Rise of the Tomb Raider is a wonderfully pulpy title for what is either the second or eleventh Tomb Raider game, depending on your perspective. Following 2013’s successful reboot, it’s a conventional sequel in every way that takes a few steps forward and one or two sideways — and that turns out to be enough to make it one of the best games on the Xbox One.
Let’s just get this out of the way, so you know where I’m coming from: I loved the last Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics’ vision for Lara Croft was as refreshing as it was unexpected; following a disastrous PS2 appearance, Tomb Raider had a semi-successful reboot on the past generation of consoles, but it never really elevated itself past kitsch. The new Tomb Raider, though, was every inch the modern video game, taking all the right cues from the likes of Uncharted and blending them with elements from the series’ history. It did everything a reboot should by making the case for an old character’s relevance in a brave new world.
With that solid base established, Rise of the Tomb Raider is the classic video game sequel. It takes place across more locations, gives you more weapons and abilities, and is generally just packed with more stuff. And the graphics are often incredible; while the aliasing is a little harsh and the framerate a little unstable, the overall visual presentation is the most arresting yet on the Xbox One, especially in the game’s frequent action set pieces.
Those set pieces are the thing that will stick with you the most about Rise of the Tomb Raider, as with its predecessor. Simply put, there is no better game at putting you in control of holy-shit action as the world collapses or explodes around you into hundreds of little pieces. The direction in these moments is just phenomenal, with the camera zooming in and out on Lara so that you see, for example, the devastation of an oncoming avalanche and just how worried Lara is that she’s seconds away from getting swept up in it. The sequences are all the more impressive for using the game’s regular control scheme throughout, without resorting to canned quick time events to handle the more cinematic moments.
Yes, the environments are often contrived — you quickly learn that things with white paint on them are designed to be grabbed, for some reason, along with the precise variety of ice that you’re able to hook into. But in practice this makes Rise of the Tomb Raider play out like a more naturalistic version of first-person parkour action game Mirror’s Edge, which highlighted your route with stark red objects. In Lara Croft’s world, ropes and branches and ladders appear in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. That’s why she’s the Tomb Raider, and that’s why playing as her can be as exhilarating an experience as action games provide.
Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t quite have the impact of its predecessor, however. Part of that is over-familiarity, of course, and after reinventing the series so dramatically last time around, I think an iterative sequel is fair enough. But the overall tone of the game didn’t resonate with me as much. It wasn’t an unqualified narrative success, but I loved Tomb Raider’s horror-soaked vibe, with Lara stranded and spelunking on a mysterious Japanese island. Rise, on the other hand, sees Lara go globetrotting as a confident, gunslinging tomb raider, and much of the previous game’s atmosphere is lost.
Lara’s story kind of has to go there, granted — Tomb Raider ended with "A Hero Is Born" emblazoned on the screen, and that was after a pretty huge body count. But I would have preferred Rise of the Tomb Raider not to fall back on clichéd plot points like shadowy paramilitary organizations and religious MacGuffins, and it’s not helped by the clunky script and stilted voice acting. Where Tomb Raider evoked The Descent, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a little too Da Vinci Code.
Rise generally keeps up the prior game’s strong pacing, and it’s rare that you’ll find yourself doing the same thing for too long. Its middle third does drag a little, though, with some extended shooting sequences recalling bad memories of Uncharted’s most trigger-happy excesses. It’s not that the gunplay in Rise of the Tomb Raider is bad — it’s generally pretty good, and the sequel gives you extra stealthy and resourceful ways to dispatch enemies without resorting to firepower. But this game is never less interesting than when you’re forced to have a gun in your hand, and there are frequent moments when the constant addition of enemies just feels like unnecessary padding.
This feeling is amplified by the game’s structure, which relegates much of the traditional tomb raiding and puzzle solving to side activities. If you don’t make a point of seeking out optional tombs along the way, Rise of the Tomb Raider is very light on puzzles, with a few notable exceptions. There are a lot of elaborate, interesting physics-based puzzles in Rise of the Tomb Raider if you want them, but I think the story could have used a few more of them woven in amongst the occasionally tiresome shooting. And, while it’s good to give players the option to access content they’re interested in, why not let them skip the bits with guns as well? Rise of the Tomb Raider is a lot more confident than many other games I could name in giving you extended periods without a bullet flying through the air. But although Crystal Dynamics is acknowledging differing play styles, the studio isn’t going as far as it could.
Rise of the Tomb Raider has its flaws, then, and is very much a predictable sequel. But it mostly remains thrilling from minute to minute, and solidifies the series as once again one of the most relevant and exciting around — an outcome that would have been unthinkable five years ago.
Microsoft’s Xbox chief Phil Spencer has been unabashed about securing Rise of the Tomb Raider’s year-long exclusivity as a response to Sony’s Uncharted series. And while there’s much the two games have in common, they both have their advantages over each other. For all of Lara Croft’s iconic stature, for example, Tomb Raider’s stony-faced story still can’t match Uncharted’s strong writing, endearing characters, and sense of adventure.
But especially given the underwhelming Uncharted 3, Crystal Dynamics has thrown a hefty gauntlet down in terms of direction and intensity. Uncharted 4 already has a fierce competitor ahead of its March release, and it’s a competitor that a lot of PS4 owners will want to play in a year. Always solid and often spectacular, at its best Rise of the Tomb Raider is as assured and electrifying as action games can be.
Rise of the Tomb Raider launches November 10th on Xbox One and Xbox 360