Two hours into Rise of the Tomb Raider, San Francisco developer Crystal Dynamics' follow-up to its series reboot of 2013, and I'm genuinely thinking: This is game of the year material, right here. Everything I'm seeing, hearing, doing, it's amazing. It's singing to me like so few triple-A titles do, keeping my attention on the razor's edge that separates predictability from unplayability. I've survived an avalanche down the side of an impressively snow-crested mountainside, explored a beautiful ancient Syrian tomb while warfare raged on a horizon-hugging cityscape, and picked myself up from being knocked down like only Lara Croft can. In her previous outing, she learned to be a survivor. Here, she begins as battered, bruised, and bloody before growing into something else: a hard-shelled ice queen of ask-questions-later ruthlessness, a frozen-hearted killer with an appetite for destruction.
Which is where that magic hold on the senses breaks and one quickly realizes that Rise of the Tomb Raider isn't an outstandingly exceptional game, operating at a level where only 1 percent of mainstream releases ever get close to, but is "merely" a very, very good one. It's a great one, a lot of the time, full of riveting action likely to keep your ass at the edge of your sofa, and wonderfully original puzzles to crack when you're not encouraging Lara's red-eyed bloodlust.
Which is not to say that the progressively intensifying firefights aren't well orchestrated. Once Rise... loses its innocence and goes for the jugular, arming its iconic lead to the pearly white teeth and sending forth a legion of AI-backwards enemies to slaughter, it remains a ton of fun, an explosive adventure on a par with much of what Hollywood can chuck out come summertime blockbuster season. But it loses some of the personality that comes through in its opening hours, where we see Lara not as a vessel for extreme violence but as a psychologically wounded daughter cracking under the pressure of preserving her family's reputation.
You do what you can to avoid conflict—several areas where enemies lurk can be navigated stealthily. But take one wrong step and the situation escalates rapidly. Lara's no bullet sponge, so you'll always have to seek cover once the weapons are out. But she's fleet-footed, and mashing the dodge button while sprinting towards an attacker with shotgun armed is sometimes the best approach to take rather than sit tight in the bushes and pick off your head shots. At least, that's the case on the game's regular difficulty level—which isn't particularly tough at all. Finishing the game's campaign unlocks a "survivor" mode, though, where the opposition is rather more demanding, and close-quarter confrontation is a one-way ticket to greyed-screen death (generally less gory than 2013's brutal scenes).
'Rise of the Tomb Raider,' release trailer
The Lara of Rise... is the same one we saw in 2013, but ever so slightly tweaked by my reckoning. Still voiced (and mo-capped) by English actress Camilla Luddington, her appearance this time around seems to combine the looks of her performer proper with those of Gemma Arterton, someone who's long been suggested as a solid shout for the Lara role in the next Tomb Raider movie, whenever that comes along. Lead writer Rhianna Pratchett does a fine job of connecting us to the Lara beneath the always-immaculate hair (how does she do it?) and quiver full of gassy arrows, joining the dots between her hunger for adventure and childhood influences, and her love-hate relationship with the woman who moved in after her mother's (assumed) death. I'm not about to get into plot line nuances, but the wicked stepmother figure, Ana, has a very significant part to play in the story here.
Which, keeping things as loose as possible, has Lara searching for a supernatural MacGuffin that grants "eternal" life. She discovers that it's somewhere in Siberia, so off we go to a more varied landscape than you might have anticipated, with a geothermal valley of verdant greens striking a life-abundant line through the icy extremes. Alas, Lara's not alone in desiring this shiny trinket, with an ages-old organization called Trinity also on the case—with more bombs and bulldozers and heavily armed attack choppers than they have navigational sense. It's these antagonists who serve as the game's primary cannon fodder, though there's another force to be reckoned with, too, as you reach the campaign's final stages. Might be that they're pretty old. Might also be that while their name implies immortality, it's amazing what an axe to the head can do for anyone's health, be they 20th century born or from a time when Constantinople was the center of the world.
Much of the background to Lara's quest comes through collectibles—audio logs and diaries can be found all over the game's expansive world (fast travel is a must for post-completion relic sweeping), filling in the gaps between why she is doing this, and why she should. There are also endless crates and lockboxes and plants and animals to reap resources from, which can be used to upgrade weapons and equipment at save-point campfires scattered across the game. Quite why these fires are always alight before Lara reaches them, though, is a strange quirk of the game's presentation. Surely some hostile or other would have ventured over to see who was sniffing around their territory, toasting marshmallows, and crafting hollow-point bullets from old junk, and stamped the flames out as well as anyone they found resting beside them.
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The campfires are but a small moment-breaker in comparison to some other only-in-this-medium instances of logic failing to keep pace with emergent gameplay possibilities. You can't open locked crates until you have the right tool; but you find a handgun long before you do a lock pick, so why can't Lara simply shoot the locks off? Spiked rope traps will swing down into your path in places, requiring a swift shot to a brick-like mass to bring the deadly points crashing down before impalement—but the ropes themselves are weirdly bullet proof. I caught the occasional glitch as I played, too, at one point seeing Lara leap straight through what should have been a solid metal tank and into a bottomless abyss below. Jumping from one point of safety to the next isn't always clear, actually, so don't be surprised if you lose a life or two in sections that should be simple, since you're not being shot at.
Outside of the campaign there is Expedition mode, where you can replay stages competitively, using modifiers unlocked by flipping over cards—some of which you can buy through microtransactions, others you earn simply by playing the game. My favorites: chicken bombs and arrows. In a quiet moment of the campaign I realized you could grab village-dwelling poultry and chuck it around the place, but little did I know than that you could, in Expeditions, use them as arrows, Hot Shots-style. You can also make Lara's head, or those of enemies, massive; turn off melee attacks entirely; switch what weapons work and which don't; activate perks for making it through a level unscathed; and so on. There's a lot of play potential in this mode, but whether you'll want to pay for any of it is up to you. Personally, I'll make do with what I've collected across the campaign.
Reading my play notes back, I've actually scribbled down a fair few criticisms with Rise of the Tomb Raider, which extend to bizarre enemy placement (if I've had to scramble up a wall of ice, swing over a chasm, and shimmy along a ledge to get here, how the hell did you get here?) and the constant clicking of the right stick to activate "survival instincts" to identify all the things Lara can pick up for processing—they glow bright yellow as the rest of the screen becomes washed out. Keeping the often-fiendish challenge tombs "optional" still feels somewhat counter-intuitive given these are the areas in which Lara actually raids tombs. But for the most part these are niggles, nothing that we don't actively expect from video games. If everything in games was just as it is in real life, I don't think they'd hold the same appeal—we need a little dissonance, a little disconnection, to qualify these distractions as entertainment, experiences beyond our potential. And Rise of the Tomb Raider is never not entertaining, even when it's trading singular charisma for gaming clichés and transforming a twenty-something archaeologist into a lethal chimera of John Rambo, Katniss Everdeen, and Sarah Connor.
This is the bona-fide Uncharted rival that Microsoft needed, although what its timed Xbox exclusivity will do for the game's overall commercial performance remains to be seen. It isn't without the occasional blemish, a misstep or three, but when assessed as a complete package Lara's latest stands with its head above against most major-studio releases of 2015—not quite GOTY material, but strongly recommended. And it could yet prove the better Indiana-Jones-'em-up when measured beside next year's Nathan Drake swansong, A Thief's End, should Naughty Dog's release rely too much on snarky quips and canned cutscenes over franchise progression. Rise... most definitely is progression for all things Tomb Raider, and Crystal Dynamics aren't finished yet—keep watching until the end of the (Karen O-soundtracked) credits, is all I'm saying.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is released today, November 13th, for Xbox One (version tested) and Xbox 360. A PC port is due early next year, and a PlayStation 4 version will follow in late 2016.
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