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.