Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. As with last year, we're running a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.
My favorite trend of 2015 was open-world games getting "small," or at least learning to deal with what's important. That's why Rise of the Tomb Raider was one of my favorite games of the year, and it's bonkers that it didn't make it into our top 10 list.
Of course, one of the risks of making a deal to bring a once-multiplatform game to Xbox as a timed exclusive is that you may end up ahead financially when all is said and done, but you could lose mindshare. Until we know how well the game has or hasn't sold on PC and PlayStation — and unless we find out how much Microsoft paid for the timed exclusivity — it's impossible to tell whether it was a good decision in terms of profit. Whether the Xbox One exclusivity diminished the brand is a completely separate question and, sadly, that may be an easier question to answer.
Why you should play this
The rebooted Tomb Raider series often suffers a bit from trying to be both an action game while dabbling in survival, but Rise of the Tomb Raider shows the team is learning how to get the balance. Yes, you'll be fighting enemy soldiers and upgrading your weapons — although I stuck with the bow almost exclusively — but the only way you'll truly excel is to pay attention to the hunting and crafting systems, as well as tracking down and besting the optional challenge tombs.
Those tombs bring the series back to its roots with puzzles and adventures in actual tomb raiding, and you're always given a fun reward for finishing them. That's beside the point however; they operate as a way to make fans of the classic games happy, while making sure that anyone who just wants to play through for the story can do so. How you play Rise of the Tomb Raider, and how completely you need to explore the secrets of this world, is up to you.
Even Just Cause 3, another one of my favorite open-world games that did a good job of making as many of the options as fun as possible, ultimately gated your progression in the world by forcing you to go back and liberate an arbitrary number of settlements before moving forward.
Rise of the Tomb Raider gives you more of the game if you're willing to explore and master the game's environments, and that's a much better way to engage and reward the player. You're doing things a certain way because that's what Lara would have done, not because the game is forcing you to.
Or you could ignore all these side systems and barrel through the story, and for once the game has a satisfying villain while providing Croft with the necessary motivation to get back into a survival situation after the trauma of the first game. The Tomb Raider series clearly operates in a world where the supernatural exists, but that fact doesn't take over the game's universe; there may be things out there no one understands, but most situations can still be resolved with by force.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was one of the games I missed the first time around and only caught because so many of my peers sang its praises, and I found myself completely smitten by the game's construction. Pick it up now on the Xbox One, or wait a bit for the PlayStation 4 or PC version. You won't be sorry.