Seldom do reboots actually reinvigorate a franchise. Sure, Star Trek wasn’t too bad but when you consider the likes of Point Break and The Amazing Spider-Man and Conan The Barbarian and Godzilla (twice), you find yourself scared away from reboots. Gaming isn’t immune to that with the likes of Sim City, Medal of Honor and Sonic the Hedgehog as failed attempts to reinvigorate franchises.
One of the more successful reboots in history is 2013’s Tomb Raider which is the series best-selling and among its most critically acclaimed. It came as a shock that Microsoft had to pay the way for this sequel to 2013’s hit. Rise of the Tomb Raider recently hit PC after an exclusivity period on Xbox One and will come to PS4 this fall (despite being the platform that Tomb Raider sold best on).
So how does the sequel to the reboot standup? Well, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops.
Let’s set aside the controversy over the console exclusivity, troubles with the Windows 10 version and the troubling sales with the Xbox One exclusivity for this review. This is a review of the Steam version of the game which is different than the version on the Microsoft Store. From some of the complaints about the Microsoft Store’s version, it sounds like the Steam version is the superior one.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is actually a pretty poor title because it would be more fitting as the title of the Tomb Raider reboot that reintroduced the world to Lara Croft. While that game was about the genesis of Lara Croft as a tomb raiding archaeologist, ROTTR is more about Lara just doing her thing. There isn’t much in the way of character development that would indicate a rise of a new tomb raider.
This time out, Lara literally follows in her father’s footsteps. In Tomb Raider, she followed her family calling into the study of archaeology and the supernatural. In ROTTR, she goes from charting her own path to following her father’s research into an artifact that holds the secret to immortality (not the Holy Grail). It was this search that drove her father to suicide and Lara, with archaeology experience under her belt, to jump from beginner to expert difficulty to redeem her family name and reputation.
This adventure has Lara retracing her father’s footsteps from her home in England to Syria to Siberia in an attempt to find the Divine Source (of immortality which is never said but totally implied). Naturally, she isn’t the only one interested. A paramilitary organization called Trinity, an order descended from ancient times to find the Divine Source, are also on the trail and just so happen to be one step behind Lara. Then the steal the Croft family research so Lara has to find the Divine Source to stop immortality from falling into evil hands.
If this sounds like a pretty standard plot for an Indiana Jones movie or Nathan Drake game, you’re not the only one who thought this. I would describe the plot as a pulpy B-movie. There weren’t many plot twists and what few that you would consider twists were telegraphed a mile away. The story was an afterthought in the making of this game. It’s as if one of Microsoft’s conditions for funding ROTTR was to spend the money on graphics and gameplay rather than story.
It’s disappointing because the story, characterization and voice acting was the best part of Tomb Raider. Even if Lara Croft was the poster child for the ludonarrative dissonance fight of 2013, she had character development in the reboot. Lara went from in over her head to a confident bad ass who was willing to do what it took to save her friends. While Lara didn’t restart as a character in this game, she didn’t progress as a character either. It seemed as though Crystal Dynamics didn’t know where to take the character from here.
At least Lara had a character. That was more than I could say about the rest of the characters. They were pretty generic and the voice acting reflected that. The main antagonist and the mysterious stranger were decently acted even if the characters were a bit one-note. That’s better than the rest of the characters who sound more like Crystal Dynamics staffers than professional voice actors. Like I said, it feels like Crystal Dynamics spent as little as possible on the components that are a part of the narrative and spent the rest elsewhere.
But if you’ve gotten this far into the review and wondered how Rise of the Tomb Raider could pick up 9s and 10s from the critics, it’s entirely because of the gameplay. For every bit as underwhelming that I found the story, I found the gameplay superb.
The mechanics of the game will feel familiar to anyone who played the 2013’s Tomb Raider or Naughty Dog’s recent efforts. It’s a cover-based third-person shooter. You can carry four weapon types (bow-and-arrow, handgun, shotgun and semi/automatic rifle) and swap between a few options that you pickup or unlock.
There are a few changes from TR2013 in terms of the combat. For example, the stealth mechanics have been emphasized, especially early in the game. The game gives you hints as to how to approach situations stealthily, uses the Survival Instincts ability to show you who is vulnerable for a stealth kill, gives bonus XP for stealth kills and generally makes your life a lot easier if you don’t take the guns a-blazing approach. It is rewarding to sneak from shrub to shrub to and crush a guy’s windpipe with a bow. That sounds decidedly morbid, actually.
(On that note, I’m glad to say that Crystal Dynamics dialled the gruesome and morbid death animations for Lara back from 11 to about 2. There is the occasional brutal fatality but they’ve come down a long way from the extremely uncomfortable death animations that dominated TR2013. Also, the sliding down mountain sides and washing down a river sequences that often preceded the worst animations were largely gone from this game as well.)
Gunplay is about the same as the last game. They did streamline some mechanics involving alternate fire modes like firing rope from the bow-and-arrow. Last time, you had to fire using the middle mouse button. This time, you use the left mouse button because you only fire the rope in the correct context. It’s a little touch but it opens up your bow-and-arrow’s MMB to use things like flaming or poison arrows. Similarly, platforming doesn’t get much of an update. As the game progresses, you get some new gadgets to make Lara move like an action movie star without letting it seem completely unrealistic. As a result, this game is as close to emulating action movie stunts as we’ve seen in a game.
Crafting gets emphasized this time out. Alternate ammo types can be crafted on the fly by arming a weapon and holding the middle mouse button. If you push MMB while aiming, you’ll fire the alternate ammo. Most of the crafting will be done at campfires. These include things like armour/attire, inventory/ammo packs and so on. I don’t appreciate the emphasis on hunting animals to get crafting items. While you can find some crafting items around the world, for the best crafted upgrades, you need to put in specific effort to go hunting for animals. I don’t mind having to defend myself from a surprise bear attack. Going out of my way to kill a bear or a deer to carry more handgun clips isn’t why I signed up to play ROTTR. Unfortunately, there isn’t much room given to avoid it.
The RPG-lite progression system from Tomb Raider returns. As you explore, scavenge and kill enemies, you earn XP to level up. Levelling up earns you skill points that you can use to upgrade or unlock various skills. I mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the hunting aspect of the game and one-third of the game’s skill system is dedicated to hunting related skills. Unfortunately for me, some skills have pre-requisites you have to unlock first and some of those are in other trees. It’s nice to be able to tailor your approach but when you lock tiers in tiers using a level cap, do we really need another prerequisite on top of that.
Best of all, the game brings tombs back. I realize that there were optional tombs in 2013’s reboot but I only recall coming across one or two of them. I completed over a dozen optional tombs in ROTTR, including the Baba Yaga DLC. All of them were puzzle based tombs but none were exceptionally difficult. The hardest part of tomb raiding is finding the entrances to the tombs on the map. The optional tombs give you various skill upgrades that aren’t otherwise available through the progression system.
I’m a little mixed on the graphics of this game. I’ve seen video that makes me think that this is an absolutely gorgeous game. However, this game is unashamedly optimized for NVIDIA GPUs. The reboot Tomb Raider was built for AMD cards so it was fantastic on my PC. The sequel makes me wonder if Tomb Raider was as much of a pain in terms of graphics settings and frame rates for NVIDIA users.
I had settings that were a mix of medium and high because of how poorly it was optimized for AMD cards. I kept trying different combinations of settings but couldn’t find anything that didn’t result in a fluctuating framerate. I don’t have a slouch of a PC (4.0 GHz AMD CPU, AMD HD 7970, 16 GB RAM) but I was averaging in the low 50 FPS range. It could hit 60 in quiet scenes but could also drop below 30 as well.
Probably the most comical change for AMD users is Lara’s hair. A special AMD feature gave Lara realistic hair physics that treated her hair as realistically as had been seen in a game. Now, that’s through an NVIDIA feature which means that activating it doesn’t do your AMD framerate any good. With hair physics at normal, Lara’s hair has a mind of its own and will bounce and fly all over the place like it’s possessed by Satan. It’s actually quite funny but can distract you in super serious cutscenes.
To be honest, I think your enjoyment of Rise of the Tomb Raider will be entirely tied to whether you’re more interested in a game’s story or its gameplay. If you’re looking to be in your own interactive action movie, you’re going to absolutely love ROTTR. That’s why it’s gotten so many exceptional review scores. If you want characters and story, then you should go back to Tomb Raider 2013 if you haven’t already played it.
As usual, I fall into the latter camp. That’s not to say that this isn’t a great game. While the story and characters are lacking, it plays absolutely beautifully. As much as I love the franchise, I honestly think that Uncharted 4 has to make a step up in order to match the quality of actual gameplay in this game. I mean, story and acting will still put Uncharted 4 over the top of ROTTR but gameplay should be close. That’ll be a fun battle to see play out in May.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was reviewed on Windows 7 but is also available for Windows 8, Windows 10 and Xbox One. Review code was provided by Square Enix. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and what you wanted in terms of character development from Lara Croft.