The old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to Rise of the Tomb Raider, because this is the strongest case of “more of that thing you loved” I can think of since Uncharted 2 came out and improved on the original game without rocking a single boat. And much as I hate to say it, the two franchises are analogous to one another, now more than ever, as Crystal Dynamics has refined what the phenomenal Tomb Raider brought us with small improvements that make for a better game on the whole, but one that suffers ever so slightly from diminishing returns.
For example, it’s well over halfway into this sequel that any major new mechanics of note come into play, and when they do, it’s only to the degree that you’ve come to expect. The ability to throw your pick as a grapple means you can access new heights in old areas, and firing arrows into soft wood lets you climb farther, but these are only new in the same way you unlocked fire arrows, or the strengthened bow to shoot ropes to get to new areas in the last game. This isn’t a complaint as such, because everything about the actual playing of Tomb Raider was sublime, and it remains so here, only with gorgeous visuals and a larger scale.
We’re far enough into the new console generation that visuals can lose their allure, but this is a lovely looking game, and it knows it. Caves will flicker with the hint of life thanks to dim torches, as Lara walks with trepidation towards a glimmer of daylight. Shards of ice will fall and blur the vision as they explode, passing through the floor that once seemed so secure in front of you. The vistas are easy to forget until you pan the camera around and are once again wowed by what you’re seeing – they’re rendered lifelike by the skyline and lighting, and it all makes for a special looking game with no tearing, and no textures popping in – it’s just a smooth, glorious visual spectacle, with some of the best facial animations I’ve seen outside of The Order: 1886 and Until Dawn, and the best hair modelling since…well, the last Tomb Raider.
There are so many set-pieces in the campaign that you barely feel like you can come up for air. The story is well paced, only slowing a few times (and only then, really, if you let it, by doing some exploring), with relentless action. Stringing together a huge jump, then slamming your pick into the ice to climb up, before shimmying around an edge to stealth kill a guy and move right into a huge gunfight is exhausting in a good way.
The biggest lesson learned here, however, is that there are a lot more actual tombs to raid. If you explore the larger hubs well (which are bigger than ever before), there are more tombs in the first five hours than in the entirety of the reboot, and they provide a welcome distraction from the story, which is serviceable (and better than Tomb Raider) and follows a similar arc to one of the original games: Lara is trying to restore her father’s good name after he has been disgraced trying to find an artifact that gives eternal life. The trouble is that based on those early beginnings you can guess the entire arc of the game from start to finish. There are twists and turns, but you see them coming. In fact, there’s almost an overuse of certain moments that mean towards the end of the game when you land from a decent height, you’re already prepared for the floor to cave in or break under you.
But it’s still better, mostly because it ditches the stupid cliche-ridden characters, and also by hook of the fact it completely understands it’s a game. There’s no explanation for why Lara is killing everyone other than the fact they’re trying to kill her. Raiding tombs unlocks new passive skills that make her stronger, and there’s no reason for why it works that way – nor does there need to be. If you can’t accept that there’s no greater excuse for everything aside “it’s a game”, then you’re gonna have a headache by the time the credits roll. You gather resources, you craft ammo, upgrades, and better equipment, you kill people, you raid tombs – just because she’s Lara Croft, and she’s ace.
That said, Lara’s breathy voice peppers every second of calm, and her internal monologue is almost incessant at times. Every time you sit at a fire to upgrade, she’ll start thinking about what’s going on, and you’ll hear it all – it’s just a bit too long sometimes. Clicking the right stick to show the points of interest is useful, but in some areas every time you do so, she’ll comment on what needs to be done – over and over. She’s painted with a dangerously single-minded outlook at times, and her arc goes from being utterly obsessed and compelled to fulfill her father’s legacy, to a sudden change of heart, or from rightly lacking any trust in anyone, to suddenly showing faith in a stranger. It’s all a bit silly, but it feels wrong to condemn Rise of the Tomb Raider for this after praising it for its acceptance of being a game.
There’s also the option to be a bit more stealthy this time. There’s one section that involves multiple ice-holes and lots of armored enemies. There’s a chance you could fluke it with a shotgun, but the idea is that you need to swim underneath them and go from hole to hole taking them out. Trouble is, because it never gives itself fully to being a stealth game, you can’t really do it in a satisfying way. After multiple deaths, it seems easier to aggro the enemies and then hide under the ice, wait until they turn around then pull them in with the stealth-kill animation protecting you from the gunfire. You then swim away to a hole behind the next guy and repeat.
Guns handle in a fairly loose way, and headshots aren’t always easy to line up, because the enemy will jink and dodge to make it hard. Upgrading your skills will make everything easier, but the bow is the star here. A fully upgraded bow will let you zoom in and line up three headshots in one, which combined with the XP boost for chaining said headshots means you’ll be back at the bonfire unlocking more skills very quickly. You can use collectible coins to buy weapons from a shack, one of which is a suppressor for the pistol (there’s that stealth angle again).
It all adds up to make for a satisfying campaign that you’ll finish within about fifteen hours on the regular difficulty. But the hub areas that connect the story together are peppered with things to do. Mostly it revolves around finding trinkets and memos of some sort, and each area has tombs to discover and solve. The puzzles aren’t overly taxing but some will have you scratching your head for a few minutes. The memos will upgrade Lara’s translation ability, which in turn allows for her to read murals, and all of these things will need finding or reading if you want to get 100% of the game finished. Further to that, you can now take on side objectives from friendlies. They’re not massively deep and can be simply a case of getting five deer skins, shooting down drones, or even clearing out a wolf den, but it’s a nice touch, nonetheless.
Adding to the lifespan is the Expeditions mode. This lets you replay levels with modifiers in either a straight replay, a score attack mode (timed and scored in a Resident Evil: Mercs style), or even a new game plus style that lets you keep your skills from your story save. You can also create a mission in remnant resistance: select a location, the weather, and the time of day, then choose objectives and a loadout. Completing these yield credits as a reward, and the higher the difficulty, the more credits you’ll get.
It’s in this mode that the microtransactions come into play, as the modifiers are card-based, whether they’re a simple “big head” mode, or ones that strengthen or disable some of Lara’s skills and weapons. You’ll have quite a few by the time you’ve finished the game as you’re rewarded them at major story beats, but after that you need to get them using in-game credits, or buy them from the marketplace. It’s almost okay, because the mode is so fun and genuinely playable because of the core mechanics, but the packs are inordinately expensive to get using in-game credits, so you’ll either have to buy them with real cash, or play the mode more than you perhaps otherwise would, to grind points to spend.
There’s no moment throughout Rise of the Tomb Raider that is anything but great, bombastic fun. The story is alright, but copies the exact pattern of the previous game (though it is better) while being far too predictable, especially toward the end. But this is a game that knows what it is, and excels by playing to its strengths and delivering on addictive moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s an essential purchase, and although it’s a case of simply being more Tomb Raider, lessons have been learned along the way to make this one of the most refined and enjoyable blockbuster rides available.
Some of the best visuals this generation.
The core gameplay is extremely satisfying.
Loads of tombs and large open areas to explore.
Almost identical structure the previous game.
Majority of tombs are still optional.
A little easy on "normal" difficult.