Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Year Celebration

[Spoiler Free]

Rise of the Tomb Raider finally came to PS4 on October 11, and thanks to the magic of preorders, I got it in the mail that very day! I was originally planning on writing a “First Impressions” review, but before I knew it, I had played most of the game. (Plus, I didn’t have much time to write since I was spending all of my time playing the game…)

Unboxing

The 20 Year Celebration version came packaged in a game case that mimics an old book or journal and has a built in collection of cool Tomb Raider art. Very fun! Though this was no fancy edition with replica journal and necklace like XBone got (not that I’m bitter), it’s a great addition to my collection. I love that the art book is right in the case, so you don’t have to store them separately, and it’s easy to enjoy the throwback art every time you take the game out.

20 Year Collection DLC Contents

  • Includes all previously released DLC for RotTR
  • “Blood Ties” single player story mode – also playable in VR
  • Co-op play for Endurance Mode
  • “Ultimate Survivor” difficulty for the main campaign
  • 20 Year Celebration outfit and gun
  • 5 classic Lara skins

Overall, the game contains tons of content with many hours of gameplay and high replay value due to the different modes.

Having all of the outfits and weapons up front led to some confusion on my part about what I should have and what I shouldn’t during the game. For example, I think I accidentally made it too easy for myself when I equipped a gun I had in my inventory, only to realize later that I wasn’t supposed to have a heavy pistol until way later. I wish they had been locked like the Baba Yaga: the Temple of the Witch DLC level, which only opened once you had reached a certain part in the storyline.

Story

Since this is a spoiler free review, I will discuss the story in general terms to try not to give anything away. Long story short, I think it’s great! (I may do a longer post on the story later that contains spoilers, but that’s outside the scope of this review.)

The overall story is a lovely callback to classic Tomb Raider plots. Lara’s reckless search for immortality highlights her youth, so though she has come a long way since the previous game, she still has a lot to learn about herself and life. The story incorporates elements of Lara’s family history, so you feel connected to her past, and it feels personal. In classic Tomb Raider fashion, RotTR does a great job of marrying real historical events and figures with mythology and the supernatural.

The shadow organization that acts as the enemy is a great addition to Tomb Raider lore. Secretive, militaristic, cult-like, and fanatical, they will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Locations

RotTR takes place mostly in Siberia, with some time spent in Syria and cutscenes in London (Lara’s apartment).

Syria

I appreciated that the game didn’t romanticize or stereotype Syria – you’re not in a war torn village for cultural tourism, you only see the ancient tomb that Lara is exploring. You don’t spend much time here, and it’s really more of a tutorial level.

Siberia

Ranging from dazzling ice caverns to remote forests to thriving geothermal valleys, RotTR exposes a beauty and diversity far different than the Siberian wasteland most people imagine. The location offers many exciting places to explore. You get to discover the history of the people of the land, as well as of the Soviet soldiers that were stationed there in the past.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Croft Manor

Though Croft Manor is not a part of the main story, you can visit it during Blood Ties. It’s disconcerting to see the great manor in disrepair, with broken windows, leaky ceilings, and trees growing through the walls. By exploring every nook and cranny, from the impressive library to the dilapidated tunnels under the house, you get to discover many secrets from Lara’s past – as well as many lovely callbacks to the original games.

Characters

Since this isn’t an origin story, Lara feels more like herself – the confident, intelligent, headstrong adventurer that we recognize from the original games. Rather than discovering who she is as a survivor, like in the previous game, she is boldly cutting a path through the world and chasing her own goals.

Women characters abound in this female-forward narrative. Lara is matched with female allies and pitted against female villains. (I won’t name names for fear of spoilers.) It’s no surprise that the writer is a woman – Rhianna Pratchett. (The daughter of Terry Pratchett!). However, the RotTR team is overwhelmingly male. Looking through the credits of the game that inspired me to study video game design reminded me of how far women still have to go in the video game industry.

Racial diversity, however, is low in this mostly-white game. Though the overwhelming whiteness is disappointing, at least they didn’t rely on the trope of setting the game in a distant land and casting all the villains and minions as people of color.

Though I can’t go into too much detail in this spoiler-free review, I will say that I cried at the end of the game, and again when I played the Blood Ties single player mode. So yes, you will definitely connect with the characters and the story.

Gameplay

basecamp.jpg
Lara at one of her base camps

Pros

My roommate Nick is currently playing Tomb Raider (2013), so I was easily able to compare the two games for this review. (Since I played it a couple of years ago, my memory of it was not so fresh.)

Rise of the Tomb Raider
Equipment upgrade screen
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Weapon upgrade screen

The salvage-to-crafting system has greatly improved, and feels more realistic. In RotTR, you have to gather specific resources from the environment in order to craft your supplies. For example, in order to make arrows you need hardwood from saplings and feathers from birds or their nests. Rather than everything being measured in “salvage,” salvage is now used chiefly for mechanical based improvements (like weapon upgrades), and you find much less of it (usually in crates or on enemies). I love farming, mining, and crafting in games, and these elements of RotTR made it feel a bit like Skyrim to me. Additionally, hunting feels more vital in this game. For example, I needed to go back to certain areas and hunt deer in order to have enough hides for the upgrades I wanted.

The cutscenes seamlessly transition to gameplay – so much so that I sometimes found myself standing there like a dork when I’m supposed to be going into action. This was nice because it felt very immersive, and created less separation between player and game. It’s also a nod to how incredible the graphics are.

The game has great horror elements, even before you start facing any supernatural enemies. For example, due to the sound and scene design, your first encounter with a bear is terrifying, even though it’s just a simple wild creature. RotTR does a good job of staging the “normal” dangers as ominous and scary. There are some especially good horror elements in the Baba Yaga: the Temple of the Witch DLC level.

The bow is very fun to use, and I actually found myself using it more than the guns (which I rarely do in games where both bows and guns are options). The special arrows (fire, poison, and explosive) are fun to craft and use on enemies and the environment.

There are many costumes to use, and you can change at any of your base camps. Some outfits are unlocked as you play through the game, and the 20 Year Collection also came with some new skins. Not only is it fun to change Lara’s outfit, some of the outfits come with stat bonuses.

Survival mode makes it easy to 100% the different areas if that’s something you enjoy doing, and it’s easy to turn it off if the mode makes things too easy for you. You can fast travel between your base camps to finish levels or hunt.

survivalmode.jpg
Resources highlighted in survival mode

The combat is fun, with many opportunities for approaching the combat like a puzzle. There are many ways to get stealth kills and environmental features that allow you to sneak amongst the enemies. You can also craft a variety of explosives to assist you in combat, and throw items to create distractions.

Cons

Overall “Tomb Raider” mode (which I played on, and what I believe to be the standard) seems very easy (although this could be due to my notes above about the advanced guns being unlocked). However, the difficulty was not consistent. For example, in some encounters, they were so easy that I was able to take out large groups of enemies just with my axe melee attack. But then again, some encounters were very difficult, took me many tries, and I don’t think I would have been successful on a higher difficulty.

Where are the puzzles? There aren’t many true puzzles, and none that involve the culture of the story. It’s mostly environment based puzzles (shoot your arrow at the right place, cut the rope at the right time, make this jump sequence, etc). In contrast, puzzles in classic Tomb Raider games were often challenging riddles based on the culture of the environment, like when Lara has to play senet in the Last Revelation. It seems like a shame to incorporate detailed mythology, history, and back story, but not incorporate it into gameplay in an interactive way. (You finding documents which you read or listen to, but it’s not as engaging.)

Traps are very easy and far between, and survival mode basically renders them moot.

Tips & Tricks

map.jpg
Here’s an example of what the map looks like. This is late in the game. You can see the goals and progress on the left.

Don’t try to get 100% of the challenges and items in the areas on your first play through. You’ll be able to go back to get everything after the final chapter. Follow the flow of the narrative or you’ll lose the thread of the story and it will have less impact. Someone calling you desperately for help isn’t going to have the same feel if you decide to go back to hunt deer or whatever before helping them.

Be careful which outfit you’re wearing when you leave the final base camp. This is the outfit you will wear throughout the final, emotional cutscenes. I wish I hadn’t been wearing the somewhat silly Sacra Umbra suit of armor, and instead had been wearing one of Lara’s normal skins.

Graphics

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Lara Croft’s face looks stunning. Compared to Tomb Raider (2013), you can see a dramatic difference in how good Lara’s face looks, even with only 2 years between the two games. The most striking improvement is in the eyes. 2013 Lara still has an off-putting “dead in the eyes” look, while RotTR Lara’s eyes have movement and look alive. In fact, the loving attention put into Lara’s animation actually makes her look younger in the sequel. Additionally, the scenery is spectacular. On one precipice overlooking a waterfall, I stood and stared at the water because it was so masterfully animated. It looked like real water! Since much of the character of a Tomb Raider game comes from its environments, it was great to see the lush scenery brought to life so vividly.

scenery2.jpg

rainbow.jpg
Check out the rainbow!

Faces and landscapes look great, but Lara’s hair is distractingly bad. It moves around too much, is strangely shiny, and doesn’t look like actual hair. Unfortunately (but understandably), it’s clear that not every character got the same attention that Lara did. Many of the other characters suffer from stiff faces in the cutscenes (especially Lara’s friend from the previous game, Jonah).

The player movement has improved by leaps and bounds. While going up stairs, ice scrambling, climbing up ledges, or jumping around, it looks like Lara is interacting with the environment as a real physical being.

The Takeaway

Amazing! 13/10! This is the best game I’ve played in a long time. It improves upon 2013 Tomb Raider in many ways, but maintains the Tomb Raider atmosphere. Though I loved 2013 Tomb Raider as well, the sequel is the game that made me say, “Now this is a Tomb Raider game. The gameplay is reminiscent of Skyrim, but on a smaller scale, and it allows you to attempt to get 100% more easily. I love games that make me feel something, and a game that moved me to tears twice certainly touched my cold dead heart. On top of that, the gameplay just felt extremely streamlined and fun. On some mornings I got out of bed at 6 am just to make time to play it, and I don’t think I could praise anything more highly than that.

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One thought on “Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Year Celebration

  1. Fantastic review! I played Rise when it was originally released on the X1 and loved every second of it. It was definitely my favourite game of 2015 and I’m glad that more people get to experience this game now that it’s come to PS4. 😀

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