Rise Of The Tomb Raider

Year: 2015
Platform: Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 12/17/16
Rating: ****

Lara Croft's father was obsessed with immortality, and a mysterious underworld organization known as Trinity became very interested in his research. Mocked by the academic world, disgraced by society, and threatened by Trinity, Lord Croft finally ended up taking his own life. This sets the stage for Lara's increasingly complicated and traumatic childhood, and adds to her unresolved daddy issues. Lara's previous experience on Yamatai in "Tomb Raider" (2013) opened her eyes to unexplained phenomena, and new evidence suggests that her dad might have been on the brink of an extraordinary discovery. Trinity thinks so, too, and breaks into Croft Manor to steal some of his research. This prompts Lara to head to Siberia in order to locate an important artifact before Trinity can, and fulfill her father's dream.

After the success of "Tomb Raider," Crystal Dynamics played it overly safe by making this game nearly identical in structure and presentation. The biggest difference is a crafting mechanism that forces you to constantly hunt for resources so that you can make arrows and upgrade your arsenal. It derails the narrative quite a bit, but it's also very enjoyable to just explore the world looking for wood, mushrooms, feathers, minerals, salvage, and wild game. The graphics are stunning and the environments look fabulous. The music is tense and heavy on percussion, and mostly serves as a cue that danger is nearby. Unfortunately, the only disappointment is Lara herself. They redesigned her character model AGAIN, and she looks disappointingly unattractive. Her eyes are small, her mouth is big, her jawline is overly square, and her skin is orange. What's up with that? Camilla Luddington returns as Lara's voice, but her delivery is slurred and emotionally flat, and sounds likes she's speaking through a haze of confusion. Her accent also sounds a bit too urban, and not like the crisp and clipped accent of the refined woman that Lara used to be. It still hits all the right emotional notes, but Ms. Luddington's performance tends to lack energy, confidence, and vitality. More than anything, Lara just sounds bored and depressed. On the plus side, Lara's character animations are wonderful and her hair is fantastic. Her ponytail sways back and forth with hypnotic fluidity, and there's a delightful animation of her straightening it out whenever she gets out of the water.

The controls are tight, intuitive, and responsive for the most part. The only difficulty I had was with changing weapons during combat, which is overly sluggish and often doesn't work at all. Overall, the game is much easier than the previous one and combat is considerably more forgiving. That's not to say that the enemies are complete pushovers, because there are a handful of very challenging battles. Lara's first confrontation with a bear is truly terrifying and extremely difficult, exotic cat encounters nearly always result in instant death (you can only kill them with grenades, it seems), and the Trinity Firefly is a total pain in the ass. Thankfully, he only shows up once as a mid-game boss. The game encourages stealth, and there are almost always ways to incapacitate enemies without attacking them head-on. I found the stealth elements to be extremely satisfying, although I was also really bad at them. I could pull off maybe one or two stealth attacks before being noticed, and then I'd be at the mercy of a free-for-all gun fight. The game's biggest challenge comes right at the end with a relentless battle against a helicopter that has you trying to knock it out of the sky with a trebuchet. It's infuriating and ridiculously difficult, as Lara dies almost instantly whenever she attempts to leave cover and attack.

It's a very stable game and runs quite smoothly. Load times can be a bit long between base camps, but the game reloads quickly whenever Lara dies. This is nice because it keeps you in the action and minimizes the frustration of making bad jumps or other poor judgement calls. I only encountered three problems while playing, but none of them caused me to lose progress. On one occasion I made a bad jump and fell into the water, and there was no way to get out. The camera was also stuck underwater, which made it impossible to navigate. Another issue made me lose camera control altogether, so all I could do was walk forward. Reloading the most recent checkpoint fixed that problem and required minimal backtracking. And then one time the game just simply crashed and required a hard reboot.

The game has tons of relics, documents, and other goodies to find, and you can almost always go back to any earlier areas if you need to replenish supplies or just go treasure hunting. After finishing the story, you can revisit any part of the map to unlock trophies, complete challenges, and pick up any items you might have missed. Some of the artifacts are quite amusing, and there's a very clever reference to "Tetris" thrown into the mix. The story ends on a rather vague and confusing note, and the epilogue is complete nonsense which only serves to tease the next chapter in Lara's life. As a bonus for completing the game, several classic Lara Croft character models are unlocked, so you can replay the game as Lara from "Tomb Raider 2" (1997) or "Angel Of Darkness" (2003).

There are two substantial DLC missions for the game: "Baba Yaga" and "Blood Ties." The Baba Yaga mission takes place in Siberia and has you tracking down a missing person and facing a seemingly supernatural witch. It fills in a lot of details regarding the earlier Soviet occupation of the area, and the final boss fight is quite challenging and unintuitive. The mission also contains the single most difficult artifact to obtain, but after about 50 attempts and one YouTube video, I managed to pull it off. Still, this was nothing compared to some of the more insidious traps that were found in the first couple of "Tomb Raider" games that came out in the 90's.

The "Blood Ties" mission takes place at Croft Manor and is essentially a "Gone Home" experience. The mansion is in extreme disrepair and Lara's nasty uncle plans on taking ownership of it on the grounds that Lord Croft left no will, Lady Croft is missing, and Lara is mentally unfit to manage the estate. In order to dispute her uncle's claim to the manor, Lara has to search the house for any legal documents her father may have left behind. In the process, she explores the forbidden west wing and learns a lot about both her mother and father. It's a somber and depressing journey and Camilla Luddington sounds like she phoned in her performance before having her morning coffee. Perhaps it was intentional, but her delivery sounds completely dead and emotionally distant. Still, it's an enjoyable exploration adventure that delves into "Silent Hill" territory with its creepy presentation of the decaying mansion. The manor contains lots of clever references to earlier TR games, including music from "Tomb Raider 2," a relic related to the Dagger of Xian, and a note from Lara's butler saying that she had locked him in the freezer. These nostalgic touches add a pleasant flavor to the otherwise oppressive atmosphere, and help remind you of the franchise's rich history.

Overall, "Rise Of The Tomb Raider" is a superb game and another solid entry in the franchise. I enjoyed it immensely, even though it felt overly familiar and cliché. My biggest criticism would be with the treatment of Lara. The 2013 "Tomb Raider" was novel in that it rebooted the series and reinvented the character from her early years. "Rise Of The Tomb Raider" is merely an extension of that, and I'm getting a little tired of all the complex character building. Yes, I get it. Lara had a rough and traumatic childhood that has left her psychologically scarred, mentally imbalanced, and emotionally broken. But I miss the ass-kicking adventurer from the earlier TR games, who was confident, capable, and decidedly grown up. She was James Bond and Indiana Jones rolled into one smart and sexy package, and she was ready, willing, and able to take on the world. Of course there's a childish level of irresponsibility in that characterization and world view, and I appreciate the attempts at making her more human, but that also invites more scrutiny. The more down-to-earth that Lara becomes, the harder it is to justify and excuse her actions. Much like her experiences on Yamatai, Lara is a cold-blooded murderer who kills well over a hundred people while trying to retrieve the Divine Source. Granted, the game goes out of its way to show that her victims are all cruel and merciless mercenaries and that it's all in self defense, but it still nags your conscience. On the other hand, without that kind of action and sense of danger, it wouldn't be much of a game. Regardless, I had fun playing it and couldn't wait to jump back into it whenever I could. I'm very interested to see where Lara goes next, as I've heard rumors that Crystal Dynamics won't be developing the next game.