Crystal Dynamics gave the Tomb Raider series a much-needed shot in the arm with 2013’s Tomb Raider. Truth be told, it didn’t feel much like the Tomb Raider games I remember from the late nineties, but given the countless failed attempts to move the franchise into the 21st Century, that is perhaps for the best.
Now, a year after its initial release, Crystal Dynamics brings Rise of the Tomb Raider to the PS4 in the form of a 20 Year Celebration special edition that comes complete with all the DLC. There’s no big reinvention this time around. Rise of the Tomb Raider represents a graphical leap forward from its predecessor, but the rest of the changes are merely minor tweaks and refinements to a formula that is starting to feel rather tired due to a certain other series having done this many times before. Comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series are unavoidable and not at all flattering. Rise of the Tomb Raider matches Uncharted’s combat and improves on its navigation, but falls well short in terms of story and characters.
Lara’s a changed woman after the events of Tomb Raider. She’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after killing so many people on the island and deals with it by diving deep into her late father’s research on the lost city of Kitezh. Her step-mom, Ana, warns her off, telling her that the search for the city was what drove her father to suicide. It’s an interesting set up that directly addresses one of the common criticisms people had of Tomb Raider. Unfortunately, this troubled version of Lara is only mentioned briefly in cut scenes at the beginning of the game. All of Lara’s problems with guns disappear the second she, well, picks up a gun. I’d have loved to see Lara explore her issues with combat while playing the game instead of just being told that she’s struggling with significant mental health issues.
Lara rejects Ana’s advice and starts looking for Kitezh in Syria. After a brief run in with a group called Trinity, she ends up in Siberia with her friend Jonah. The friend doesn’t matter much because the two of them are quickly separated. Lara spends nearly the entire game by herself which is a huge problem because she gets no opportunity to express her personality other than looking miserable in cut scenes and occasionally muttering to herself.
The story soon becomes a big McGuffin hunt, as Lara tries to track down something known as the “divine source.” It’s a story that’s been told hundreds of times since the first Indiana Jones and was already dated when used in Uncharted 2 seven years ago. It’s incredible that a game with the writing talent of Rhianna Pratchett manages to waste that talent with such aplomb. It’s almost commendable. Tomb Raider’s story was disappointing and Pratchett has confessed that the story was added at the last minute. History has repeated itself. The story has been designed around a set of levels and locations, instead of the other way around. Annoyingly, there is good writing in the game, you just have to go collecting artifacts to find it.
Supplementary lore is all well and good, but it needs to support a decent story. The one here is so forgettable it might not even take up brain cells while you play it, let alone long after. Technically the story has ‘twists’ but if you don’t seem them coming from a mile off then congratulations on playing your first ever video game. The leader of Trinity is called Konstantin, a name pulled straight out of the ‘generic Russian bad guy names’ hat. There’s a vague attempt to flesh out Konstantin, but ultimately he’s a bad guy searching for a McGuffin that grunts infinite life. There’s only so much you can do with that.
In addition to her friend Jonah, Lara meets a local man named Jacob (what’s with the lack of imagination with the names!) who also spends a tiny amount of time with Lara before getting conveniently separated. Jacob and Lara are a good pair, in that they are equally dull. Jacob leads a local tribe of people living in the Siberian mountains who all have American accents for some reason. To be honest, it’s best not to focus on the dialogue at all. It’s all exposition and does nothing to help you care about the characters.
While the story is terrible, Rise of the Tomb Raider makes it clear that you’re not supposed to think about it too much. Sure, the story is nothing special, but the game has plenty more to offer. Rise of the Tomb Raider starts off with a focus on small open-world hubs and survivability. You can’t even build a fire to save your game without collecting enough wood. These hubs play an important role early on in the game. In one snowy setting, Lara has to explore to collect wood and light a fire, before defending the area later from a group of Trinity soldiers. With your knowledge of the area, Lara can sneak around in the shadows, climb trees, and distract enemies until they are alone and waiting to be taken out.
That’s the only time the hubs are used to good effect. The rest of them end up being bland areas for Lara to collect a few more resources and that’s about it. As is nearly always the case with crafting and collecting, it gets boring and starts to outstay its welcome. You find yourself running from place to place in a weird zig-zag pattern as you swerve to collect wood or kill a lone rabbit for its skin. I went from enjoying the open world hubs to quickly finding them rather tiresome. They aren’t even as open as they first appear. Navigating these large areas often requires walking in a specific route to avoid all the invisible walls and unclimbable bushes.
The lack of exciting environments is a shame because Lara navigates the beautiful world smoothly and with more weight than she did in the last game. Don’t get me wrong, she still gets flung around like a rag-doll, but a heavier, more believable rag-doll than in the previous game. Most of the arrow upgrades Lara earns are specifically designed to make navigation easier and revisiting old levels with new equipment often opens up previously unreachable areas.
Tomb Raider was a little light on the tombs, but Rise of the Tomb Raider more than makes up for it, in quantity at least. The tombs are all optional, dotted around the levels as rewards for those who make the effort to find them. They certainly look nice, but there isn’t much to do inside. The tombs can all be solved in much the same way. Simply use Lara’s ‘survival instinct’ to light up any item that can be interacted with and then use a rope arrow on it. That’s about all there is to it. I’m not sure what the point of having the puzzle tombs is when the puzzles are so lightweight. They’re optional, so there’s no need for the developers to worry about roadblocks for players. Only one of the tombs could be considered vaguely challenging and all it did was make me want more.
Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t about the story and apparently it isn’t about puzzle tombs either. That’s no problem so long as the combat is good. The combat is… fine. I guess. It’s usually functional. The bow and arrow combat in the first third of the game is promising, and most encounters are set up to encourage a stealth approach. It’s when Lara takes a more aggressive approach that things get messy. The cover-based combat is finicky, especially when Lara is standing by a wall. She often refuses to cling to cover which led to me taking damage when it looked like she was well hidden. Even something as basic as reloading can be overly fiddly. ‘Reload’ and ‘pick up’ commands are handily mapped to the same button, so you’ll often pick up a bottle instead of reloading or vice versa.
There’s a large skill tree to upgrade Lara’s survivability, weapon strength, and gathering talents. None of these skills will change the way you play the game: you’re just adding numbers to other numbers. Doubling the amount of wood you collect from trees, extra damage with pistols, taking less damage from melee attacks, etc. The usual stuff. I can’t imagine for one moment that anyone would care if Crystal Dynamics took the skill tree out of the game entirely.
I don’t want to spend too much time comparing the Tomb Raider and Uncharted series, but it’s unavoidable when the issues with Rise of the Tomb Raider are this obvious. Uncharted has deeply flawed combat that has barely changed in ten years and it wasn’t good then. The reason Uncharted gets away with it is because the characters are engaging and you care about what happens to them. It’s so hard to care about Lara. She rarely talks and when she does it’s typical plot exposition nonsense. She’s miserable and uncharismatic the entire way through the game. She has good reason to feel that way, but stories need engaging characters and Lara isn’t one. Uncharted 2 did the ‘holy grail’ thing many years ago, and it was trite then. Rise of the Tomb Raider looks phenomenal, but it plays and acts like a last generation game and not a particularly special one at that.
The 20 Year Celebration edition comes jam packed full of extra content, little of which you need to concern yourself with. The best content is the Croft Manor story where you investigate the death of Lara’s dad and uncover secrets that would have been better off revealed in the main game. You can also defend the manor from zombies if that’s your thing. An extra ‘Baba Yaba’ mission adds a mystical element to proceedings if you played the main story and thought ‘this is a bit too believable for my liking.’ There’s a survival mode and lots of time trials and challenges to play though. You can increase or decrease the challenge as you see fit by using ‘cards’ which can also be purchased with microtransactions. I’m no fan of microtransactions and they seem wholly unnecessary here. I’d get angry about it, but with all the content on offer, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. You also get plenty of the cards by playing through the game, so it shouldn’t be a huge issue. There’s certainly no shortage of content in Rise of the Tomb Raider: it’s the lack of quality that’s always an issue.
Tomb Raider reinvented itself in 2013. It needs to do that again. Another Tomb Raider game along these lines simply isn’t good enough when other games have moved on. If Crystal Dynamics ever decides to prioritize story alongside graphics and gameplay then we might have a series to rival Uncharted.