Rise of the Tomb Raider is everything I want a video game to be. That might sound rather hyperbolic, but Crystal Dynamics really couldn't have delivered a game more tuned to my tastes. Not only is the world in Rise of the Tomb Raider one ripe for exploration, but the quest is epic, the action incredible, and the sights oh so pretty.
Set following the events of the 2013 reboot, in Rise of the Tomb Raider Lara travels to Siberia seeking the ancient city of Kitezh. With the dangers of the wild, a shady and heavily militarised organisation named Trinity, and mysterious foes to contend with, the journey to find the truth is far from easy, and it takes Lara to some vast and varied locations.
In a welcome return to the Tomb Raider of old, Rise practically begs for you to explore its many areas, some small, others so large they feel like proper open-world zones. Challenge Tombs are plentiful, but must be found in the world before you can attempt to solve them and earn rewards. Entirely puzzle-based, these should go some way to winning over long-time Tomb Raider fans who felt the franchise was moving too far away from its roots. Make no mistake; in Rise of the Tomb Raider, you can do a lot of tomb raiding, and quality raiding at that too.
That's not to say you won't be doing plenty of leaping, ledge-shimmying, and wall climbing during the course of the core story quest. Lara's abilities are upgraded over time, meaning the cool stuff you can do gradually increases until you're capable of scaling pretty much anything. The bow, climbing axe and rope are key to most of Lara's skill set, creating rope bridges and zip lines, but also serving as a grappling hook, a tether and a way to dislodge large objects. Crystal Dynamics skillfully manages the pace of the adventure, moving from slower platforming sequences to dramatic escape scenes during which you'll use a bunch of moves in rapid succession.
With plenty of enemies trying to find Kitezh or prevent Lara from doing so, you can't get by on skillful navigation alone, meaning If you weren't a fan of Lara The Killer from her previous outing, you're not going to love her here either. Combat, bloody and exhilarating as it is, returns more or less as it was before. Your primary weapon is a bow, complete with a string of special arrow types (once acquired). This is joined by a pistol, shotgun, and automatic rifle, each upgradable over the course of the game. Gunplay feels looser than in full-on third-person shooters, but it's highly entertaining and offers some satisfying and diverse confrontations.
If you start to think you've had enough of taking out bunches of henchmen guarding small strongholds, you're probably not far from something new. It won't be long until you get an upgrade to liven things up, have to make use of objects in the environment, or are thrown into an arena that requires a different approach. And you don't have to always go in guns blazing, with stealth often proving a more sensible option. Again, your proficiency here is helped by using upgrade points on hunting abilities, boosting Lara's lethality significantly if you choose to go down that branch of the skill-tree.
Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the face of it, is just another third-person shooter with platforming, but there's a feeling of real craft here that sets it apart from the rest. Rather than using a given set of mechanics and rinsing them over and over throughout changing environments, Lara's latest constantly impresses by asking you to do new things. There's certainly an element of the Metroidvania model here, but it's more than that; it's the one-off moments, the plentiful list of things to collect, side missions to complete, and wild animals to hunt. Many games, even really good ones, have lulls, but Rise of the Tomb Raider never lets up.
An important part of the overall experience is wonderful art design that's paired with some truly impressive technical nouse. Tomb Raider of old was full of amazing moments as players discovered spectacular structures and new environments. The sense of discovery here is, for me, unmatched and takes the idea of unbelievable sights to a new level. Not only are you treated to environments home to tremendously detailed architecture, but it's all bathed in such rich lighting and atmosphere that it feels believable. When you find a collossal cave down a series of underground tunnels, or walk through a sun-drenched opening to reveal a towering ancient structure, there's a real sensation of awe and it drives you to see what else is hidden away.
Pointing out a few of Rise of the Tomb Raider's less accomplished areas seems pretty finicky on the back of how much I enjoyed myself, but there are some issues that might turn a select few away. While I believe this is one of the most visually impressive games I've ever seen, the frame rate regularly fluctuates, creating a less than smooth experience at points. This didn't bother me, and didn't have any impact on gameplay, but it's a fact and does need mentioning. The story, and in particular the dialogue, is somewhat patchy. Certain lines are terrible and towards the conclusion gameplay is interrupted by cutscenes a little too often. Still, the plot holds together well and there's a nice setup for what will surely follow.
Having enjoyed the Tomb Raider reboot I expected good things from Rise of the Tomb Raider, but those have been exceeded to a degree I didn't imagine. Crystal Dynamics has made a game that expertly rekindles memories of the series' triumphant past and yet still feels incredibly modern. In an era when triple-A blockbuster games often drown beneath a desire to make things more explosive or complex than before, Rise of the Tomb Raider shows how it should be done. This is captivating romp that should cement Lara as a modern gaming icon.
So much to do and see
I finished Rise of the Tomb Raider with the game telling me I'd completed 61 per cent of what is on offer. Considering it took me longer to reach the end credits than it has most games I've played this year, it's testament to the sheer volume of content on offer.
On completion you can continue your game and attempt to mop up any challenge tombs and side missions you didn't get around to, and also go on the hunt for all the collectables. I'm not usually one to go back once the credits roll, but there's so much good stuff here that it would be a shame not to. Thanks to being able to quick-travel from camp to camp (and there are loads), you won't have to spend ages backtracking, either.
Outside of the massive list of tasks to complete inside the campaign, a completely separate Expeditions mode is accessible from the main menu. Essentially this lets you create or play custom scenarios, using acquired playing cards (some unlocked through the campaign, others bought with accrued points) to modify the experience. Some cards are visual, such as big heads (a gaming classic), others are fun (arrows are chickens, so fun unless you love chickens), and some alter how challenging the mission is, making combat tougher or easier in a variety of ways.
Leaderboards for each Expedition show who is doing the best, and rewards are handed out for the best players, which you can then invest in new card packs. With just the campaign to fully complete there is a massive game to explore and invest tens of hours into, but Expeditions adds another layer on top and puts a clever twist on things.
Version Tested: Xbox One