Tomb Raider was my first glimpse into the world of adult adventure games, which lead to Lara being my biggest role model, closely followed by Sam Carter of SG1. This means whenever a new Tomb Raider game comes out, I take it personally if it’s not a great game, and feel as if Lara has personally slighted me. Rise of the Tomb Raider (ROTTR) marks 11 titles now released in the main story and has a hard act to follow with the 2013 reboot being decent. I didn’t dislike the last one, but it was missing something; and whatever that something was, this one found it, improved it, and invited all its cool friends over. ROTTR had very few flaws, and so many positive aspects that this is firmly in my top 5 games of this year.
The plot from the previous game kicks this one into gear: Lara now knows there is some funky mumbo jumbo in the world and, therefore, must poke a stick at it. Previously, she was thrust into a situation that forced her into certain acts and outcomes, but in ROTTR, her character development sees her looking for trouble for different reasons. We are thrown straight into the action to do what Miss Croft does best: find a lost so and so. I love when games do this as a narrative orientation; you’re in control, keep up, and learn fast! This is still very much her origin story, so we hear what I felt was too much about how she has to do this for her father, which makes it welcome and empowering when her priorities shift to a less tunnel vision view.
While searching for a lost city, we get glimpses of backstory to explain why she has dragged her best friend up an icy mountain. Again, it is all about her father still, and her choices are fuelled by following in his research to finish what he started. It’s not new, and religious organizations chasing the secret to life has been done before, even by Tomb Raider. What I did like about it were the details: there are plinths, monuments, documents, murals and relics to find that each add depth to the mystery. There is a sense of accomplishment from acquiring these too as some are difficult to find or require language proficiency to appreciate. If you manage not to be distracted in your search and stay on the main plot track, Bravo, but I found the bonus information made the ongoing drama even more pressing and engaging. It wasn’t surprising, but it was well written and entertaining, and I enjoyed it more than the last game.
One of the first things you notice when the game opens on a treacherous mountain is the detail: the way Lara and Jonah crunched through the thigh-deep snow was so convincing that I expected to see Hobbits filming a scene on the next peak. The game was consistently beautiful, from the fluffy animals I turned into kebabs, to the unique tombs I discovered. It was possible to sit back and marvel at the way water had eroded away the underwater entrance to a tomb, and see geologically perfect detail everywhere. At least once in every new area I stopped what I was doing to spin the camera and acknowledge the incredible surroundings. I loved every tomb I uncovered because it was different to the last; I went from a sunken ship to a sulphur-laden mine, and a rotting bath house to a city-sized cavern.
The areas were even uniquely distinguishable amongst similar kinds: if I travelled from a wooded area to one on a different corner of the map, the subtle differences made each section its own place. The characters were impressive and natural compared to other current-gen games I’ve been playing, and Tomb Raider manages to make even their NPCs worth noticing. However, I did have one presentation issue: Lara’s voice acting. Yes, I’m aware she’s still getting over her dad, and this is a big scary expedition and everything is so wondrous at the same time, but did she have to sound like an emo teenager with breathing issues? Whenever she examined an object or answered an NPC during play, the acting seemed to switch back to a quiet, non-committal line-reading. The writing was really good, just the delivery of so many things Lara said felt out of place, as was her perpetual waterfall of a ponytail that tried to steal cut scene limelight.
The game mechanics weren’t too far off the last game, but they were noticeably more responsive, resulting in less frustration. I found in ROTTR I could multitask efficiently; during a fight, I could time taking cover to craft an extra gas arrow, change the weapon in an instant, and heal while I ran also. While, last time, most of the excitement and action happened in quick time events that required all the grand skill of pressing the right button – ROTTR graciously returned the challenge to the player. The game gives you enough knowledge and tools and then allows you to rise to the occasion yourself. There were safe areas similar to what stealth games offer, where you can stay hidden and pick enemies off. In fact, I loved that Crystal Dynamics didn’t treat Lara or us like idiots at all; if you missed your arrow shot, there was no “Hm, must have been the wind.” The enemy instead said, “Hey, an arrow!?” and traced you back to your damn hiding place.
None of my weapons were too overpowered, mostly because I only had as much ammunition as I could find or craft. Besides using instinct to show points of interest, I had nothing over my enemies, animal or human, and it as great. I could hit the onslaught with a bomb arrow, set a trap on a dead body and reload my shotgun for wave two, all without fumbling or losing ground. Unfortunately, every time I died I couldn’t blame the mechanics this time, it was all me. There were a few quick time events, but instead of stealing the fun like last time, these broke up the gameplay and left you feeling like you had super reflexes. None of it felt stale, and each area had more to explore the more you levelled up and equipped yourself, rewarding you for growing your skill tree and finding rare weapon parts. Even your best upgrades didn’t ruin the challenge of the game and at no point was it too easy, or too hard, except maybe that last boss fight – the sun was in my eyes!
Lara Croft is and will always be a hero to me, and I’m so relieved her origin has been dealt with, and that the next adventure will be about her raiding tombs because it’s what she wants to do, and not to appease her father’s memory. She managed to kick ass when necessary, show mercy when she saw fit, and develop into a believable protagonist that I want to see again. I finished the game at almost 25 hours, which includes loads of exploration, but I will be replaying to access new areas. Rise of the Tomb Raider didn’t need a love story outside of the family, excessive gore or even hot pants, yet we still have a brilliant adventure game. Ending the game with an original track was the icing on the cake of the perfect score throughout, and left just enough time to think, ‘well crap, I need the next game now.’