If 2012’s Tomb Raider reboot represented something of an identity crisis for a Lara who professed psychological trauma at being forced to kill while demonstrating a penchant for the endless repetition of that very act, Rise Of The Tomb Raider represents the transference of that identity crisis to the game itself. This is a game that feels like it is struggling with its desire to remain faithful to Tomb Raider’s legacy, ape the work of Naughty Dog, and offer its own vision of what Tomb Raider can be all at the same time. That lack of clarity in its vision means that while there are many things that this game does well, it doesn’t quite seem to know what those things are, to the effect that it too frequently steps on its own toes.
The strongest string in Rise Of The Tomb Raider’s bow lies in the sense of adventure it can create through exploration and discovery. At its best moments, slipping through a crack in a wall before delving deep into a subterranean cave structure, falling through a collapsing floor into a watery cavern, or pulling yourself up over the lip of a cliff edge to be confronted by a long lost temple bathed in beautiful sunlight reminds us of the wonder that our young minds found in the likes of Indiana Jones and Treasure Island, where history, myth and imagination coalesce around secret places lost in time.
The game’s open structure encourages you to stray off the beaten path, searching for hidden treasures, optional tombs, and resources, so as to create those moments of discovery, but even when following the campaign, the game can make you feel like you are happening across some wondrous place, though you know in practice you’re following a tightly defined path.
Acknowledging that exploration and discovery are the best parts of the game brings you into confrontation with the first symptom of Rise Of The Tomb Raider’s identity crisis. It has a far stronger focus on resource collection and crafting than its predecessor – you can make a variety of different arrows for your bow, craft improvised explosives on the fly during combat, and choose from raft of different upgrades for your weapons. This places an importance on resources that pushes you to frequently use Lara’s ‘Survival Instinct’ in order to highlight them, along with objectives and collectibles.
This takes away from the sense that you are exploring the world and discovering things for yourself, stripping mystery away from its bleak and beautiful landscapes with the press of a button. You could argue that you should discipline yourself not to use Survival Instinct, but the fact that there are two impulses working at counter purposes – the joy of discovery and the desire not to miss important resources and collectibles – is indicative of the problems Rise Of The Tomb Raider has.
To return to exploring the world for a moment: part of the reason that process is so enjoyable is down to Rise Of The Tomb Raider’s climbing. Starting off with a leap and a pick axe, Lara gradually gains the ability to shoot rope arrows onto distant targets for her to climb, swing from anchor points, hook onto distant ledges mid-jump, and so on. Using all those mechanics together make climbing a crumbling temple or traversing an abandoned Soviet base a lot of fun. It’s not exactly complex, but it is more thoughtful than in Uncharted, where the best platforming moments tend to be based on ostentatious setpieces.
Here, there are smaller slips and hiccups that add a little excitement to picking your way along precarious ledges. Still, momentum is important, so it’s a shame that a momentum-breaking mechanic that requires you to shoot arrows into soft wood to create footholds is introduced towards the end of the game. It would be inconsequential were its use not so frequently required towards the end of the game. It reminds you yet again that this title frequently finds ways of messing up the things it does well.
The best example of ROTTR’s tendency to trip over its own feet, however, surely lies in its combat. While we wouldn’t claim that the combat in the last game was best in class, there was something appealing about its kineticism – the game encouraged you to fight on the move, using Lara’s athleticism to gain an advantage over enemies. At times, it was thrilling, especially in some of the larger combat arenas. Rise Of The Tomb Raider half remembers that. The game still encourages you to remain on the move in firefights, but, bizarrely, makes it more difficult to do so effectively.
There’s a sense of claustrophobia to many of its combat areas, exacerbated by the fact that enemies will quickly and relentlessly close you down. Almost immediately after you get in cover, you’ll have a grenade lobbed your way, forcing you out, but you’ll be peppered with gunfire as soon as you do so by virtue of the fact that enemies are already on top of you. The famous line “Should I stay or should I go?” comes to mind; The Clash didn’t know and Rise Of The Tomb Raider
Rise Of The Tomb Raider is frustrating, then. It feels like there’s an exceptional game in there somewhere, but mechanics and design decisions butt heads so frequently that it struggles for a chance to emerge. It is an enjoyable game, but if only Crystal Dynamics could have resolved its conflicts by focusing its attention on what Tomb Raider does best and cutting out anything that got in the way of that, it could have been something far more special.