Rise of the Tomb Raider review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer Crystal Dynamics
Release Date Nov 10, 2015

Rise of the Tomb Raider reads like an answer to the question, "What if we made an open-world game but removed all the mundane bullshit from it?"

Even if you don't consider Rise of the Tomb Raider's large, explorable hubs as comprising a true open-world game, there's no denying that developer Crystal Dynamics has built something bigger and denser than 2013's Tomb Raider reboot. And yet, Rise simultaneously maintains the tight design that made its predecessor so entertaining.

There are some rough edges to Rise of the Tomb Raider — weaknesses in its writing, goofiness in its animation and so on. But these never add up to much of concern in a game so certain of its goals and confident in its execution.

Rise of the Tomb Raider begins at full speed, with protagonist Lara Croft and Jonah, one of her companions from the last game, journeying into the frigid mountains of Siberia. Through some flashbacks — both in cutscene and playable form — we learn that Lara is on the trail of an artifact and a lost city, two myths that her father swore were real before a tragic death. As the adventure progresses, Lara finds herself up against Trinity, a shadowy organization looking for the same historical discoveries for more malevolent purposes.

rise of the tomb raider

If there's one spot where Rise of the Tomb Raider is noticeably worse than its predecessor, it's the overarching narrative. 2013's Tomb Raider chronicled Lara's transformation from a regular young woman into a "survivor" — aka someone able and unafraid of taking down an army of paramilitary thugs. It was a little cliché, and it required some suspension of disbelief, but it made for an appealing tale, especially when coupled with the mysteries of the island of Yamatai.

The lost city of Kitezh brings its own points of intrigue to Rise of the Tomb Raider, but they feel like a retread; where the previous game's story kept me on my toes until the last act, I knew where Rise was headed within the first few hours. On top of that, Lara's motivation for the adventure can, by and large, be summed up as, "My dad was interested in this, so I am also interested in it." What minor growth she sees by the end of the story comes across as forced and, frankly, not terribly interesting.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is saved by two important facts

Rise of the Tomb Raider is saved by two important facts: First, the moment-to-moment dialogue is sharp, and moves quickly. I may not have understood why Lara was involved in this situation in the first place, but damned if I didn't grin at the way she refused to take shit from anyone once she was there.

Trinity and its lead bad guy, Konstantin, deserve special marks as well. Tomb Raider 2013's antagonist wasn't memorable at all. Literally, I can't remember anything about him. Konstantin, on the other hand, is psychologically broken and religiously motivated in a way that stood out to me. There's an edge to his choices and his reason for trying to find Kitezh, with some fun twists to his backstory that you can discover along the way. As goofy as it is, I love the idea of an evil organization racing Lara Croft to hunt down ancient secrets. It's a great concept that serves the series as a whole, even beyond this single entry.

The second grace that saves Rise of the Tomb Raider from an otherwise shallow story is that, well, it just doesn't depend on that story much. Aside from a couple of big plot moments, cutscenes in Rise are blessedly short, and you're generally allowed to keep moving during dialogue between characters. The gameplay comes first here, and it's that gameplay that makes Rise of the Tomb Raider so great.

rise of the tomb raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider's foundation is the same as it was in 2013: Lara crawls, climbs, shoots and swings her way through a series of outrageous environments, from a ship frozen vertically into the side of a glacier to an abandoned gulag repurposed by Trinity. The combat still emphasizes careful aim and smart use of resources in the environment. The platforming is still damn near perfect, giving the player control above all else, even when it leads to some hilariously awkward animations. None of this has changed, and none of it really needed to.

What has changed is the environments these things take place in. 2013's Tomb Raider got a lot of mileage out of a single island, but Rise finds even more variety in the nooks and crannies of Siberia. And since Lara isn't stranded this time around, there's even the opportunity for a brief but fun trip to another region.

It's not just that Rise of the Tomb Raider has a greater variety of environments, but those environments offer more things to do. There are narrative collectibles — diary entries and artifacts that piece together the history of the region — plus hidden environmental challenges, boxes containing pieces to put together new weapons and coin caches that allow you to purchase other upgrades. There's even a full side quest system, with NPCs who give you tasks to complete in the surrounding area with rewards for pulling through.

There's much to do in Rise of the Tomb Raider's expansive hub areas, but they're also small enough that I never got exhausted journeying across the map to hit a new objective. The optional content never felt like more of a burden than a boon. I finished the game with over 80 percent completion despite playing at a pretty fast clip for review, and I have every intention of going back to mop up that last 20 percent.

rise of the tomb raider

Expedition Mode

While Rise of the Tomb Raider has dropped the long-forgotten multiplayer mode that was included in the last game, it's found a much more welcome source of replay value in expedition mode. This new single-player option allows you to replay chapters, jump into hub areas with new objectives or just go for a classic score chase. Each of these challenges can be modified in interesting ways.

As you progress through the story, you'll earn points that can be spent to purchase card packs. Cards can have gear or upgrades for Lara, or they can have other modifiers — tweaks that make enemies harder to take down or turn Lara into an unstoppable killing machine. Each modifier can have a major impact on how any one run through expedition mode plays out, and Square Enix has promised to continue introducing new cards through the game's DLC season pass.

Notably, packs of cards can also be purchased with real money. However, just playing expedition mode earns more points with which you can purchase more packs, so it doesn't seem like people will be forced to spend real money at any point.

The best parts of Rise of the Tomb Raider's optional content are the tombs themselves. Some fans were bothered by how the 2013 reboot featured very few tombs, temples and other similar archaeological discoveries, and how it forced them into side areas. That latter issue hasn't changed, but there must be over a dozen of these optional tombs now. They're some of the best-looking areas in a beautiful game, and the puzzles they task you with solving are wonderfully designed. I was often left scratching my head for an hour or longer before reaching a solution, but that time never felt wasted.

On top of increasing the size of the areas, Rise of the Tomb Raider has also greatly expanded the crafting system from the previous game. Lara can now craft a number of different types of ammunition on the fly, while choosing from bigger upgrades to her arsenal of weapons at base camps. The resource system feels a little loosely implemented — I found myself inexplicably "full" on resources for most of the game, despite feeling like I was crafting at every opportunity — but it provides another layer of motivation for carefully exploring environments rather than just rushing headfirst into the next story beat.

Wrap Up:

Rise of the Tomb Raider executes the franchise formula with confidence

In many ways, Rise of the Tomb Raider could be viewed as a fairly modest sequel. It successfully builds off Crystal Dynamics' excellent reboot, but it doesn't introduce any massive changes; the scope is greater but still in spitting distance of the previous game. But successfully regaining the feeling created in an extremely good game is no small feat. This is the inauguration of Tomb Raider as a formula once more, but for now, it's a formula I'm happy revisiting.

Rise of the Tomb Raider was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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