We want to believe in ancient legends. We're desperate to connect our past to our present, whether the stories we consume are in history books, or found scrawled on scraps of ancient parchment, or chiseled in stone. We want to know humanity has meaning, and that our reality exists in its current state because the wheels of fate are spinning in our favor.
In her latest adventure, Lara Croft is driven forward by this desire--the desire to find truth in myth and apply it to our reality.
Rise of the Tomb Raider finds Lara in pursuit of the secret of immortality, seeking after legends inspired by the real world Russian fairy tales of Koschei the Deathless and the Lost City of Kitezh. Hot on her heels is the Order of Trinity, an ancient organization that has been searching for this same secrets for thousands of years. Lara will have to beat them to it and defend herself from their goons along her journey, with them tailing her through Syria and the frozen Siberian wilderness.
According to the developers, Rise of the Tomb Raider is far less linear than its predecessor. There is more freedom to play Lara like you want to, stealthing all the way through situations or upgrading her combat skills to the max and running in guns blazing. But there was one big thing players wanted that didn't make the cut in the first game.
The second title in the rebooted series also reintroduces an old staple from the original Tomb Raider games: big, grand tombs. In the previous game, tombs were smaller and optional, and weren't actually tombs--they were more self-contained environment puzzles on a lighter scale. But for Rise of the Tomb Raider, they're back in all their epic glory, presenting significant challenges for Lara that are tied to the overall narrative.
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We got a look at one of the first tombs Lara will explore, the Prophet's Tomb, during a recent visit to developer Crystal Dynamics. For Rise of the Tomb Raider's tombs, the studio aims to celebrate Tomb Raider's classic physics-based puzzles while wrapping them in the more modern aesthetic of the new series--and, of course, taking advantage of the new console generation's power.
Upon entering this tomb, Lara paused to investigate runes cut into the side of a stone pillar. A small icon appeared in the corner of the screen noting that Lara had gained some language experience by reading them. I adore this small additional feature, because it shows Lara progressing not only physically, but mentally; she's earning her chops as a hardcore archeologist, and with the territory comes a lot of memorization and book smarts. So Lara's not only learning how to stealth kill and shoot straight--she's building up cerebral experience as well. Throughout Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara will continue to pick up these skills by investigating documents and artifacts, allowing her to read foreign text scattered on objects throughout areas and ultimately learn more about the world she's exploring.
Environments in Rise of the Tomb Raider are dangerous. I watched as Lara approached the tomb, balancing precariously on a thin stone bridge only to have it crumble beneath her as she neared the other side. Falling, Lara whipped out her climbing axe, snagging it on the edge of the broken stone and using it to move laterally across its ruins to safer ground. Swinging back up onto her feet, she crossed the remaining ground between her and the tomb's entrance and slipped inside.
After moving through a narrow crawl space littered with scorpions and corpses, Lara kicked through a dilapidated stone wall to reveal a small alcove. Water sloshed around her ankles. The only way out was upward, but there was no way for Lara to reach the waiting platform. After a quick look around the room, Lara took her climbing axe to a stone wall leaking water. A few carefully placed hits and the wall burst, the water rushing in and filling the space. This gave Lara access to the higher platform, allowing her to venture deeper into the tomb.
This is the standard fare for Rise of the Tomb Raider's tombs; Lara will have to manipulate the environment to get where she needs to go. Some solutions are simpler, such as breaking a wall to flood a room. Others involve a little more thinking. Tombs get more challenging the deeper you go down and the farther you progress through the game. Each experience will build on the last, acclimating Lara to the skills she'll need to master.
Those who haven't played the 2013 Tomb Raider won't feel lost here, either. Each new area and tomb has its tutorials built into the environment; new abilities and object functions are taught organically, giving players the chance to suss things out and learn for themselves how things work. Trees Lara can climb have more lightly colored bark near their trunks, and walls that are broken will show a few more cracks, maybe even a trickle of leaking water. There's no hand-holding here, but Crystal Dynamics has organically settled learning tools into the active parts of the game. This makes it quicker to ease into tomb puzzles and keeps the action fluid.
Between the tomb puzzles and Lara's expanded skill tree, which includes more options to learn exploration skills, the emphasis has been taken off of survival. In the previous game, Lara was simply trying to escape with her life--this time around, she's braver and free to explore. This emphasis on exploration is very evident in the way environments are laid out, giving players different paths to tackling situations and more ways to use the area to their advantage. Lara's using her archeological skills and physical strength to solve her problems, most of which involve sneaking through areas packed with enemies or skipping deeper into tombs in search of treasures.
She's becoming the Lara Croft we used to know: smart, strong, and skill-savvy. Rise of the Tomb Raider is not only bringing those classic puzzle solving, dare-defying elements of Lara's adventures back, it's presenting her as the tomb raider for the very first time. We're watching her grow and evolve, in ways that feel both familiar and fresh.