I loved the first Tomb Raider. Well, not the first first one, that’s actually aged very poorly, but the reboot. It reviewed well, but picked up quite a lot of criticism for being an “Uncharted” clone, which I always found a bit unfair as Uncharted was very much inspired by Tomb Raider in the first place. It’s actually great there are more third person action games like that around. It adds to the creative conversation, and should force both of series to get better — just like how it was great to have the fantastic Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed as well as Mario Kart.
But even though Tomb Raider was clearly inspired by Uncharted it was also very different. The structure wasn’t chapter based, and instead involved a lot of revisiting of the same locations with new tools, making it very Metroidvania-esque, and the combat was more satisfying. The cover system was automatic and fluid, and enemies weren’t bullet sponges. Headshots were headshots. And, contrary to Uncharted‘s whimsical fun, was pretty dark, exhausting, and impactful. So, how does this sequel with its confusing exclusivity fair against the original?
Well, it’s more of the same really. It’s very, very similar to the first game. Looking at other people’s opinions on the game people seem much more enthused about this one than they were the first, which I find a little confusing. It’s hard to say whether it’s better or not, really. It gets going quite a bit quicker. Lara Croft is a merciless killer from the get-go. The environments feel more compact than the island from the first game. There are areas that are quite large, but overall it doesn’t feel as expansive — and that mostly comes across as a good thing. Retracing your steps in the first game could be arduous at best, and confusing at worst. Here there’s no such problems – zip between camps, jump the gaps. It feels denser too, collectibles shoved into pockets of these areas in a way that feels like it makes more sense than some of the haphazard ones we had before. The upgrades that allow you to reach new areas feel easier to grasp, and there’s less of them, making it easier to feel how it’s blocking out the progression of the game.
The basis of the combat is just as satisfying as before, though Lara can pretty quickly become overpowered with a keen eye for what skills to upgrade and for weapon upgrades. One weapon, the bolt action rifle, replaces the assault rifle, is much more powerful, but needs to reloaded after each shot. But, it’s easy to upgrade it so its increased damage is even more powerful, and so the reloading is lighting fast. Add this to the fact it uses the same ammo type, which is plentiful as it’s an assault rifle, and you have a gun that can kill even late game enemies in mostly one shot, no matter where you shoot them on their body. And the suppressor for the rifle doesn’t cost much either. The poison gas you unlock very early in the game is also extremely powerful, even without the larger cloud spread skill unlock. Challenge mainly comes from the goals you set yourself — trying to stealth a whole area (which is pleasingly possible in a lot of cases), or just kill a bunch of people in increasingly cool ways.
Some of the above things are part of Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s new crafting system. You need to collect mushrooms and other bits and bobs to craft the poison arrows, grenades for the grenade arrows — that sort of thing. You can also pick up objects scattered around the arena, crafting them into Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, and the like. These are all very powerful, again reducing the challenge, and can end up making it feel like you’re just scrambling about the arena quickly crafting things rather than concentrating on the firefight at hand. You’ll likely spend most of the time with maxed out crafting materials for a bunch of stuff, meaning that your “Survival Instinct” Detective-Vision-esque mode will constantly be highlighting a tonne of stuff gold — making it hard to tell where the collectibles are. If you really need an item, it will likely be lying around anyway, fully crafted. You can craft your own arrows, but you never actually need to.
The world is littered with collectibles — most of them pointless. Tens of documents tell the story of the Prophet and his people’s lost city, from a bunch of perspectives over history; as well as some present day ones from the baddies. Almost all the voice actors speak incredibly slowly. There is an option to pause it so you can read it quicker in your head. The voice recording does not continue when you leave the screen. You can also collect relics which are the same as the first game — some of them you can spin around to come across hidden details, prompting Lara to tell you a bit more about it. Added to these returning collectibles from are new ones — murals and monuments, which are partly based on the new language system. Lara has a “level” for each language she knows, and reading more stuff improves her ability to read new things in the future. One particularly lame section near the beginning sees Lara unable to read a monument in the middle of the room, and need to read various murals around it before going back, now able to read the Greek on it.
These monuments then tell you where hidden coin caches are, which you’ll be able to excavate with or without the markers if you find them. The only purpose of these Byzantium coins is to buy upgrades from the Supply Shack, ran by a member of Trinity who isn’t particularly pious. It boggles the mind why Lara wouldn’t just take all this equipment at gunpoint — mowing down hundreds of Trinity soldiers throughout the story as she does. But she doesn’t, because it’s a game I guess so just deal with it.
The best collectibles are the upgrades found from the optional challenge tombs — of which there are 9 in the game. It’s a clever piece of game design that the hardest parts of the game are locked behind these optional sections, meaning that the truly head scratching puzzles most of them hold won’t stop people gunning their way to the story’s glory. Though it’s a shame there’s not many, as it’d be nice to have some more puzzles like that throughout. The story puzzles are few and far between, really. While some of the upgrades are cool, some of them, like faster ice and rock climbing, seem a bit lame — as the initial speed is just annoyingly slow. Better to just make it cost a single skill point early on, perhaps. It has to be said that the level design of the optional tombs is fantastic. They’re lovely just to look at, and very varied from the standard snowy mountains / lush valleys of the main game.
The story is quite good, though the bulk of it follows nearly the exact same progression as the first game. Especially the endgame, which sees Lara once again evading supernatural undead armies before scaling one final tower to deal with an underwhelming final boss — this time more underwhelming than ever. There are some very predictable twists in the story too. Being able to see a twist coming isn’t always a bad thing — but when it’s done in the way this is it feels like it. It’s the sort of twist you’re just annoyed at the characters for not seeing. It feels like it thinks it’s much more clever than it is, and I found myself pining for the fun, surface level shenanigans of Nathan Drake and his friends more than once. One big reveal at the end left me legitimately confused that Lara didn’t already realise it, as I thought she had inferred the exact same piece of information that I did when it was happening.
I also have to give an annoyance shoutout to a few other of things. When Lara first fights a bear it’s very grueling and intense. Once the deed is done, she breathers heavily in a shaken way as she skins the beast. Cool. But kill another bear randomly somewhere else? She does the exact same thing. Like, they just had one animation they just reused because they didn’t bother to make another? She gets jumped by a Lynx out of a tree, scrambles around to take it down, and she’s just fine skinning it? But another bear and she’s just shaken? Also, in some areas Lara is way too eager to tell you what to do in a puzzle — every time you turn on Survival Instinct (which you should be doing a lot if you care about collectibles) she’ll say “there’s got to be more Greek Fire” or something over and over and over and over. There’s also a couple of weird bits where Lara narrates a section of the story that feels a little out of place, like maybe they cut a couple of bits? I wasn’t really into it, though none of the things in this paragraph really affect the game.
So is Rise of the Tomb Raider good? Yeah, it’s very good. As was the first game. But it doesn’t really try anything all too different, and it kind of falls down because of it. Yeah, Uncharted got away with it for 3 games — but the first Tomb Raider was so brilliantly exhausting by design, that it can feel like a bit of slog at times doing basically the same thing again. By the end of this game they’re already once again teasing a sequel. From what we’ve seen of Uncharted 4 it looks like it will be taking a big step forward from the initial trilogy. I really hope it does, so that it can hopefully push the next Tomb Raider on to be even better. Otherwise, I’m not sure how much I’ll be looking forward to doing it all again. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a really good game, but there’s not a lot of alternatives around. I’m not quite sure why everyone seems particularly enamored with it this time around.