Video Games Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One, 2015)

Crystal Dynamics breathed new life into the aging Tomb Raider series with their acclaimed 2013 self-titled reboot. Its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, sees a hardier, more prepared Lara Croft venturing into Siberia to find an artefact said to hold the key to immortality. But does Rise of the Tomb Raider, like it’s heroine, return stronger and wiser from experience?

The answer to that question really depends on what you liked about the original game. For me, Rise of the Tomb Raider takes everything I really liked about the 2013 reboot and gives me more of it. The challenge tombs are more varied and better designed, the campaign story is interesting and conveys a sense of peril that feels both isolating and suffocating at the same time, and crafting has been expanded upon across the board (and man do I love me some crafting). Based on this, it’s possible some will look at Rise of the Tomb Raider and say that Crystal Dynamics have played it safe. I think that would be a pretty unfair assessment.

The story picks up a year after the events on Yamatai Island. What happened on the island has become a closely guarded secret, covered up the shadowy Trinity organisation. Traumatised by the ordeal and frustrated that no-one will believe her story, Lara takes a lead from her late father’s notes and heads to Siberia to find the 13th century city of Kitezh, the purported home of immortality. The problem is, Trinity knows what she’s up to and they want her stopped at any cost. What follows is a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as Lara must battle well-armed shock troopers, wild animals and the harsh environment itself to uncover the truth, thwart Trinity and keep the Tundra’s secrets from falling into the wrong hands.

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For those who just want to stick to the campaign missions, you’ll get the enjoyable, Uncharted-inspired roller coaster ride you’re looking for. Like its predecessor, the game works to demonstrate the gravity and seriousness of Lara’s situation, even as it puts her in the middle of adventure movie set-piece after set-piece. This is a grim game. Compare Lara’s reaction to a floor crumbling out from under her to that of Nathan Drake. Drake’s coping mechanism is to crack a joke to keep him from thinking about his narrow escape. The more goal-oriented Lara will get up, clutch at her sore ribs and push forward, muttering distractedly about her next objective.

Speaking of sore ribs, Crystal Dynamics has eased up a bit on the absolute battering Lara suffered in the first game. There, it felt like she was getting badly hurt every few minutes, with voice actor/mocap artist Camilla Luddington’s cries of agony a permanent fixture in your headphones. While Lara gets into her fair share of scrapes in Rise of the Tomb Raider, it never beats the hell out of her the way the original did and it feels earned in the narrative. Lara’s more experienced these days, she’s not the bumbling kid she was in the first game.

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This experience is reflected in the skill tree, which separates abilities into three areas – combat, hunting and survival. Combat skills will let you obtain newer and more creative ways to murder Trinity’s soldiers, like the Death From Above ability. Hunting skills makes you far better at tracking wildlife and collecting their hides for later crafting and survivalist skills let you better deal with your environment, crafting improved ammo and gadgets from whatever’s handy. You gain XP from completing tasks within the game, as well as efficiently dispatching foes, uncovering important data (there’s a new mechanic tied to this in which Lara gradually becomes better at reading several languages that I absolutely love) and finding hidden treasures and collectibles. It provides great incentive to get stuck into the side quests and extra content, which is great because, for me, getting the most of Rise of the Tomb Raider means getting off the beaten parth and exploring.

Challenge tombs are back and in greater numbers this time around, providing a bit of a stiffer challenge and being a lot more rewarding than they were in the first game. They actually remind me of the old challenge rooms Assassin’s Creed used to have. They’re fun to traverse and it feels satisfying to figure them out.

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When you’re not focused on all the side quests, there are plenty of optional missions that will divert you from the main story and, in some cases, will actually make things easier for you down the line. These quests are often of the “go here, do these three things/collect the thing” variety but the game’s vertical traversal and smart level design help to keep them interesting. One thing I appreciate about the climbing in Rise of the Tomb Raider is that, unlike other games of this type, there’s rarely any doubt as to what you can and cannot scale. This keeps your map traversal fluid and without many annoying mistakes that force a restart.

Everything about this game feels more polished than its predecessor. Aside from a couple of clipping issues I bumped into, none of the bugs that plagued Tomb Raider are to be found here. Embellishments to the crafting system, like being able to create ammunition on the run or having to scour certain areas for animals that only come out at specific times of the day or night, are welcome. Throwable bombs and trap creation keep combat lively and really add to the notion that you’re a guerrilla combatant, devastating Trinity’s troops in defiance of the odds, before disappearing back into the woodwork.

Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like Crystal Dynamics have been given the room to expand without being forced to include crazy new mechanics for the sake of it. Instead, they’ve taken their solid foundations and reinforced them with improved mechanics and more considered level building. The new additions are smart and add greatly to the experience. The gunplay is meatier and more responsive. The crafting is deeper and more rewarding. Lara continues to be a sympathetic, engaging lead. This a perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” design.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is adventure gaming par excellence. Don’t miss it.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Deep crafting; Great campaign; Lara rules
Lowlights: A few clipping problems here and there (that will hopefully be remedied in Day One patch)
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix/Microsoft
Released: November 5, 2015
Platform: Xbox One, Xbox 360 (timed exclusives, PS4 and PC release TBA)

Reviewed on Xbox One

David Smith

Games and technology editor, Dungeons and Dragons fanboy and your new best friend. You can reach me at david.smith@theaureview.com with news tips, pitches, press releases, invites, review content and more.