Rise of the Tomb Raider is a stellar follow-up to the 2013 reboot. We're presented with a beautiful, tight game with a solid story and likable characters.

In 2013, Crystal Dynamics introduced a new Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. They tore down everything we know about Lara and her journeys from the past 20 years and started a new vision for the franchise, from the ground up. It was a critical success. In 2015 they followed up Tomb Raider with Rise of the Tomb Raider, which aims to improve upon everything the previous entry succeeded or failed at. Were they successful?

Story

Taking place one year after 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider follows Lara Croft on her journey to find the lost city of Kitezh, a mysterious place thought to contain the secrets of immortality. The city of Kitezh is the last place her father tried to find, before the hunt for immortality made him go mad and kill himself. Lara’s journey to finish what her father started finds her going head-to-head against a paramilitary organization hell bent on finding the city of Kitezh and it’s secrets, by any means necessary.

This Lara is a year wiser than she was in her last adventure, and she’s a better equipped killer because of it. Where before her knack for killing seemed like an unnatural progression, in Rise she is a lot more comfortable. In fact, the lack of focus on any kind of remorse improved the game because it wasn’t quite as weird to be wrecking a dude’s skull with a pick axe. The story itself, however, feels less inspired than the one in the previous title. The sense of magic and terror is mostly gone. The last game had a lot more of a supernatural feel to it like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while Rise feels more like The Crystal Skull. The characters are more fleshed out in Rise, but they still aren’t quite memorable. They are good for the moment and good for the story. It all works, but it’s not the best it could be.

Presentation

There is no doubt that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a beautiful game through and through. Lara is animated with painstaking detail. Her clothes fold, hair blows in the air by strands, and her skin illuminates based on the source of light. Her sweat even shimmers. There is detail in her model that very few developers seem to care about.

Unfortunately, the animations left a little bit to be desired. They are put together well, but there are few of them. Not only is the quantity of animations disappointing, but they often feel like they are rehashed from the 2013 predecessor. There is just something overly familiar about the way Lara handles and looks in action, to a point that it all feels cheapened. That said though, her death-cuts are still wonderfully cringe-inducing. Sometimes getting killed is fun in of itself.

Another area where the presentation shines is in the world surrounding Lara. The environments are lush and alive. Some places are just breathtaking to behold, like the opening trek in Syria or the blizzard beaten lands of Russia. One of the earlier acts in the game, ice picking across frozen cliffs in a nasty white-out, is one of those moments in gaming that will likely leave a lasting impression on you. In wet lands, rainbow refractions are created by misting water. Walking through the snow creates build-up around Lara’s legs, and her steps are unbalanced and heavy. The forests are alive with birds, rabbits and deer. In other lands you’ll find yourself battling wolves, bears, bobcats and mountain lions. The environment is as much a character in this game as Lara is.

Enemies are probably the weakest link in the game. The soldiers are completely generic. There aren’t many variations to them, so you fall into that feeling of killing the same characters over and over again to a point where they become boring. The most interesting enemies don’t happen until far later in the game, and that’s unfortunate. Not only does the lack of variation hurt, but they are also generically animated and detailed. They don’t have the same love given to them that Lara does.

Environments and lighting are beautiful.

This review is written based on the experience with PlayStation 4 Pro. For the PlayStation 4 Pro, Crystal Dynamics gave the game a patch that allows you to choose between performance and visuals. The visuals were dialed up for this review. The television used wasn’t 4k, but you could see the benefit of downsampling the higher-resolution assets (the game checkerboards to 4K). The graphics were very crisp and vibrant, with barely a jitter in sight. Nothing scientific was done to test the frame rate, but there weren’t any noticeable drops. The game seemed to run at a rock solid 30fps, even in the visual enhanced mode.

PlayStation 4 Pro performance settings.

Audio for the game was pumping through a 7.1 Onkyo. Everything was as you would expect in a modern, AAA title. The voice work was clear and center with a nice wrapping of environmental ambience surrounding you. The music was solid, and gunfire popped in the speakers and explosions boomed through the sub. With the right setup, you will get a proper visual and audio experience with Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Nothing about the presentation felt game-breaking. All in all, the entire game is an excellent piece of visual art from beginning to end. There are just a few areas where the Crayon went outside the lines a bit.

Gameplay

It’s hard to play the refreshed Tomb Raider franchise without comparing the games to their nearest competitor, Sony’s Uncharted franchise. It’s especially hard to not compare the two when Rise of the Tomb Raider wasn’t released for PlayStation 4 until months after Uncharted 4 has already been played and beaten. Fortunately, Rise of the Tomb Raider has it’s moments where it stands on it’s own. It’s strongest feature is the leveling system. Unlike Uncharted, weapons and skills are earned and then enhanced using a familiar skill tree. Weapons can be upgraded by finding parts scattered around the lands, and Lara’s various skills can be upgraded by looting enemy corpses, finding treasures and breaking salvage boxes.

Where Uncharted and Rise of the Tomb Raider begin to blur into each other is in the climbing mechanics. They are virtually identical. Scaling is done using the left and right sticks. Areas that are climbable (in Rise) are highlighted in what is essential white paint or white bird shit, depending on where the ledge is. This is similar to how climbable elements in Uncharted are highlighted yellow. Jumping from ledge to ledge is effortless, and honestly most threats are taken away because the process is so automatic – save a few times where you might lose your grip and have to press a button to grab on again. This isn’t a complaint or chicken and egg scenario, it’s more of a statement and observation that if you have experience with Uncharted, you will find yourself right at home with these mechanics in Rise of the Tomb Raider and vice versa.

Climbing mechanics are familiar and tight.

Along with climbing mechanics, at the heart of Rise of the Tomb Raider is exploration. This means finding the namesake tombs. The tombs are one of the big highlights in this game. They are all different and they all offer unique puzzles of varying difficulty. They utilize timing, switch and trigger mechanisms, some small amounts of engineering, and of course climbing — pretty much all of Lara’s tools. Some of the tombs are also massive and really help give the game a sense of magnitude. Where Tomb Raider lacked much raiding, Rise of the Tomb Raider is packed with it. Whether it’s exploring caves or hunting for treasure in a tomb – there is plenty to keep you distracted from the main mission at hand. Throw in the amount of collectibles you can get from treasures to documents – and you have hours of extra content to dig through once the story is done.

What would an adventure be without some gunplay? The combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider is pretty tight. Lara is responsive to your actions, the weapons are varied and fun to use — and the execution moves are satisfying. The bow and auto-rifle were two primary weapons utilized. Sometimes a shotgun was whipped out for those few moments where the battles are in close quarters. As touched upon earlier, you upgrade weapons and your skills. So as the game progresses, Lara gets stronger and by the end of it all, you have built yourself a killing machine. The A.I. did leave a bit to be desired. It’s not the worst out there, but it definitely isn’t the brightest. In fact, it seemed pretty average. You could hide in plain sight and it won’t detect you. To the counter, you could be hiding in a building and be ducked behind a window and an enemy furthest away from your POV will detect you. Taking down enemies is rather effortless, especially the ones you come across later in the game. Sometimes that’s all you want though because there are moments where you don’t want them to be more difficult. Sometimes the quantity was overwhelming.

PlayStation VR Support

Along with all of the DLC released to-date, the 20 Year Celebration edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider comes with an exclusive PlayStation VR mode. The VR mode is really just a special mission completely unrelated to the main game, and you get to explore Croft Manor. Unlike a lot of the VR games out on the platform right now, this one requires that you stand and walk around. This proved to be problematic and I wasn’t able to play the mission for very long. There was an immediate sense of dizziness that kicked in and soon after it was nausea. Dizziness and nausea is something I’ve only experienced one other time with PlayStation VR and that was with the Here They Lie demo, which apparently the game is known to have that effect on people anyway. The disconnect of physically moving in the real world to move in the virtual world is likely what caused the VR sickness for me with this mission. That in mind, the mission is just a click, read and exploration game. But, try it at your own risk.

Conclusion

Rise of the Tomb Raider is an excellent game. It improves on just about everything the previous entry fell short on. Unfortunately, the story wasn’t anything spectacular and the enemy A.I. needed some further tuning. However, if you liked the predecessor, you are likely going to love this one. It has a lot of high notes.

Have you had a chance to experience Lara’s latest outing? What did you think of it?