I wasn’t a fan of Tomb Raider (2013). I found Lara to be a frustrating, lacklustre protagonist – a far cry from the smart, powerful (and admittedly overly boobtastic) that has captivated audiences since the 90s. The game substituted character growth for cuts and bruises, expecting me to care about someone just because they’d had some scrapes, in lieu of any real narrative drive. It was essentially The Revenant: What I did on my Gap Year – a disappointing lesson in how an otherwise solid game can crumble without an enticing central character. While it still stumbles with trying to tell a story, Rise of the Tomb Raider goes the distance to repair some of its predecessor’s issues, whilst still sticking to the same Uncharted-inspired formula.
This time around, Lara is following in her father’s footsteps, searching for a mysterious artifact that can allegedly prolong a person’s life. It’s pretty much the plot of The Last Crusade, albeit with Lara’s father communicating with her posthumously through audio diaries, rather than through sensual Sean Connery sibilance. Despite everyone telling her it’s too dangerous, Lara embarks upon an adventure to finish what her father started, and crosses paths with another cult of religious fanatics, whom she soon realizes must be shot and stabbed lest they use the artifact for unsavoury purposes.
Once again, Lara finds herself at the centre of a fairly weak piece of storytelling. Though there are no doppelgängers or magical Nordic hammers in sight, Tomb Raider is still a strange, cheesy mash-up of Uncharted‘s self-seriousness, B-movie tropes, and Indiana Jones-ish flim-flammery. Camilla Luddington has noticeably improved as the eponymous Tomb Raider, although she still fumbles some lines of dialogue, or packs on enough ham to cater a Spanish birthday party in some scenes. It’s a directing problem, more than an acting one. So much of the dialogue in Rise seems to be read with the incorrect intonation; with stresses on the wrong words. It doesn’t help that Lara often spouts jargon, cliches and excruciatingly obvious bits of information. I’m all for a character engaging with her environment, but Lara has a nasty habit of narrating the world around her, when its beauty and design really speaks for itself.
Thankfully, Rise is a much more focused, better paced game than its predecessor. Gone are the painful sequences of overly long set pieces – now set-pieces are quick, nasty and used infrequently. Lara has plenty of downtime to explore tombs (yes, she actually does that in this one), complete the odd side mission, or collect hidden treasures, meaning that when the action really takes off, it actually means something. It may not be a particularly well written game, but its action and story beats are really well paced, so there’s always something to keep your interest.
Artifacts and gadgets are strewn about various hub worlds, and although they can occassionally feel like busy-work, they offer tangible upgrades to Lara’s bows, equipment and firearms. The most enticing ‘optional’ missions are undoubtedly the tombs themselves, which see Lara shimmying and puzzle solving like it’s 1997. It’s so nice to be able to explore a glorious piece of ancient architecture without succumbing to frustration, either through dodgy camera controls or bad collision detection. Rise’s jumping and climbing is the smoothest on the market – it takes the fluidity of Assassin’s Creed’s parkour, and gives it a much needed sense of heft. Also wonderful are the tiny visual quirks that make Lara feels like a living, breathing human. Her climbing pick swings from side to side at her waist, she shivers in the cold, she brushes her hands against cave walls – it’s all small stuff, but it really engrosses you in the game’s world.
Whereas Tomb Raider didn’t quite manage to blend its stealth elements with its combat, climbing and bonkers narrative, Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t over-design any of these elements, and allows each of them the room to shine on their own merits. Combat is brutal and bloody – Lara isn’t a soldier, and this is reflected in her aim, which is authentically uneven at best. Stealth sections are stripped down and simple, relying on careful timing and distractions to dispatch a small number of enemies. Lara relies on her resourcefulness to get the upper hand, regularly picking up scraps of bark and other doodads for crafting upgrades and new types of equipment. It’s a refreshingly enjoyable crafting system, because the upgrades feel satisfying, but aren’t essential, and while most of the materials available to Lara are within reaching distance, some take careful consideration to access, making for a greater sense of reward.
If some of these features sound familiar, it’s because they were pretty much all perfected in The Last of Us. Rather than borrowing whole-heartedly from Naughty Dog’s other tentpole franchise like Tomb Raider did, Lara’s latest adventure feel’s more in tune with Joel and Ellie’s post-apocalyptic tear-jerker. It’s a survival game, more than anything. It forces you to explore and examine in order to better understand and thrive within your surroundings, something that the original reboot never excelled at.
Finally, Crystal Dynamics has managed to mesh its individual gameplay components, giving players a reason to bludgeon and slide through its beautiful landscapes. Rise of the Tomb Raider is the best looking game since The Witcher III. From muddy caves to sweeping, icy ravines, Rise is a veritable smorgasbord of gorgeous lighting effects, animations and textures. Very few games makes you stop and stare at the pools of water on the floor of a cave, but Rise is one such game, a screenshotters paradise of colourful ruins and crystaline glaciers.
There are no mediocre multiplayer modes this time either. Rise‘s other gameplay mode operates rather like Alien Isolation‘s arcade mode, dropping Lara in an isolated section of the campaign, and tasking her with completing various objectives. It’s a nice slice of action and exploration that reiterates just how well the main game works, but it can also be altered with difficulty modifier cards, to create a truly harsh environment. These cards are sort of like Halo’s ‘skulls’, and can be bought using credits earned in game (or with real money, because gross).
Having spent so much time ranting and raving about Tomb Raider (2013), it’s genuinely surprising how much I’ve come to enjoy its sequel. Though it still suffers from a very weak script, and some shaky voice acting, Rise of the Tomb Raider doubles down on what worked in its predecessor, but doesn’t overplay those elements and run them into the ground. It’s a game that understands pacing, and most importantly understands Lara: she is an archaeologist, and a bloody good one at that.