Lost in the Woods – “Rise of the Tomb Raider” Review

Rise of the Tomb Raider marks the return of adventurer and general badass Lara Croft, but is this romp in the wilderness better than the last?

In many ways, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like the natural next step in the long-running franchise. Still, along the journey to becoming a more experienced explorer, it seems protagonist Lara Croft has lost a bit of the soul that made the 2013 reboot so refreshing.

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As one would expect from the series, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a linear adventure story. As depicted from the numerous trailers that have surfaced in the past year, I went into Rise with the expectation of something truly epic. What I got was an all-too-familiar action adventure story that’s regurgitated for decades.

Keeping spoilers to a minimum, Lara is competing with Trinity, a shadowy organization, to find a biblical artifact that supposedly heals ailments, grants long life and gives people mystical powers. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s incredibly similar to “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’” plot. And if that sounds familiar, that’s because Uncharted 2’s plot was similar to “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You get the point; the story in Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t an original one. Sure, that isn’t necessarily a deal breaker if you like stories of that caliber, but I was a little bummed with Rise’s plot after the fantastic plot of the 2013 reboot.

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Supporting the story, Lara’s fireside chats also make a return. When players sit by campfires to upgrade weapons or craft new equipment, the protagonist often quips off little bits of information that reveal her thoughts on recent story events. While sometimes nice, there are a few monologs from Lara that are so ham-fisted that it spoils narrative elements I hadn’t yet considered. I’d love to go into detail here, but what she reveals is so huge, it would spoil half the game.

In many ways, Rise’s gameplay feels like a natural evolution of what gamers enjoyed in Tomb Raider 2013. Developer Crystal Dynamics has honed in bow and firearm combat and has borrowed gameplay mechanics from other popular video games. Lara must now hunt wildlife to carry more weapons a la “Far Cry”, and she can even craft throwables like Molotov cocktails and nail bombs mid-combat just like “The Last of Us”. Using combat elements from other games isn’t a sin in Rise because they mesh so well with the franchise.

Adding a new dynamic to stealth combat, Rise of the Tomb Raider features tree traversal.
Adding a new dynamic to stealth combat, Rise of the Tomb Raider features tree traversal.

Where the game’s combat goes wrong is in Crystal’s upgrade system. Similar to the one present in the 2013 reboot, Lara can unlock various skills as the game progresses. Some make traversal faster or crafting better, which makes the game fun. Unfortunately, some of the game’s combat upgrades kill any challenge that was once present in the game’s fighting.

For example, one of the upgrades allows Lara to mark multiple targets with her bow and simultaneous headshot all of them. The first time you pull it off in combat, it’s incredibly empowering. Then you realize Crystal didn’t implement a system that requires the player to “get X number of kills” before reusing the attack, so you can simply use it repeatedly through each combat scenario. Impressive combat maneuvers lose their special touch when they can be performed ad nauseam. As I’ve mentioned before, Lara is meant to be a much more experienced survivalist in Rise of the Tomb Raider, but having upgrades that make every combat instance easy leads to boredom in the later chapters of the game.

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My biggest complaint with Rise of the Tomb Raider stems from the presentation of its protagonist. While I can get behind the concept of Lara being a more mature and experienced explorer, I was shocked by how little she is harmed during Rise. In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara is impaled with a rebar, she cauterizes her wound by hand, gets her foot caught in a bear trap and is repeatedly ambushed by packs wolves. In Rise, people around her are in danger, but I never felt the thrill of survival that the reboot made me feel years ago. Tomb Raider 2013 paints Lara as a clumsy amateur who is in way over her head. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft seems like Bear Grylls. While it’s empowering to be such a survivalist badass, something about Lara’s impenetrable nature makes her a less accessible protagonist.

Despite flaws in Lara’s character evolution, what makes Rise of the Tomb Raider (and the whole rebooted franchise in general) great is the ability to tackle combat situations however the player wants. The option to go in stealthily is almost always an option unless there’s a scripted event, or if gamers want to zip through an area, guns blazing tactics are equally thrilling. Although the narrative is linear, the freedom to navigate each area freely allows players to keep combat fresh by fighting however they want.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider makes strides of improvement compared to its predecessor when it comes to open-world development. There’s a greater emphasis on hunting for survival, and areas are often littered with various forms of locomotion (climbable rock walls, zip lines, etc.) that give players a choice of how they want to reach an objective. Along her journey, Lara will be approached by survivors to complete various side activities such as clearing out a den of wolves or shooting down enemy surveillance drones. While occasionally tedious, these side quests often incentives completion with rewards such as weapon attachments or outfits.

Similarly, Crystal Dynamics has made a point of including more optional tombs for Lara to explore this time around. Tombs are complicated and require critical thinking unlike those featured in the reboot. While some are multi-room and are quite complex, there are also single-room tombs that offer difficult but rewarding challenges. Not only does exploring offer players the occasional Xbox achievement, but it also grants gameplay-enhancing upgrades (Greek fire arrows, faster climbing, etc.). While the tombs are clearly presented as optional, more often than not, it’s worth your time.

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If players want their money to stretch with Rise, Crystal Dynamics has included a bonus score attack mode that allows players to run through story sections while sporting various gameplay modifiers. Unfortunately, the modifiers are granted through expedition cards that are a clever mask for pesky microtransactions. Cards come in packs, which are granted via in-game currency. While the ability to buy in-game currency with actual money was turned off for press copies, it’s been reported that players will have the ability to buy card packs with real money post-launch.

While the microtransactions don’t affect the core story in any way, I found that the best cards are barred behind a cost that requires a significant amount of play time or paying real money. In my time with the game, I got about 80,000 points to spend on Expedition Cards. To buy a gold pack that has five cards in it, it costs 60,000 points. So to collect all 300 cards that are available at launch, it would take insane amounts of game time or out-of-wallet cash.

Battle modifiers seem great, but charging high prices for the best ones is greedy.
Battle modifiers seem great, but charging high prices for the best ones is greedy.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the best-looking titles on the Xbox One. Environments are well designed, and the way Lara and other NPCs react to the weather is something I’ve not seen in other games. Additionally, I was surprised by the sheer amount of emotion depicted by the actress who motioned captured the protagonist. The way Lara often looks and behaves during interactions within cutscenes looks cinematic and borderline real. Although it runs on a modified version of the Tomb Raider 2013 engine, I was impressed by what Crystal Dynamics got out of the Xbox One. Very rarely did I notice framerate loss, even in high-action instances. From the technical perspective, things are mostly good barring a few disappearing corpse glitches.

The credits rolled on my play through at about 10.5 hours. In that time, I completed the story and did half the side quests and optional tombs along the way. If I did all optional activities, the game could probably stretch to 13 hours. If I did none of them at all, Rise of the Tomb Raider could have easily been beaten in nine hours.

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The Verdict

Ultimately, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a serviceable sequel to the fantastic Tomb Raider reboot. While the game makes improvements to puzzle and traversal elements, I was let down by the familiar, sometimes cliché, story and combat that worked too hard to give Lara the upper hand. Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t a markedly better experience compared to its predecessor, but it does enough right to make it worth a purchase for fans of the series.

3:5

‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ was reviewed on Xbox One using a press code provided by Microsoft.

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