Words: Stephen Ashby
We can finally see why Microsoft worked so hard to keep Rise Of The Tomb Raider as an Xbox One exclusive. The new title takes what the 2013 series reboot did and runs with it, expanding almost every aspect of the game into an all-out, action-packed romp through dusty tombs, dripping caves and bombastic setpieces. At its best, this is probably the best game on Xbox One right now – and considering the competition that’s a big statement.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – because there are a few nicks and kinks tarnishing this otherwise priceless artefact. Thankfully, even the most frustrating, awkward and laughable moments are fleeting, and you’re soon back into the joy of the chase.
The chase, that is, for another ancient item. Despite Lara’s assertions in Crystal Dynamics’ first Tomb Raider – “I hate tombs!” – she seems to have had a recent change of heart. The campaign centres round Lara’s father’s desire to find a supposedly undying prophet residing in the long-lost city of Kitezh. The all-consuming work became an obsession for Lara’s father, and after public ridicule for his research (you know how the newspapers love their front-page coverage of archaeological work) he was found dead in his office, pistol in hand. Lara, like everyone else, thought his work was pure fantasy – that is until she came face-to-face with the mythical Sun Queen, Himiko. The goddess did some pretty weird stuff, like control the weather and, y’know… stay alive for several hundred years, and now Lara realises her father wasn’t actually crazy after all. To Kitezh!
As you might have realised by now, Crystal Dynamics is working hard to expand Lara’s back story, and the addition of her father, a driving force behind her quest, is a strong one. There are a few moments where the story falters – at one point a character directly asks Lara what she plans to do with the power of immortality that she hopes to find, and as she pauses you actually start to question it yourself – but for the most part the undercurrent of daddy issues does an excellent job of driving her forward. Camilla Luddington, reprising her role as Ms Croft, does a fantastic job with a well-written script; our one criticism is that the whole game takes itself very seriously, and sometimes needs a little light relief. But perhaps we’ve been watching too much Indiana Jones.
The supporting cast is also portrayed well, with the head honcho in the unlikeable-baddie-brigade doing a great job of being… well, unlikeable. He leads Trinity, the mysterious organisation that is also searching for the prophet that Lara is after, whose main purpose is to destroy stuff and provide cannon fodder for Lara. It’s harder for us to hate the nameless grunts this time around – in the previous game they were all fanatical worshippers, hell-bent on sacrificing Lara. This time round, they’re just guys, doing their jobs. As we carved through them with our dual ice picks, we couldn’t help feel a bit bad. We’re obviously getting soft.
We had to get over it quickly, though, because the combat is fairly frequent, and varied. There are plenty of ways to approach any given conflict situation, from silent and stealthy with Lara’s bow to guns blazing. And projectile weapons that can be crafted on the fly, like Molotovs, make every fight surprisingly tactical.
Unfortunately, enemy AI is absolutely shocking. Even in rooms littered with cover, enemies will happily walk slowly towards you, meander between cover at a leisurely pace or just repeatedly miss you from three feet away. Lara has an assault rifle in her hand, but they still think the best way to kill her is to run right up to her and try and shoot her with a pistol from point-blank range? Idiots.
Only they’re not idiots, because apparently they also always know where Lara is. At one point, we blew open a door from a hiding spot. As we crept up to it, totally out of sight, a solider on the other side yelled “there she is!” A hail of bullets instantly hit the doorframe, exactly where Lara was hiding. Bullshit.
It’s lucky, then, that these fights only last a few minutes at a time, and are broken up by the far superior exploration sections. For a game that’s actually fairly linear, the world feels incredibly open. Huge, sprawling hubs offer you the options to explore, find hidden caves and tombs, or complete challenges. Some of these aren’t accessible until you unlock a specific ability, while others will help you improve certain skills or weapons. You are encouraged to explore, but if you want to just power on with the story and come back later, you can. The amount of stuff to do, however, is impressive, and stumbling across new areas, locked doors and lost artefacts got us far too excited. And when you do run out of main game to play, you can always dive into the new sort-of-multiplayer mode: Expeditions.
This new mode is a replacement for the last game’s completely uninspiring arena-based multiplayer, and offers a variety of score-attack or chapter-replay challenges in which to best your friends’ times or scores. The twist here is the addition of Expedition cards, which can be bought with in-game credits or real-world money, and give Lara new loadouts or change the gameplay. The mode is fun, and the cards mix things up, but it sadly doesn’t make up for Rise’s criminal lack of New Game+ mode – something the game is crying out for.
If this doesn’t sound like your bag, perhaps the game’s gorgeous graphics will make up for the disappointment. Most of the game is set in snowy mountains, and while a geothermal valley helps add a little variation, the theme here is definitely an icy white. Snow deforms beautifully as Lara pushes through it, ancient rocks present the perfect level of crumble and, in a neat touch that makes her feel more human, Lara squeezes her hair dry as she climbs out of the water.
In fact, let’s just pause for a second here. We need to talk about Lara’s hair. We don’t know who was in charge of hair physics at Crystal Dynamics, but whoever it was needs a pat on the back. That stuff looks awesome. At one point we actually missed what Lara was saying in a cutscene because her hair slid off her shoulder like actual, honest-to-god, real life hair. It was mesmerising. Maybe we missed the next-gen hair memo and all games are doing this now, but it blew us away.
Ahem. Anyway. Let’s get onto tombs. One of the biggest criticisms of the 2013 Tomb Raider was the lack of “proper” tombs, which caused some consternation. That has been brilliantly remedied here; you will be notified if you’re near a tomb as you follow the game’s main path. If you want to explore it, you can, but it’s entirely up to you. Choose to enter these areas and you’ll be faced with a genuinely challenging puzzle; at the end of the path you’ll get a new ability that will help you in your quest, and plenty of loot besides. Or, if you’re not in the mood, you can bypass this entirely. The choice, like with much of Rise, is yours.
The same can be said for upgrades. These now require different ingredients, including animal hide, cloth and machine parts, so collecting everything is essential if you want the best weapons. It’s a really well-balanced system, one that not only feels fair but becomes highly addictive.
It’s probably fair to say that, in a year packed with big releases, Ms Croft was really up against it when it came to beating the crowd. With Rise Of The Tomb Raider Crystal Dynamics has ticked all the boxes. And that hair!