Rise of the Tomb Raider – Hot, Hot, Holistically Honed Heat
Tomb Raider (2013) led me to believe the action-adventure genre was alive and well, and the character or Lara had plenty of life left in her. Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016) showcases that even when a game isn’t trying anything dramatically new, hitting all the right notes in a cohesive way can lead to an incredibly enjoyable experience.
Lara Croft Herself:
The original reboot of Tomb Raider (2013) had some gut-wrenchingly emotional moments that made me really feel like Lara. For the first time in any of the TR games, and I actually grew to care for her. This was likely accomplished through the visceral pain and anguish, fear, and ultimately the characterization of our beautiful heroin depicted via the impressive voice-acting and cutscenes. The 2013 Tomb Raider gave us a much grittier, down-to-Earth, and dare I say, even humanized Lara. Debates about sexualization of the character still pop up of course, but there have been almost as many counter-points that seem to view the new Lara as capable, feministic, and genuine. Certainly, compared to the previous iterations of her character, realism and de-sexualization seem to be at the fore-front of her design.
In Rise, she’s wearing parkas and environmentally appropriate garments that even give her buffs when equipped appropriately. Of course, her appearance is one point, but her presentation is where her design shines. She exists primarily as a single-minded explorer, garnering interest only in ancient relics and fighting against the tropey villains, but her voice acting and expressive empathy towards a variety of cultures evokes a notion that she really is the Tomb Raider. I will say that I thought 2013’s origin story had a more cohesive presentation of her character, but Rise contains other characters that work as foils to Lara’s story. The surrounding side-characters that work with or against Lara do generate some interesting reactions along the way, and Anna and Lara especially have a couple of tense scenes together. One interrogation scene in particular reminded me of my favorite scene in MI3 (yes, Mission Impossible 3), and the voice acting and reactions really sold the whole scene.
Atmosphere, Aesthetics, and Narrative:
The actual plot hints at supernatural components, some exploration of a particular indigenous culture (which, IMO really needs more fleshing out), and has some dips and twists regarding where Lara’s focus is. It transitions from location to location as Lara has an emotional investment to finish the work her father started many years. Though the over-arching problem in the story is conveyed early, the plot is dense enough that new goals/motivations appear intermittently.
The villains are not humanized very well, but that’s ok because they’re *clearly* narrow-minded in their pursuits…. though their larger motivations seem kind of flimsy. Regardless, the story is effective enough due to support from side-characters and the little bits of discoverable items in the environment which work somewhat to expand on the archeological lore.
Everything is so well rendered and beautiful, and so well-enough acted that it’s easy to get drawn into the world. The environments are lush, vivid, and varied to an impressive degree. There’s snow levels, deserts, rocky mountainsides, industrial outposts, cavernous tombs, ancient puzzles, and gigantic vistas. It’s incredible to gawk at, and it has so much variety and attention to detail I was genuinely marveling at the beauty of it all. Kudos on the eye-candy, for sure.
Level Design and Environments:
While the game is not pushing too many envelopes in any particular design and instead aims for cohesion and playing jack of many trades, it does try something I very rarely see. It infuses open-world hubs and linear missions together to allow for exploration/discoverables/slower pacing whilst also having cinematic set-pieces, scripted events, and dedicated puzzles in its more linear levels. The open world elements allow the player to explore the multiple challenges per section, gather upgrades, and engage in Tomb exploration more easily. The linear sections have directed challenge and often propel the story along, and speed up the pace compared to the open-world sections.
The infusion of scripted events contained in the linear sections provides room for excellent escape missions where the environment crumbles around Lara as she’s forced to hastily traverse the terrain. It also incorporates puzzle-solving and weaves in cutscenes to help push the plot along. Contrasted with the user-chosen pace of the open-world sections, this is one of the more unique elements in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
The infusion of scripted events contained in the linear sections provides room for excellent escape missions where the environment crumbles around Lara as she’s forced to hastily traverse the terrain.
For my tastes, this created a wonderful fusion of varied pacing. I would love to see more games take on this method, as I enjoy the choices in the open-world whilst also diggin’ the cinematic set-pieces more easily crafted in the linear missions. These more guided missions are also a lot of fun to play through again on the various challenge options that appear through Expedition mode. Compared to more straight-forward mission structure like in Uncharted 4, RotTR provides much more unique gameplay variety and tactical choice to its combat.
As the game climaxes and Lara approaches her final mission, the level design really excels at incorporating all the player has utilized in the prior areas. The combination of tools, weapons, traversal mechanics, cutscenes, and combat choices due to the open-world make the final stint in the game a delightful showcase of the game’s strengths and personality.
Gameplay, Movement, and XP Gains
The gameplay is as fun as Tomb Raider (2013), and feels more varied due to the multitude of melee styles, stealth, parkour/climbing, and movement abilities that exist. I smashed through the 2013 TR in literally 1 day through Redbox and loved its quick pace and gameplay feel, and this game is much, much longer. It’s also a joy to exist as Lara. She’s capable, strong, can conquer basically any environment, and only needs to shiver vigorously to get her blood flowing. She’s got bow skills, pickaxe badassery, combat shotgun proficiency, and an ability to learn 8 different languages just by picking up dirty bowls in abandoned huts.
The huge variety in this game makes it a delightful option for non-gamers as well. There are so many ways to tackle problems, and there are hints provided (Lara voices contextual feedback about what she should do when the player takes a long time to progress) to keep the pace moving at a decent rate. I didn’t find it annoying to hear these quips as they mostly aided my progress and were voiced when I chose to interact with objects that required prior steps be accomplished before they could be used.
The gameplay puzzles are great and much improved over the previous iteration. There are a great deal more types of puzzles and most of them inspired some level of praise due to their creativity.
They’re like gorgeously archaic Rube Goldberg machines that might accidentally crash you against treacherous rocks.
I played the game on normal difficulty, but I really wish I kicked it up a notch or two actually. On normal, it’s fairly easy and I was only ever dying to missed jumps or climbing faux pas. Any experienced gamer could benefit from playing a step above normal, especially as upgrades begin to yield effective combat boosts shortly into the game.
Progression upgrades come from experience focuses and ways to dispatch enemies that can generate the highest XP, and all of this is displayed on screen. This… is actually a debatable design decision. On one hand I love knowing and receiving direct feedback about my gameplay because it makes me more aware of the game world and how to best upgrade my character (which is likely really helpful for harder difficulties)… but on the other hand it also can snap one into a “most efficient” form of gameplay where all I was using was bow headshots or stealth kills. It wasn’t until about 70% of the way through the game when I realized I didn’t care for any more upgrades and I forced myself to have wild abandon with my killing methods.
Games like DOOM mitigate this by giving direct challenges with different weapons, and I’ve seen other games use a diminishing return method where using the same style of kills reduces XP gains, which might be an interesting modifier.
Challenges and repeat gameplay
During my course of gameplay, I encountered a ton of side-quests that I occasionally enjoyed. Hunting animals, destroying propaganda, gathering resources for upgrades, or swan diving off ledges were fun little side quests to entice completionist gamers. I mostly avoided them, but I ended up upgrading about 70% of my character. Ultimately, these make me happy in games because I will often target the most fun ones or the ones directly in my way. It’s a great mechanic for getting players like me to pay attention to the various elements in the world.
After completing the Single Player only campaign, I was pleased to see a variety of card unlocks that act as modifiers when replaying segments. These earn more credits to create other modifiers. I was beaming when I had the option to play missions with Big Head Mode (which made headshots even easier!). Lara’s giant skull was gosh-darn adorable too.
Rise of the Tomb Raider comes at gamers with an incredibly well-rounded adventure game. It’s graphically gorgeous and technically impressive in most every way. Its production value is through the roof with phenomenal voice-acting and a coating of gloss covering every aspect of its design. It does include some unique mission structure by blending open-world environments with linear, narrative driven segments. It’s got great third-person climbing, exploration, and movement that make it a joy to exist as Lara, it’s got a variety of different cards/modifiers to apply to the gameplay missions to play through after the game, it’s lengthy and substantial… and it’s just all-around fun to play through.
Gameplay Design Worth Advocating For
- Tips and hint mechanics are great when they are contextualized to the puzzle at hand and come after a bit of time. The inclusion of voice tips helps keep puzzles fast moving and never too complicated, yet they’re still rewarding.
- Open-world design plus linear gameplay creates a wonderful pace and the opportunity for heavier choices/mission selection as well as scripted narrative elements.
- Contextual XP feedback can be informative, but can also can lead certain gamers into “efficiency cycles” where they only play the most efficient way possible instead of experiencing variety in the game. Potentially blending this feedback with diminishing returns for repeating/overusing particular tactics to increase variety, allowing users to turn off that XP feedback, or potentially creating more equality in a variety of kill methods (though I imagine this has consequences too) might be effective methods for incorporate the benefits of feedback and variety.
**Recommended for fans of this genre?** Yes. Folks that appreciate some third-person gunplay, stealth combat, adventuring and climbing, and puzzling are going to dig on this game a great deal.
**Recommended for non-fans of this genre?** Yes. I think this game has a lot of variety in it and is an even better entry than TR (2013) was. It has something for everyone and its adventuring is made easier with Lara’s instinct powers, the map is clear and constructed, and there is contextual feedback on the puzzles which helps a lot.
**Recommend for non-gamers?** Totally. This game is a pretty great candidate for a game that can appeal to non-gamers. It isn’t ever too complicated and does a good job of teaching the player how to do various things. There are upgrades that help with any bit of combat, and there’s tons of approaches to each combat encounter. The normal difficulty is very manageable, and one could even bump it down to minimize combat. The narrative is compelling and the vistas are gorgeous all on their own. Playing through this game would leave a non-gamer with a pretty delectable taste for some of the things that make games great.
Semi-Arbitrary Score: 8.9/10