Lara sprints over the Siberian snow even as the rumbling avalanche causes chaos all around her. Reaching the crumbling edge of the mountainside as tonnes of rock and ice slide away into oblivion a split second behind her running feet, she vaults out into the thin atmosphere and is frozen in time for a breathless moment as she flies over the yawning nothingness of what seems like the infinite-foot drop below. Then time speeds up again and she crashes heavily into a vertical ice wall on the opposite side of the chasm, ice axes skittering for purchase, sliding down towards her doom until at the last possible second, one axe gains a solid hold and her entire body pivots violently around the tenuous, lifesaving grip provided by her outstretched left arm. Phew: thanks, X button.
Welcome to Rise of the Tomb Raider, the follow-up to Crystal Dynamic’s franchise reinvigorating reboot of 2013, and a game where the underlying design philosophy seems clear right from this action-packed and undeniably thrilling opening sequence; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Rise of the Tomb Raider adds very little in terms of new mechanics or even new ideas onto the fine base that Tomb Raider provided, but it’s executed with such panache that you probably won’t often care.
Rise’s story turns back the clock from the avalanche action that begins the game to find the archaeologist with armpits of steel carrying on with life a year after the unfortunate events on the island of Yamatai during Tomb Raider. All that swimming through bloody skull pits and watching friends get murdered seems to have rather taken a toll on Ms Croft, who her friends worry is showing signs of the same dangerous, insane obsession with the supernatural that destroyed Daddy Croft’s reputation and seemingly led to his eventual death.
Not to be dissuaded though, Lara takes off for war-torn Syria to investigate one of her father’s leads on the Prophet, a mysterious figure from history said to have controlled the power of immortality, and in doing so runs into Trinity (your classic Illuminati-style secret-society baddies, with some later twists), who are also out to claim this mysterious power for themselves. The race is on.
Rise bases its action around four essential gameplay pillars. There’s exploring / survival, in which Lara navigates large areas uncovering backstory and collecting the resources she needs to improve her equipment and skills. There’s combat, which varies from areas clearly designed for a stealth approach to compulsory firefights. There’s the occasional ‘run through a cutscene’, Uncharted-style set-piece action sequence. And finally, there’s optional puzzle-platforming tombs, which must first be found before they can be solved.
Perhaps the primary achievement of the game is in deploying and blending these different activities together in such a smooth-flowing, fun way, deftly avoiding the feeling of doing ‘busy work’ that can arise when playing more open games.
Crystal Dynamics has gone out of its way to enhance the feelings of immersion in the game, and here they’re helped by current-gen hardware. The little ways in which Lara wades through deep snow, physically reacts to the cold, and has the wind whip around her (always-inexplicably-silken) hair are all beautifully realised and help to create a genuine sense of space.
With this established, it just seems to fit when your sense of exploration leads you to the hidden entrance of the next major puzzle section, or the desire to reach the top of the next ridge suddenly drops you into a combat situation with Trinity’s goons, like you’re controlling Lara just going about her (extremely rousing) day job. Small touches – like the game doing away with a stealth mode button to instead automatically drop Lara into a crouch each time unaware enemies are nearby, or continuing to cleverly hide any game loading behind shots of Lara squeezing through narrow caves – also continue the seamless feeling that one is truly livin’ the Vida Lara.
The story, while pretty standard, is helped along by some villains with more dimensions than usual and the evolving, watchable character of Lara herself, as she continues to learn some important life lessons, all while grittily continuing to take more punishment than Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series.
Combat continues to handle well. There’s plenty of opportunities to sneak around and even the odds in Lara’s favour before going loud, and even though such backstabbing feels like a slightly weird fit for the character – like she’s gone all Agent 47 for a moment – the stealth gameplay is robust enough to put a few deliberately stealth-focussed games to shame.
When she’s discovered and it’s all on, Lara can call upon her arsenal of home-made and found weapons, and is now aided by the fact that with the right resources on hand, she can craft on the go, allowing her to heal mid-fight and improvise weaponry. Have her scramble over to a crate with an empty bottle behind it, for example, and she can quickly whip up a molotov cocktail in just a few seconds, then hurl it to turn the tide of battle. It’s another small change, but one that leads to some great gameplay moments.
The big improvement in Rise over its predecessor is in its challenge tombs, found off the beaten path of the main game. Following feedback on the first reboot game, Crystal Dynamics has been promising these would return to the spectacular settings and trickier puzzles of the series gone by – you know, some actual tomb raiding – and here it hasn’t disappointed.
There’s great variation to these mini-levels – they range from the likes of ancient, complicated water gate systems to a creaking galley frozen in an ice cliff and a long abandoned Soviet uranium mine – and the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles therein is a huge step up. It’s easy to spend an hour working your way through some of the larger ones, and your reward is always a tangible gameplay skill, which gives finally making your way into the treasure zone a genuine sense of achievement.
In between rumbling and raiding there’s the huge wealth of collectables to track down around the map; many offer background information on the story and situation, while some provide currency to spend at the shop. (The need to somehow cram a retail situation into what are the established circumstances of the game is sadly one aspect where the carefully crafted sense of immersion goes off the rails a bit, alas.)
You can also run side missions for NPC allies, hunt animals and forage to collect resources and craft weapons, gear and ammo types or backtrack to previously visited zones and use new game abilities you’ve gained to unlock previously unexplorable areas. This can be a trifle annoying, as it necessitates remembering where they were, but such is the urge to discover everything while playing that you’ll probably decide you have to go back to tick it all off.
With the main game finished you can tackle Expeditions mode, which does away with the multiplayer from Tomb Raider (which no-one will miss) and instead borrows ideas from several other games to provide a huge host of ways for eager raiders to replay levels. Think: score attack, speed runs, elite modes, and a gigantic array of customisable modifiers care of a card-purchase system (now apparently compulsory for every game).
There’s even a challenge-setting mode that allows you to create missions for other players to test themselves against, and to try some of theirs. Again, there’s nothing particularly new to be found here, but the keenest fans of the game will appreciate the considerable replay value the mode ads when every last Byzantine coin has been collected in the main campaign.
Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly doesn’t reinvent the only-recently-reinvented wheel, but instead takes what we all liked about Tomb Raider and doubles down on it, making some notable improvements to what is now looking like it will be a solid formula for a while yet. The series may yet need to take some bigger risks to avoid an Assassin’s Creed-style player burnout down the line, but at this stage of proceedings you’ll likely be more than happy to simply enjoy this bigger and better new Lara Croft adventure. It’s almost bizarrely under the radar in the middle of the current release run, but you should set both your needler and your PipBoy down for a while at some point to check this one out.