In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara is dealing with the psychological damage the events of the first game created. The death and violence she observed has led to something of an existential crisis, and she tries to fill the void by taking up her father’s research on an ancient artifact said to grant immortality. The plot-driving mystical macguffin is the stuff of a thousand action-adventure plots, but Lara’s troubled state and difficulty dealing with the death she’s witnessed makes her quest as spiritual as literal. The story wastes nothing, as every character’s journey parallels another’s, and the intertwining relationships create legitimate drama as everyone tries to transcend death in their own way.
My memories of 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot consist almost exclusively of things exploding and Lara Croft getting impaled in increasingly grotesque ways. It felt like nothing so much as a nonstop carnival of violence and destruction, and was so obsessed with shootouts against inhumanly violent antagonists that it lost the joy of discovery which define archaeological adventures stories. It’s appropriate, then, that Rise is about transcending death, as it transcends the violence that defined the previous game and builds a new future for the series’ heroine.
An exclusivity agreement with Microsoft briefly anchored the game to Xbox platforms, but now it’s finally available for PC, and the port is terrific. There are tons of visual options, and the game does a terrific job of scaling in both directions. If you’ve got a beefy PC, it looks incredible and runs super-smooth, but the options are wide enough that you can easily scale it back to the standards of a few years ago and still get a playable experience.
Lara’s got some friends to make if she aims on surviving
The lack of tombs to be raided was a half-joking criticism of the previous game, but their presence here highlights the way Rise excels. The challenge tombs are combat-free puzzle-platforming trials that feature some of the game’s most imaginative environments and clever level designs. They’re completely optional, but they feel completely essential, not just because they provide fun exploration, but because they add useful new skills to Lara’s repertoire and tell interesting, self-contained stories through small handfuls of collectibles.
The tombs spoke off from large, open hub areas filled with animals to hunt, crafting materials to gather, and collectibles to collect. Survivalism has been synonymous with the increasing bloat of open-world games, but Rise differentiates itself by making every item matter. Crafting items turn into meaningful gear upgrades that help to take down enemies quickly and quietly, which in turns gives you experience bonuses that help you move up the upgrade tree. The list of upgrades you can choose from is both large enough to make your choices meaningful and lean enough to make every option desirable. Skills I found inconsequential early in the game turned out to be some of my most useful options later on.
Look, sometimes you accidentally park your ship inside a glacier. It happens
Collectibles take the form of relics and journals that catalog interesting stories and add texture and life to the world - while also providing experience that feeds back into the upgrade system. These types of systems are common to many modern games, but they’re rarely as balanced and intelligently designed as they are here. Not only do they add a sense of progress and growth to the gameplay, they also add depth and flavor to the narrative, making every location feel like a real place that was inhabited by real people. This further helps to develop Lara’s character as she expands on the survival skills she learned in the first game, and takes up her father’s archaeological pursuits in this adventure.
And when the fighting does start, Rise once again excels. Most encounters open with enemies unaware of your presence, giving you the option of taking them out stealthily. You might start picking them off with well-placed, silent arrows. You might wait to see where the patrol paths go, or manipulate them yourself by throwing a bottle for distraction. Alternatively, you might hang onto that bottle and use it to create a Molotov cocktail, making your presence known by taking down two or three bad guys all at once.
Taking on a base full of baddies will require careful planning, and a willingness to let those plans go up in smoke
Once the enemies know you’re there, the encounters force you into a constant, desperate scramble around the battlefield. There’s no sticky cover, encouraging you not to stay in one spot for too long, and the lethality of combat both you and the bad guys go down in a handful of shots - along with the speed and aggression of your foes ensures that you have to constantly keep moving. Weapons are primarily of the pistol, rifle, and shotgun varieties, and each gun is balanced for a particular range, forcing you to constantly switch back and forth as your position changes. The most powerful weapons are craftable explosives, but you don’t keep an inventory of them, and instead craft them one by one out of bottles and cans found scattered around. The shootouts force you to constantly improvise, seek out advantages in the environment, and quickly put those advantages together to survive.
RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER VERDICT
Rise of the Tomb Raider has likable characters who have real struggles amid the mystical wonders they’re chasing down. It has beautiful, densely detailed environments that have a real sense of history. It has tense, exciting action that constantly forces you to think on your feet. It has a perfectly balanced selection of abilities and upgrades. It’s an expertly paced adventure from beginning to end, filled with optional objectives that add to the world and story rather than distract from them. It’s the best game to bear the Tomb Raider name, and the best action-adventure title I’ve played in ages.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The next vista. It seems like every time you come around the corner, you see a new, impossibly beautiful shot of an overwhelming piece of the world.
Fantastic environment and level design
Tense gunplay that encourages improvisation
Well-balanced upgrade system that incentivizes exploration
Narrative with depth that’s bolstered by the game systems
Not incredibly original (but incredibly well-executed)