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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the action set pieces come first and the narratively satisfying reasons to do them second.

Rise of the Tomb Raider
Photo: Microsoft Game Studios

The closing note for 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot was a portentous splash screen declaring “A Survivor Is Born” as a dirty, bloody, and scarred Lara Croft looks off into the horizon. At the time, it didn’t feel like a particularly apt statement of intent, especially for a game titled Tomb Raider, not Peril Survivor. Rise of the Tomb Raider puts that statement in a much more interesting light. The Lara Croft we meet in the game isn’t a survivor because she managed to fight, kill, and climb her way to freedom, but because she saw terror from beyond the grave when Sun Queen Himiko was briefly resurrected, and her mind didn’t break in half. Lara had a spiritual awakening on the island of Yamatai, and it wasn’t because she saw God.

The survivor we meet here is a woman who now knows a new, fundamental truth about the world—that the supernatural is very real—and has no other way to process that knowledge except to seek out more of it. She decides to start close to home: Her late father was obsessed with an artifact called the Divine Source—the Holy Grail, in all but name—and his ongoing belief in its existence drove him to professional and familial disgrace and, eventually, suicide. Having been drummed out of the archaeological community for speaking about what she saw on Yamatai, Lara’s only path to redemption is to prove her father was right by finding the Source, which has been hidden in a forgotten city somewhere in Siberia, and is currently being hunted by a militarized religious sect, who may or may not be Vatican-assisted.

Of all the character threads that series writer Rhianna Pratchett could have pulled on to capitalize on where Tomb Raider left things, Lara as a gnostic apostle wasn’t one that anyone else could have thought of. These kinds of compelling plot elements are broached often in Rise of the Tomb Raider’s 10-plus hours: Lara’s growing zealotry as it pertains to the Divine Source, the Source as power, but not necessarily a power given by a Judeo-Christian God, whether the quest is really about improving humanity, or simply for Lara to resolve her own legitimate psychological issues with her father. The game has answers to those questions, but any time it’s tasked with elaborating, it remembers it’s a Tomb Raider game and moves on to another shootout.

It’s the game’s only real problem, if one can really call being a good action game with a few deeper ideas a problem. There’s just not a whole lot of room to truly explore and resolve any particular plot when there’s so many caves to explore, animals to hunt, new weapons and items to craft, new gorgeously rendered locations to explore before they fall or get blown apart, and oh-so-very-many faceless PMC grunts to brutally murder. Like its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider is awash in stuff to do, at story’s expense.

Still, the core gameplay continues to be solid as a rock. Lara’s tried-and-tested running, jumping, climbing, and shooting has been given just the right amount of sprucing up. The traversal needs of every area are varied and condensed in a way the reboot wasn’t, a change bolstered mid-game when they introduce an enormously fun grappling-hook mechanic. The action set pieces are still bold and thrilling in their technical intricacy. Arguably, the reboot has more harrowing action, but the scenes are more evenly placed in Rise of the Tomb Raider. The first game’s best set piece, the burning Solarii Temple, happened in the middle of the story. This game’s best action beat is far more low key: a vicious little sequence where Lara hides in the water underneath a sheet of ice, and has to stealth-kill a group of armored soldiers by dragging them Jason Voorhees-style into the deep one by one.

The game doesn’t tinker too much with Tomb Raider’s mechanics, though Assassin’s Creed-like stealth is now a more viable, emphasized alternative to wall-to-wall gunfights. Crystal Dynamics also seems to have heard the criticisms that the last game didn’t make the most of having Lara Croft: Professional Survivor actually struggle to survive, and tried to raise the stakes in that regard. There’s a slew of different resources to be collected in Rise of the Tomb Raider, from rabbit and deer skins for new ammo pouches and bow reinforcement all the way up to mineral ores and oil to create napalm arrows.

Also new is an on-the-fly crafting system, whose implementation is seemingly borrowed wholesale from The Last of Us. Spending an extra 30 seconds in any one area typically gives Lara more resources than is even necessary to accomplish virtually any task, and so, once again, the satisfaction of finding all this stuff is more to sate one’s own OCD than a necessity to progress the game. A new system, by which Lara can improve her proficiency with reading Russian, Greek, or Mongolian is also wasted, giving Lara another way to earn XP rather than adding meaningful flavor to the game’s world.

There is, in fact, more actual tomb-raiding that can be done in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and while these puzzle sequences are still highlights, they largely feel superfluous and unnecessary. Nü-Tomb Raider still makes the Uncharted mistake, where the action set pieces come first and the narratively satisfying reasons to do them second.

That the game even attempts to execute its more high-minded ideas is still commendable. But those ideas place expectations on a Tomb Raider game that, just maybe, the very conceit of the series simply isn’t built to handle. If the reboot was Lara Croft’s version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with all the unexpected (but spectacular) horror-movie elements of that film, this is her Last Crusade, a story dragging spirituality into a conversation about parental regret. Rise of the Tomb Raider handles its daddy issues in a far more pensive way, and operates on a ridiculously grander scale, but those two elements together lessen the final result rather than elevate it.

Developer: Crystal Dynamics Publisher: Square Enix, Microsoft Game Studios Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 10, 2015 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore Intense Violence Strong Language Buy: Game

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