The phrase ‘Optional Challenge Tomb’ says a lot about Rise of the Tomb Raider. This is what the game chooses to call its puzzle-driven chambers. Is Tomb Raider still a game principally about, err, raiding tombs when it treats its namesake activity like a side salad? One that comes with no croutons and way too much dressing.
The Tomb Raider reboot of 2013 was fresh, it was bold, and it was a damned good game. But some complained that it was a mere shadow of Lara Croft’s original adventure. They were calling out for a return to the grand temples and forgotten cities of yesteryear.
In response Crystal Dynamics has delivered a compromise. Rise returns Tomb Raider to architectural opulence of its past, whilst retaining its vision for an explosive action game.
The Divine Source
Lara’s goal in this latest outing isn’t survival, but the acquisition of The Divine Source, an artefact that said to grant the gift of eternal life. The ensuing plot is more classically Tomb Raider than the previous game and this is no bad thing; the hunt for this mysterious artefact lends the story a clear focus the previous encounter lacked.
Our heroine is now throwing herself into the firing line willingly and the result is a central character, and plot, which feels like it’s found it’s way home.
Of course, a return to treasure hunting also means a return to old crutches for the franchise. If any gaming series which can be forgiven the endlessly repeated quest for a ‘Holy Grail’, it’s Tomb Raider. The concept might not be original, but the story is enjoyably told and a match for the game’s raison d'être.
Have it your way
Fans are deeply invested in the Tomb Raider’s image, and a group of critical voices bemoaned the violent mechanics of the last game, saying it was inconsistent with the brand. In answer, Crystal Dynamics has made a song and dance about the greater degree of player choice in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Lara is no longer required to slip in arrow between the eyes of every enemy she sees. Stealth and stalking mechanics have been added as well as the ability to avoid combat encounters entirely.
In practice this means that environments have been engineered with height in mind as well as basic cover. Lara can climb trees to gain a vantage point and completely hide herself in the many conveniently placed shrubberies of outdoor environments. From both these positions she can conduct a one-button takedown from the shadows.
Enemy AI has also been tweaked so that hostile soldiers will investigate noises from stray arrows and react to the sudden absence of a comrade who has mysteriously go missing. And Lara’s own kit has been enhanced too, as she can now identify which of her foes is within visible range of another, allowing her to pick them off one by one.
To kill or not to kill
On the whole the stealth mechanics work exceedingly well and provide another layer of depth to the mixture of action and platforming on offer. Unfortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider suffers the same problem encountered by many other games with optional stealth mechanics in that there’s no real reward for avoiding a combat encounter. Not only does the player miss out on potential ammunition and supplies from downed enemies, but also the opportunity to utilise all the exciting weaponry they’ve been provided.
Rise of the Tomb Raider still features many areas which can only be completed by violent means, for instance such as rooms that must be cleared of enemies before Lara can move forward. What’s the benefit of sparing the lives of a handful of soldiers by sneaking through bushes when she’s already shanked a few dozen of their former colleagues?
For the most part of Rise’s enemy encounters, Lara embraces her new position as the gun-toting lovechild of Ellen Ripley and Indiana Jones. Combat itself remains largely unchanged from that of Tomb Raider with the most significant tweak being Lara’s ability to craft a variety of explosive weapons on the fly using items she finds along the way.
Pick up a can of petrol and using a rag it becomes an explosive, a bottle of alcohol can, with one button hold become a molotov cocktail, and she can even fashion shrapnel grenades from empty tin cans. Throwing these into mobs and watching their ragdoll collapse is deeply, deeply satisfying.
Crystal Dynamics knows how it wants these encounters to pan out, with players fluidly moving from cover to cover, and making use of as much of the environment as possible. As it’s very tempting to simply sit behind a sufficiently large rock and headshot assailants with arrows one by one, most encounters will see grenades thrown at Lara’s location with clockwork regularity.
I have mixed feelings about these. Yes, they caused me to move around each chamber to avoid the explosions, and yes, I probably found more potential molotovs as a result, but I wasn’t outmaneuvering my enemies - I was being constantly forced onto the back foot.
The game attempts to use melee combatants to similar effect in the latter stages of the game and caused similar frustration but for different reasons. Lara’s kit is range-focused, and the legions of creeps getting up in my face, especially those wearing armor, can’t be swiftly slain. Maybe I’m inept, but these foes seem at odds with the toolset available.
Microsoft dropped big bucks to secure Rise of the Tomb Raider as an Xbox One exclusive, so it had something to compete with the juggernaut that is Sony's Uncharted series. Unfortunately for Microsoft, A Thief's End slipped from its original release date, and Tomb Raider wasn't the massive system seller the company expected it to be. Queue a hasty PC release in order to recoup some of that cash.
A quick PC port doesn't usually bode well, but Crystal Dynamics have pulled it out of the bag. Rise of the Tomb Raider runs like a peach on a modern PC, with even better visuals than the Xbox One and a frame rate to match. The added graphical loveliness includes a longer draw distance and ambient occlusion for more realistic shadows. It mostly sticks to a 30fps cap on consoles, but on PC it's 60fps all the way.
It makes controlling Lara feel a lot more responsive; the Xbox One version could feel a bit sluggish at times, but that's definitely not the case here. There are plenty of options and settings to tweak, but if you're playing at 1080p an Nvidia GTX 960 is more than powerful enough to run everything on high details. The GTX 970 in my rig let me max everything and keep the frame rate firmly over 60fps. 1440p and 4K screens naturally need a beefier graphics card.
Mouse and keyboard controls aren't exactly well suited to exploration, but they come in handy when you get forced into combat. A gamepad is still the best way to play, but if you've got hardware that can cope with it, the PC version is the definitive edition.
An adult-sized jungle gym
In total, there are 12 different individual maps to be explored, but the majority of these are linear strips designed as connecting pathways between the larger, open environments of which there are three.
Despite this the open plains of Rise’s three massive playgrounds all left me wanting, in spite of their beauty. The first, an ex-Soviet installation initially had my heart all aflutter with its abandoned buildings hanging structures ready to be mounted and conquered.
Then I came to realise that there isn’t actually a huge amount to do. I would climb, I would look about, and then I would generally get back down again and head to the next story objective. The map lists dozens of sites of interest, but the vast majority of these are one button events. Relics, documents, ancient murals and survival caches are require the same interaction - walk up to object, press X, done.
You have chosen, wisely
The real fun is to be had in optional challenge tombs, in which Lara must best a spatial or logical puzzle in order to reach her prize. If she does, one of her skills (like double arrow shots) is automatically unlocked.
These interludes in vast mechanical conundrums I wholeheartedly loved. Puzzles are notoriously hard to design, but each one I encountered slowly drew me through its logic until I understood, just before the experience might become frustrating, exactly what was required. Nothing compares to the sense of satisfaction when you reach the end of a well designed logic problem and every single one left me with a smile on my face.
The end of my rope
And yet they weren’t perfect. Crystal Dynamics understands too well the virtue of the rope launcher that allows Lara to interact with a whole room of objects from distance and as a result, it’s almost omnipresent.
It may be a great tool, but the constant pattern of tying objects together with rope or using it to pull levers doesn’t help to distinguish each chamber. It saddens me to say, but I found the puzzles of Arkham Knight were consistently more varied, and more difficult.
The nine total optional challenge tombs feel like perfunctory love letters to the game that Tomb Raider used to be. Each environment is moderately sized and lavishly designed, but the challenge itself is fairly small and over far too soon. I’m sure it’s possible to whizz through the nine chambers in under two hours, a paltry amount of puzzling for a game which claims to provide forty hours of content to the completionist.
Rise of the Tomb Raider Verdict
Lara is forever unearthing history's secrets, but maybe only now, in her second post-reboot outing, has the game's developer fully uncovered it's own vision for the future of Miss Croft. Action is this game's principle love and more than ever before it sits comfortably on the shelf next to the likes of Uncharted.
It might pander to contemporary fashions, but that doesn't stop Crystal Dynamics from injecting their creation with intelligence and excitement. It's not exactly what hardcore fans wanted, but at some point you just have to let go and embrace progress. If you do, Rise will undoubtedly provide you with a have a thrilling adventure.
Finally! One year after Rise of the Tomb Raider arrived on Xbox, the so-called First Lady of PlayStation is back on home turf with the 20 Year Celebration edition of her latest outing. That’s a rather fancy title for what is essentially the full-game plus its assorted DLC.
If you’re an Xbox One owner who’s already shelled out for a Rise of… season pass then there’s little here to give you an aching case of FOMO. Pretty much only an exclusive PS VR version of the Blood Ties story mission that you can play in the game’s standard third-person mode. And, to be honest, it’s better that way too.
A blatant homage to Gone Home, Blood Ties sees you wander round an empty Croft Manor uncovering the tumultuous marriage of Lara’s parents through forgotten notes and artifacts. In standard play, you’ll do this by uncovering secret maps and passageways. In VR, you’ll have more of a straightforward walk through dusty, mahogany-clad hallways and corridors. So while this content is more immersive with Sony’s new headset strapped across your peepers, it’s still best experienced in bog standard reality. The previously released Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch mission is a far more compelling reason for PlayStation aficionados to pick up Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Elaborating on the core game with a trippy new story arch, fiendish puzzles and a blockbuster boss fight, it explores Lara’s relationship with her father in a way that’s genuinely impactful. In comparison, large chunks of Rise of… are so deliriously melodramatic they’ve may as well have been written by the team behind Hollyoaks.
Also bundled is a wave-based combat mode called Cold Darkness Awakened, a zombie-packed Blood Ties Nightmare survival mode and an online co-op affair called Endurance. All of them are fine for a quick buzz of adrenaline, but you probably won’t end ploughing a huge amount of time into their company.
That’s OK though. Rise of… was one of Lara Croft’s better romps to begin with. This added DLC serves up further thrills while fleshing out what was a rather threadbare story. It’s a superior game to the one that came out last year and a worthy 20 Year Celebration for PS4.