This review has been updated to reflect Rise of the Tomb Raider's release on PS4.
Rise of the Tomb Raider unfolds in a valley haunted by echoes of older times. Abandoned Soviet structures dot the landscape, while bygone kingdoms lie dormant beneath the ground. Even the current inhabitants, long sheltered from the outside world, still hunt and gather as their ancestors did. For Lara Croft, a person intent on escaping the past, this is not a comforting place.
But in her pursuit of supernatural artifacts, go here she must. So begins the next adventure for the iconic archaeologist.
In 2013's Tomb Raider reboot, developer Crystal Dynamics thrust Lara into danger against her will, marooning her on a strange island with even stranger secrets. But she's since gained agency. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, she's running headlong into the fray at her own pace, seeking the key to eternal life.
If that premise sounds trite, that's understandable. The Holy Grail grants the same power in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Nathan Drake, a more apt and recent counterpart, spent Uncharted 2 hunting for the Tree of Life.
Yet Rise of the Tomb Raider anchors Lara's story with its own believable characters and emotional weight. Lara refuses to acknowledge her father's death, opting instead to seek the Divine Source, the object that could stave off death--and grief--for good. Even the villains have compelling reasons for pursuing the otherworldly power. Crystal Dynamics doesn't use magic as a storytelling crutch, though; it injects mystical elements in a way that makes sense within the world they occupy. From the outset, the game prepares you for this, and maintains a subtle undercurrent throughout.
And as a third-person adventure game, Rise of the Tomb Raider excels. Rather than collide, gameplay and story share the space, supplementing each other and emerging as a cohesive whole.
Like its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider places you in an expansive world filled with enemy soldiers. This isn't a sandbox, though--subsequent areas are gated by ability unlocks. New items open new zones in the valley, but also let you explore previous areas more thoroughly. By going back to older environments, you can venture off the beaten path in search of useful abilities, a la Castlevania or Metroid. Now more than ever, you have territory worth exploring.
Several of Rise of the Tomb Raider's areas are open hub zones, replete with resources, NPC side missions, and secret passageways. I spent four hours in a remote mountainside village, searching every cave and scaling every cliff in the hopes of finding my next upgrade. There isn't much filler here. It's more of a waterfall structure, where every action leads to more possibilities, which lead to even more, and so on.
Backtracking to old areas is rewarding, too. It highlights how much Lara has improved since last she set foot there. It also gives a sense of ownership over the environment--by the end, I knew exactly where that cave was I couldn't enter without the rope arrows. By fast travelling to the nearest campfire, I gained access, acquired the next piece to the full auto shotgun, and was one step closer to building a new weapon for my inventory.
In the interest of building Lara to fit your unique playstyle, Rise of the Tomb Raider incorporates three skill trees: hunting, brawling, and survival. Each contribute to their respective fields in disparate ways, by making certain aspects of the game less challenging or more rewarding. One allows Lara to shoot two arrows at a time, for instance. Another grants her more ammo when looting enemy corpses. The wide array of skills works well because each feels worthwhile. Pursuing them adds another layer in an already nuanced system.
There are also more actual tombs than in 2013's reboot. These optional catacombs are well worth your time, too, both for their rewards, and the Rube Goldberg puzzles they present. You alter water levels, operate pulleys, and shatter icy barriers, all the while working toward improving Lara's climbing, hunting, and fighting skills. They're the kind of puzzles that make you feel smart, as if you thwarted developer Crystal Dynamics in the process.
And when stranded in the wilderness with few supplies and little on her back, Lara relies on nature for survival. Unfortunately, this aspect becomes tedious after a short time. It devolves into a constant process of pressing the same button on identical trees and bushes and dead rabbits over and over again. Rise of the Tomb Raider's world is stunning, but I was too often distracted by the repetitive abundance of resources strewn about the otherwise beautiful canvas.
But gathering is part of the overall improvement process, and it makes sense in the harsh landscape Lara treks through. And this is where Rise of the Tomb Raider shines. Crystal Dynamics erases barriers between gameplay and story, making an almost seamless experience in the process.
Throughout the game, cutscenes are succinct, but not without substance. They don't belabor the narrative with monologues and grandiose asides, but still manage to build character and establish tone. The villains, despite their megalomaniacal beliefs, have personal intentions. Lara, with clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, is somewhat broken, and it shows in her words: "I haven't slowed down enough to ask whether any of this is real."
There's enough exposition to provide context, but not enough to get in the way of having fun.
There is a tragic, harrowing, uplifting story at play here, and Rise of the Tomb Raider tells it through details. It's the way a character's eyes fall to the floor. It's how Lara's fingers choke her pistol grip. She warms her hands over fires, shivers when the wind picks up, and slides her feet through taller piles of snow. If details bring a story to life, Rise of the Tomb Raider is as vital as they come. There's enough exposition to provide meaningful context, but not enough to get in the way of, well, having fun.
And when it comes to combat, Rise of the The Tomb Raider is superb. The variety of options available in any given firefight is staggering. In fact, these encounters often feel more like puzzles. At one point, Rise of the Tomb Raider stages a battle on a frozen pond. Eight guards with heavy armor present a serious challenge, but by using the water, several holes in the ice, and the weapons at my disposal, I could even the odds. It was such an engaging encounter, I reloaded my checkpoint just to play it again. This game is filled with chances to experiment.
I opted for stealth when I could, waiting for a lone soldier to stray from the pack before finishing him, or sending arrows into snipers from a distance. Environmental objects aided me all the while, as Lara's crafting skills let her fashion molotovs and cans of shrapnel at a moment's notice. It's just another way Rise of the Tomb Raider paints Lara as resourceful. She's a survivor.
There are slight difficulty spikes late in the game, but if you've explored enough, and spent your hard-earned resources on new tools, the fight will be challenging, but not overly so. As in the rest of the game, there is balance in the combat as well. Crystal Dynamics has found equilibrium in almost every way.
Rise of the Tomb Raider's first shot pans over the vast, foreboding landscape we'll soon come to know. In many ways, it functions as a promise on the part of Crystal Dynamics: there are big things ahead of us. And at the end of Lara's journey, after we've seen her through this adventure, and experienced everything the world has to offer, it's clear that promise was kept.
Although Rise of the Tomb Raider began its life span on Xbox One last November, it now has a home on PC as well. And after spending several hours with Crystal Dynamics' title on its new platform, only minor differences were apparent. The lighting is better, especially in dark environments, where shadows play across the walls and Lara crawls through glacial caves.Textures are slightly more detailed, from the footprints in Siberia's snow, to the leaves in its ancient valley. And while the framerate did stutter several times during cutscene explosions and quick camera cuts, they weren't frequent enough to mire the cinematic experience.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is also now available on PlayStation 4 in the form of the 20 Year Celebration edition. Even now, playing through it one year after I originally beat it, it's hard to put down. The Siberian wilderness is just as detailed and gorgeous as it is on Xbox One, and I didn't notice many differences in the character nuances, either. The 20 Year Celebration also grants access to Rise of the Tomb Raider's DLC, including the Croft Manor section and Endurance mode, additions that flesh out Lara's backstory and drop you into the wild to fend for your life, respectively. One year after it released on Xbox One, Rise of the Tomb Raider is still a journey well worth taking.