Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly hits the deck running. Within moments of starting the game, you're thrown straight into the action atop a high mountain range, where you're attempting to find the ruins of a secret ancient city hidden amongst the peaks. The climb up is a treacherous one, and hazards dog every step of the way.
Pathways collapse, there are avalanches to deal with, and some very treacherous climbs up sheer ice faces to navigate as you go through this quite breathless initial sequence. It's an exciting introduction, and one that sets a very cinematic tone to the proceedings, weaving together narrative cutscenes and action sequences seamlessly to give the game a really movie-like feel.
That first sequence completed, time is then rewound to a couple of weeks before the game's initial events to properly set the scene and to start articulating the plot. This further enhances the game's cinematic approach, and really opens the game with a bang, before it settles into the more traditional Tomb Raider adventure-like fare.
This was the first fifteen or so minutes of the latest Lara Croft game, which I experienced during a recent Rise of the Tomb Raider preview event, where we spent about three hours with the game, working through the game's early stages.
The sequel to 2013's series reboot, Tomb Raider, the plot of Rise of the Tomb Raider continues on from Lara's experiences on Yamatai, a lost island off the coast of Japan. This time out, she's following up on one of her father's missions, a search for the ancient Siberian city of Kitzeh, which apparently holds clues to the secrets of immortality.
And so begins Lara's latest adventure, which is bigger and more ambitious in scope than Tomb Raider. This time out, crafting has been seriously beefed up, with 16 different resources to collect from nature, including wood, mushrooms, cloth, and sinew. These can all be used to craft new gear and equipment on the fly, such as improvised explosive devices, poison arrows, and upgrades to her bow.
Lara is also altogether stealthier than she was in her prior game, and stealth can take an important part of the proceedings when navigating through populated enemy territory. Although if truth be told, I went a far more aggressive route and simply shot arrows and – when I eventually picked up a gun – bullets at everyone I could. I guess I should have experimented a little more, but since I didn't have a huge amount of time with the game, I wanted to press on and get as far as I could, and shoot-outs definitely take less time than carefully sneaking about avoiding things. And especially when headshotting with a bow and arrow is so much fun.
The game is pseudo-linear. By that, I mean there are more open areas where you can gather resources and explore, but there are still tasks that need to be completed for you to be able to progress. There are also plenty of optional side-missions to engage in – such as mini-tombs to explore, which I'm sure will be an important aspect for completists. I burned through the game pretty quickly, and judging by the performance screens I was seeing that tallied what I'd picked up and what I didn't, I missed huge chunks of the game – which tells me that this is an adventure where you really need to spend a lot of your time exploring to get the most out of it. Gathering resources is also important, and I bumped into a couple of situations where I ended up having to backtrack to pick up important items that I'd previously overlooked so that I could overcome challenges that would otherwise be impossible to best.
The game essentially spans two regions: Syria and Siberia. Siberia, as you can imagine, is cold and unforgiving – and packed with hazardous wildlife like wolves and bears. There are definitely some hunting elements here, where Lara can use what nature provides to create a bit of warmth, and items that she can use to progress. In that sense, the game delivers on the sentiments echoed at the end of Tomb Raider – that Lara Croft is a survivor. But there's more to her than that, this time around. Without giving away any spoilers, in the first few hours of play, her character is rounded out with concrete motivations, and a more detailed backstory about her father. It's interesting stuff, and helps flesh out Lara as more of a robust character than just fearless explorer.
Speaking of which, I did run through one of the Syrian tombs while playing, and that was really entertaining. It combined some classic Tomb Raider-type puzzling where you're using elements of the environment and water to climb to the top of the ancient ruins you're exploring. There are also some traps that play out like QTE sequences in slow motion. It sounds a bit old fashioned when I put it that way, but actually they do work quite well and I didn't have a problem with them – and this coming from someone who really doesn't like QTE-type design mechanics much at all.
Lara is a highly mobile character, and the way that she clambers across the interior of tombs and sheer cliff faces looks very dynamic. The controls are quite tight and buttoned-down, and even though there were a few instances where I needed to take a leap of faith to cross particularly hazardous terrain, nothing felt particularly unfair or annoying – even when I plunged to my death a couple of times trying to reach an overhang that ultimately turned out to be a bit of a red herring.
Deaths will be a fairly common occurrence while playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, it must be said. While I didn't find the game particularly hard, there are instances where there's a little trial and error required to figure out how to negotiate difficult situations. There's one instance in Siberia where you need to go up against a giant bear that quite happily tears you to pieces if you don't kill it quickly enough. It took a couple of goes before I slapped my forehead and realized that my freshly-crafted poisoned arrows are what I really needed in that particular situation. That pretty much sums up the game right there: for the most part, solutions to its puzzles and challenges are usually staring at you in the face. It's not particularly fiendish or difficult – but it does have a level of challenge that also doesn't make it a total walk in the park.
What I particularly liked was that despite the game being pseudo-linear, there are enough side missions and activities to give you a real sense of freedom while playing the game. I noticed that by the time we reached the three-hour mark of our demo, many players at the event had approached the game in different ways. Some had worked on side missions, while others, like me, had done their best to follow the "golden path" through the game and make as much progress as possible – but all had a slightly different experience. This is definitely a good thing, as it helps make Lara's adventure as much as yours as it is hers.
In that sense, Rise of the Tomb Raider is coming together nicely to deliver a game with very broad appeal, feeling much like a modern-day Indiana Jones adventure built for gamers. It rolls together an interesting and quite gripping story, some solid game mechanics, a fairly large-scale environment, and some semi-RPG overtones to create a game that's exciting, visceral, and has a feeling of openness. And all in a package that plays out very cinematically.
Just how well it compares to Tomb Raider remains to be seen, but we'll be reviewing the Xbox One version of Rise of the Tomb Raider at the beginning of November when the game is released. There's still no firm date for the PS4 version - but it's expected to arrive early next year, due to the game being a timed exclusive on Xbox One.