A fast-paced, action-packed feast for the senses that sets a new benchmark for technical excellence.
In 2013, Crystal Dynamics released the now well-loved reboot of the storied Tomb Raider Franchise. It exists as a fine example of the recent trend in AAA action video games, as developers try to capture the balls to the wall excitement of the modern Hollywood blockbuster and translate it to the gaming world. It provided a very streamlined gaming experience designed to keep the player frantic, excited, and always pushing forward. Rise of the Tomb Raider provides an improved take on their original design, but shows a strangely large contrast in quality in different areas of the game. Rise is a technical marvel providing a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. Its scripted, fast-paced, exciting gameplay and story are even more enjoyable than the 2013 reboot. However, the non-scripted gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. If you enjoyed the experience of the first reboot title, then the sequel is sure to please you, and if you never played the reboot then you're in luck because other than a few small references, Rise manages to stand completely on its own.
What's truly important is that Lara Croft is back and more badass than ever. I love the rebooted Lara. The oft-times personal storytelling, the athletically graceful animations, the wonderful voice-acting, and unbelievably impressive graphics make Lara one of the most beautifully realized characters in games today. I know it seems rather obvious to say that the headline performer is the star of the show, but she really is the star of the show. Crystal Dynamics have done a fantastic job here of building on the past and fleshing out the personality of Lara Croft. Credit for how well realized Lara Croft is in this franchise belongs to many parties. Camilla Luddington, the woman behind Lara, turns in an excellent performance in more ways than one. The voice-acting is of excellent quality from many characters, but Lara stands out as you would hope the star of the show would. However, I do think she has a tendency to sound like she is in a perpetual state of panting. Most of the time it fits the scene perfectly, but a few times I remember laughing a bit at why Lara sounds like she just ran a marathon even though she should sound perfectly normal. Luddington’s contributions range beyond just her beautiful voice though, as she also performed the motion capture for Lara.
Lara is made better by all aspects of the graphical fidelity. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a masterful display of modern 3D graphics at their best. Rise is, simply put, the best looking game ever released. The graphics are so impressive that I don't even think that statement is subjective. Rise of the Tomb Raider is objectively the best looking game, from a technical perspective (excluding art-style), that has released on PC to date. The textures are incredibly detailed, and approaching near photo-realism at times. The animations add so much lifelike quality to Lara that both the motion capture team and Luddington deserve a lot of credit for giving Lara the athletic grace that makes even her sometimes absurd maneuvers seem believable. The way she jumps, grabs, turns, or even how she instinctively reaches back to ring out her hair when it gets wet contributes heavily to making Miss Croft feel alive and allows us to connect with her more strongly. Her face is so expressive, it’s awesome to see how far facial motion capture has come. You can really see the actor behind the 3D rendering, as her emotions come across with impressive detail. The environments are stunning to look at, and the specific set pieces involved in the main story sections are awe inspiring in the biblical sense. This technical mastery isn't just pleasing to the eye but to the ear as well. Sound design is impressive on many levels. The score is powerful, and booms in your ears. The music works in tandem with the fast-paced scripted action to create intense exhilaration in the player. Weapon sound effects are believable and satisfying, the shotgun’s especially. I love how it actually sends enemies flying backwards with the power of the weapon. Sounds of impact are especially satisfying, whether it be arrows hitting their mark, landing a long jump, climbing tools hitting ice or rock, or just the sound of Lara hitting the cave floor below after falling to her death. I hope you have good headphones because this is a title you'll want them for.
Just like in 2013, rise of the tomb raider's defining characteristic is its incredibly streamlined, and bursty action gameplay.
Fans of the previous game will be happy that this is still very much present in the sequel, while removing the frustrating lack of interactivity of quick time events. Climbing the face of an ancient tomb while people shoot at you and the level is literally crumbling around you is sure to get your heart pumping. The main story isn't what I would call exceptional or unique in any way, but it complements the streamlined action very well to create a cohesive gaming experience that is better experienced than explained.
You may be wondering after reading all that why my score isn't in the high 90s, and if technical excellence was my only criteria then this game would legitimately compete for a perfect score. Unfortunately, we all know that there are many other things to consider when trying to critique a video game. So that was all the good. Now for some of the bad.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is extremely easy. Even at the highest difficulties, the game never forces the player to re-evaluate their tactics. It’s not until the final 2 hours or so that Rise presents anything remotely approaching a challenge to the player. The AI is unacceptably bad. Enemies follow a very basic run to cover, and sometimes peak out and shoot at you in a way that feels all so standard. Some enemies brandish melee weapons and decide that the best tactic available to them is just rush at you face first, because there's no way the lead spewing badass that just brutally slaughtered 20 of your comrades would ever gun you down before you got within striking range... The AI really shines though when the player decides to take a more stealthy approach, and by shines I mean shines in a competition of who can do the best Helen Keller impersonation. When you can kill someone who is mid conversation, less then 10 feet away from his partner, and out in the open without sounding an alarm you know something is very, very wrong. Luring enemies away from groups is extremely easy due to the ludicrous number of bottles, cans, or other random objects available everywhere, but very quickly you will realize that it's easier to just kill enemies as a group then lure them away one by one. They always seem perfectly happy to go off by themselves in some dark corner, blissfully unaware of their formerly living brothers in arms' bodies lying within hilariously obvious eyesight of them. Few enemies actually bother patrolling, and when they do they only make themselves into easy targets rather than complicating matters or putting pressure on the player. Given how derivative some of the stealth mechanics are, it's frustrating how inferior the the stealth gameplay is, in comparison to titles like MGS V or the Batman Arkham series. The upgrades to the bow further trivialize the act of surprising groups of enemies by giving the player access, very early on, to the poison arrows upgrade. This allows the player to instantly and easily dispose of multiple grouped enemies and removes any modicum of challenge for clearing rooms of multiple enemies. Its not just the AI that is so easy unfortunately. The puzzles are very simple and often provide little more then a speed bump as you breeze past content. I think this may at times be by design, in order to keep up the pace of the gameplay, but some of the challenge tombs barely require any thought.
Much of the adventure outside of the main storyline feels like filler content, sure to please only the completionists among us.
Side quests, what few there are, add nothing to the game. Go here and click these objects then come back. Deliver some supplies to these towers. Shoot down X number of something and return. These are the same lifeless side quests that gamers have complained about for years, and is just not acceptable from a AAA title as polished as this one. Rise of the Tomb Raider would have been better if they never included any of the side quests at all. Outside of the main storyline, all you really have is a small handful of archaically designed side-quests and a smattering of collectible objects. I do have to commend one small part of the collectible content though. Throughout the game you get to collect a bunch of fully voice-acted letters and messages that really do add some depth to the world and the characters.
No matter how much I may criticize the faults, and the faults certainly aren't insignificant, Rise of the Tomb Raider is without a doubt extremely fun. Fans of the first Tomb Raider will find more of what they loved. Rise shines brightest when players adopt the full John Rambo mindset, and embrace the balls to the walls action available. I found myself having much more fun when I intentionally ignored stealth and played like I was in a John Woo movie. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fast-paced, action-packed feast for the senses that sets a new benchmark for technical excellence. Just don't expect many original concepts or challenges, as Lara “John Rambo” Croft brutally murders hundreds of baddies en route to a very thrilling final chapter.