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.
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.