Release date: October 11, 2016
I didn't jump into the Tomb Raider franchise when it first appeared in the 1990s. I dipped in a bit later with Legend, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But it took the franchise getting rebooted onto more modern consoles to get me really interested.
It makes sense that I would, at least eventually, get to know Lara Croft, if only because through the years I have come to understand that my three favorite game genres are Adventures (my first love), RPGs (my second) and Action/Adventures.
The 2014 "Definitive Edition" (meaning it was remastered for the PS4) of the major reboot to the franchise, called simply Tomb Raider, simply blew me away when I played it.
Then came the heartbreaking announcement that the follow-up to that game, Rise of the Tomb Raider would be an Xbox One exclusive. QUELLE HORREUR!!
So I had to wait for a year to get my mitts on it. It finally came out in December and I finally got to play it. Was it worth the wait? You'd better believe it.
The franchise you can't help comparing these modern Lara Croft games to is Naughty Dog's Uncharted games. As it's been said, Nathan Drake is pretty much a male Lara Croft and Lara Croft is, in turn, a buxom female Indiana Jones. Now, I adore the Uncharted games. They do some things better than a Tomb Raider game: sharply superior dialog and voice acting, for one. Character relationships that are more meaningful, for another. However, there's not much more to an Uncharted game than the main campaign. Consequently, these games (except for the fourth one) are all pretty short. The new Tomb Raider games are significantly longer, or at least can be significantly longer, as we'll see.
If the previous game was about Lara developing from college student to badass raider of tombs, Rise of the Tomb Raider is about her taking that badassery out for a spin. The game begins with her and a buddy navigating a treacherous series of snowy mountain ledges in Siberia. The production values are immediately spectacular, creating a world you can't wait to dive into. Lara, as always, is on the hunt for something unbelievably important. A few quick flashbacks later you come to realize that this time around, our intrepid and boobalicious heroine is engaged in a bit of family business. The mysterious and powerful artifact Lara is seeking essentially destroyed her parents' lives, and she is by-God going to get to the bottom of it.
The game eases you into the controls beautifully and the interface feels so natural you practically stop thinking about it after just a few minutes. This is a VERY good quality in an action game.
As in the previous game, the learning curve is gentle and consistent, quickly giving the player a desire to improve skills and abilities. In one of the first main areas of the game (a snowy Siberian valley), there are several places you cannot access because you do not have the right tool or skill. "All right, you mysterious blocked off cave that holds who knows what enticing treasure, I'll get back to you just as soon as I'm able!" you think.
The menu system quickly gives you a good idea of the kind of collectibles you'll be looking for and how they are organized. As in the last game, this is part of how the game makes the collectibles fun, as opposed to the way they're handled in Uncharted games. True, there's collecting in an Uncharted game, but it's very shallow. It's simply a roster of treasures that don't add up to anything, and within the run-through of the game you cannot return to previous areas to attempt to find collectibles you've missed. You must replay the chapter again (with all of the enemies) in order to make another attempt to find that missing relic.
The game takes place over a series of separate maps that range from quite small to expansive. Lara is (naturally) trying to find the Mysterious Powerful Secret Hidden Thing before the bad guys do, and the story is basically a serviceable romp based on the tried-and-true Indiana Jones template. You don't play Tomb Raider games for their innovative stories.
And if you were to play Rise of the Tomb Raider the same way you play an Uncharted game, just barreling through the story, your game play time would be pretty short.
But who would do that? The collectibles in Lara Croft games are delicious. There are side-missions that help establish your rapport with the natives. There are optional challenges such as burning posters, cutting down flags (or rabbits) or dangling walkie-talkies, or looking for caches of ancient coins (and lots of other things) that require you to dig into the environments in a much more granular way than you ever would in a Nathan Drake game. Completing these challenges and finding these items nets you weapon and equipment upgrades and experience points.
Did I say experience points?! Is Rise of the Tomb Raider an RPG? Not really. But completing objectives awards you points that you can pour into skills in three different tech trees. Improve your abilities with weapons, increase your toughness or learn new ways to use arrows. Being given choices about how to develop your heroine makes Lara your Tomb Raider.
And I haven't even mentioned the optional but fabulous puzzle-based tombs. Just as in the last game, the tombs you raid are mostly optional, which may sound odd in a game called Rise of the Tomb Raider. But this really works, and I cannot see any sane player avoiding any of the optional tombs. Stumbling onto yet another lost and forgotten relic from a bygone era never loses its charm. Plus, once you've solved a tomb's puzzles, you are rewarded with a unique "ancient" skill that makes you even more skilled and powerful.
Along the way, you establish a series of base camps which allow fast travel. This makes it easy to return to areas that still have collectibles you haven't nabbed yet. While most of the game takes place in cold, snowy environments, it's not without variety. There's a dusty old tomb in Syria; a geothermal valley and several watery tombs to add variety. And while the voice acting and script don't ever rise to Uncharted heights, they're very solid and professional. (I did find the English accents used by descendants of ancient Byzantines puzzling, however.)
I also have to mention the game's excellent stealth gameplay elements. I love playing a stealthy character, and using the bow, silenced guns, and clever from-cover take-downs, Lara can wreak genuine havoc on her enemies from the safety of the shadows. It's immensely satisfying. Of course, you can use a run-and-gun playstyle if you prefer. You know, if you're a bad person.
Lara has a special power called Survival Instincts. When you activate it, the world fades to black and white and objects you can interact with give off a golden glow. This is handy for solving puzzles, tracking animals and many other activities. At first I considered turning this feature off (which the game allows you to do). Would it make the game too easy, I wondered? But then I decided that this special power was in keeping with Lara's skill set. She's not a normal person, after all, she's Lara Croft. It makes sense to me that she has superior observational abilities.
Of course, a player who's tougher or more ambitious than I am could turn this feature off and go all hardcore.
The PS4 version of the game comes with lots of extras. The multiplayer bits didn't interest me, and neither did an absurd zombie attack mode. However, as an adventure game lover, I really enjoyed the extra content called Croft Manor: Blood Ties. It's an honest-to-goodness combat-free adventure game. Lara is on the verge of losing her family's estate, and has to comb its crumbling interiors for clues that can help her save the place from her meddling uncle. It takes a couple of hours, and it's a fun diversion from the main campaign of the game.
I got a lot for my money with Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the meaty main campaign, the collectibles, the optional challenges and optional puzzle tombs, I spent more than three weeks on my Lara adventure. I keep reading dire articles about how the days of the big-budget blockbuster game are numbered. I don't know if they are true or not, but I find I play each one of them as if it's one of the last I'll ever get to play. Rise of the Tomb Raider definitely falls into the category of Games I Play With a Stupid Grin on My Face. It's a big box of candy. I enjoyed every minute of it, and I think you will, too.
+ Jaw-dropping production values
+ Large amount of content
+ Great variety of gameplay, from traversal to combat to stealth to puzzle-solving
- Optional zombie game feels out of place