In 2013 developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square Enix rebooted the long-running Tomb Raider franchise and brought iconic video game character Lara Croft into the modern era as a relatable, respectable, and realistic person. No longer was Lara Croft a sex symbol wearing skimpy outfits and rocking over-sized guns. This Lara Croft was a young, intelligent archaeologist who had something to say, friends to save, and a brutally violent experience stranded on an island she needed to overcome.
And she did. Tomb Raider was a critical hit that sold over 8.5 million units – more than any other Tomb Raider title to date. Its direct sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, brings back badass adventurer Lara Croft in a timed exclusive game for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and after playing through its entire campaign, we can confirm that Microsoft made a smart strategic move in locking down this title for their platforms because it might be the best game of 2015.
Rise of the Tomb Raider will be very familiar for players of its predecessor. There are platforming elements, resource gathering, exploration, puzzles, and many more actual tombs and crypts to explore which addresses the single biggest gripe the community had with the first game. It brings back the same action-adventure gameplay and level structure, along with the same combat, progression, and crafting mechanics, but expands and iterates on all of these things in smart ways. There’s a lot more to explore and a lot more to do this time around with a more compelling and interesting story.
The last time around we met Lara as she found herself learning to survive a horrible situation, stranded on the island Yamatai, discovering ancient ruins and the remains of WWII era Japanese and Nazi expeditions. This time she’s on a personal mission to icy cold Siberia and the mythical ancient city Kitezh where the remains of Russian miners and Mongolian armies lie with treasure. Lara’s continuing the work of her father, attempting to restore his reputation, and the story is chock full of flashback sequences which provide more insight into Lara’s upbringing and family.
The main plot of Rise of the Tomb Raider plays a little with nonlinear storytelling in that sense but after the intro levels, the game’s main mission objectives move the player from one area to the next, divided into smaller open-world segments. Across each open area are scattered relics, documents, weapon parts, and other valuables, alongside optional missions, challenges, crypts and tombs. These are very beneficial to do since they can grant Lara Croft with better weapons, gear and sometimes even bonus skills, all of which come in handy against more challenging enemies and scenarios.
Players must come to terms with the fact that they cannot do everything in an area upon first arriving. That part of the learning curve of playing Rise of the Tomb Raider is the toughest to overcome since there’s nothing more frustrating than finding a cave by exploring only to be turned away because Lara doesn’t have the appropriate gear. Most of the time, just by completing the next main story segment the needed item will be introduced to the player, whether that been rope arrows, combat knives, or explosives, etc.
Once these things are acquired, going back through areas via the game’s handy fast-travel system becomes extremely rewarding since there are new things to see and explore, new loot to be acquired to go along with a satisfying sense of feeling powerful as someone who now knows the territory and has mastered all sorts of ways to stealthily take down groups of combatants. This is where the Tomb Raider sequel excels the most. The pacing is perfect and every step of the way, the game challenges and rewards players. Every time you think you’ve mastered an ability, there’s a new one or a twist on a previous one granted.
The game handles the large amount of platforming and combat mechanics very well and serves successfully as a example of how third-person action games should control. Occasionally there are geographical limitations in the way, or interacting with an object on the ground may require the player to re-position Lara, but overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the most polished blockbusters available on the current-gen consoles.
That’s not only important for the game’s large amount of platforming content when it comes from navigating the environments and tombs, but for the combat scenarios as well of which there is a lot. Make no mistake, Lara Croft kills many “bad guys” in Rise of the Tomb Raider, soldiers who work for the seemingly overzealous shady organization known as Trinity, who are after the same thing Lara is and who the inhabitants of Kitezh are attempting to defend.
Next Page: Lara Croft is a One-Woman Army
There are a few sequences where the player is forced into heavy combat scenarios by story-driven moments, but most of the game lets players play the way they want to when approaching enemies. Stealth is key but there are enough items to pick up and convert into throwable explosive/flammable grenades on the fly and enough heavy weapons and lethal environmental objects to go full-on Rambo. These scenes help exemplify why Trinity soldiers learn to fear Lara – evidenced in their dialogue – and help realize some of the game’s most epic moments like where Lara defends people as a one-woman army.
“Get Ready, She’s Dangerous”
Still, the game’s bow weapons are still the most useful and dynamic tools. Silently hunting wildlife for resources to fighting off enemy soldiers – multiple at a time if you unlock the right skills – is one thing but the bow does much more with its different arrow types. Rope arrows can pull down barriers, create zip lines, and move objects in puzzles, while explosive, fire, and poison gas arrows help take down different types of enemies. Broadhead arrows can even be used to climb up certain walls.
The story scenes between the combat make Rise of the Tomb Raider memorable and succeed in giving reason to the over-the-top set pieces, and it all works thanks to the wonderful performance of Camilla Luddington who nails the horrifying and emotional beats voicing Lara, successfully bringing to life the writing of Rhianna Pratchett who returns to pen the sequel. And it helps that Lara Croft and and the other characters of the game are as impressively animated in their close-ups as they are in performing death-defying stunts. The wonderful presentation values of the game as a whole, down to the notable details of Lara Croft’s field outfits, tools, and weapons, match the game’s gorgeous visuals.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a big and exciting single-player game, a lot bigger than its predecessor, and it offers plenty of replayability in how it handles side objectives and loot. There’s even a merchant who sells high-end gear for the coins located from looting tombs and discovering coin caches. The game’s biggest effort in that front though is in an entirely new feature that involves Twitch live stream integration. There’s a new Expedition mode which lets players replay levels of the game and to do so with a variety of modifiers or gear that come in the form of cards acquired through buying card packs with in-game credits or real-life cash.
It’s more of a gimmick than anything, and it’s built around eye-roll-inducing microtransactions, but the idea is that by watching (only through the Xbox One Twitch app) and voting on which cards are active at certain stages during the game, viewers can earn credits to purchase card packs just by watching while the player must play under the conditions of the voted cards for a few minutes. Unfortunately, there’s barely a community taking advantage of this at the moment on Twitch and the inclusion of microtransactions sours the idea so it seems DOA.
Besides that experiment, Rise of the Tomb Raider excels as one of the must-play games of 2015. It solidifies Lara Croft’s position as one of the best video game characters in existence and demands that more stories and game experiences be crafted by this creative team.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on Xbox 360 and Xbox One and releases on PC Q1 2016 and PlayStation 4 Q4 2016.