It’s hard to imagine that Lara Croft has been part of my life for just about 20 years now. I remember her debut in 1996 and as a 15 year old boy, I was blown away by what I was seeing on screen and the talk in the playgrounds about this new character and her wonderful game.
I even remember the chatter about the various cheats that were possible, especially ones that could make Lara naked in the game. Due to having no internet or anything like that and being rather naive, I am not ashamed to admit that I tried the cheats I heard and even made some up myself for some playground cred.
The years however haven’t been kind on Lara, with the games gradually getting worse and even becoming a bit of a joke, yet Lara herself remained and still remains one of the greatest icons ever to emerge from videogames. Up there with the likes of Mario, she is one the few characters that even non gaming fans could name instantly.
The Tomb Raider reboot in 2013, which was technically the second official reboot, did a lot to restore the faith in a Tomb Raider game and despite some questionable claims by Crystal Dynamics around the characterization of Lara, especially how she would handle killing, the game on the whole was a real return to form and probably the best game overall in the franchise. I’ll touch on the characterization further into this review.
There were other issues in the 2013 release that felt off, such as the lack of actual tombs to raid, which is one of the first things that has been fixed in Rise of the Tomb Raider. There are still the big set-pieces, the stalking, stealth and murder, but those have been dialed back a fraction to allow for more exploration and basic puzzle solving, bring Lara back to what she was born to do…explore and discover.
Rather than trying to match the darling of the last few years in the Uncharted series, Crystal Dynamics have made the right decision to go back to the roots of Tomb Raider and the game feels all the better for it. Because, whilst there is a constant threat from the enemy, you feel like you have the time to explore what is around and discover new things.
There is a lot to discover too, with artifacts, scrolls and much, much more spread very generously across the various maps which Lara gets to play in. Now whilst I am not usually a fan of collectibles, usually because they are hidden so much, I can never be bother to look, here most you can come across with ease and the fun is working out how to get to them, but very rarely having to ignore your current path. It makes you want to check them out.
Rise of the Tomb Raider still contains one of my biggest pet hates in many modern AAA games. The need to add RPG elements to the progression. Doing certain things in the game, finding new areas, learning by discovery, etc will all earn Lara XP which she can use to level up her base skills. Now I get why this is a thing in some games, but for me it is not needed in a Tomb Raider, it just feels out of place. Lara should be Lara and that is that.
Now this is different to the upgrading of tools and weapons, which I actually do like, but the notion that Lara can become better skilled in a short space of time or learn whole new languages from looking at a few paintings, nah that isn’t for me. I don’t like it in Assassin’s Creed games and the like and I think it fits even worse here.
I can understand though why this has been done, as Rise of the Tomb Raider shares a lot in common with a Metroidvania, where you can see ways to access new areas, but won’t have the right tools and skills to get there until later. I like that, because I love Metroidvania games, but it is something that would have worked just as well by finding and upgrading tools, rather than learning new skills via XP.
The raiding of tomb are pretty much optional, but rather cleverly by going off mission and completing them, you will get very handsomely rewarded and will earn some rather nifty new kit to help you along the way, especially when trying to access the aforementioned cut off areas.
Each tomb will take anywhere between 15-45 minutes to complete and there are a good number of them dotted around. It allows the devs to strike a nice balance between keeping the story moving forward and going back to the franchise’s roots.
Lara, new modern Lara, is the best version of Lara yet. In the original games, despite the aim being to have a strong female lead role-model type character, she became anything but. She was more sex symbol than she was strong lead and looking back, it was almost embarrassing how much sexuality was used to push Lara to young adolescent males. It worked and it worked very well, so you cannot blame anyone for that, especially in the era it was.
But we are in a different world and whilst 2013 Lara looked the part and felt more like a real adventurer who dressed properly for he role, rather than trying to be sexy, her characterization was simply off. She was built up to have real emotions, that she was a survivor and would struggle with the need to kill to survive. It all sounded very promising, maybe giving you some moral choices to make along the way.
Yet the only time this happened was during her first kill, which was pretty much done via a cut-scene. Then it was off on a murdering spree without a care in the world. It was a noble aim, but the build up to the release and with this being a big selling point, it was very disappointing in the end.
Lara can still be a killing machine throughout Rise of the Tomb Raider, but this time there isn’t any claims of Lara having to toy with her own emotions about it, or any such nonsense and instead the writers have focused on other aspects of Lara and a much more interesting overall story arc.
One that not only pushes the story along at a solid pace, but introduces some nice back story about Lara and her relationships from childhood with her father. I would have been happy to have seen more of this with it being expanded on at some point. However, it does seem lessons were learned from the last game and this feels much better for it.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is, for me at least one of the surprises of the years. I was expecting a solid game, one that just gave me more of the same as a follow up to the 2013 release. Yet what we got was a game that improved on the good and cleared away much of the bad, to produce a title that deserves its place among the best Lara Croft games over the previous 20 years.