Rise of the Tomb Raider (PC) Review

Following on from the tradition established by monkeys and Batman, Lara Croft has returned in an impressive sequel with the term ‘rise’ unnecessarily in the title.

Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016) is an action-adventure sequel to 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, developed by Crystal Dynamics. It follows Lara (Camilla Luddington) hot on the heels of another ancient artefact known as ‘the source’ in the frozen landscape of Siberia, whilest combating a mysterious paramilitary organisation known as Trinity.

 

How to raid tombs

Like most things in Rise, the story is more of a step rather than a great leap forward from the last game. Several of the key plot problems appear to have been patched up this time around, with a more fleshed out supporting cast and great twists giving Rise much better narrative legs than the original. Overall, the story is classic Indiana Jones adventure fare – ancient temples, mysterious prophesies and a magical macguffin at the centre, and its rollicking stuff for any fan of the genre. It doesn’t break much new ground – the basic story structure from the first returns here – but its solid enough to make this feel just like the tomb raiding adventure this franchise promises.

Camilla Luddington’s perfect portrayal of Lara returns for the sequel as well. Like Conroy to Batman, Luddington practically embodies the character  at this point, with all previous incarnations being swept away with her driven, emotional and tough delivery. Its going to be hard for the upcoming filmic Lara (played by Alicia Vikander) to escape her immense shadow over the role. Lara herself doesn’t quite go on the transformative hero’s journey of the last game, but instead simply begins to solidify herself as the ‘Tomb Raider’ here, becoming more and more like the classic Lara that has endured since 1996.

Aside from Lara, the only returning cast member this time around is Earl Baylon’s Jonah. While he plays a similarly small role this time around, he was one of the better characters in the last game and his dedication to Lara and sheer stubbornness are well fleshed-out. New characters, including Philip Anthony-Rodriguez’s Jacob and Lay Bess’ Ana are solid introductions here also, but they often fell on the wayside in comparison to Lara and the villainous Trinity. As an opposition force, Trinity is your typical secretive/evil military cult, but an early game twist gives them an emotional connection to Lara that elevates what could have been extremely stereotypical antagonists to something considerably better and more interesting.

 

Shootin’ and lootin’

Just like the story, much of the gameplay in Rise is a smart iteration on what came before. Lara still mows down waves of goons with her trusty bow, trick arrows and assortment of guns in a pretty standard third-person shooter. It feels much better than the first game however – enemies are less bullet sponges and now intelligent oppositions that will flank and out-manoeuvre you at many opportunities, and the shooting itself feels far more satisfying. The same goes for the climbing and exploratory sections of Rise. If you played the previous one, these aspects are likely to feel comfortably familiar (i.e. are still very good). The campaign overall is 12-15 hours and maintains a relatively consistent pace of explore, set piece, new area and so on.

The best new addition to Rise‘s gameplay is by far the greater focus on puzzles through the optional tombs. These are basically puzzle rooms that will infrequently pop up for Lara to explore during the main story, and will reward her if she accomplishes them. They are a welcome change of pace and go several steps in earning the ‘tomb raider’ part of the title. It also helps that the puzzles themselves are brilliantly designed, implementing impressive chambers and sights into a logical yet challenging progression towards completing it.

However, not all newcomers are as successful. The new focus on crafting makeshift explosives in combat is hit-or-miss, due to their being little motivation to expand beyond your already capable arsenal. Granted, its less of a poor implementation and more an unnecessary one, and so doesn’t hinder the gameplay at all (aside from a few key frustrating moments when the game forces you into using them).

A feature that returns from the previous game, crafting, has been also expanded here with mixed results. Now certain types of ammunition can be crafted on the fly, and the variety of crafting materials scattered around encourages more exploration and hoarding. However it doesn’t seem to have been balanced particularly well. Far too often through the campaign I would find myself with a full pack of almost every crafting material with numerous supplies in sight – and other times it was completely the other way around.

 

Arrogantly beautiful

One thing that has returned from previous games and has even been improved is the graphics and animation. And it knows it. Sweeping vistas occur around ever steep corner, with the game stopping for a moment simply to let you soak how good it looks. Its the equivalent of a really really cute dog that keeps jumping up into your eyeline – it may technically be annoying but you don’t care because its so darn cute. Replace the puppy dog eyes with photo-realistic landscapes and that’s pretty much Rise‘s approach.

This photo-realism blends brilliantly with the stellar character animation. It doesn’t feel like you’re moving an empty shell around a constructed space. Lara feels like a character – from the way her hair collects snow, or how she lightly brushes along a narrow cave wall, or coils away from a low-hanging cobweb. Its damn impressive, and even more so in the faces – motion capture has gotten to the point these days that its almost impossible to differentiate between the facial quirks in real life and a videogame. Rise is clearly a product of modern triple A videogames, and has to be one of the most beautiful of this generation.

 

But can it run Tom Raider?

Considering how technically impressive Rise is, its disappointing that it received such a mediocre port. While it does benefit from enhanced graphical effects, its not particularly well optimised and severely struggled with pop-in textures and frame rate dips at times. To illustrate, I was playing Rise on a my modest gaming laptop (GTX770M) so I was expecting some performances struggles for me personally – starting the game I had to dip the resolution down to 1660×900 and overall aesthetic down to medium-low to get a steady framerate up. I thought this was simply due to my PC, but the moment the first patch was released I plugged it back up to medium on 1980×1020 and it STILL ran better than what I had before. So while it may be relatively fixed, for the first two-three weeks of launch, Rise was not a shining example of a port – not Arkham Knight horrifying, but worth mentioning simply for the fact of how frustrating (and sadly common) a bad port can be for modern PC games.

 

More adventures to come

So while Rise of the Tomb Raider may be more of a clever iteration rather than a completely new game, the framework it was building on was so good that this still feels like an incredibly impressive experience. Not all new mechanics may work, but the graphics, tighter shooting and overall better story make Rise the best Tomb Raider game money can buy right now. Just work on your portin’ for next time Crystal Dynamics.

Casual Gamer: Highly Recommended

Hardcore Gamer: Highly Recommended

Narrative-driven: Recommended

Triple A: Must-Play

 

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