In popular culture, archaeology is associated with adventure. The earliest archaeologists were explorers, who went into unknown territory to examine ruins and dig up ancient artefacts. Need a believable action hero to chase after ancient treasures? Don’t pick a stuffy historian; go for an archaeologist instead! In the realm of videogames, the Tomb Raider series looms large. In 2013, developer Crystal Dynamics created a new game simply called Tomb Raider that serves as a hard reboot for the series at large. Two years later, a sequel to this game, called Rise of the Tomb Raider, was released, and I’m here to tell you what I think about it.
The first Tomb Raider game was developed by Core Design and published in 1996. It was a smash hit. The publisher demanded yearly sequels, which Core was able to fulfill until 2000. The first sequel was an unqualified success, but soon after quality started to take a hit, leading to the unmitigated disaster that was the sixth game in the series, subtitled Angel of Darkness (2003). Disappointed by how the game performed, publisher Eidos Interactive (now Square Enix) gave development duties to Crystal Dynamix.
Crystal Dynamix had itself been making Tomb Raider-like games for a while, most notable Soul Reaver (1999). They developed Tomb Raider: Legend (2006), which served as a reboot of the series. The original game was remade and released as Tomb Raider: Anniversary (2007), followed a year later by Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008). While reviews had been positive, Legend had been fairly criticized for its excessive gun play and simple puzzles. Anniversary stuck closer to the original; you occasionally had to shoot an animal (since they were psychotic and lacked any sense of self-preservation), but the killing of humans was limited, and puzzles were more complicated. Underworld limited gun play more and emphasized big puzzles in a callback to Anniversary.
With Underworld, the second series of games was essentially done. Crystal Dynamix developed two more isometric-perspective action-puzzle games with co-operative play called Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (2010) and Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris (2014). They’re good games and I recommend them, especially if you have someone to play with. There have also been some minor spin-off games, most notably Lara Craft: Go (2015), a fun and simple puzzle game for portable devices and Windows 10.
In all these games, Lara Croft was a cocksure adventurer who set out to loot treasure, and her main distinguishing characteristic (downplayed by Crystal Dynamics from Legend onwards) was her ample bosom. But 2013 saw the release of Tomb Raider, a clean reboot for the franchise. Lara Croft is now younger, shorter, and more realistically proportioned. Whereas before she had been a one-dimensional cardboard cutout, she is now a more fully developed character.
The main theme of 2013’s Tomb Raider was survival. The game was good, but actual tomb raiding was downplayed, with small and simple puzzles in tombs that were entirely optional. Instead, there was more emphasis on Prince of Persia-style traversal and, sadly, on combat. Combat in Tomb Raider often took the form of particular set piece sequences where you had to mow down entire hordes of bad guys. It was slightly incongruous to see Lara shiver and be unsure about killing anything one moment, only for the next to have her wield an assault rifle and blow away one enemy character after the other.
Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016), which incidentally gets no points for its unoriginal title, is very much a sequel to the previous game. The structure of the game is essentially the same: you move from point A to point B, with camps along the way where you can upgrade your skills, your equipment, and your weapons, and where you can also switch outfits. Lara gains experience points for completing tasks or challenges, for exploration, and for combat, and these will generate skill points so you can upgrade her abilities. As in other survival games and games with a proper open world, you can gather resources and craft stuff, such as bandages to heal up quickly in combat or more technologically-advanced things like grenade arrows.
The game is still heavily focused on traversal, but it also includes a great deal more puzzles. Lara Croft is now a much better climber, able to perform acrobatic feats that would make the lead character from the Prince of Persia games blush. At one point, you’ll be able to upgrade your trusty pickaxe to enable you to swing from special elements overhanging chasms as you jump across, or to extend your reach when you need to get to a ledge that you would otherwise never be able to grab unto. It works great and gives a good deal of momentum to the proceedings, even though there’s never really a doubt about where you have to go.
Tonally, the game is a breath of fresh air after 2013’s Tomb Raider. The latter game took a great deal of inspiration from horror movies (most notable 2005’s The Descent), which created something of an imbalance in my view: on the one hand, we had a vulnerable Lara Croft, who had to hide in pools of blood to escape the crazy natives, while on the other hand we also had an iron-willed Lara Croft who had no problem engaging in melee combat and planting a pickaxe in someone’s cranium.
Rise of the Tomb Raider instead foregoes the horror angle completely. If you’ve liked the previous Crystal Dynamix games, you’ll like this one for sure. I was reminded in particular of Tomb Raider: Underworld, with its large spaces and intricate environmental puzzles. Towards the end of the game, for example, you have to run across roof tops and reach trebuchets to aim and shoot fireballs at gates so you can proceed to the next area. Some of the trebuchets are blocked by ice and require some thought to free. The puzzles are unlikely to leave you stumped, but on the other hand they don’t tend to be so obvious as to be a chore.
Another improvement over the previous game is that Rise of the Tomb Raider does away entirely with quicktime events, i.e. those instances where the game will slow down or play a cutscene and you have to hit a button as soon as the prompt appears on screen to avoid instant death. Tomb Raider (2013) featured a lot of those, especially in the first few hours, but Rise of the Tomb Raider mercifully left those on the cutting room floor. Only occasionally do you have to tap X (on the gamepad) to prevent Lara from losing her grip, but that’s a mechanic that’s been in these games for a while and quite different from a regular quicktime event.
The story is largely an excuse for the game to happen, and much of it is clumsy, cliched, and convenient. Lara’s father believed that there was an ancient object that could grant immortality. He was disgraced and killed, and Lara wants to clear his name. She sets off for Siberia where she believes a city was founded by a man called the Prophet, who had fled Byzantium. Hot on her heels is a mercenary and religious fanatic, Konstantin, who works for a shadowy organization known as Trinity. The story isn’t terribly interesting and very much covers territory that was already touched upon, in a way, in Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld (except that there the focus was on Lara’s mother). The game also makes use of audio logs (Dictaphones) and scrolls that are just lying around, which are arguably the laziest ways to flesh out characters and backstory.
Technically, the game is fine, as you would expect from a triple A release. The graphics are great, though to run them at a high level you’ll obviously need to have a fairly beefy computer. I didn’t run into any technical problems and the game never crashed for me once, not even during extended play sessions, though load times were occasionally a bit long. The game features serviceable if unremarkable voice acting, with the exception of Camilla Luddington, the voice of Lara since the 2013 game, who does an excellent job. Character animation is also great, and I like the many little touched, such as when, like in the previous game, Lara will extend her hand when running past a wall.
When you’re finished with what passes as the main story (which took me about 12 hours all in all), you can go back and fast travel from one camp to another to clear every region. There’s also an ‘Endurance’ mode available as DLC, in which you can replay missions to accomplish particular challenges, increase the difficulty of the game using set parameters, and chase a score. I haven’t really checked that mode out yet and am not sure that it’s really something I want to be investing time in. However, I will revisit some of the areas in the main game for sure to complete challenge tombs I missed or couldn’t enter the first time through.
If there’s one important point of criticism then it’s that the final segment of the game is very similar to that of 2013’s Tomb Raider: an overlong sequence of set-piece battles against seemingly endless hordes of enemies that definitely doesn’t play to the game’s strengths. Poison and grenade arrows make battles easier, but you’ll run out of them quickly. But overall, the game is great. It moves along at a steady pace. If you enjoy games with interesting terrain traversal and some fairly straightforward but still interesting puzzles, I think you’ll like this game, too. If you’ve liked any of the previous Tomb Raider games developed by Crystal Dynamix, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
I thoroughly recommend you check out Rise of the Tomb Raider if you haven’t already. Expect fun gameplay, interesting traversal, and some simple puzzles and gun-play. It’s solid. Just don’t expect a great story, and don’t expect a game that you’ll still be talking about (let alone play) a few months down the line.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available for PC on Steam.