Just as there's a thin line between archaeology and theft, the Tomb Raider series—starring archaeologist/adventurer/thief Lara Croft—has always balanced a precarious blend of innovation and pilfering.
The entire series got its start when some folks at Core Design essentially decided to smash together Prince of Persia and Indiana Jones to see what would happen. That said, however, Tomb Raider wasn't simply a mix of those two existing properties. It threw in a third dimension to the formula as well, creating an evolutionary track for the 3D platform action genre that ran parallel to Super Mario 64, and arguably has outlasted Mario's format. Core also had the savvy to swap out their original leathery hero in favor of a curvaceous lady with bee-stung lips and a tough-as-nails attitude.
The resulting game felt at once incredibly derivative and totally fresh. And, as I touched on in last week's Retronauts, this twin tradition of innovation and imitation has remained a key element of Tomb Raider's DNA through the years. Across multiple console generations, multiple developers, and even multiple reboots, the Tomb Raider games exist in a perpetual state of one-upmanship with Prince of Persia, its offspring Assassin's Creed, and the modern-day claimant to the throne, Uncharted.
The franchise's longstanding tradition of totally swiping from everyone else creates an interesting philosophical question about the latest of Lara Croft's adventures, though. The Xbox-exclusive Rise of the Tomb Raider absolutely soars when it's simply being Tomb Raider, and it's honestly sort of dreadful when it's trying to be some other game. But since trying to be like other games has been Tomb Raider's thing since the very beginning, aren't the discordant sequences where Rise struggles to outdo the Uncharted franchise (among others) also quintessentially Tomb Raider?
Perhaps, but even so it's impossible to deny the divided, contradictory nature of Rise's design. Square Enix initially sold the game on the concept of Lara seeking therapy to deal with the trauma of the events of the first game, but after more than 20 hours with this sequel I've yet to see any hint of Lara truly struggling to come to terms with the savagery and supernatural horror of her first adventure. If Rise has a psychological element, it's about her working through her relationship with her late father by attempting to uncover the reality of the crackpot claims he made regarding lost civilizations and a "divine source." As usual, the Tomb Raider franchise walks carefully in the footsteps of its inspiration in this regard: Any movie buff will recall Indiana Jones' tense relationship with his own father, though in this case there's no opportunity for reconciliation with the deceased Lord Croft; merely catharsis. But if Rise falls decidedly short when it comes to exploring Lara's emotional scars and psychological trauma, the game itself more than makes up for it with the constant struggle of its split personalities.
On one hand, you have a truly fantastic modern take on classic Tomb Raider, with vast spaces to explore and complex puzzles to solve. This portion comprises the overwhelming majority of Rise, and for the first time since Tomb Raider: Anniversary, developer Crystal Dynamics has perfectly nailed the exploratory essence that made the older Tomb Raiders so great. Rise sticks closely to the general formula and mechanics of 2013's Tomb Raider, reprising practically every system from base camps to hunting animals for resources. But even as it copies elements of the previous game almost verbatim (including another scene where Lara walks into an enemy base only to be ambushed by soldiers with flood lights shouting "Light her up!"), it subtly refines them into something that feels more distinct from the Uncharted series.
Most of Rise centers on a handful of large, persistent spaces packed with story objectives, hidden secrets, and optional missions. It's similar to TR13 in that sense, but these areas feel larger, more substantial, and more complex. I literally spent an entire day in a sprawling Siberian base and the surrounding environs, happily completing a variety of side missions and trying to unravel all its hidden secrets before moving on... and even then, I only managed to complete about two-thirds of that region's tasks before remembering I had a review to write and getting on with the quest. I'm still a ways from completing the main story, but this is a review-in-progress not because the main story is so enormous and involving. Rather, Rise offers so much to do surrounding the main story.
In fact, Rise's plot isn't even all that interesting. TR13 made an admirable if ultimately flat attempt to depict Lara as an innocent thrust into lethal action by terrible circumstances, but Rise doesn't really bother with all that. Aside from Lara's references to loss and hardship, and the looming shadow of her father's disgrace and death, Rise more or less focuses on a straightforward adventure/conspiracy theory involving a thinly veiled stand-in for the Knights Templar—that Indiana Jones/Assassin's Creed inspiration at work again—which is perfectly functional for spurring her into action but doesn't dig with any particular enthusiasm into the question of what makes her tick. And that's fine, because the world in which this business as usual transpires is gorgeously realized.
Rise of the Tomb Raider uses a somewhat open-world format that offers plenty of opportunities to explore and run freely, but the openness has been tempered with finite boundaries. This is no Elder Scrolls or Fallout game; its environments aren't even as big as those of the latest Assassin's Creed. That works to the game's advantage, as each of the big central areas demonstrates tremendous attention to minute detail. These are designed environments, compact spaces with something to do around every corner. It's not particularly realistic, and you'll find your freedom is often restricted by gear and skill limitations, but Rise manages to achieve something much more important than intense realism or total freedom: It manages to be fun.
Perhaps no other element of the game better embodies the consideration poured into Rise's open spaces than the way you uncover clues to hidden objects nearby. Many open-world games use the Assassin's Creed system in which you claim a vantage point or acquire map data and suddenly have comprehensive information available on every item of interest in sight. In Rise, however, the points where you collect information are broken up and scattered, and finding revelatory items like explorer maps or ancient monoliths only parcels out data on a handful of secrets. While you gain insight into some hidden side objectives through this method, Rise demands actual exploration. It never degenerates into a routine of "find the control point, unlock map icons, systematically go from icon to icon; repeat."
I also appreciate the fact that Rise starts you off with many of the skills Lara acquired on her previous adventure. You don't have to go through the motions of learning how to use zip lines or scale porous rock walls again; she can do that from the beginning. Instead, the skill-building process revolves around acquiring weapons on this journey and crafting upgrades for them. Lara's learning process has more to do with her background as an avid student of history, and as such Rise is guaranteed to be the only game you'll play this year where you'll want to grind experience for greater proficiency in reading ancient Greek. Admittedly, many advanced weapons and techniques are gated behind arbitrary "because the game says so" moments; even though you acquire the tools for crafting Molotov cocktails early on in the game, you're not allowed to actually make them until you come to the cut scene where Lara decides, "Oh, I should make a Molotov cocktail." Despite the artificiality of some of these points of progression, though, Rise builds on TR13 in a satisfying manner.
And the, of course, there are the tombs. While the hub areas tend to be fairly straightforward in terms of navigation, each one contains multiple "challenge tombs." These optional sequences pose a classic Tomb Raider challenge with intricate, puzzle-like design—in fact, simply finding the entrance to many of the challenge tombs is a puzzle in and of itself. These areas of the game are far more numerous, and far more intricate, than similar features in TR13. Although the most devout of classic Tomb Raider diehards will probably never find peace in the series' newfound devotion to more accessible navigation and world design, the challenge tombs offer a very convincing make-good.
Sadly, then, in light of all the things Rise of the Tomb Raider does so well, its shortcomings chafe all the more.
As much as Rise's central design philosophy truly feels like a modern-day expression of the creative drive behind the original Tomb Raiders, the brief, flashy sequences that connect the portions of the main story together feel like the results of a dire lack of confidence. This isn't new to the series, exactly—QTEs have been a part of Tomb Raider ever since Anniversary's misguided attempt to turn the terrifying T-rex encounter into an exercise in timed button-pressing—but here it feels more out of place than ever. The action and exploration in Rise work so well, and comprise so much of the overall experience, that the "interactive" cutscenes that drive the story become jarring.
I assume the thinking behind the inclusion of heavily scripted sequences is to help key story moments stand out from the rest of the experience, but the end result is that they stand apart so much they almost seem to be part of some other game. It doesn't help that they're so poorly designed. Many of Rise's QTE cut scenes suffer from awkward camera angles or oblique objectives, guaranteeing a failure and a restart. In several cases early on, these cutscenes actually introduce new mechanics that you've never seen before, forcing you to repeat the same mundane actions (each attempt complete with several seconds of reloading) until you lock down the timing. As a result, sequences presumably intended to liven up the experience instead break it up, undermining the game's pacing and afflicting crucial story moments with a stultifying stop-start rhythm.
To Rise's credit, you have to deal with far fewer of these flashy moments than in TR13. But they still bog down the central plotline, and they ultimately serve to make the main quest line feel like a completely different game than the rest of Rise. It suggests a lack of confidence in the fundamental excellence of the bulk of the game, or perhaps a lack of confidence in the audience's ability to be engaged by anything other than the most rote, trial-and-error game design. But Tomb Raider doesn't work when it's trying to be Uncharted, and the frustrating irony is that Rise has several sequences that manage to create a sensation of tension and plot importance without resorting to stripped-down button-tapping banality.
At one point, Lara becomes embroiled in a small war, which happens all around her despite and propels the storyline even though the player only engages in a few skirmishes during this battle; the visual and audio design convey the carnage surrounding Lara despite her being isolated from the bulk of the action. Despite being little more than an alternate graphical skin for a routine combat sequence, this conflict is one of the most intense portions of the entire game—and all without a single QTE. Instead, it hits hard because of the dramatic audio and visual design unique to that portion of the game, and because the narrative builds up to the battle for several hours.
This fantastic sequence also underscores the reason this review isn't complete yet. Although I have an excellent grasp of both the strengths and weaknesses of Rise at this point, I need to see if that explosive, fiery battle is a sign of great things to come. TR13 became more and more bogged down with asinine GTEs and clichéd scripted action sequences as you approached the end, and Rise could very well end up going in that direction as well. I hope it doesn't, though. Tomb Raider may have been built on a foundation of borrowing ideas from other games and developers, but the series has long since established itself, and Rise proves it: It's great when it's brave enough to be itself, and not so great when it's trying to be some other game.