I’ve been playing The Witness this week. Which is probably an odd way to start a Rise of the Tomb Raider review, but it served as an interesting counterpoint. These games are absolutely, radically, totally different in much of what they do, but they’re also more alike than I had ever given credit for. You see both look absolutely sumptuous, and they’re both adventure games at heart, with worlds you just want to get lost in for hours, exploring every avenue and hunting down every last secret. But how they do this is remarkably different.
While The Witness is somewhere to live in, Rise of the Tomb Raider is the glorious theme park you want to blitz through in a weekend. If you’ve played the original reboot, you know precisely what to expect. If you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for? You can probably pick it up for pennies by now! Suffice to say I loved my time with first one. It was a brief, eye-poppingly gorgeous reboot that finally married Tomb Raider’s sense of adventure with some cinematic panache and a control scheme that didn’t make you feel like the spawn of Cthulhu as you wrestled a controller.
Rise of the Tomb Raider very much follows in its footsteps, but it’s an evolution that improves on just about every single aspect. Overfamiliarity will likely be your initial impression, coupled with a growing sense of wonder at the visuals that helps you drag you through the admittedly tedious opening scenes. You see Rise starts off extremely linear, and even throws in some dreaded QTE sequences to help ladle on the doubt sauce nice and thick. But before long the world opens up before you, and you realise this was anything but the case.
Once you settle into things you’re going to be adventuring in the frigid lands of Siberia. It’s a harsh, unforgiving environment full of craggy cliff-faces and hidden valleys. Perfect for Lara to walk the treacherous tightrope between life and death she calls a day job. In typical fashion it all revolves around a long-lost city, an ancient artifact, and a bizarre cult. It’s real throwaway, run of the mill stuff we’ve come to expect. That’s all window-dressing to the real meat of the game though, which is the exploration.
Seldom in a game do you feel quite as much of a tourist as you do in Rise of the Tomb Raider. It’s actually hitting the heights of the Uncharted series here, and all I wanted to do was discover the next intricately designed palace or secret cove. There’s absolutely loads of things to do and collectibles to find, and they all feel like they’re genuinely helping when you uncover them. Just picking through the environments can be a joy, and captures that feeling of having conquered an area as you become intensely familiar with every nook and cranny. There’s secret coins, ancient manuscripts, monoliths and more, with each one helping to level up Lara’s abilities. Reading three glyphs and learning a whole new language just like that comes off as a bit strange in the early portion though.
For getting about, Lara’s moveset essentially abouts the same, and it doesn’t take long until you're zipping about the environment. If I had one complaint it’s that the act of getting about is a little too easy. You know when a platform starts collapse you have to run forward and make a cinematic leap, and seldom do you feel the actual danger of the situations Lara has found herself in. But by that same token Rise of the Tomb Raider is a great game to just switch your brain off and let it all wash over you.
What that does mean is you can’t go in expecting the head-scratching brainteasers of the earlier Tomb Raider games. For all Square Enix’s bigging up of the larger tombs, getting about them is usually a breeze, and the puzzles are very simple and familiar. The originals’ tombs felt like complex codes that needed cracking, while here it’s about shunting you on to the next spectacle.
Combat is also much the same as before, with a small selection of standard weapons to choose from to get you through. The bow obviously makes a return, and it’s still one of the best. There’s something about drawing back the string and letting off a volley that’s just immensely satisfying. Stealth is also a far more reliable option this time around, which goes hand in hand with bow use. It’s no Splinter Cell, but you can lob distractions, creep across high-ground, and generally go Predator on the roving mercs.
In many ways Rise of the Tomb Raider is a difficult game to review. It’s a predictable experience, but it’s one which does improve on its predecessor, no matter how small the improvement. It’s a safe evolution then, and one that fans of the last game will be able to go in confidently, knowing they’ll like it. One day the fairy dust will wear off, but for now, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a glittering spectacle of what cinematic third-person adventure games can be.