Video Games Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20th Anniversary Celebration (PS4, 2016)

Let’s get it out of the way early: Tomb Raider has a lot to thank Uncharted for. Well, the current rebooted Tomb Raider anyway. This isn’t your childhood Lara Croft. She may have come first but when Crystal Dynamics launched their new, hardened Lara in 2013, it was pretty obvious they were channeling Naughty Dog. But when all the comparisons and chatter dies down, you’ll find that Rise of the Tomb Raider does things that Uncharted never even attempted and had the potential to be one of the best games of the year.

Rise of the Tomb Raider sets Lara off on a journey to complete the work her father was doing before his untimely death. Traveling from Siberia to ancient civilisations, Lara finds herself in the midst of an arms race for an elixir that houses the key to immortality.

I loved my time with Rise, and I haven’t stopped playing it just because its story is behind me. That statement however is two-fold because while the content beyond the main story is truly fun, it means that the plot was never engrossing enough to to be my main attraction. It’s a re-hashed story of a corporation seeking an ancient artifact for an evil use and Laras drive to do right by her father. Most things are rehashed, I get that but Rise does nothing to take a used premise and carve it’s own individual path.

There are no endearing characters (perhaps apart from Jonah) and Lara is just a really flat heroine. She does bad ass things but only because you’re controlling her. She doesn’t come across as tough or as someone who will nonchalantly pierce an arrow through your throat. If Uncharted can be accused of ludonarrative dissonance then Rise of the Tomb Raider needs to be thrown in the mix too. Lara is really just a vehicle in which to facilitate our adventure and that is probably my biggest resentment about Rise.

For all the things that Uncharted isn’t though, Rise excels at. It doesn’t force you down a linear path. Its story missions can occasionally be scripted and trap you in an area that can only really have one plan of attack but outside of those, you’re free to explore the world at your own leisure. And to get 100%, you’ll need to. One of the cool things I liked about Rise was that it presents inaccessible areas that can only be entered later on in the game after you acquire new gear. Not only does it encourage you to backtrack but it’s always neat when you procure something like a broadhead arrow or explosives and remember where you can use it.

There are crypts and caves to explore and honouring its title, tombs to raid. These became my favourite part of the game. Not only do they reward you with significant abilities but they’re also a heap of fun. The core game play for the main campaign is action and stealth so tombs provide the more nostalgic aspect by presenting you with elaborate puzzles and contraptions to overcome. Occasionally Lara’s hints courtesy of the survival instinct feature are a little too informative and come about far too early so you may be robbed of the challenge, but if you can avoid it (or possibly ignore it) tombs are a neat deterrent for anyone who wants to take a break from combat.

Combat is solid while we’re on the subject. Rise is a smooth shooter that doesn’t baby you with auto aim and easily dispatched enemies. The cover system is automatic and it works wonderfully, mainly because shootouts are too erratic to be glued to one place for any longer than five seconds. Foes will rush you but luckily the dodge maneuver is great and melee with your axe is a viable option. One of the coolest little perks is picking up litter such as jars, bottles and cans and crafting crudely devised grenades and molotovs. I loved doing it on the fly without having to take up inventory space or pull up a menu.

There are a standard variation of weapons in play. Assault rifles and shotguns will have a frequent role while your pistol will mainly be used for panic purposes but the real MVP is the bow and Crystal Dynamics knew that would be the case. It’s stealthy, has some nice upgrades and you can craft fire, poison and grenade arrows that can split up into clusters. The AK is a reliable ally but those special arrows never outstay their welcome and constantly provide enjoyment.

Stealth has a pretty heavy presence in Rise as well, allowing you to use bushes, trees and water to get the drop on unaware enemies. In addition to the improvisational crafting I mentioned earlier, you can also tamper with enemy radios and turn them into bombs so that once a group is lured over, they’ll all be blown sky high.

Customisation is a major element too and one big plus I’ll always throw at people if I’m engaged in an Uncharted vs Tomb Raider argument. You’ll spend a fair amount of times at camp fires. Not only can you fast travel from these points but they also allow you upgrade your weapons with recoil compensation, damage increase and faster fire rates. You can also craft ammo pouches and quivers. Rise has a substantial skill tree system too that comes in three categories: brawler, survival and hunter. Here you can learn new attacks, become stealthier, highlight more with survival instincts and take less damage. The list is quite large and will take you right through to the end of the game.

Of course this is kind of a special deal for PlayStation 4 owners. Microsoft had an exclusivity deal that meant Rise was only playable on Xbox One and Xbox 360 for about a year. Now that that time has passed, the 20th anniversary edition comes with a stupid amount of content.

The main game is quite large for completionists but if you still haven’t had your fill when it’s done, you can dive into DLC or Expeditions.

Blood Ties is a short mystery DLC that sees Lara attempting to decipher the code to her fathers safe back at Croft Manor; Lara’s Nightmare is set in the same place, only it’s essentially zombie survival; Baba Yaga is inserted into the main game and is a set of missions that pits Lara against a witch; and Cold Darkness Awakened is put Lara in a decommissioned soviet facility, trying to destroy the source of the zombie epidemic.

When all that’s finished, you can launch an ‘expedition’ which lets you play any mission with modifiers on that you gain from cards. There’s also ‘endurance’, which forces you to survive in the wilderness and can also be played in co-op. There is so much to do in Rise, it’s insane and for a package that’s reasonably priced with such a hefty amount of DLC and modes, it’s hard to pass up.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is best described the love child of Uncharted and Far Cry 4. Throw in a pinch of The Last of Us and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect. I’m not going to harp on how derivative it is because if you’ve played the first one, you know the current formula is here to stay. Rise, apart from its stock standard story (which admittedly provides a couple of touching and epic moments) is it’s own thing.

It’s a wonderfully conflicted hurricane of loud, fast firefights and serene moments of trekking through icy caves discovering ancient artifacts. It crumbles buildings on top of you while a helicopter whizzes past and then has you crouching in the bushes, quiet, hunting a deer. The point is, it throws so many different moods and things to do at you, from several different angles, it’s damn near impossible to get bored. If this is the Tomb Raider series as it stands, it’s gained a fan in me, because bar a couple of shortcomings, it just does so much right.

Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Expansive world with plenty to explore; Fun combat; Tombs; Tonne of content.
Lowlights: Story isn’t breaking any ground; Lara is dull
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix, Microsoft Studios
Release date: Out now
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.