Rise of the Tomb Raider Xbox One Review: Slow Rise

Rise of the Tomb Raider Xbox One Review: Slow Rise

The long-running series continues to search for its place in the modern gaming world, with mostly great results.

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Post-game thoughts and conclusion

Tomb Raider has struggled to find its identity from the very first sequel. Yes, the series is synonymous with Lara Croft for all intents and purposes, but what about the gameplay? The story? The structure? In what configuration do these things add up to "Tomb Raider"?

Rise of the Tomb Raider deserves notice because it's a first for the franchise in its nearly 20 years of history: A sequel that feels more confident in itself than its predecessor. The original 1996 Tomb Raider offered a no-fat experience, a massive journey through a seemingly endless procession of puzzles and traps, and with each iteration of the Tomb Raider concept the series moves further and further from that simple template. Rise, to me, feels like the first time the series has moved back toward the spirit of '96 rather than further from it.

By no means is this as heavily puzzle- and exploration-oriented a game as the old PlayStation games or even Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Lara—or rather, developer Crystal Dynamics—continues to suffer from a profound identity crisis. Rise doesn't perfectly solve the question of "what is Tomb Raider?", because many of the answers contained herein don't fit together well. Rise's design consists of four parts: Third-person combat, set piece events, sandbox exploration, and puzzle navigation. The two latter elements work brilliantly and feel very much in keeping with Lara's history; the two former elements, on the other hand, don't quite gel. Unfortunately, they comprise much of the mandatory path through the game.

2013's Tomb Raider took considerable flack for failing to live up to its name. It offered few opportunities to work your brain muscles and solve interesting environmental puzzles; the small amount of tomb raiding present had been quarantined to a handful of simple "challenge tombs," all of which felt laughably brief and simplistic. Rise brings back these optional areas, and this time they appear in greater numbers and actually feel worthy of the name. Rise contains nearly a dozen challenge tombs, and they vary in complexity from "moderate" to "baffling." They can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to complete and require plenty of experimentation and exploration—especially since you can't press the "survival instinct" button for an instant solution the way you can throughout the rest of the game.

These areas are strictly optional—it says so right there in the name—but Crystal Dynamics makes them incredibly enticing. Not only do the puzzle dungeons feature the game's most involving design, they also dole out invaluable rewards. Rather than just handing Lara cash or trinkets or better weapons (which do appear frequently in the challenge tombs), reaching the end of these labyrinths will lead you ancient documents that will teach Lara long-lost combat and survival techniques. In other words, solving these challenges gives you a significant advantage in the action portions of the game.

Challenge tombs usually feature elaborate mechanisms, frequently involving the raising and lowering of water levels, and their overall vibe calls back strongly to the best moments of Core Designs' classic Tomb Raider games. At the moment, I'm trying to puzzle my way through these dungeons as part of my post-game mop-up and am stuck in an ancient bath. Between the enigmatic design and the rusty color palette, it genuinely feels like a chunk of Tomb Raider II transplanted into the modern Tomb Raider framework. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do to proceed at the moment, but I'll figure it out... and I love it.

But that's the problem with Tomb Raider, right? This project clearly had a hefty price tag attached: It looks gorgeous, yet it's also expansive, complex, and packed with a variety of game systems. As we've learned over the past few years, big-budget game developers don't stay in business by catering to the niche, and Tomb Raider can only survive in this form by appealing to as many people as possible. You don't win millions upon millions of hearts and minds by throwing obstructions in their path, bringing the game to a grinding halt, and forcing them to solve an elaborate 3D puzzle that demands lengthy consideration. The intricate dungeon design that once defined Tomb Raider has become anathema to the series' viability.

In that light, I'm impressed by the fact that Rise actually does contain a few meaty dungeon areas along the critical story path that do tap into that classic spirit. There's one area in particular, late in the game, that involves rolling explosive barrels into place in a crumbling cistern, which truly plays like a modern-day rendition of the Tomb Raider that once was. It's brief, and you can use the survival instinct mode to have the game basically walk you through the puzzle, but it's much more of a classic Lara Croft scenario than anything in 2013's game. Granted, it's followed immediately by yet another of those QTE-like trial-and-error action sequences where the world explodes around Lara and have to dash to safety (see also: basically every action game since the first Uncharted). But it's far from the only time Rise throws a stumper along the main path, and the overall game feels much richer for the variety.

The downside to this is that the slower-paced sequences lend to the uneven feeling of the game as a whole. Lara's story path leads her through a handful of tricky puzzles, but generally speaking the mission-critical portions consist of shootouts and pseudo-QTEs. There's nothing inherently wrong with these elements, but at the same time nothing about them particularly stands out, either. Rise features neatly polished third-person shooting mechanics, but they're indistinguishable from the shooting mechanics in countless other games. Aside from a couple of small details relating to archery (poison arrows are the game's secret MVP), Rise's shootouts could have been lifted straight from a dozen other games as she scrambles for cover, zooms in for headshots, and uses melee finishers to take out foes up close.

Rise rarely does anything interesting with its combat. It's wave after wave of identical, balaclava-clad soldiers that come in four basic types; later, you face a different kind of enemy, but they aren't too terribly distinct from the soldiers and also come in four similar basic types. Standout sequences like the one where Lara basically plays the role of movie monster, lurking underwater and quietly picking off soldiers one by one, appear far too rarely. The action grows monotonous toward the end, as the final few hours of the game consist of practically nothing but gunplay, culminating in a frustrating, gimmicky shootout with basically an entire army. This is followed by another one of those godawful final battles that changes all the rules of combat rather than putting the skills you've mastered over the past 20 hours to the test.

Compounding the problems with all this late-game combat is how the endless gunplay sits at odds with the story. Lara's meant to be a determined if reluctant survivor, not the Terminator, but she singlehandedly takes out an entire army and effortlessly deals with bizarre supernatural threats that are supposedly legendary in their power and ruthlessness. Stealth plays a part in the action, but only to a point, whereas the whole thing really should play as a stealth game. Lara as silent predator is brilliant; Lara as indestructible warrior who can take a shotgun blast to the face and keep on going, not so much.

The one redeeming thing about the constant gunplay that characterizes the final stretch of the action is that you only have to suffer through it once. Players who go back to seek 100% game completion don't have to wind back to an old save but rather can play through these areas after the central conflict is resolved. There are still enemies to deal with, but they're fewer in number and don't require much effort to wrap up or avoid altogether.

All told, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like an attempt to walk things back a few steps, and it largely succeeds. The 2013 reboot told an interesting story about Lara's origins but framed it in a by-the-numbers modern action game. Rise tells a less interesting tale, but the game surrounding it does a much better job of differentiating itself from its peers—when it offers more than an endless hallway of cover-based shooting, that is. There's room for both exploration and action in the Tomb Raider series, but Rise excels at the former while the latter remains entirely rote. The game's post-credits coda establishes Crystal Dynamics' intentions for a sequel, and I'm absolutely looking forward to that follow-up. I just hope that next time around, the shooting and combat elements either live up to the high bar that Rise has set for everything else that is modern Tomb Raider... or else take a back seat to the parts that make Lara Croft Lara Croft.

Interface
Mostly standard fare for third-person action games. The unique controls, such as the grappling hook, double up with other commands, and sometimes the game gets confused about which you're trying to execute.

Lasting appeal
Rise includes four or five massive sandbox areas packed with bonus tombs, side missions, and even unlisted challenges. There's a lot of game here.

Sound
About what you'd expect—solid voice acting, eerie environmental effects, rousing music.

Visuals
One of the best-looking games I've ever played, bar none, with a huge variety of environments rendered in beautiful detail.

In a way, Rise of the Tomb Raider lives up to its name: You can see the classic Tomb Raider elements rising up through the clichés of modern-day third-person action games. The two facets of Rise's design never quite learn to live in harmony, but at least the elements that feel unique to the Lara Croft franchise appear far more prominent than in the 2013 game. There's far too much predictable, uninspired gunplay, but despite its mandatory nature it still comprises only a tiny portion of the overall game experience. Tomb Raider hasn't quite found its voice in modern gaming... but it's getting there.

4/5

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