This is not the game everyone is talking about. This. Is NOT. The game everyone is taking about. No, that game is a massive, open world RPG from a highly respectable developer, and was so highly anticipated that it literally put a measurable dent in Porn Hub’s viewer traffic the day it came out. This is a timed exclusive, Uncharted competitor from a franchise that’s older than Halo, and is only beaten by a few Nintendo properties in terms of outright nostalgia. And has sales that are unfortunately what you’d expect given its release date, the console it’s launching on, the fact that it’s banned in Saudi Arabia...
So why am I doing a review on the seemingly “lesser” game? Well, if I were to properly review the other game, I’d first wait about a month or so for its various bugs to be patched out and fixed. Also, if I wanted to do a review that’d be justice for the other game, I’d probably need a free month to play as much of it as I could. Being a college student less than a month away from finals, that’s not exactly what I’d call a viable option. So here I am now, done (for the most part) playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, and after finishing the lengthy campaign, trying out expedition mode, and putting a few extra hours into the various collectibles, challenges, and (of course) tombs. What we have here, this game, is without a doubt this year’s sleeper hit. Of all the Xbox exclusives that came out this year, I can say for certain that this is the best of the bunch. Better than Gears of War: Remastered. Better than Forza Motorsport 6. And yes, better than Halo 5: Guardians.
Rise picks directly up from 2013’s Tomb Raider (the reboot and origin story of Lara Croft), and thankfully it keeps going on the track the previous game laid out in making Ms Croft a fleshed out, truly believable character. The previous game did an outstanding job of making the player feel for Lara as she fought her way through a living hell of an island, and delivered a story that showed how she started on her path into becoming a badass archaeologist that traveled the world in search of supernatural artifacts. Rise not only follows Lara on her journey around the world, but also continues to delve further into her as a character. Through well done (if a tad bit brief) flashbacks we glimpse into her relationship with her late father, and throughout the story we’re also reminded of the horrors Lara faced back on the island, both in having to kill people to survive, and in how she still lives with survivor’s guilt when so many of her friends weren’t so lucky. There’s also implications that she’s doing what she does as a way to cope with her guilt and more than likely PTSD, and to also find some closure in her past.
Thankfully, the game isn’t all about the protagonist’s angst, which is where the main story comes in. In a pursuit that spans from Syria to Siberia, Lara races against an ancient yet powerful para-military group known as Trinity to capture an artifact known as “The Divine Source”, which as a typical plot device can heal all wounds, and also create undying armies (that’s the current “thing” for today’s baddies, innit?). Along the way, Lara uncovers a lost civilization, fights to save friends and new found comrades, and goes to great lengths to prevent evil from winning the day, yadda yadda yadda. The story is what’s been seen and heard in Indiana Jones, Uncharted and Tomb Raiders past, but the way it’s told does deserve praise. Not only is the protagonist developed in a way that’s admirable, but the game’s use of religion as a double edged sword also deserves mention.
Without giving too much away, I’ll talk about two central characters: the game’s primary antagonist Konstantin, and Lara’s primary ally Jacob, characters that almost act as two sides of the same coin. Jacob, the mystical leader of the lost civilization of Kitezh (look it up), shows how belief can motivate and act as a force of good in the face of desperate odds, in how his people originally faced and fled from persecution, and ultimately settled in an environment that’s almost too good to be true. On the other hand, Konstantin uses religion to justify heinous actions, as a crutch to keep on going for both himself and the one person he cares about, and also as a tool to motivate Trinity’s fanatical forces. I’m genuinely surprised that this element is here at all, given how the only other notable use of religion I’ve seen in a recent mainstream game is in the Assassin’s Creed series, and there’s it’s just as a plain-cut villain. Here, it’s both in a positive and negative light, both a belief that motivates, and as justification for destruction. While most of the story hits on every beat we’ve almost come to expect from today’s mainstream games, this unusual element is a much appreciated breath of fresh air.
But enough about story and characters, what about the simpler stuff? Well, the first thing you’ll notice about this game is just how gorgeous it looks. While I have little doubt this thing will be better looking when it comes out on PS4 and PC, right now it isn’t exactly what you’d call a minger, now is it? This is probably the best graphical lighting I’ve ever seen on a console game; from the glow of a... glowstick in dark caverns, to the moment where you’re temporarily blinded from emerging out of said caverns into a bright environment, this game shines no matter where it takes place (that’s my only light-based joke, I swear).
This level of quality also blends into most of the gameplay. The climbing is almost without equal, challenging without ever feeling inaccurate or broken, and there’s a great mix of stealth and full-on gunfights when it comes to taking down enemies. While it doesn’t top Metal Gear Solid V’s blend of stealth and firefighting, there’s a great amount of variety in terms of enemies you encounter, guns and tools you’ll use to take down said enemies, and environments that can force you to completely change your tactics. No matter what though, the bow and arrow remain the best weapon/tool in the game, and by now it might as well have fully replaced Lara’s trademark dual pistols as her signature weapon. The bow and arrow usage here is so good, it’s actually kind of a shame that neither The Hunger Games nor Green Arrow has ripped off this design element for themselves...
Speaking of environments, this game has a surprisingly vast open world, something I wasn’t really expecting. While the last one did quasi-allow for exploration outside the main game, this one goes all the way in letting you dip into some RPG style gameplay. There are side missions you can take on for extra rewards, a fleshed out system of upgrade trees for skills, equipment and weapons, outfits that directly affect your abilities, and you can even scavenge and hunt around the world for specific resources to further improve your gear. There’s also a great variety of collectibles, from artifacts that each have their own story, to scrolls that actually tell stories that further flesh out the main game’s narrative. At times, there feels like there’s almost too much to do, but since it’s rarely boring you can waste hours away on finding everything, and it won’t feel like a waste at all.
I should probably talk about the tombs in this game, shouldn’t I? As you might have guessed by now, even this aspect of the game has been improved. There’s more of them, they’re even more challenging and rewarding, and in this game they actually exist with context; they aren’t just there for “gaming logic’s” sake. As you explore them (and keep an eye out along the way), you can find out the history behind each tomb, from a ship trapped in a glacier, to a flooded bathhouse, to a volcanic site that was used for exorcisms. Every single one of them is worth completing, both in the rewards they give your character in the form of unique skills, to the rewarding feeling you get from beating them.
One part of the game that I will say isn’t quite so good is the new Expedition mode. Replacing the last game’s adequate but uninspired multiplayer, this mode is a blend of speed-running and score attacks on completed levels. If you’re the kind of person who’s into that sort of thing, then this is right up your alley, especially when it comes with a great number of modifiers that make the game easier, harder, or just plain weird and silly (there are chicken arrows that you can shoot with your bow. Yes, they are as awesome as they sound). Since I like to take my time and enjoy a level rather than speed through it, I’ll admit that this is more “not my kind of thing,” rather than just a flawed game feature. Also, if you need to finish off some achievements without starting a new game, then this will work for you too.
There’s tons more I’d like to talk about, but I hope by now you’re as interested in this game as I still am a week after its been out. It’s an improvement over its predecessor in every area possible, both in getting rid of parts that weren’t working (good riddance, GPS caches), and further building upon elements that originally did. Which brings us to two questions:
Should You Play This Game: Yes. This is one of the Xbox One’s standout titles, and easily one of the best games I’ve played this year. If you need a fix for adventure and want it to play as good as it looks, look no further.
If So, When Should You Buy This Game: Now. Unless you’re already in the middle of something (Witcher 3, MGSV... That Other Game), this is a great way to lose yourself in an incredible world, and a story that urges you to keep on going till the very end.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available now for the Xbox One and Xbox 360, both in physical and digital retail outlets.
TGRIP is a film student studying in Portland, OR. TAY’s resident Xbox and racing game fan, he also (part time) reviews and does opinion pieces on games, movies, television, comics, and anime. He also runs his kinja sub blog Work(ing Title) In Progress. You can follow this third person narrating weirdo on Twitter @Dennis_wglasses, and his Gamertag on Xbox Live is “Aventador SV”.