Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration (Review)

Image result for rise of the tomb raider ps4

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PlayStation 4
Release Date: October 11, 2016
Copy purchased

As both a huge fan of the Tomb Raider reboot in 2013 and someone who only owns a PlayStation 4, I was sorely disappointed when the sequel released exclusively on Xbox platforms late last year. For both myself and all the other PlayStation owners, there was a bitter feeling towards Crystal Dynamics and their decision to not release Rise of the Tomb Raider on our platform of choice. Not only can Tomb Raider’s legacy be traced all the way back to the original PlayStation in 1996, but the 2013 reboot even sold better on PlayStation platforms.

Now, almost a year later, the wounds have started to heal and PlayStation users are finally being given the opportunity to play through Lara Croft’s latest adventure. Released as part of the “20 Year Celebration” of the Tomb Raider franchise, Rise of the Tomb Raider on PlayStation 4 includes the base game as well as all of the DLC. Thankfully, the wait myself and millions of others went through has turned out to be worth it. Not only does Rise of the Tomb Raider outshine its predecessor, it’s one of the best games released this generation.

This sequel takes place shortly after the events of the previous game. Last time, we saw our heroine, Lara Croft, plunged into a dangerous world that forced her to adapt or die. From death defying leaps of faith, to the need to take life in order to survive, we saw Lara take the first steps that would eventually lead to her becoming the badass we all know and love.

This time around, we’re introduced to a Lara that’s suffering from the events of the last game. She’s been going to therapy for help with the emotional and psychological damage endured from her previous adventure. Whether it’s the weight of taking life, the torment of seeing her friends die, or the seemingly impossible supernatural forces encountered, her experiences have left her shaken. However, when her late father’s work points towards another supernatural force, Lara must face her fears and inner turmoils and stop an evil organization from taking over the world.

Lara’s new adventure sends her to two different location this time around, but the first one, Syria, is a much smaller map that primarily serves as a tutorial. However, it’s within the first few minutes of the Syria map that Rise displays just how much of an advancement it is from its predecessor.

For starters, the game is gorgeous. While it’s almost always a given that a sequel on stronger hardware is going to look better, I was still floored by just how great the game looks. The lighting, textures, and character models have all seen drastic improvements. While I don’t consider graphics to be the best part of a video game, there’s no denying that they’re an important factor in immersing the player into a world. Rise of the Tomb Raider manages to do this excellently. There’s a moment less than a minute into the Syria section where Lara looks across a massive valley, resulting in one of the most stunning vistas I’ve seen in gaming in years.

While primarily used to teach the player some of the finer mechanics (traversal, puzzle solving, combat), the Syria level also introduces the player to new additions. For example, there’s now a language system in the game. Lara finds a pillar with strange writing on it, but it’s in a language she isn’t particularly versed in. You then have to locate and examine multiple paintings and inscriptions to increase your knowledge and comprehension of the language. Once you help Lara reach a more proficient level, she’s able to decipher the message on the pillar and discover a secret passage.

Likewise, there’s a whole slew of new touches added to the game. Most of them are small, like Lara brushing off cobwebs or wringing out her hair after jumping out of an underground water source, but it’s these little things that help add an extra layer of immersion and complexity to the game.

However, it isn’t until reaching the Siberia map (where the majority of the game takes place), that you realize just how much of an improvement Rise of the Tomb Raider is. While I haven’t played the previous game in two years, the map seems to be at least twice as big as the island you spent the entirety of the previous game on. With this extra size, developer Crystal Dynamics has seen fit to make it full to the brim with things to do.

While the obvious focus of the game is in completing its story, there’s a ridiculous amount of extra things to do. Whether it’s looking for hidden artifacts and notes, completing bonus objectives, or trying to solve optional challenge tombs, Rise of the Tomb Raider is sure to keep you busy.

In my opinion, the most interesting of these things were the tombs. There were only a few scattered around in the previous game, which resulted in fans leaving some pretty harsh (but understandable) criticism online. Why call the game “Tomb” Raider if there’s barely any tombs to, well, raid? Thankfully, Rise increases the amount of these tombs significantly and makes them more challenging and rewarding to solve. A favorite of mine tasks you with navigating a powerful current of water with the aid of rope arrows and a battered raft, but I still found the majority of them to be fun to solve as well.

There’s also several side missions to undertake. Most of these are short little tasks that don’t take more than ten minutes to solve, but they’re a nice distraction from the story every now and then. Completing them also awards you with new items and weapon attachments, experience points to upgrade your skills, and a nice little sense of accomplishment.

Another returning (but expanded) aspect is hunting. Similar to the previous game, you can hunt and skin wildlife to craft a multitude of storage upgrades. Larger quivers, ammo/supply pouches, etc. However, unlike the previous game, the animals are now much more skittish. This requires you to be considerably more quiet and look for advantage points while hunting. Deer will run away if they hear a twig snap under your foot, rabbits will run in a zigzag formation to elude you, and birds will chirp and caw to give warning to any nearby animals. This increased emphasis on stealth while hunting can occasionally be annoying, but it also makes a perfect kill more satisfying.

Unfortunately, the combat is an aspect that doesn’t seem to have made any improvements. That’s not to say it’s bad, necessarily, I just would have liked to see a few things tweaked. The reboot in 2013 had some issues with weapon handling and aiming sensitivity being wonky, but that problem doesn’t seem to be addressed with the sequel. Assault rifles still feel highly inaccurate, revolver kickback is inconsistent, and shotgun range is still too high. Sure, you can mine metals to craft upgrades to your weapons, but they still feel slightly off even when beefed up a bit. This all resulted in me relying on either my bow and arrows or melee attacks for the majority of the game.

However, there does seem to be more variety in the enemy types. The organization you face off against, Trinity, is full of highly trained soldiers. Most of them are armed with basic assault rifles, but there are also soldiers well trained in explosives, fire control, and swift hand-to-hand knife combat. The enemy AI is also more accurate and efficient than the previous game. Enemies definitely take you out faster, but they also work together superbly. It’s not uncommon to have a few enemies keep you pinned behind cover while they send another group to flank you. If the weapons actually controlled better, I probably would have enjoyed the combat, but I mostly found it to be a nuisance. Whenever I could stealth through an area, I would, but there’s so many times where Rise forces your hand to fight, which results in long drawn out battles that aren’t particularly fun to play through.

There’s other grievances to be had in the combat (such as a dodge ability that creates a large window for an instant kill), but similar to the previous game, my main issue is the dissonance between the violence and the narrative. This version of Lara is supposed to be presented as a more realistic and vulnerable character, one who emotionally struggles with the weight of killing. When sitting at bonfires (which act as save points), Lara will occasionally have a monologue explaining her emotional state at that moment. She laments killing and how she fears the effect it will have on her, but then the game will throw you a combat scenario shortly after where you’re rewarded for shooting people in the chest with an arrow or lighting them on fire.

While the character growth for Lara stumbles along the way, it’s the new characters introduced that I found the most interesting. For example, the leader of Trinity, Konstantin, is an emotionally unhinged religious extremist. He believes that he is bound for greatness and is willing to kill anyone who comes in his way, all in the name of God. We get to see how he forces his religious beliefs on his followers, how he punishes them when they fail him, and you can even find hidden audio tapes that explain his rise to power and why he’s motivated to do the things he does. He starts off as a borderline cliche villain, but he becomes more and more unsettling the further you get into the game.

There’s also a native tribe you discover in Siberia that have connections to the supernatural source that Lara and Trinity are racing to find. One member, Jacob, is particularly fascinating. His occasional dry sense of humor, mixed with his wisdom and reverence from the tribe makes him a memorable new addition. Likewise, the tribe itself is fascinating. Learning their way of life, their beliefs, and uncovering their connection to the plot is incredibly intriguing.

My biggest takeaway from Rise of the Tomb Raider was just how fun it was to explore. At it’s core, the Tomb Raider franchise has been about traveling the world uncovering artifacts and exploring new locations. Rise manages to capture that essence perfectly. There’s nothing like finding a hole in the side of cliff and discovering a giant tomb inside, or finding a tough puzzle in the world that, when solved, rewards you with a new weapon, tool, or ability.

The game is also gorgeous, making running around the world a visual delight. With a game that looks this good and hides valuable collectibles and upgrades all over the map, it’s worth it to look under every nook and cranny and seek out hidden tombs and ruins. The simple act of exploration is perfectly captured in Rise of the Tomb Raider, making you feel as if you’re making every new discovery right alongside Lara.

FINAL VERDICT

If you were like me and had to wait almost a year for Rise of the Tomb Raider to come to your platform, then you’re in luck. This is a game that’s beaming with beauty and oozing with a strong sense of exploration. The world on display here is larger than the 2013 reboot and filled with more places to go, sights to see, and secrets waiting to be discovered. While there’s still a few things that haven’t fully been worked out (Lara’s character development and the combat system, for example), this is still a wonderful experience that’s deserving of your time. If you love exploring large worlds, Rise of the Tomb Raider will be right up your alley. The new cast of characters (heroes and villains alike) are fascinating and well worth seeing the story through to completion to discover how everything plays out. Although originally released last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear PlayStation users declare it Game of the Year material for 2016.

– Zack Burrows

P.S.
As mentioned in the beginning of the review, this 20 Year Celebration edition comes packaged with all DLC. I’ll be reviewing each piece separately throughout the week, so make sure to check back! We’ll be starting off the DLC Reviews tomorrow with the terrific “Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch”.

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