When Crystal Dynamics’ last attempt at a Tomb Raider game was released, there was a great deal of reverence thrown its way, and whilst personally, I certainly did enjoy it, I was never overly enamoured with it. In fact, it wasn’t until it was subsequently re-released on PS4 and Xbox One that I actually looked at it and found myself impressed with the visual quality, the additional tessellation applied to Lara’s uncontrollable mop of hair was such a seemingly trivial edition, but alongside a clear resolution increase, the game reached new heights which evidently bode well for the inevitable sequel. Fast forward to this year, and after numerous disappointments in the last eleven months’ worth of releases, my hopes for a genuinely impressive gaming experience lay squarely in its hands, a far cry from my original apathy, which makes it all the more pleasing to announce that it did not disappoint.
PlayStation fans may already have been cursing their luck that Rise of the Tomb Raider, the latest instalment in Crystal Dynamics’ origin story, found its way to Xbox platforms as a timed exclusive which will see the title remain only on Microsoft platforms for what is expected to be a twelve-month period. Yet that heartache is only likely to increase as they gaze over the myriad reviews that gush over the game, and on this rarest of occasions, it is entirely justified. From bottom to top, it is a brilliant effort from the developer that has more than repaid Microsoft’s faith in their ability to sculpt a genuinely mesmerising gaming experience, and whilst it certainly does play immensely well, I’d like to start with its overwhelming aesthetic quality first.
Now, in all honesty, when I first laid eyes on Rise of the Tomb Raider, I somehow felt rather far from impressed with the quality of the visuals, they seemed like an evolution over the previous game, but not by much, yet after spending as much time with the game as I have now, I have finally come to appreciate the effort that has gone into creating such a stunning game world. Vast areas open up before you, flooded with gorgeous HDR lighting and swathes of particles as mists creep off in all directions, hovering over a ground that can deform underfoot as lens flares punctuate the screen. There are rain and snow effects, whilst Lara herself, more detailed than ever, features even more beautiful, realistically moving hair and additional sub-surface scattering that creates a far more authentic looking character model overall. This has been built to take advantage of the Xbox One hardware, but sadly the overall presentation just isn’t quite perfect. There are several instances of frame rate drops and screen tearing, they are merely momentary lapses and almost unnoticeable, but they are still there, whilst the animation cycles that have been used are mostly just rehashed from the last game, which certainly weren’t perfect even then. Still, it looks fantastic on the whole and grants a sense of scale seldom seen in games, making this one the very best efforts of this current hardware generation.
For those that played Lara’s last outing, the gameplay will certainly feel rather familiar, seeing them tasked with making their way through a series of varied locales, discovering lost treasures, collectibles and annihilating enemies with a combination of athleticism, melee attacks and big guns. It’s all rather familiar, which is arguably its weakest point, but it’s been cobbled together with a hell of a lot of love and attention, not to mention a Hollywood blockbuster-like intent. It somehow manages to successfully combine hunting, scavenging, combat and even point scoring antics into a broth unspoiled by its numerous cooks, it’s a truly exciting whole and a guaranteed contender for game of the year.
The story isn’t really up to much though, seeing Lara storming across the globe in search of some mysterious artefact and a prophet granted eternal life from it, all the while fending off a mysterious, dastardly organisation known as Trinity who are out to claim this power for themselves. In all honesty, it’s not only unoriginal, but for the most part, this also feels like something of a reiteration of the last game, which to some extent is disappointing, yet not overly so as it certainly doesn’t get in the way of the action. This is also helped by improvements to voice acting and antagonists that seem at least somewhat more realised and plausible than the rather irritating Father Matthias from 2013’s Tomb Raider.
Yet the developer’s penchant for dramatic set-pieces remains, providing perfectly timed tempo changes from the majority of the gameplay which sees players meander around areas that vary in size from small icy caverns to expansive outdoor locations in search of coins, documents, relics and even upgrades before main story segments kick things up a gear or two. Whilst investigating areas, Lara can even pick up optional side missions to earn vital experience points, on top of the many other challenges that can be discovered and bested. A major improvement here is that the run and gun action is not quite as domineering as it once was, balanced more effectively this time around against the more brain taxing, puzzle elements, which are again primarily in the form of physics based efforts. Yet there seems to be more refinement to them now, and spread out across plentiful optional crypts and tombs, these areas offer a refreshing change of pace, making this feel more akin to a Tomb Raider game as opposed to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series.
Completing these, along with defeating opponents in combat, particularly with flashier kills, such as headshots, will see Lara earn points that count towards an overall score for the area in question, these are tallied up and added to an online leader board that injects a social element into what is, and has always been a solo outing. This facet of the design has also lead to the new addition, Expeditions, which sees players tasked with replaying levels whilst utilising cards that offer both help and hindrances, increasing the difficulty by upgrading enemies or attempting to complete sections without taking damage and such like, more points can be earned in order to raise one’s standing in the online pecking order, this is perhaps a tad ill-fitting with the bulk of the game, but its more content, and what’s not to like about that?
The single-player experience though is quite a lengthy one, particularly when players go off in search of 100% completion because there probably is too much to collect, which does mean that a great deal of time will likely be spent wandering aimlessly in search of those last two or three collectibles that aren’t showing up on the map. In fact, to really find any of these, Lara’s Survival Instincts (activated by clicking the right-stick) will likely be used roughly every five feet or so, which does mean that players are taken out of an otherwise immersive experience. Another small grumble would be that Lara’s crafting abilities aren’t fully exploited either, the systems in place are excellent, seeing her craft all sorts of arrows and ammunition on the fly, yet the world is so heavily populated with stray ammo boxes and quivers that it is rendered almost redundant.
However, on the whole these are but minor quibbles as Rise of the Tomb Raider, though it may very well be a cautious sequel from Crystal Dynamics, builds on almost every aspect of the last release to create something that is both utterly beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable. It might also be the best and most authentic feeling iteration of Tomb Raider since 1996, and that truly is a most welcome surprise indeed. It’s just a pity that those QTE’s are still a bit naff though.