This game starts off in the most disorienting way possible, with a dramatic climbing sequence in the snowy mountains full of quick-time button prompts. Press A. Press X. Twirl the stick and mash Y. It’s a great way to not learn how this game plays at all. It’s not too hard, just confusing. You’ll be holding up on the analog stick most of the time, watching Lara jump perfectly across gaps and grab her wall of choice. You are left guessing which direction Lara is going to jump as the camera swings wildly on its own. Just press A and hope for the best. Press X to grab the wall. Oh, okay. I did that I guess? Oh no, I fell. Wait, I’m meant to fall. Really got me there, game. The whole scene is just overly stressful despite barely any button inputs happening at all. It gave me a horrible first impression as the game felt very phony and I hadn’t even played a Tomb Raider game before and didn’t know any backstory to this game. I was ready to delete the game after this and move on.
Unlike this guy I pushed onwards. The game settles down once you arrive at a comfy campfire. The movement and camera controls are pretty decent when you actually have freedom. I was enjoying moving the camera very slowly at first because damn, this game has a lot of detail. There are more types of ice than I could have ever imagined. Leaves within leaves. Key items scattered between dozens of other randomly high detailed objects you can’t examine. Ten different sizes of cracks in the walls. The walls also have incredibly high detailed paintings and engravings. Even the textures have textures. I really enjoy looking around at everything in this game. Most of the gameplay I experienced was probably just the camera rotating. Looking for ledges to grab onto. Poles to tie rope onto. Watching animals and enemy movement patterns.
Now to backtrack to my opening impression, the game has a lot of climbing and action sequences and they are mostly terrible. The climbing is linear and you just hold A and press X to stab your pick into the ice in the bright glowing spot. It’s a kinda neat way to traverse these magnificent environments, but the gameplay feeling is just very mundane. There’s nothing at stake, no challenge, it barely feels like gameplay. At its best it’s smooth and pleasant. At its worst it’s frustrating when the environment isn’t clear, and you just have to guess which thing Lara will grab on to. For a game with Rise in the title, there is an awful lot of falling.
The combat is a bit more dynamic and interesting. There are some fun situations that allow stealth and give you a few options. You can grab bottles or other objects around the area and create explosives or other distractions with them. The crafting in this game is implemented so well you can craft on the fly just by holding the R button, it might be the best crafting I’ve ever used in a game. I initially dreaded it because I don’t like the feature in most games, but here it’s just easy and doesn’t take up any menu real-estate. You can make explosive cocktails, smoke bombs or throw radios as distractions by combining stuff you find with stuff in your inventory. There are a lot of different ways to get kills. One-hit stealth KO from behind, lighting enemies on fire, falling on them, dragging them into water. The enemies are extremely oblivious for the most part and susceptible to anything you might want to try. As you progress you slowly unlock more weapon options and stealth perks to make the enemies look even dumber. It’s very amusing.
While some of these smaller fights are fun, there are still some Uncharted-style battlefields where you mow down dozens of enemies, and those don’t fit the tone of this game at all. The gunplay doesn’t have much depth and these scenes are just not that fun to play, not to mention they all feel the same. Sometimes you might be able to shoot an object over an enemies head, or a conveniently placed explosive barrel, but it’s often too fast-paced to nail perfectly. The extreme shooting segments aren’t too common, but they still feel unnecessary. I would honestly recommend playing this game on one of the easier difficulties just to focus on better parts of the game.
Another area that is hugely lacking with this game is the music. There are three tracks, the title screen hum, the “Enemy in the Area” fast drumbeat, and the 3 second melody when you discover something. That’s about all I remember. Apart from that you’re just left with ambience and sound effects. The sound effects are absolutely fantastic, it must be said. Water drips through the caverns, leaves rustle as the wind picks up, animals footsteps patter, radio chatter is picked up by random walkie talkies. Sound is even a gameplay element as the wildlife and enemy soldiers can hear you if you’re not careful. They put a lot of effort into the sound design in this game. I kept second-guessing if the birds were in the game, or out my window. While the audio is great I still think the music is a missed opportunity. There are a lot of unique locations like villages or certain tombs with their own theme that could have an unique music track to identify with… but nothing. The game has water, ice and fire areas with no thematic music attempt whatsoever. When you compare this to something like Zelda or Xenoblade it feels very disappointing. They are very different games but surely they could have done more. The small music this game has isn’t bad by any means, just uninspired. For a 50 hour game a few movie score moments isn’t really enough.
The graphics are quite simply some of the best I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s hard to capture in a screenshot but the environments feel so alive. Every possible thing that could be moving in this game is, and the dynamic lighting brings it to life as you walk around and light dashes through the trees. This was a large reason I enjoyed backtracking in this game, just for more reasons to explore. There are optional challenges in each major area like shooting down targets, breaking statues and burning propaganda posters. I thought they were all really fun as the story, environment and gameplay all tie together perfectly for these. If you’ve played Resident Evil 4, it’s like the 15 targets you shoot down near the farm area, except every area of this game has a few different challenges, and they have a bit more context.
The pacing and structure is probably my favourite thing about this game. Even though the game has some bad parts I just couldn’t stop playing. I never thought this would be the first Xbox One single player game I’d beat. The game takes a fairly linear approach with the story, however the areas you traverse are quite big and open ended. You can freely travel back to earlier areas with new abilities, to find new items or complete challenges and missions. This gives the game more of a Metroid feel which I did not expect at all. Returning to blow up an entrance to a cave, then finding a tomb with a gigantic environmental puzzle is an amazing feeling. I spent more time doing optional things in this game than actually pursuing the story, and ended up with 100% completion at the end. It just feels amazing to find a brand new area hidden away underground.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is not a perfect game, nor is it super inspired, but I feel like it was definitely worth playing. I would not recommend it as a shooter or for the story, but simply for the exploration gameplay. The sense of wonder while exploring tombs is captured very well and it definitely lived up to the “Tomb Raider” name for me with its content. I can’t say how well it compares to the old games since I’ve never played them, but it has made me feel like exploring some caves in my area. I’m very happy I played this and look forward to trying Shadow of the Tomb Raider at some point now. From what I’ve read it has less combat and more puzzles and exploration, which is the major thing I would change in this game. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some pot plants to smash in my backyard.