The Girl Who Won My Heart…. Again.
Video Review Here
Crystal Dynamics is one of the most underrated developers in the world. In 2013 they brought a seemingly dead franchise in Tomb Raider back to the forefront of video game culture, not only as relevant, but as a force to be reckoned with. They took the Bond-esque badass heroine who was promoted just as much sexually as she was heroically and turned her into someone real, someone vulnerable, and someone who had to struggle to survive, showing those realities throughout 2013’s Tomb Raider. Lara wasn’t a hokey joke to gamers anymore, but someone who was (and deserved to be) talked about proudly, which is why Rise of the Tomb Raider was one of my most anticipated games long before it was even announced.
Rise of the Tomb Raider didn’t only meet my expectations, it blew them away. The story gave me some Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade vibes, yet really anchoring Lara with real emotional and believable weight instead of the “I can’t believe he got out of that” scenarios and hokey one-liners from Harrison Ford. Lara refuses to believe in her father’s death, so, unlike the first game, she seeks out her own adventure in search for the Devine Source, a device similar to the Holy Grail, allowing the user to fend off death, while also seeking answers to her own questions.
But, like her big screen inspiration, she is not the only one looking for this device. A supernatural enemy is also on the search, who, without spoiling anything, also have compelling reasons for wanting it. Though there are supernatural elements, I am happy that Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t rely on it as a storytelling crutch. Though the story is hardly the game’s strong suit, it does give us a bigger overall narrative than just ghosts and magic. It allows the supernatural to occupy the world by injecting the mystical elements where they make sense. Even from the beginning (and the ending of the previous game), the story gives you an underlying supernatural element, preparing you for what’s to come later.
Where the game really shines is it’s gameplay. Story never gets in the way of the mechanics, but rather they share the space, giving the player a wonderful, cohesive experience. The gameplay also outclasses anything within the genre, as I can not think of a third person action-adventure game that controls, feels, and overall looks better. That includes Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and The Last of Us, both of which are fantastic games in their own right. The climbing feels natural, as Lara actually moves in the direction you want her to, unlike the mechanics in games like Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted. The stealth abilities feel just as fleshed out as the shooting, so players can take down the enemies anyway they see fit without feeling like those mechanics are “good enough.” Taking down snipers with your bow from across the way feels just as awesome as sneaking up on a lone guard and performing the perfect takedown. The set pieces and quick time events are also fantastic. Without any spoilers, there are big moments starting from the very beginning that have your heart racing and adrenaline pumping with that last second button press to get Lara to safety… barely. With my thirty something hours in the game there was hardly a moment where I was looking to move on because nothing in the game felt like filler content.
One of the smartest decisions Crystal Dynamics made in the first game was allowing players to upgrade Lara how they wanted, and their expansion on that idea is expertly executed in this sophomore effort. The skill tree is divided into three branches: Hunting, Brawling, and Survival. Each branch provides it’s own unique set of paths, allowing even more customization and making aspects less challenging or more rewarding. For example, I know I’m bad at combat, so I took the time to seek out Hunting for better bow techniques and Brawling to become stronger when in melee situations. I dabbled in enough Survival so I could access certain parts of the game, but I focused on other aspects to give me advantages in other areas. It had just enough light RPG elements that changed how I played and what resources I wanted to seek out without forcing me into a certain build.
Rise of the Tomb Raider also has a light Metroid-y feel. Many of the locations in Rise of the Tomb Raider are open hub worlds ranging from the Siberian Tundra to the European mountains, and beyond. These open hubs are massive, each with their own closed off areas that require new abilities and resources to reach. Not only do these new abilities allow you to move forward in the adventure, but they also lead to camps, unlocking language blocks, and of course, getting to the well-designed tombs hidden throughout each hub. Upgrading Lara’s abilities to backtrack and locate new areas or hidden tombs is one of, if not the best part of this adventure. Finding tombs and taking down each puzzle provides a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. These areas provide players with massive puzzles to complete with little to no combat, allowing for a great change of pace for the adventure. Also completing these tombs provides extra resources and experience, allowing you to further expand your upgrades to become a bigger badass in the final stages of the game.
One of the biggest things that stand out are the animations themselves, particularly the facial animation and capture of Lara herself. Her facial expressions are some of the most believable and realistic I have ever seen in a video game. When she is talking to Jonah in one of the early manor scenes, you can see her belief and excitement when she discovers a clue. Her eyes get wide, her smile is uncontrollable, and her hopefulness can be felt through the emotion. Even the environmental effects are stunning, animating everything from wet pants to torn tops, showing the blood from cuts and smeared dirt across Lara’s face. Even the way Lara moves her hair out of her face is a nice touch. Impressive as these all are, I did manage to hit some minor frame rate hiccups. But these were almost negligible and nothing to be overly concerned about.
Rise of the Tomb Raider sets a new standard in the action-adventure genre. Crystal Dynamics has created a real character with feelings, emotion, and determination, and I as a player wanted to be there for Lara, being just as determined to get her through the adventure. With the amount of hidden secrets and puzzles, the many options you can take on an encounter, and the different ways you can build your Lara, this game is best in class, and one of the best games available this generation of gaming. Camilla Luddington’s believable deliverance of Lara’s emotional journey as well as the world and story Crystal Dynamics has built around this franchise has not only reinvigorated the once laughable franchise, but has made it one of my favorite franchises in gaming, period. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a spectacular game that’s light on story but big on character, gameplay, world building, and heart.