Last month I said that Rise of the Tomb Raider features heroine Lara Croft in the most versatile adventure yet; players can go "Metal Gear" with Lara, relying on stealth to navigate certain areas, or go in guns blazing and taking out every enemy in her path. The game presents you with a plethora of tools to get through areas, whether it be strewn lanterns and liquor bottles to fashion Molotovs or a ring of trees around an encampment for the perfect aerial kill setup. Lara is growing into the resourceful, strong tomb raider we remember her being, but her path to that power is entirely up to you in her latest game.
I recently got hands-on time with the first three hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider, which pack in a ton of tutorial and story setup--but this isn't a bad thing. The game doesn't waste any time giving you the narrative framework and essentials of combat and crafting, which I appreciate because it lets you dive right in from there, unhindered. In between stretches of gameplay you're treated to some quite beautifully wrought cutscenes depicting Lara's latest struggle and the obstacles she must overcome.
Rise of the Tomb Raider's menu features an image of Lara's desk--the desk she has inherited from her late father. The desktop is stacked high with books, and the wall above it is a tangled maze of newspaper clippings, torn pages from textbooks, and notes scrawled in Lara's hand. "Look closer, Lara!" reads a sticky note taped to a photocopy of an ancient drawing of knights on horseback. Rise of the Tomb Raider's primary adventure focuses on Lara completing her father's work, following the footsteps of the historian Lord Croft into the depths of a centuries-old search to find the secret of youth. Tailing Lord Croft and now Lara is Trinity, an ancient organization bent on finding the secret of youth and using it to better the world--or so they say.
While the physical journey is an arduous challenge itself, it's the emotional journey Lara is taking in Rise of the Tomb Raider that adds power to the narrative. Lara's father was chasing a myth, or so people thought, and in life it seems that Lara didn't support his obsession. But now, with Lord Croft gone and her appetite for adventure on the rise, Lara feels compelled to finish the family work. Her insistence on following Lord Croft's footsteps feels like the result of two things: her inability to return to a normal life after the events on Yamatai, and her need to honor her father and make peace for her distance from him by completing what he started. It's beautiful and sad, and this thread runs through everything in Rise of the Tomb Raider, down to the way in which Lara, like her father, narrates her audio diaries.
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In addition to these emotional charges, Lara carries something else with her--something a little more dangerous. There's a moment early in the game when she's in her apartment, and someone is trying to open the door. Her immediate reaction is to grab her ice pick and wait beside the door for the intruder to enter. This moment struck me: rather than run or hide, she grabs her weapon and waits. She's become hardened by her experiences and driven to complete her new adventure at all costs, and it's this moment in which we can catch a brief glimpse of the classic Lara Croft--bold, strong, and confident in her choices.
But it's certainly not the first moment in the game where we see Lara growing into her role as the tomb raider. The first thing you do in the game is the mountain climbing sequence seen in demos and trailers earlier this year. You guide Lara, following her friend Jonah, up an icy mountain, avoiding falling chunks of ice and climbing precariously crumbly walls with her climbing axe. The entire event moves very quickly, and it's easy to miscalculate a jump or when to deploy your ice pick and send Lara to her death. It's actually quite brilliant, because in placing this tough, trying sequence right at the beginning of the game, developer Crystal Dynamics succeeds into bringing you right to the edge of your seat and then putting you through your paces immediately in a trial by fire. I didn't realize until I was halfway through the sequence that I was holding my breath. It's a very well-orchestrated event and has the climbing and moving tutorial built right into it, so not only must you get Lara out of there to proceed but you really have to pay attention.
Once you're out in the wild world of Rise of the Tomb Raider and free to explore, you gain access to another set of tools to ensure you have lots to do without getting lost. Clicking the right thumbstick calls up Lara's survival instinct, which temporarily highlights mission objectives and objects you can collect to craft in a golden light. This came in handy because I was constantly running off the main story track to do other things, like solving puzzles in optional tombs (they are back, and there are lots of them), collecting animal skins and mushrooms to craft poisonous arrows, or assisting NPCs by taking down enemy communication towers. In the three hours I had with the game I barely scratched the surface of what I could do in each area, and spent a lot of time messing around on ziplines and stealthily sneaking around practicing headshots with my bow in addition to completing side missions.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is a playground, and the more you do, the better you do by Lara. Fighting enemies and crafting earn Lara skill points, which can be attributed to abilities on three separate branches of Lara's skill tree: the Brawler, Hunter, and Survivor. These are self explanatory: the Brawler tree is for combat abilities and how much damage you can deal and take; the Hunter tree is for long range weapon skills; and the Survivor tree focuses on Lara's ability to recognize and read relics, craft weapons, gear and ammo, and how much damage she'll take when falling from heights. I focused on beefing up her Brawler skills, and when I realized I was using up more ammo that I should, I picked a Survivor skill that allowed me to create poisonous bombs to booby trap corpses with. Each tree is designed to make her tougher in a different way, and there's enough variety in each to make you really feel like the Lara you grow is "My Lara."
Driven by her need to atone for neglecting her father's dreams, and perhaps because she's moved on from her former life, the Lara Croft we see in Rise of the Tomb Raider is steadily moving towards her destiny. The sheer amount of options available to you, from a deep specialized skill tree to open-ended environments and missions, means that this is not so much Lara's journey as it is yours. One way or another, she'll become the famous Tomb Raider, but how she gets there is up to you.