Held up in some abandoned Soviet mining facility was the enemy, a Templar-esq secret society called Trinity with ties to the Vatican and roots back at least as far as the Crusades. They may not have been as nefarious as the Nazis that other archaeologists frequently faced, but for Lara the conflict was personal: one of their agents had been her father’s lover shortly before his mysterious suicide, and now the same secret society had sent an entire division of paramilitary goons after the very artifact he’d spent his life in search of. Claims by the elder Croft that he’d found the Divine Source were dismissed by the academic community, leaving the family name sullied, but Lara was close now, closer than even her father had been, and she’d not only complete his life’s work but restore his reputation in the process.
A head-on assault of the Soviet mine would be suicide, but with her compound bow Lara was able to stealthily pick off a few foes, evening the odds before engaging small groups with her trusty pistol. The path ahead was clear, and she needed to keep pressing forward, but intuition told her there were secrets to discover off the beaten path. Sure, she’d been finding useful crafting items, informative audio logs, and even valuable relics along the way, but there had to be something more here. What was down deep in the mine, besides whatever traces of uranium the Reds had overlooked?
It wasn’t so easy as simply finding the forgotten entrance to the long abandoned mine. Making her way down required an athleticism that would be the envy of most Olympic athletes, filled with grueling rock climbing and jumps between platforms that required more precision than even a certain plucky plumber could pull off.
But Croft’s instincts proved right, and at the bottom of the Stygian shaft Stalin’s lackeys had found something far more valuable than fissionable materials; they’d discovered one of the lost chambers of the Remnant, the pilgrim people that had fled to these Siberian wastes with the Divine Source and hidden it away in the city they’d build here. Lara doubted the Source itself was in this particular mine, but something valuable had to await whatever was concealed behind the flammable tarp.
Lighting Molotov cocktails ablaze and tossing them at the tarp proved fruitless. A waterfall stood between it and her, extinguishing the flames before they hit. Devising a means of stopping its flow by using the mining equipment proved puzzling at first, but she managed to discover the solution long before succumbing to frustration. Awaiting Lara was a prize well worth raiding this tomb to so many miners: an ancient codex containing a philosophical argument on the virtue of awareness, knowledge which Lara took to heart evidently as her own awareness was subsequently improved going forward.
It should come as no surprise that, in a game entitled Rise of the Tomb Raider, raiding tombs like this one and nine others spread throughout are far and away the best part of the game. They combine most of the mechanics in satisfying ways, and add puzzle elements that hit squarely the narrow difficulty level between overly simplistic and impossibly obtuse. Like a good Zelda dungeon, each bears a singular, cohesive theme. A favorite of mine took place in a series of chthonic caverns which looked like the mouth of hell, demon-fanged stalagmites all aglow with the pale orange and yellows of it never-ending blazes. In deciphering the writings and murals within, it soon became evident that the original inhabitants shared the same sentiment, appropriating the place for their exorcisms, reasoning that the demons they sought to drive out would leave more quickly if dumped on their own doorstep. The solution, too, involved flames, as I rigged a plume of combustible gas to explode. And my reward: the secret to making Greek Fire.
But while such tombs are certainly the Rise of the Tomb Raider’s peaks, unlike the game’s setting of a valley oasis, this is a mountain range with no low points, no dips in elevation. From the main missions with their cinematic set pieces to the tombs with their puzzle elements to the open world segments brimming with side missions and quests, nearly every minute of my 20+ hour playthrough was kept me grinning with satisfaction. Tying such altogether are incredible graphics, a sharp user interface, and high production values all around.
The actual plot, which follows the modern day globetrotting of Lara, occasionally accompanied by her fellow shipwreck survivor from the first game Jonah, is the most middling part of the overall story, and even so it’s still superior to the plot of the previous entry, having a smaller cast of characters, each more clearly defined in personality and purpose.
This is true especially of the antagonists. Konstantin is sincere in the beliefs that set him add odds with Lara, but he never falls into the “true believer” trope. His faith is not unquestioning; despite working for the Vatican by proxy of Trinity, his loyalty is not to men or their institutions, but God alone. Not that he is uncaring for his fellow man; he is driven by a desire to save the life of a loved one, and even then recognizes the wrongdoing he commits towards that end is unjustified, earnestly petitioning God for absolution. He is hard to hate and easy to empathize with: the marks of a truly great villain.
The real story, though, is not of Lara’s, but the Remnant people whose history she reconstructs from artifacts, murals, relics, and writings. She starts with a broad outline of events: a charismatic, possibly miraculous preacher known only as “The Prophet” was branded a heretic and exiled from Constantinople. They first attempted to settle in Syria before being forced to make the perilous pilgrimage to Siberia, where they founded the great city of Kitesh. Sacked by invading Mongols, the fabled city was lost, and the Remnant dedicated themselves to hiding all knowledge of the Divine Source, which the Prophet had discovered, from the outside world, including the Soviets in the elders’ days and Trinity in the present.
Fascinating of an alternate history as that may be, it’s the details that go unsaid which form the game’s most rewarding puzzle to piece together. For instance, one of the most common types of artifacts Lara uncovers is ornate items from the glory days of Kitesh, cast of gold or silver and jewel encrusted, yet always since repurposed for some common use which ignores their monetary value, such as a flower pot. The more Lara learns regarding the teachings of the Prophet, a pantheist who worshiped Nature as his god, the more the asceticism of his latter day followers can be seen as a direct expression of their beliefs in their daily lives.
Whereas the first Tomb Raider felt as if it had been drawing inspiration from sources such as Cast Away and Lost, Rise of the Tomb Raider clearly pulls from Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. This seems a better fit for the famed female archaeologist, as does the sequel’s more Western setting and mythology. It may be simply a matter of personal preference, but I felt a disconnect with the Eastern flavorings of the first game, having no prior familiarity with the legends of Yamatai or Himiko; alternatively, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with all things Hellenistic, Roman, or Byzantine, from the architecture to the apparel to the myths and legends.
As much improved as the story and setting are, it’s the familiar gameplay, absent of too many tweaks, that remains the primary reason to buy Tomb Raider. Ostensibly an action title, Tomb Raider incorporates aspects of platformers, shooters, Metroidvanias, and role playing games.
Sacrilegious as it may sound, I’ll say it anyway: Rise of the Tomb Raider is the best platformer of the year. Yes, better even than Super Mario Maker. While the two games are very different, with the latter’s appeal coming mostly from its creation tools and infinite levels, the actual act of running, jumping, and climbing is far more dynamic and engaging with the English heiress than the Italian handyman. I’d go so far as to say that no game nails movement quite so well as Tomb Raider. The way Lara trudges through tall drifts of snow, the way one hand sometimes slips off the ledge she grabs for after a long leap… these and tons of tiny details all add up to an incredible sense of immersion and verisimilitude. Beyond simply the hundreds of unique animations, however, are the multitudinous sounds of her pickax hitting rock or snow, of her falling on all fours or duck-and-rolling as she hits the ground, of her heavy breathing and various grunts as she exerts effort, pushing her body to its limits.
As a shooter, while Tomb Raider may not be the best of the year, it’s certainly up there. Great gunplay is one factor that helps. After Commander Shepards Omni-tool and Kyle Katarn’s lightsaber in the Jedi Knight series, Lara’s compound bow remains my favorite weapon in any game. It’s extremely versatile, first and foremost for its stealthy silence, but also for the various attachments available, from poison to napalm to explosive grenades. Moreover, it has just as much utility outside of combat, often essential to Lara’s platforming and puzzle solving.
It’s not just the bow which you’ll grow to love, however. Lara keeps all her weapons equipped throughout the game, never dropping any, so she has plenty of opportunity to grow proficient with her small but varied arsenal. Furthermore, every weapon has numerous attachments available, none of which ever come at the cost of any other. Having played both Destiny and Black Ops III recently, I can attest to the frustration of choosing some upgrades at the expense of others, a feeling never experienced during Tomb Raider.
Speaking of, Destiny alone is the only game in recent memory with more satisfying headshots than Tomb Raider; the way enemies swarm, Lara has just enough time to center her reticle over an opponent’s head and take her shot before retreating to cover and repeating with the next foe. It’s a tension and sense of accomplishment that never diminishes from the start of the game through the end. Alternatively, there are tons of environmental objects with which Lara can rain havoc and destruction, or she can get up close, splitting skulls open with her pickax or placing her shotgun under a mercenary’s chin and blowing his brains out the back of his head.
As a Metroidvania (in which the acquisition of new tools and powers rewards backtracking to previously explored areas), Rise of the Tomb Raider is right up there with Axiom Verge, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Ori and the Blind Forest (considering such, 2015 is a strong contender for the best year in the genre’s history). Much of my time in the game was spent revisiting old areas after acquiring the grappling hook and arrows that aided in climbing theretofore unreachable heights.
The role-playing elements are fairly light; there’s no character creator or dialogue choices. They come primarily in the form of skill points which unlock after accruing a certain amount of experience points. Despite the seemingly deft touch, along with driving the story forward and acquiring new weapons upgrades, these light role playing elements form one of the essential gameplay loops which motivate player progress. Lara never seems to go too long without acquiring a new skill or two which add further variety to her means of engaging in exploration and combat.
These skills are equipped at one of the forty campsites found throughout the game. Lara’s frequent visits to these are among the only times the game’s otherwise unobtrusive user interface is front and center. I’m glad it’s rarely seen, but when it is it’s a work of art in itself, and a reminder of just how bad the user interfaces still are on most other games. Tomb Raider and Arkham Knight have this year both been a reminder of just how much a minimalist yet engaging user interface can add to the perceived production values of a game.
The final contributor to that perception of high production values is the game’s graphical fidelity. The character models used in cutscenes and in-game are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The environments are equally gorgeous, with plenty of breathtaking vistas scattered throughout the semi-open world. I was so impressed with the visuals throughout that I had intended to proclaim Rise of the Tomb Raider one of the definite examples of what can only be achieved on the current generation of consoles, incredulously learning later that a last generation version existed as well.
Regardless, Rise of the Tomb Raider has been for me one of the defining games of the generation so far. It is as good or better than the original in every way. Not only are its various gameplay elements, pulled from many disparate genres, comparable to the best entries in such, Tomb Raider harmonizes these systems of play into a cohesive whole. Fallout 4 and Battlefront may be at the center of the gaming milieu at the moment, but from what I’ve played of all three games, it’s Rise of the Tomb Raider that’s most deserving accolades and attention. In one of the most crowded autumns in gaming history, Rise of the Tomb Raider may very well be the best game this holiday season.