I was smitten with Lara's adventures ever since I played Tomb Raider III and I've anticipated every sequel since. Now that she's exploring tombs again, it's time to grab my dual pistols, slip into my cargo shorts and let the raiding begin!
Rise of the Tomb Raider takes our heroin Lara Croft through a short stint in Syria and then on to the bulk of the adventure in the snowy mountains of Siberia. She is on the hunt for an artifact called the Divine Source which is said to bring eternal life. Joined with her good friend Jonah (also from 2013's Tomb Raider), Lara is chased by a group known as Trinity and their leader Konstantin. She makes a friend in a derelict Siberian prison camp and goes on to assist his people that happen to have the same enemy as her. Overall, I found the story more interesting than previous installments and thankfully less gruesome (there's no wading through pools of blood surrounded by skulls in this one). What gave an interesting energy to the plot was an atmosphere of impending war and a large group of people who were fighting for the same cause as Lara. Without giving away too much, a small disappointment is that parts of the ending seemed to be a carbon copy of the previous Tomb Raider game.
Visually, Rise of the Tomb Raider is stunning. I don't often find myself standing still and just looking at scenery in a game, but I couldn't help it this time. There's a painstaking amount of detail in the elaborate underground tombs, damp forests, snowy mountains, neglected soviet gulags and small villages that you wander through. Lara herself has many appearances that change depending on the outfit that you select. Also, a huge variety of weaponry (with dozens of upgrades) is reflected on her person as she changes her equipment. With so many different ways to traverse terrain, it does a great job at making her movements appear fluid and intentional. In particular, when you shoot a series of arrows into a wooden wall and jump between them, her movements really do reflect the awkward positioning of the arrows and how difficult it would be to climb. The cinematic soundtrack brought me back to the earlier Tomb Raider games with its use of drums, and the sound effects complement it. I heard birds chirping around me as I walked through the Siberian wilderness, voices of enemies in the distance to alert me of their presence and gusts of wind mixed with sounds of dripping water as I entered caves. Occasionally the screen would even show dots of rain as if I was watching it through a camera lens. This game is full of delightful finishing touches like this that make the developers' decision to remove online play and focus on refining the experience a huge payoff.
One thing that I've always preferred about the Tomb Raider series over its younger brother (from another mother) Uncharted is its ratio of exploration vs. fighting. The earlier games had little to no humans, let alone gun fights. Tomb Raider 2013 seemed to go too far in the opposite direction, but this one has hit the balance just right for me. When you take down members of Trinity, you have a wide variety of approaches to consider. The enemies are usually dispersed enough that you can either go in guns-a-blazing or take it strategically and try to knock them out one by one without alerting anyone. Thankfully, the journey isn't all that linear. Sometimes, I found that a couple of guys would be walking around talking about recent events upon returning to areas that I had previously rid of Trinity vermin. Knowing that someone could cross my path at any point kept me on my toes and made the gameplay feel much more satisfying than approaching an enclosed area for a gunfight that lasts ten minutes and then all the bad guys in the area are gone forever. Animals play a larger role in this one, too. Wolves, bears and lions can be found in caves hidden in the cliffs and occasionally they come out to play. You can't just shoot away and expect them to go down. Wolves come in packs so you must keep your health up while they claw at you and the larger animals must be shot with a poison arrow or dodge-killed. Now you can feel free to enter their cave, skin the dead caribou they were hording, pilfer some mushrooms and twigs, and maybe even find the entrance to a secret tomb.
As I mentioned earlier, this isn't as linear as other installments. You'll find yourself returning to previously explored areas a few times. Whenever you do, you'll uncover a ton of collectibles that are sprawled around the landscape and will only show on your map when you find special items such as monuments and backpacks from previous explorers. Buried ancient coins can be used to purchase accessories, foraged items make special arrowheads and relics provide more of a backdrop to the story. Some of these items aren't that easy to find. Pressing in the stick will make some of them emit a glow so you can see their position, but getting to them can require some critical thinking. There are also collectible challenges that'll have you destroying laptops, shooting lanterns and cutting down flags in order to earn bonuses. Missions are unlocked by talking to friendly individuals. These involve such tasks as rescuing captives and collecting and delivering materials. On top of all this, there are also challenge tombs. Finding the entrances can be a little tough, but once you do, you're adding a good half hour to an hour of gameplay. These tombs are like large scale logic puzzles that have you winding cranks, raising (or lowering) water levels and blowing up walls to get to the end where you'll uncover more information about the story.
My time with Rise of the Tomb Raider is incredible so far. I'm only at 80% completion upon writing this review and I can't wait to get to 100% then check out the additional DLC that looks like a mini survival game. The love put into its production is clearly apparent as you play. If they keep this level of quality up, Crystal Dynamics will be sure to impress old and new Tomb Raider fans alike for years to come.
- + The intricate level of detail is astounding
- + Tons of collectibles that extend replay value
- + Finding and completing the puzzle-filled challenge tombs is exhilarating
- - Some parts are too similar to 2013's game