Triple-A Game: The Game
HIGH Coming across an ingenious puzzle…
LOW …and then hearing Lara blurt out the solution.
WTF Buying timed exclusivity and then releasing it the same day as Fallout 4.
I'm a completionist. When a game revolves heavily around collecting stuff, and especially when it has me returning to old areas with the advantage of an expanded skill set, I simply will not rest until my profile says "100%." These new Tomb Raider games put me to work in that regard, and I'm starting to believe it's the only reason I'm drawn to them. What else would it be? The overelaborate set pieces? The linear platforming sections? Gunning down of hundreds of soldiers?
I can't convince myself that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a bad game, but this series is starting to read like a checklist of mainstream design features. The reboot offered a dark, daring new take on Lara Croft and strove for a combat-oriented focus in one of the most visually menacing settings in recent memory. Rise is a serviceable but forgettable trek through some snowy mountains starring a character who could be anyone.
Lara's transformation from explorer to killer in the previous game was divisive for plenty of reasons, but with Rise, Crystal Dynamics has avoided any controversy in her character arc by simply not giving her an arc. This is essentially an Indiana Jones story with the personality drained, and it's predictable to the point that I was surprised when a late-game revelation was only just then being brought up. I thought it had been revealed earlier, but I guess I'd just figured it out too quickly.
For as talkative as she is, Lara has zero defining characteristics, and the dry, witless dialog spoils Crystal Dynamics's attempts to make her adventure personal. One of the villains is a character from Lara's past who we've never seen before, and her betrayal means nothing since she has one whole scene before it happens. Her self-serious, rapid-fire supervillain clichés don't help.
In fact, all of the characters in Rise feel like stock personalities, and while I'd love to say that it doesn't matter, I'm less engaged in my objectives when they involve assisting people that I don't care about. Lara's sidekick gets himself captured at one point, and having to postpone treasure hunting to rescue him feels like a nuisance. Maybe Lara has reason to like this guy, but I don't.
So, after taking narrative value out of the equation, Rise is just a variety-hour mixture of shooting, platforming and exploration. The game is too fast-moving to ever be outright dull, but it's more or less mechanically identical to the 2013 reboot and bereft of surprises. I've got tremendous affection for the last game, but after playing through it several times, I've become increasingly aware of its issues, nearly all of which Rise refuses to address.
For example, the stealth is still completely broken, ignoring even the most basic rules regarding enemy line of sight. It's never mandatory to sneak, but the game awards more experience points for silent kills, and some of the intriguing new abilities (like being able to rig bodies with poison traps that detonate when guards investigate them) seem to indicate that stealth was intended to be a viable option. Many of the combat zones also have a newfound verticality that invites Batman-esque prowling, but (like before) enemy alertness is impossibly high. When Lara is sighted, Rise non-negotiably turns into a shooter until that section is complete.
More refined stealth would also fit thematically with the idea of Lara being a single person using her resourcefulness to overcome situations in which she should be outgunned. There's also a new mechanic wherein players can use items in the environment to craft makeshift weapons and distractions on the spot, but it's so fiddly (and the action button is so unreliable) that, like the stealth, it's more trouble than it's worth. The simplest and easiest way through any combat scenario is just to shoot. That's fine, I guess, but it robs Rise of some distinctiveness that it would otherwise have.
As it was last time, the optional tombs are the best thing about Rise. There are nine of them, each one housing a single, devious puzzle that employs weight distribution, water levels, or something along those lines. As well-designed as they are, I'm getting increasingly irritated with Lara's habit of constantly narrating, and often blatantly spelling out exactly what players are supposed to be doing. These are clever puzzles, Crystal Dynamics. I'd love to have the chance to solve them on my own.
Tomb Raider's multiplayer mode was famously pointless, and it's wisely been kept out of the sequel. However, Square Enix still needed a way to push microtransactions. So, now we get Expeditions, which is a score-attack mode that has players competing for leaderboard status. If these were unique levels I'd be down, but they're just the campaign missions refitted with extra collectibles and such. I can't see the appeal in this. I'd have trouble replaying the game once, so running back through every stage repeatedly (cut-scenes and all) for gold medals doesn't work for me. I certainly can't see why anyone would buy starter packs full of self-imposed handicaps with actual money.
The good news here is that anyone who dug the exploration aspects of the reboot will have their hands full, as Rise's length will likely be doubled for those willing to comb levels for collectibles and sidequests. And, since the skills and upgrades are genuinely useful, there's actual incentive to branch off from the story. The Siberian mountains here aren't as visually appealing as Yamatai was, but fair's fair—I still wanted to do everything, which means that Rise is successfully tapping into some of my baser gaming instincts.
Unfortunately for those sticking to the main route, Rise is a repeat of the 2013 title with less character development and several years' worth of mounting standards. Lara's violent deaths are considerably less perverse this time, but it's ultimately a game about killing people and not about raiding tombs. Those who didn't care for the series's new direction will remain apathetic, but even speaking as someone who adored the reboot, I have trouble mustering much enthusiasm for this risk-free sequel.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 33 hours were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence and strong language. Grisly violence and F-bombs are the lay of the land here, though I hasten to add that, particularly compared to the first game, it's tastefully handled and never feels excessive or exploitative. I would imagine mature teens would be okay to play this.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Not only are subtitles available, but there's an option to make them color-coded for each character to more easily determine who's speaking. That said, the game's HUD is minimal and certain combat encounters may be a bit difficult to follow without sound cues.