Title: Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Note: PlayStation 4 edition includes different content)
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Release Date: Out Now
Lara Croft may go on a grandiose and thrilling adventure in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but the journey of the game to PS4 was arduous in its own way as well. Revealed at E3 2014, Rise of the Tomb Raider was presented as a game that would improve on the original in many ways and show us a more confident, complete Lara Croft (raiding more actual tombs, too, which is nice). Then Gamescom 2014 and the now-infamous “limited exclusivity” Microsoft deal happened. Mere months after the E3 reveal, PlayStation owners were left waiting an extra, agonising year for the new Lara’s second adventure. We got through that, though, and now it’s here. The big question? Well, that’s whether it was worth the wait in a year with titles like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End also battling for our attention.
The Rise and Rise of Lara
As someone who immensely enjoyed the reboot, it delights me to say the answer is a definitive yes. Rise of the Tomb Raider takes the original and does what a great sequel often does – identify what worked, focus in and improve on those elements, and strip away the less successful parts of the original. In this case, that means taking Tomb Raider‘s biggest asset – the likable and well-developed character of Lara Croft – and giving her a sprawling and personal story with less intrusion from forgettable supporting characters.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a solid cast to back up Camilla Luddington’s once again fantastic portrayal of the iconic adventurer. The difference is that Rise identifies the characters that work and gives them much more development in a way that works within the story, rather than trying to force a wider group on us (ala the 2013 reboot). Jonah (Earl Baylon) is immensely enjoyable as Lara’s close friend, and it’s a joy when he comes on screen to back her up. The enigmatic Jacob, met a little way into the story, is an integral introduction who is very complex motivation wise. His actions and reasonings are not stereotypically good or bad, and the introduction of such a morally gray and complex character is very welcome. Most of all, though, what we learn about Lara’s family is what makes the adventure satisfying. These revelations gives us much more depth from the standout character that is our protagonist. Tomb Raider did a fantastic job of introducing this heroin, and now Rise delves into her backstory to really flesh her out in fascinating ways.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a vast story both in setting and what you come across, but really it’s an intimate story of a daughter chasing her father’s legacy. Lara’s quest takes her to undeniably beautiful locations, starting with a dusty and mysterious Syrian tomb (it’s great to get straight into tomb raiding) and leading to the frosty vistas of Siberia. At these locations, Lara discovers more about her father’s tragic search for the key to immortality. Her motivations are clear; these expeditions led to his death and years worth of questions for Lara. Naturally, after discovering the impossible in Yamatai in Tomb Raider, she now has reason to believe he may not have been searching for something that doesn’t exist. Underneath all the action and adventuring, Rise is essentially a story about accepting and understanding a great loss. It’s a gripping way to get us more involved with this character and those around her.
The story itself is well-paced in its execution, switching between high-octane set pieces and quieter downtime in a balanced way. The main obstacle in Lara’s way is Trinity, an organisation after the same key to immortality – but for less heroic reasons. Trinity has some interesting familial relations to Lara, which I won’t go too much into, but the leader Konstantin (Charles Halford/Zack Ward) also gets some decent screen time where you get to understand his reasoning. He isn’t just the standard I-want-to-be-immortal guy that you may expect in this kind of story; he goes through an intriguing state of believing he is to be the saviour. Halford/Ward do a good job portraying the character and his specific traits.
Cinematically, Rise is certainly pushing towards the top end of the spectrum, where the likes of Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us) reside. This ambition is great to see, and the adventure is often directed spectacularly. Performance capture for Luddington’s Lara in particular is very impressive, and her visual look has been strengthened just as well as her character has been. Environments are superbly detailed and laid out for multiple play styles, and the big set pieces are utterly enthralling when they happen. However, some moments – often the downtime between big action sequences – could still do with an extra level of polish compared to the Uncharted‘s of this world. The framing, cutting, and focus of some scenes occasionally don’t feel quite as engaging as others.
This is speaking to Naughty Dog’s insanely high level of quality more than it is Rise’s shortcomings, but for a game so clearly influenced by Nathan Drake’s cinematic stories, that level of consistency is what Crystal Dynamics can aspire to. In the same way, the story occasionally drops into a feeling of slight predictability where certain characters are concerned (again, no spoilers). This isn’t too much of a regular occurrence, though, as the focus of this game is squarely on Lara. As long as her carefully crafted development is the focus, the story remains absorbing and enlightening.
In much the same way as the storytelling does, the gameplay of Rise of the Tomb Raider has taken what worked from the previous game and accentuated all the great elements. Of which there are many! There has been referencing of Uncharted throughout the review so far, which is natural given their circular influence on each other. Whereas the storytelling of Rise is certainly aspiring to be up to Naughty Dog’s standards, the gameplay is another story. Controlling Ms. Croft is a big part of what makes Rise such a special game. Simply put, it’s a joy, helped in a large way by the world design. While Crystal Dynamics’ take on Lara Croft is anchored by a linear story through planned routes, the element of freedom and exploration added in is what gives it a winning formula.
It is evident almost immediately. After surviving an avalanche in the initial beats of the story, Lara Croft is massively restricted resource-wise. Subsequent to finding your first base camp in the Siberian Wilderness, you have to gather materials for essential needs like warmth. This area introduces you to hunting with the now-iconic bow, gathering materials, and the stealth mechanics. Initial encounters with enemy personnel – oh, and a real-life, massive bear – push Lara’s abilities at this point, in what is essentially an ingenious tutorial via limitation.
Particular areas are more expansive than others, but almost every one can be returned to after your often-urgent first encounter. A great example is the Siberan Wilderness, actually. Revisiting it reveals a beautiful snowy area with caves, relics, and wildlife. It’s essentially a new area compared to the hostile, dark environment it is initially presented as. By the end of the game, there are at least three fairly large, standout areas that you can revisit. They become mini-open-worlds of their own, with missions, secrets, and tombs (!!) to find. Mild puzzling is worked into the areas at times, but is most prominent in the transitions between them. They’re judged well, too – puzzling relies on your knowledge of your skills and weapons, never becoming overly awkward and hurting the pace of the game. The tombs are where things get most complex, often requiring a clever use of the environment as well. Once again, they aren’t frustrating, but still very satisfying to conquer.
A Metroidvania style is apparent in Rise. For example, the introduction of fire and explosive arrows enables the breaching of blocked caves. Inside here, you may find extra items and skills to help you in general gameplay; Lara’s weapons and skills are upgradeable at Base Camps, using materials and XP respectively to slowly improve Lara’s range of abilities. Even being able to choose your outfit, which does have small gameplay effects, is a liberating choice. This feels like your version of Lara Croft, and therefore your own personal experience of her story.
The world is filled with many different items to collect. For example, Relics can be viewed, notes and audio logs read/heard, and materials gathered for crafting. Unlike a game such as Assassin’s Creed, there is a constant sense that what you are gathering is useful. Everything has a reason for being collected, whether it’s for getting better gear, learning about the world and its history, or improving your skills. Hearing Lara enthusiastically talk about found relics reminds you of her passion for what she is doing, so it becomes quite a charming and refreshing occurrence. The freedom of the open areas help to break up the intensity and drama of the main story, therefore creating a really well-balanced pace.
None of this would be worthwhile if the systems weren’t as satisfying as they are. From traversal, to combat, to crafting, it’s a joy to control the modern Lara Croft. She never feels too weak or too strong, making her way through tunnels, over gaps and up the sides of mountains with confidence but certainly not without issue. The sound design, like the sound of your pickaxe crackling through the ice you are ascending, gives a wonderful feel to the game and makes even these relatively simple tasks enjoyable. These extra touches, like having to press square again to hold on after a particularly noteworthy leap, give a sense of interactivity and connectivity to the bravery happening on-screen.
It’s a new game, and there is a few new tricks for Lara here too amongst her consistent arsenal of bows, guns and pickaxe. To name one, the introduction of the wire spool is a simple idea that adds a surprising amount. At its core, it’s effectively an extendable version of your pickaxe. Think along the lines of a grappling hook that can help you swing on metal structures to access new places. Yet, beyond that, it also switches up how you climb. Until this point in the game, if a climbable surface was too far off to jump to, you were stuck. The moment you acquire the wire spool (about halfway through the main game) you can suddenly use this item to hook onto ledges above you and ascend that way. A concise idea that adds a nuance to how you play. One such nuance? It’s really cool. That moment you leap off and trust the hook to get you to the next ledge is heart-stopping and utterly fantastic – it seems like Crystal Dynamics knew this, and some of the uses for it are heart-stopping moments.
Combat has a surprisingly comprehensive range of options, too. Stealth and all-guns-blazing are both acceptable stances to have, though earlier in the game stealth may be a better way to go. As Lara’s range of weaponry grows, blasting your way out of trouble becomes much more possible. Using the bow and attempting stealth was my preferred way of approaching situations even at this point, though, as the feeling of silently getting past enemies was extremely rewarding. Using climbable trees, bushes, and stealth attacks, the environment offers a lot of potential for approaching situations – note that using guns and just taking everyone out has its merits, as the substantial-feeling guns help Lara Croft to be the action heroin she is. Also, to be honest, my stealth sometimes descended into this when things went, erm, a tad wrong.
There really is just so much to Rise of the Tomb Raider. The feeling of taking what worked from the original and running with it is so prominent that you can’t help but just fall into the adventure. Take the multiplayer of the 2013 reboot – it was one of the main weak points of that game, not from being bad, but from being unneeded. So what did Crystal do in the sequel? Remove it, and replace it with Expeditions – the ability to replay single-player chapters with added perks, handicaps, and modes. This is linked to the collectible card system, which lets you redeem credits earned in both single-player and the challenge mode for more customisation options. I don’t know about you, but Big Head Lara is a VERY important addition in my book.
In the 20 Year Celebration on PS4, there’s just so much content included. Take the included single-player DLC set in Croft Manor, which enables you to spend several hours learning more about the history of Lara Croft and her family. It really is an extensive package; beyond the single-player campaign, which is already a substantial offering, Expeditions in particular opens up a whole host of options. Want a new, puzzle-focused challenge complete with infected soldiers? How about playing the included Cold Darkness DLC. Want more of the early-game survival feeling? Try Endurance (which is Co-op enabled, too), where sustenance and warmth are more crucial. Enjoying that gameplay? Try and battle your way up the leaderboards in Chapter Replay and Score Attack.
What it all keeps coming back to is how well Rise of the Tomb Raider took the 2013 reboot and really pushed it on. That winning formula could have been leaned on too much, without overly worrying about the rough edges – but no. The worst parts were ripped off, and the best were taken and pushed to the max. The underlying feeling of commitment to making everything as good as it can be is magical. After the 2013 game, I was excited for more Lara Croft. Now, I’m excited for more of the entirety of this new Tomb Raider world. Her friends, enemies, and family – we know more now, and I want to know even more.
It’s so fitting that what may well be Nathan Drake’s last tale, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, released this year. The links between that franchise and the older Tomb Raider games are clear to see, as are the links between Uncharted and the newer Tomb Raider games. It’s a cycle of inspiration and great game design. Rise of the Tomb Raider is aspiring to the level of production quality seen in the likes of Uncharted 4, and is getting very close to it indeed.
It’s not all one-way; gameplay-wise, Rise has a distinct identity that really works, giving you extensive systems and a large, detailed world that grip you through Lara’s story of understanding and growth. As the 20 Year Celebration on PS4, it’s a fine starting point for a new, well-developed Lara Croft to tackle the world and the challenges it poses. As the face of adventure, Nathan Drake, steps down indefinitely, how apt it is that Lara Croft once again rises to the top.