The Lara Croft We Need, Now More Than Ever.
Back in 1996, the very first Tomb Raider was released just a few months after the seminal Super Mario 64. The Italian plumber’s first foray into the third dimension was unforgettable with amazing controls, fantastic level design, and best of all, the spirit of the series intact. For Lara Croft, her debut was equally memorable with immense areas to explore and the occasional T-Rex to shoot, but let’s be honest, the controls were never very good and one of the world’s first identifiable female action heroes didn't have a lot of personality.
Fast forward to 2013: Developer Crystal Dynamics delivered a reboot that focused on a compelling tale about a young woman who hated tombs, missed her dad, yet was utterly fearless when it came to protecting her friends. Lara Croft for the 21st century. However, one particular aspect, the actual tomb raiding, was minimized. Tombs were just small puzzles that could be solved in a matter of minutes. What was fantastic, however, was how it delivered something new and fresh: a relatable lead character, intuitive combat controls, and a new weapon that now feels indispensable—a bow and arrow a la The Hunger Games.
Despite those advances, most considered the reboot merely a “good for a Tomb Raider” game. The good news is that, arrow for arrow, Rise of the Tomb Raider is, in many ways, the best kind of action game. Everything has been refined, perhaps even, perfected. As the still youngish Lara stands off against guys with guns while tackling each puzzle with that trademark Croft determination, players will emerge from the roughly 18-hour campaign stronger, smarter, and best of all, ready to just keep going.
Set one year after the events that began her journey to becoming the ultimate raider of tombs, Lara is now obsessed with completing her late father’s quest to find The Prophet’s Tomb. Despite concerns by her pal Jonah (introduced in Tomb Raider), she embarks on a quest to snowy Siberia, determined to discover the truth about The Prophet before a shadowy military group called Trinity does. It is said that whomever solves the mystery of the Prophet will unlock the secret to immortality.
Believe it or not, that’s the quick version of the plot summary. Throughout the campaign, many secrets and a few well-placed plots twists are revealed, with tons of content on the history of the Prophet delivered by way of audio logs. In the last game every time Lara came across these logs, she would need to stop moving and listen to these entries. Worse, the backstory was not at all compelling. In Rise of the Tomb Raider this function is exactly the same, but the events leading up to finding this quasi-religious leader is engaging. It helps that the voice acting is utterly convincing now. I ended up distracting myself by listening to every one I found. That's quite a feat considering how entrancingly beautiful the locations are in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
Camilla Luddington returns as the voice and visual inspiration for Lara Croft. Just as Nolan North is Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series, Luddington is Lara Croft. She imbues the character with a sense of wonderment and determination like no other performer. It’s not enough to just relegate her acting by having her react to all the mayhem anymore. (Which she does a lot, even using curse words this time!) What sets Luddington's Lara apart is a completely believable sense of earnestness. That feeling was already present two years ago, but in Rise it’s more layered, more a natural extension of her character. She isn’t naïve anymore, but she still wants to be amazed—just like any fan of the series.
What’s even more of a challenge, one that the actress pulls off, is that there are two kinds of Lara: The first is reactive. As she befriends the local natives in the Siberian mountains, she forms bonds with the supporting characters. The best of these exchanges are between Lara and Jacob, a leader who has dedicated his life to protecting the Prophet’s secret from the outside world. The second is vital to any Tomb Raider game, the moments when Lara is alone, thinking only to herself. At times, it can be helpful, like having Lara know just a bit more than player as in “The only way to get to that ledge is to raise the water. So how do I do that?" But the moments that really linger are a credit to Luddington’s calming voice, which makes the isolation of being in a tomb less so.
As I took in all the gorgeously-rendered ruins, I wondered if there really are places like this left to be discovered by real-life Crofts or Drakes. Uncharted 2 had that amazing frozen cave hidden in a Himalayan mountain. Right at the start, Rise of the Tomb Raider offers a watery cave deep inside the Syrian desert. Both are places you just want to just explore. A visit to an ancient Cistern is just as enthralling. And the hits just keep on rolling.
Never before have I used the “Xbox, take a screenshot” feature so liberally before. After I finished, I looked over my “travelogue” eager to show friends the places Lara (and yours truly) visited. I had become Selma & Patty showing Bart & Lisa their trip to the Yucatan.
Interestingly, as either a nod to Uncharted 2 or a statement to how Lara is not a character to be ogled at anymore, the bulk of the game takes place in Russia, which means she’s mostly wearing suitably warm, puffy winter outfits. Turns out wearing sensible pants in Tomb Raider was just the beginning. Going forward, the true eye candy of the series is not Lara Croft but the stunning environments.
Anyone who played the last game will marvel at how the controls which were already quite solid have been tweaked for the better. Shooting an arrow to take down a foe or using that same arrow to take down a wall via the right trigger is context-sensitive. The right button is now used solely for enhanced arrows like fire, explosive, or the newly created poisonous gas arrow, which takes down multiple enemies quietly. Stealth, which still works great, is a big focus. Being able to take down others by simply hitting Y from above is satisfying. In another simple time-saver, taking down someone with a stealth kill will automatically transfer the enemy's items to Lara's inventory. Last but not least, weapon fire has just the right amount of force feedback.
Crafting is still present in Rise, and works in a similar fashion, but now every item Lara recovers is a thing, not a “part.” More specifically, if she cuts down a tree, the wood can be used for making arrows, or mining a rock can be used for explosives. Even cooler is that this type of crafting can be done on the fly. In battle, while hidden, hitting the right trigger/button will cause a timed creation of an item. The right trigger/button will craft whatever weapon you are using at the time. The left button is for healing, although Lara still regains health over time so I only used it a few times near the end.
Many of the other features introduced in the game's predecessor are still here too, including her survivor instinct. In fact, having the golden light to help lead a way out of a cave is so precise that it can almost make solving puzzles too easy. More seasoned players can simply turn this feature off. Others like having to hit B in order to make Lara light a torch have been replaced by the character simply activating a flare automatically. Voice commands seen in the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One are gone.
On the subject of tombs, the six (of nine) I explored are bigger in scope that in the previous adventure. Fans hoping for a return to a Tomb Raider game that is only about Lara exploring vast ruins might be a tad disappointed that they are still, essentially, bonus levels, but this is a necessary evolution of the series. One of the highlights of finishing both Tomb Raider and Rise takes place after the story ends, depending on how many areas you have already explored or items have been collected. This is where having vast places to discover without the stress of gunplay is rewarded.
Still, the reason the “wait ‘til you finish to explore” mentality works so well in Rise is because the story is quite good. There might be one too many firefights for my tastes, but the narrative is one of the best-paced tales in quite some time. (It might lack the emotional weight of The Last of Us, but that’s a very high standard to hit.) Lara’s determination, her need to prove herself against a worthy adversary, is more than enough. Just remember that those tombs will be there to explore once the Lara’s tale has finished. Did I say finished? I meant “finished for now.” Like the Marvel movies, Rise of the Tomb Raider treats fans with an Easter egg cut-scene at the end of the credits. Not to be missed.
Rise ditches the multiplayer mode from the last installment for the much cooler, Twitch era-inspired Expedition mode. Essentially, these are score-attack timed-playthroughs where each level can be done with new incentives. While playing the campaign, cards are found by discovering collectibles. The cards are very much like Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon cards, offering different skills and perks. Once an expedition is chosen, like the hot desert opening in Syria, players can then make bets with cards. Choosing a “don’t die” card will earn you points if you succeed. Other cards can even penalize or just plain make things harder like “all enemies will dodge melee attacks". I hope more single-player titles follow this idea. Expedition is a real treat.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider is deserving of its score, a few nitpicks: While the Definitive Edition ran at 60fps on PS4, Rise on the Xbox One runs at a gorgeous but slightly dimmer 30fps. While the action is top-notch, especially the amazing finale, a middle section at a Soviet Installation features one too many skirmishes against Trinity. These are minor annoyances, but I would be remiss not to include in the review.
Rise of the Tomb Raider took aim at perfecting not just its own series, but modern action games as well, which is an ambitious undertaking to say the least. The past decade has seen the genre jump, shoot, and blow stuff up real good with games like Resident Evil 4, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Dead Space. Each redefined what a well-balanced 15-hour experience could be by delivering a compelling narrative, tight gameplay, and outstanding world building. Rise of the Tomb Raider bests even those classics with a character that resonates like no other. Even if it took nearly twenty years for that to happen, this is an adventure worth replaying with a hero who’s unforgettable.