Fried Take - "Rise of the Tomb Raider" (2015)

Tomb Raider II is often considered to be the finest of Lara Croft's many adventures, and for good reason. Core Design took everything that worked with its 1996 landmark game, then polished it into an epic adventure that spanned the globe. Pretty much all of the weird little quirks, bugs, and things that just flat-out didn't work in the first game were gone, and what we were left with was one of finest video games to date. Speaking personally, there were action/adventure games before Tomb Raider II, and then there were ones after it. The difference was night and day. It was just that damn good.

Taking that into consideration, would it be fair to consider Rise of the Tomb Raider a new Tomb Raider II? It's a sequel to 2013's dynamite reboot, and a second step in the bold new direction that series started walking in. I only ask because I can't think of playing another game of this variety without inevitably comparing it to the sublime feat that Crystal Dynamics has achieved here.

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. See, ever since Naughty Dog overhauled what people thought of as a typical "action/adventure" game in 2007, the once-revered Tomb Raider franchise began to struggle against its sleeker, more streamlined competition. Crystal Dynamics' half-response, Underworld, was undoubtedly a stellar game, and had some of the finest set pieces I've ever seen conceptualized. That said, something had to give. Despite a 2005 revamp, Tomb Raider's central dynamics and core design philosophies were still holding the game in the pass. Despite my fondness for them, there was no denying that what used to work was no longer marketable.

And then came 2013. Tomb Raider, a game I openly roasted pre-release, ended up garnering a perfect score from me, in a year already slammed with amazing games. Basically, it took everything that made Uncharted famous, then did it ten times better. Huge set pieces, blistering action, pitch-perfect shooting mechanics, a stellar plot... it really did have it all. Except... one thing. One thing, despite my love for it, did make me pine for the old days of the franchise. With the emphasis on fast-paced action, there was a general feeling of linearity to the whole thing. By emulating Uncharted, it also emulated that franchise's focus on big corridors as opposed the expansive worlds that Lara Croft was known for exploring.

Which makes it all too funny, then, that I spent the first few hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider remarking to myself, "it's too big!" And, indeed, the first thing one notices when booting up Crystal Dynamics' follow-up is that it's a truly huge game. Perhaps it doesn't have the map size of a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game, but what it lacks in square mileage, it makes up for with sheer amount of things to do, stuff to see, tiny nooks and crannies to scope out. Playing this in tandem with Fallout 4 over the course of this week, I've felt infinitely more pulled into Rise's world, and felt way more compelled to do all of the stuff here.

Perhaps that's because Crystal Dynamics has actually put the "adventure" back in "action/adventure" with this game. The genre has, as of late, become a modified sort of corridor shooter, just with pretty set pieces. At no point during any Uncharted game, or any of the countless imitators it spawned, did I feel like I was on an adventure of any sort. I just felt like I was shooting things in exotic locations. Same with Tomb Raider, to be honest.

But in Rise? I felt like I was a kid cracking open one of Lara Croft's adventures for the first time, all over again. The huge dungeons to pillage, the hidden traps to avoid, the tricky set pieces to scale... they're all back, and arguably better than ever. From start to finish, I never stopped feeling like I was a tiny, insignificant little speck in the face of everything that was around me. Considering that video games so often try to make players feel like the exact center of the known universe, it's a refreshing change of pace to feel out of your element, tiny in the face of something huge. To a minor extent, it's almost the same type of feeling Bloodborne instills in players. Totally different game, of course, but that mood of being something small trying to conquer something large is ever-present here, albeit to a slightly more restrained extent.

It's impressive that Crystal Dynamics makes Lara feel so tiny here, too, because this is perhaps the most deeply personal Tomb Raider game we've gotten since the almost-masterpiece that was Legend, from a narrative standpoint. In the 2013 game, Lara's characterization was good, but occasionally got downplayed in order to accommodate a fairly large cast. Here, she's front and center. Her upbringing, what drives her, what makes her keep going, how she feels about the crazy stuff that happens around her... it's all here, and the game is far better off for it. Camilla Luddington's performance as Lara is the best that the franchise has ever had, and helps the character balance the thin line between "legendary heroine" and "flawed human being" with the utmost perfection.

The excellent narrative helps too, of course. Rihanna Pratchett, a writer who I love but is certainly hit-or-miss, knocks it out of the park with Rise. It's a spicy blend of gritty survival drama, paranoid conspiracy thriller and otherworldly horror, all thrown into a blender and mixed to perfection. There are no jarring tonal shifts here. Somehow, gruff men in military outfits, otherworldly skeleton soldiers, a secret cult seeking to purify the world through genocide, and a quest for immortality all work together perfectly. Nothing feels out of place, and from the explosive start to the jaw-dropping finale that opens up the mythos like never before, I was hanging on every second in a way I didn't expect. 

Speaking of "hanging," that's something you'll be doing quite a lot of in Rise, as expected. Hanging on ledges, hanging on ice axes, hanging on arrows, hanging on branches... lots of hanging. It's all really fun, though, because what you're hanging onto is often on the verge of crumbling between your fingers, blowing up, or some other horrible thing. What I'm basically trying to say is that, unlike a lot of games of this variety, in which "hang on a thing, then jump and hang on another thing" is a primary mechanic, the "climbing around" parts of Rise are probably the best out there. It never feels same-y or monotonous, or anything even close to that.

The same can be said of virtually every other gameplay mechanic, actually, It seems like Crystal Dynamics took every criticism of the previous game to heart and tweaked Rise into being the technically superior product. Shooting feels faster and less easy to rinse and repeat than it did in the 2013 game. Players get access to gear that lets them traverse the environment much, much earlier than last time. "Run while stuff explodes" sequences feel much more visceral and don't happen in a super heavy concentration, giving the whole game much more room to breathe. Oh, and platforming actually feels like platforming again; it's very not streamlined in some respects, and the result is a game that feels like it actually requires a degree of skill to pull off the climbing, jumping and other stuff that Lara has to do. It all just works, and works exceptionally well.

Which gave me some worry as the game opened up, actually. Would Lara being put in a quasi-sandbox limit the appeal of the gameplay? Would it feel out of place, in the same way that the open world in Metal Gear Solid V did? The answer is a resounding "no," because Crystal Dynamics wisely chose focus over breadth, and it pays off. There is definitely an open-world aspect to Rise of the Tomb Raider, but it has a distinct flow to it that your average open-world game does not. Instead of a big sprawl with stuff dotting it, the world feels like a cohesive little world that has several other, smaller worlds to go explore, each with their own distinct feeling. The feeling of the whole world is one of interconnectness, something that other games could learn a thing or two about.

Those "smaller worlds" I mentioned often (but not always) take the form of "Challenge Tombs," something introduced in the previous game. But those, while fun, were just small rooms with relatively simple puzzles at the center of them. Here, Challenge Tombs are whole other sections of the map, massive areas to traverse, fight through, and explore before you can even get to work on the puzzles housed within. Most of them are also hidden, too, which gives a huge sense of discovery and accomplishment when you stumble onto them. Imagine walking through a frozen forest, accidentally wandering through a cave, and then finding a weird crack in the wall. You squeeze through the crack, and suddenly, you're in a massive canyon, wind and snow whipping at you as you stand at the edge of a bottomless abyss, the sun glaring in your face. These are the kind of moments that make Challenge Tombs feel like crucial parts of the game world, and not just little diversions. They help build an atmosphere of discovery that was missing from the 2013 game, and hearkens back to the franchise's roots.

Only, unlike those early Tomb Raider entries, there is finally enough graphical horsepower available to render everything the creators can imagine in jaw-dropping detail, which is exactly what they've done here. I don't think it's any stretch to say that Rise of the Tomb Raider is the most graphically spectacular game of 2015, especially on a home console. The attention to detail here is truly impeccable, from sweeping vistas dotted with intricately detailed trees to tiny lines and scratches that accumulate on Lara's face. Environments, characters, enemies, and everything else all look flat-out incredible, almost to the point where I couldn't believe my eyes at times. For a game to capture realistic scenery and nuanced facial expression without treading into the uncanny valley is no small feat. It's also remarkable that the Xbox One is capable of housing such detailed visuals without the framerate slowing to a chug (see: The Witcher 3,) and yet, here we are, with a game that runs at a steady framerate and rarely (if ever, really,) dips below that. From both a graphical and performance standpoint, Rise of the Tomb Raider towers above every other console game this year, even impressive titles like Until Dawn or Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

It feels bad, almost, enjoying this game as much as I do. 2015 is almost over, and I've already doled out "perfect" scores to a few other titles this year, which is a far cry from 2014, in which barely any decent, let alone good, let alone great, games were released. Maybe that's a testament to how good gaming was this year. 2015 really has been kind to us, hasn't it?

And yet, I believe with full conviction that Rise of the Tomb Raider is perhaps the most innovative title this year in many ways. The "run while stuff blows up and then shoot stuff but also climb" type of video game is arguably the most popular type of third-person experience around now. Because of that, it's sort of stagnated, hasn't it? We've jump off cliffs. We've dashed between rooftops. We've surfed trains as they blew up beneath our feet. But hasn't it all gotten a little bit old? It's gotten so that whenever an Uncharted-esque title hits shelves, I sigh and play through it, not hating it, but not loving it either. Hell, even everything from Uncharted 4, so far, looks very much like stuff I've seen before. And this is speaking as a fan of that series.

Then along comes Rise of the Tomb Raider. A game that, for all intents and purposes, is the next logical step for the action/adventure genre. With years of games to pull from, Crystal Dynamics cherry-picked mechanics and put them here, refining them until they all played perfectly. Uncharted's climbing, The Last of Us' crafting and choice of how to approach combat, Tomb Raider's own archery system... they're all here, but all of them work better than they ever have. And then, the developer went the extra distance. They restored the Tomb Raider franchise back to its former state, to a sprawling, overwhelming adventure with lots to see and even more to do. A game that will, undoubtedly, take me hours to scrounge around in, poring through every inch of the map, scaling every last surface.

It's a huge game, both in scale and in what has been accomplished. It wouldn't be far from the truth, in fact, to call it "monumental." Because, for years, I will be comparing every game of this variety to Rise, and I suspect very few will even get within striking distance of it.

Back in 1997, sitting next to my dad and watching him play Tomb Raider II on our old iMac, I never dreamed that Lara Croft would be destined for bigger, better things. And yet she was. Rise of the Tomb Raider is her greatest outing yet, a game against which other games should be judged. And, for my money? It's one of the greatest games since the medium's inception.

Oh, and that Karen O song at the end is pretty toasty.


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