Nearly three years ago I played the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise and absolutely fell in love. Now, I had never played any of the original Tomb Raider games and therefore had little basis for comparison when it came to what I should expect. What I didn’t expect, however, was how exciting, gorgeous and just plain fun that reboot would be. It sent me straight to my computer where I wrote up a review that would eventually become the first article on my gaming blog, Notes From The Conquistadork.
Everything about Tomb Raider just slayed me. The look, the feel: hell, the collectables and hidden challenges. And because I didn’t know what to expect, I was sort of reawakened to how much a well-made video gaming experience can affect you. I’ve always been passionate about games—but Tomb Raider holds a special place in my heart as the one that took me so off guard that I would devote hours of my life to studying, reviewing, and writing about these electronic recreational gizmos. So when Rise of the Tomb Raider was announced, you can imagine my excitement. You can also imagine my surprise at how little of that original mixture of adventure, excitement, and archaeological mayhem was changed, and how great that made it to play three years after its predecessor.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place one year after Tomb Raider, with our hero Lara Croft coming to terms with the supernatural forces that she battled on the jungle island of Yamatai. While looking for answers, she uncovers the research of her dead father, who in his final years had become obsessed with the lost city of Kitezh and a mysterious artifact there that was said to grant immortality. Lara sets off to find out more, despite friends and family urging her away from the seemingly impossible goal that lead to her father’s disgrace and eventual suicide.
Also hot on the trail of the lost city of Kitezh is Trinity, a mysterious secret society of knights and soldiers who have investigated and sought out the powers of the occult for centuries. While searching for the lost city of Kitezh, Lara Croft becomes embroiled in a battle that is far bigger than her, complete with deadly traps, modern day zealots, and even the occasional immortal warrior. She seeks the treasure, fights the bad guys, adds some upgrades to her bow—if you’ve played 2013’s Tomb Raider, you largely know what to expect.
Story-wise, Rise of the Tomb Raider is fine. It’s a pretty straightforward plot filled with enough fantasy-speak to keep you intrigued, and the dialogue and cut scenes are decently written. But more than that, what Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider are both flawless at is creating a feeling. The feeling of impending mystery when you enter a new tomb, the feeling of breathless awe at the beautiful set pieces all around you, the feeling of nervous anticipation as you use foliage to hide from well-armed super soldiers. You feel like you’re a part of all of this, and flawlessly executed characters aren’t always necessary for that.
Take Lara Croft herself, for example. She hasn’t changed all that much in a year: she remains a young, headstrong with a goal and a gun. And there isn’t much more than that. At this point in the series, she remains a bit of a tabula rasa. Which, in my opinion, is fine. Camilla Luddington returns as Lara Croft, and does a wonderful job once again. She can play strong, and she play less sure of herself. Neither of which goes far enough to really weld Lara into one personality or another, but as I said, I think that’s fine this time around. Story-wise it feels like Lara is where she ought to be. She doesn’t have enough experience or confidence yet to be the wise cracking super hero we see in characters like Nathan Drake or Indiana Jones. More than anything, this reboot has represented an origin story for Lara Croft, and personality-wise I think we’re where we ought to be. Perhaps in future games we’ll begin to see the more nuanced aspects of her personality take hold, but in the meantime this feels appropriate. Now, having said that, that portion of her psyche does lead to the occasional moment of ludo-narrative dissonance. The intelligent archaeologist who was studying an ancient tablet thoughtfully one minute starts barking taunts at a group of soldiers the next. There aren’t a massive amount of moments like these, but it is off-putting to see when they do happen.
And speaking of her title, there is a reason this franchise is referred to as Tomb Raider as opposed to Bad-Ass Archaeologist or something like that. And it’s because Lara Croft is possibly one of the worst archaeologists that ever walked the planet. Rise of the Tomb Raider is filled with a variety of gorgeous and incredibly designed tombs and set pieces, and Lara Croft basically destroys each and every one of them. It’s actually sort of amazing to be a part of. Lara’s reading an ancient scroll and learning about a prophet or the Mongols or some damn thing. She takes a moment to comment on the beauty of her surroundings. And then suddenly she’s smashing down ancient walls or flooding the damn place. I realize that the circumstances behind this mayhem is often completely out of her hands, but still: I haven’t someone actively destroy so much of what they claim to love since Attack of the Clones.
But to be fair: those tombs are gorgeous, even as they start to explode. Much like its successor, Rise of the Tomb Raider is beautiful. In fact, it might be the most beautiful game I’ve seen to date.
I mean it: I haven’t seen a game this lovely in a very long time. Individual crystals of ice and snow catch your eye as you climb massive and detailed mountain crests. It’s those details that makes Rise stand out. The sway of a satchel—the cautious steps of a deer. Hell, there was a moment that I saw a rainbow effect taking place in the mist above a small waterfall. I must have just contemplated that for a full minute. Couple all of that with a solid sound design and you’ve got a dynamic and engrossing world to play in.
Much like in Tomb Raider, you’ll spend a lot of time studying artifacts, taking part in optional challenges, and generally collectables. One of the first changes that I noticed had to do with these collectables: the language skill. As Lara comes across various scrolls and art pieces, her ability to read a different language will increase. This can come from anything like leftover Soviet propaganda teaching Russian, to dust covered iconography teaching her ancient Greek. It’s a really cool moment, finding out that you’ve levelled up in the Mongol tongue. Unfortunately, they don’t do as much with it as they could. The language skill is mostly used for various monoliths that you’ll find throughout the game. If your level in a certain language is high enough, the monolith will reveal the location of different caches of treasure. Which is pretty cool, but I just feel like there was so much more that they could have done with this. Side missions that you can only accept when you can understand the quest giver’s dialect—stuff like that. Also, the language skill is undercut somewhat by the fact that nearly everyone in this game, including remote, primitive villagers, speaks perfect English. All the same, it’s an interesting dynamic to bring to Rise of the Tomb Raider. So many games have a leveling and/or progression system that it’s surprising that more haven’t brought language into the equation. I’d like to see more of that in future.
I played Rise of the Tomb Raider on the PC, which brings up two very important topics to point out. First, it’s initial limited release, and second, its port problems.
Let’s start with the latter. As I mentioned before, Rise of the Tomb Raider is almost obscenely pretty, and as of the time of this review, it seems that that comes with a cost. In some of the larger areas I experienced some frame drops that were distractingly obvious, and with often negative effects on my coordination. You do not want that sudden drop in speed to slap you in the face when you’re flying down a zip cord or jumping from one ice covered ledge to another. It’s like the dog shitting on the carpet during sex: you can move past it if you really try, but it’s a serious bummer. I also experienced some memory leaks throughout the game. Essentially, the longer I played, the slower it seemed to run. This could be fixed by simply quitting the game and starting it over again, which isn’t perfect, but works in a pinch until Square Enix gives it a patch.
Which brings me to the whole initial limited release thing. For those of you who don’t know, Rise was initially an Xbox exclusive for November of 2015. There was word for a little while that it would remain an Xbox exclusive, until Square Enix announced it would be available for PC and Playstation consoles in 2016. And while as of this review we’re still waiting on the Playstation release, the PC port was made available at the end of January 2016, and it is that version that I’ve based this review on. I bring this up basically as a chance for me to shake my tiny fist and beg Square Enix and other game publishers to stop doing this. I don’t know what the appeal of it is, to be honest. The moment I heard about Rise of the Tomb Raider I knew I wanted to play it. But if you think for a second that I ever considered buying an Xbox One in order to play it, then you’re out of your oyster shucking minds. And I know that the idea is to build up a list of console specific games so that when someone out there has to make up their mind about which one to buy, one will have an edge over the other.
But exclusivity for a couple of months? I fail to see the advantage here.
Stop it, Square Enix. You’re being just another weird AAA games publisher and making outstanding design studios like Crystal Dynamics look bad.
And I think that’s what I take from that whole minor fiasco: any victories to be had here are the doing of Crystal Dynamics. And there are many victories. When you get past some bug issues, Rise of the Tomb Raider is polished, gorgeous and a hell of a lot of fun to play. Crystal Dynamics is spinning some golden fleece out of this franchise reboot—hopefully fleece that will keep coming for a long, long time.