the Tomb Raider takes the joy of exploration to a whole new level. There is no more satisfying experience than simply running, climbing and zip-lining around its world. True, the floaty, physics-defying climbing I detested in Tomb Raider makes an unwelcome return, but its impact is negligible given the resounding triumph of the rest of Rise’s exploration mechanics.
Additions to the formula that debuted in Tomb Raider well and truly raise the bar here. The ability to throw Lara’s climbing axe at a ledge of wall to create a rope to climb, to shoot or plunge an arrow into various surfaces to form makeshift platforms, or even the relatively simple addition of being able to swim — all of it comes together to make the game’s world feel much more interactive than those of other titles in the series.
Rise of the Tomb Raider’s world doesn’t feel like a series of pre-determined platforms to reach: there’s a genuine sense of possibility: a joy of exploration. Rise makes you feel as though you’re on an adventure, and does it so well that it renders most of my issues with the game moot. My only wish is that the developers had opted for an ending that relied more on puzzles and exploration than the tiresome, endless-feeling combat-fest that takes players to the finale.
Still, you can’t have everything, and the fact that I would have preferred a different path to the ending is much more a creative difference than a problem with the game itself.
Rise’s gameplay is so good that it sold me on elements that had failed to win me over in Tomb Raider. I found myself loving the hubs system, revelling in the ability to revisit various locations at will through fast travel, a mechanic much improved since Lara’s last outing.
This idea of going back to pick through places you’ve already been is nothing new to the Tomb Raider series. I first encountered it in 2008’s Underworld, and toyed with it again in Rise’s predecessor. But it didn’t feel quite right in either of those games. Puzzles solved and items collected, Underworld’s levels felt somewhat barren, unworthy of re-exploration — and the fact that Lara was still on Yamatai post-escape in Tomb Raider felt like some horrible nightmare.
Rise, however, feels like the full realisation of the concept. Maybe there’s some bias to this because I liked the game so much more than the one that preceded it, but I found Rise’s various areas to be a joy to return to. It feels like there’s always something new to see, something you might not have noticed first time through.
When I wrote about Lara’s last adventure, I finished by wondering where that game would take the franchise in the future. I questioned whether it would be realistic for Lara to find herself confined to a single location again, and stated that I wouldn’t mind a return to a more linear, level-based structure. I was excited, but hesitant about what would come next. Rise of the Tomb Raider took that hesitation away. It’s the game Tomb Raider should have been, and I am now nothing but excited about the future of the rebooted series. I can’t wait to see where Lara goes next.
As I said near the beginning of this review, much of what’s to be found in Rise will be familiar to those who played Tomb Raider. But there’s a difference between the two, and I’m here to tell you, it’s the right difference.