Tomb Raider was a genuinely pleasant surprise for me, back in 2013. Basically, I am not a Tomb Raider fan. I played the original back in 1996, and got bored quite quickly. I played Tomb Raider 2, and got bored quite quickly. I never got past the first level of Tomb Raider 3. I gave up on the series until Underworld, which… bored me quite quickly. They’re good games and I respect them! They’re just not for me.
But the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider looked fascinating. A story detailing Lara Croft’s origins and the beginnings of her shift from naïve student to a world-travelling, tomb-raiding, opponent of animal conservation. A Metroidvania-esque open world. A proper combat system. Lots of lots of noises that, put together, sounded an awful lot like “Tim, you really want to play this.”
And lo! It was good.
Rise of the Tomb Raider continues Lara’s transition into the globe-trotting mass-murderer we all know and bizarrely approve of, and in some ways, it’s pretty much the quintessential sequel. It doesn’t massively change things, instead expanding and improving on the mechanics that made the first such a joy to play, and it’s been long enough since 2013 that franchise fatigue hasn’t even begun to set in.
This time around, Lara’s not a victim of circumstance but is outright trying to find a fabled artifact – in this case, following in her father’s footsteps and looking for something that can apparently make people immortal, supposedly located in a lost city in Siberia. The problem is that a secretive paramilitary organisation called Trinity are also after this particular object, and they have no qualms about murdering anyone who gets in their way.
The story isn’t quite as interesting as it was in Tomb Raider, but that might just be because I really like origin stories, and this is pretty much another step along Lara’s path. She’s not the horrified teenager she was in the first game and is a lot more inured to murder than she was then, but by the same token, she’s not the brash and invincible superhuman from the pre-reboot series. More than anything, this story is about her gaining in confidence and coming to terms with herself. It’s not as directly interesting as the original game’s plot, but it’s buoyed by typically strong writing, even if you’ll see pretty much every twist coming long before it arrives.
The occasionally meandering plot is anchored by a pair of genuinely decent villains who are a bit more complicated than they first appear, and who aren’t exactly out to Take Over/Destroy The World. Alas, the game does somewhat devolve into telling rather than showing with some of this; a few of the more interesting bits of motivation and backstory are found in audio logs rather than in anything said villains actually do. Perhaps because most of what they do involves kidnap, murder, and torture. I suppose those aren’t the best times for lengthy soliloquies on motivation, despite what early James Bond films taught us.
Anyway: with the exception of a prologue segment set in Syria, you’ll be spending the entire game in Siberia, although there’s plenty of variety in the environments.
Unlike the first game, which was pretty evenly divided across its areas, Rise of the Tomb Raider is largely split between two huge hub areas. The first is the cold, snowy environment you’re probably expecting, while the second is a considerably greener forested area. There are plenty of other areas too, but they tend to smaller and more focused on pushing the main plot forward with a few documents and relics scattered throughout; if you’re after side-quests and bonus objectives, you’re probably going to be in one of those two major hubs.
Yes, side-quests. From actual NPCs, who you can talk to. There aren’t many of these, but they make a nice break from puzzling through tombs/looking for relics/finding documents/shooting wildlife. Siberia has a bunch of friendly people throughout, and while they don’t really contribute much, it’s nice to overhear friendly conversations or chat to people to learn about how things are going. You might even glean a few tips about hunting or exploring, although chances are it’s stuff you’ve long since figured out.
If you’ve played Tomb Raider then I think you largely know what to expect. Lara makes her way through the areas, climbing walls, shimmying along cliff faces, swinging from ropes, and generally doing things that make Daredevil look like a bit of a coward. You’ll find areas that you can’t quite get into until you have the relevant upgrade from later in the game. You’ll brutally murder wildlife in order to craft upgrades for your weapons and equipment. You’ll gain experience, level up Lara’s skills, and gain access to more and more of the world as you go. And, as usual, it does a really good job of subtly indicating where you need to go without needing giant waypoint markers.
You’ll also regularly dive into combat, which is as glorious as it was last time around. Rise of the Tomb Raider mixes stealth and third-person shooting really, really well. Most of the time you’ll encounter enemies while you’re hidden, and you genuinely can solve most of these encounters entirely stealthily if you want to, by lobbing cans around to distract them and then knifing people to death in the bushes or leaping down on them from up high. Depending on how you level up, Lara can even MacGyver some truly hilarious contraptions together, like a radio proximity bomb that causes enemies to investigate and then blows them up, or the ability to booby trap a corpse.
Alternatively, you can engage in open combat, with contextual cover keeping you momentarily safe from bullets as you fire back with your selected handgun, shotgun, assault rifle, and bow. This is also entirely pleasing: the guns have a lovely chunky feel to them as they blast off armour plating and make heads melt, counterbalanced by the bow’s slow precision. And yes, the MacGyvering makes an appearance here too, with Lara able to turn bottles into molotov cocktails or cans into shrapnel grenades.
The bow really is the star of the show, though, with a variety of arrows available. You can upgrade Lara’s skills further, letting her lock onto the heads of multiple enemies and then letting fly several arrows at once, or giving her the chance to loose two or three arrows without having to reach back to her quiver. You really do feel as though you get an awful lot more dangerous as the game goes on, and that’s a very good thing.
I will say this, though: play it on one of the harder difficulties. I don’t know if I’d recommend the absolute hardest, which requires you to use resources every time you want to activate one of the base camps that act as your fast travel points and upgrade stations, but the “normal” difficulty is far too easy. Some of that might be because headshots are pretty easy on a mouse and keyboard, but most of it comes down to how health regeneration works. On the regular difficulty, you regenerate health as long as you haven’t been hit for awhile, rendering the “bandage yourself” mechanic utterly pointless. On hard, you only regenerate health when you’re not in combat. On the hardest difficulty, there’s no health regeneration at all.
If I have one big complaint, it’s that Lara’s Survival Instincts – or Batman Mode, if you’re as sarcastic as I am – are perhaps too useful. With the push of a button, the world dims and basically everything of any importance is highlighted in a lovely gold sheen. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock upgrades for this… and frankly, it’s too bloody useful not to use.
It’ll show you where you can shoot rope arrows, and all the places you can climb, and any relics or resources in view, and any enemies around, and – later on – it can show you the really important secrets, like the weapon-containing Strongboxes, through walls. There is literally no reason not to continually toggle this on every time you move into a new room, and this dulls the sense of exploration quite a bit. It can be pretty much outright disabled through the options, but it’s very much a case of all-or-nothing; you can turn off the beacon marking your next destination and/or you can turn off the glow around interactive objects. Not ideal.
Still, there’s plenty to do and explore. According to Steam I’ve played for around 25 hours and completed 88% of the game, with most of what’s left being a few scattered documents, relics, and caches that I can’t be bothered to grab.
In addition to this, there’s entertainment offered by the Expeditions mode, which is frivolous but entertaining. Rather than slap on a completely sodding pointless multiplayer mode, Crystal Dynamics opted to extend the single-player by letting you replay sections of the game or craft your own missions.
I find the former most entertaining, with Score Attack reminding me an awful lot of ageing speed-run shooter The Club. This lets you replay a level with little wisps to collect, lanterns to shoot, and different point values assigned to grabbing resources or killing enemies via headshot or stealth or what-have-you. All the while, you’re battling the clock and a combo meter that ticks down since you last scored points. It’s excellent, hectic fun that lets you loose on the game’s rather triumphant combat system.
The mission crafting is slightly less excellent, although I’ve not explored it enough to comment too strongly. You assemble the level by choosing “cards” (either earned through gameplay or bought for real money if you’re very stupid): five denote the mission objectives, five denote Lara’s outfit and her equipment, and five act as mutators that let you turn on big head mode, or make enemies immune to melee attacks, or make chickens explode when you throw them.
(Yes, you can throw chickens. Hell, one of the mutators turns your arrows into chickens. Lara really fucking hates wildlife; one can only assume Lord Croft’s cat pissed on her head when she was a child.)
Anyway: that’s fine and all, although I can currently only build missions in one map (perhaps because I don’t have the cards for the other maps?) and it’s a little tedious to spend three minutes in a map, complete a mission, and then restart on the same map to do the next objective. Still, it’s something I want to play around with, even if only because I really want to try out that the-bow-fires-chickens card.
Rise of the Tomb Raider does pretty much everything it set out to do, and it does it with aplomb. The platforming is largely great. There are far, far fewer unpredictable quick-time events. The mix of stealth and combat works better than it has any right to. There are a few cunning puzzles in there, and some heavy expansion on the use of the previous game’s tools – rope arrows, in particular, are used in an awful lot of puzzles to attach winches or counterbalance weights. There’s a huge amount of bonus stuff to do, and all of it has some sort of purpose, whether it’s getting you a new weapon or filling you in on some backstory. There are loads of wonderful little visual touches, like the way Lara’s outfits look different when wet or covered in snow, or how she holds out her hand to steady herself when sprinting alongside a wall, or how she wrings out her hair when she’s just been in the water.
There are issues, but most are pretty minor; there are blips in the framerate, or quirks with the platforming, or bits of the plot that drag or just don’t make a great deal of sense, or the game won’t stop fucking giving me massive tutorial popups even when I’m literally in the final area of the game, seriously fucking stop it I KNOW HOW ROPE ARROWS WORK. (Ahem.) The biggest issue is that it doesn’t do quite enough to improve on the formula of Tomb Raider, but as I said at the start, franchise fatigue has yet to set in and right now I’m perfectly happy to see another solid Tomb Raider in the same ilk. And that, basically, is what this is.
Oh, and the PC version seems pretty bloody good, too.