Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot was an unexpected gem for me, being someone who missed the boat entirely on Lara’s adventures in my youth. It was beautiful, brutal, full of mystery and danger, and gave me plenty of random junk to comb over the open world for. My time with the reboot had me looking forward to whatever was next for the risen heroine, and so I turned to the aptly-named Rise of the Tomb Raider with great expectations. I’m pleased to report they were met, fully and with few reservations, though I would note it did not seem so from the onset.

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After escaping the crumbling and deadly lost kingdom of Yamatai, Lara Croft completed her evolution into a capable, rough-and-tumble action archaeologist that would make Indy himself proud. But the sudden and mysterious death of her father leaves her obsessed with his life-long obsession, an artifact known as the Divine Source. Lara’s quest leads her to the mountains of Siberia and another lost civilization, and also places her square in the sights of a shadowy cabal known as Trinity. The struggle becomes personal as she learns more about the valley’s inhabitants as well as Trinity’s connection to her departed father.

Right away, Rise has a different hook to it than the reboot did and that may have been part of why I didn’t get into it so quickly. Lara as a shipwreck survivor, forced out of her depth and forged into a monster, was a compelling story to trace from start to finish. Rise tries to up the ante on an emotional level, by sending Lara globe-hopping to redeem her father and outwit a secret society. It’s not something that compels at first because so little time is spent on Lara’s personal life and backstory that I couldn’t really care about redemption. But the Trinity angle has some bite to it, and once their plans were really set in motion I found myself swept along to the finale.

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It’ll take you a good long while to get there too, thanks to some changes to the core gameplay. Rise still features plenty of third-person mantling, zip-lining, stealth murdering, and shootouts, but there’s a very conspicuous focus on crafting this time around. After the prologue Lara finds herself stranded in the Siberian wilderness, making the first few hours a struggle to survive and get established in a harsh land. The simple scrap upgrades of the reboot is replaced with an elaborate system of furs, metals, herbs, and oils that must be gathered and applied to improve weapons, carrying capacity, and even ammunition. Early on you may find yourself taking cautious shots with the bow, afraid to waste even one for fear of having to expend more wood and feathers.

This will pass soon enough, though the hunting and gathering can take up a disproportionate amount of your time if you like immediate gratification in your upgrades. Really much more of the game here is spent on upgrades and customization, with a wealth of different weapons to equip and improve in each of your four categories. There are outfits to find and craft as well, and even a shop that’ll trade ancient coins for underbarrel grenade launchers and tactical shotguns. You’ll find parts for new weapons if you scour the world carefully enough, and tombs now award special perks that affect basic gameplay like faster climbing. While there’s certainly no shortage of relics and journals to find, you’ll also be searching for antlers and ores to bolster your arsenal.

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Once the game opens up in the larger areas, it begins to show just how fully it has improved the formula the previous game seemed to perfect. Most parts of the game world are absolutely lousy with collectibles and caverns, along with new additions like murals, monoliths, missions, and challenges. The first two can reveal other nearby collectibles if your language skill (raised from finding notes) is high enough to decipher them. Missions are given by friendly characters and have you hunting specific animals or freeing captives. And the challenges consists of fun little things to do around the world like cut down flags and chase chickens. On top of all the time you’ll spend gathering resources, there are enough sights and activities to keep you busy if you don’t feel like speeding the plot along.

You absolutely should, though, because after that initial hump the story takes off just as wildly as it did in the last game. But instead of cultists and Japanese relics, this one has a full-on war between mountain men and private military, with a side of mysticism that’s built up to in a delightfully creepy way. There are plenty of echoes of the reboot in this one but the characters help punch it up, rendered in photo-realistic detail and driven by a lust for the artifact at the center of the plot. Your allies are colorful enough to care about, and your foes are vicious and crazed enough to despise. The only real weak link here is Lara herself, who gets very little characterization other than “woman of action” and “lost her dad”.

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The incredible graphics don’t end with the characters, of course. The Siberian mountains are brought to life with impossibly detailed textures and convincing particle effects, with clear themes and palettes for each region. The tombs in particular can be breathtaking, secreted into cliff faces and situated in ancient cisterns pierced by only the most distant shafts of light. Really the entire presentation, sound and interface included, is top-notch and helps the impression that Rise is a marked improvement even over the majesty that was the 2013 reboot. There are yet more features beyond the 20-hour campaign such as the expeditions that let you replay areas with cards that change up the mission rules, but I found them little more than distractions from the meat of the game. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a rich offering, both visually and mechanically stunning in a way that few games can match.

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