Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Year Celebration

A year after the Xbox, Lara Croft swung into action on the PS4. After about 30 hours of play, here's our review

We’ve not had to pleasure of visiting, but it’s got to pretty cold in Siberia this time of year. As she dangles precariously from a mountain wall during a blizzard, English adventurer-archaeologist Lara Croft would probably rather be exploring Dubai’s newly opened Legoland. However, she’s too occupied to worry about the temperature. Watching an avalanche rush towards you does something for one’s adrenaline. This is how Rise of the Tomb Raider kicks off, and there’s little time for ceremony. If you’ve ever played any Uncharted game, this will feel familiar: ledge hopping and leaping across mountain-face crevices while a natural disaster seems to relentlessly target your character – it’s all here. Aside from Nathan Drake’s laddish banter, of course.

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The game kicks off with Lara Croft doing Vertical Limit in Siberia

Snow day for Lara Croft

The graphics are as stunning as you would expect from a big-budget AAA game at this stage in the PS4’s life cycle. Powdery snow is realistically crushed under Croft’s boots as she traverses the mountain. The game opens with stunning vistas of crisp Siberian peaks. It begins with some wise (#realtalk) quotes about why explorers are virtuous, awesome and how they are destined to change the fate of the world and civilization.

You’re following Jonah, Croft’s assistant/butler, when the weather takes a turn for the worst. Using an ice pick and Croft’s superhuman core and forearm strength, you must guide the woman from Surrey on her quest to find a lost ancient city. Yes, it’s hardly the most original plot line, but keep in mind there’s also an all-powerful ancient secret organisation that’s determined to… oh, wait. OK, there’s a protagonist who’s determined to beat the odds and prove the world that she’s not crazy, even if it takes killing a few hundred people to do so.

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Croft’s on a quest to find the lost city of Kitezh. There’s a surprising number of lost cities in the world

The first time I saw Croft die was after pushing the controller’s right stick too long in a failed attempt to sideways jump across a chasm between two ice walls. It was mildly hilarious that this happened as Croft was shouting “I can climb up there!” to Jonah. My second death occurred during an Uncharted-style slide down another mountainside.

After a couple of mistimed jumps, combat is the next highest cause of death. I was playing on difficult – though not extreme – and the game differentiates itself from the Uncharted series here. Objects scattered around levels can be picked up, crafted and chucked at Trinity mercenaries. Stealth is heavily rewarded. “Keep your eyes open. We don’t want to get picked off in the dark.” These are the words coming out of the radio belonging to the unfortunate soul I’m choking out.

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Outdoor combat situations offer a variety of options for stealth takedowns. A helpful feature is that you can tell if an enemy is in sight of another

It’s funny and a bit tragic how the collective awareness of you, the intruder, fails to affect any manner of change in these soldiers’ behaviour. They have the basic sense to call out when you’re reloading, shoot at Croft from a safe distance and demand covering fire, but these mercenaries seem a bit slow on the uptake. The game compensates by throwing as many as possible at you, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed if you don’t make full use of conveniently placed bottles and cups lying about the place to craft molotov cocktails, grenades and smoke bombs.

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An AK47-inspired assault rifle, combat knife, uzi and rope arrows are only a few elements of Croft’s extensive arsenal

Seasoned Raider

There are four available difficulty levels. Adventurer offers aim assistance and weak enemies (in terms of the damage they can both take and deliver); Tomb Raider removes the aim assist and makes the bad guys slightly tougher; Seasoned Raider sees enemies that are not only stronger but also more alert, while your health will only regenerate outside of a combat encounter (so no hiding away till you feel better); and finally, there’s Survivor, which increases the number of tougher enemies, makes upgrades more expensive and resources rarer. We played on Seasoned Raider.

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Skillful shooter practitioners can opt to go all guns blazing, but the harder difficulties make stealth pretty much mandatory

In terms of enemy character types, Tomb Raider doesn’t have heavies – massive, thickly armoured bullet sponges – but it does feature riflemen (though not snipers), shotgunners and suicidal idiots who run at you with a pistol. When you sneak up on them, the standard grunts don’t offer much by way of deep conversation (“I did two tours of Iraq/Afghanistan. Basra/Helmand. But this pays much better”) and most seem extremely bored. Sadly, there aren’t many boss battles to speak of. Taking damage means you need to hold down L1 when out of the line of fire to heal yourself, but you can’t store health kits, Far Cry style.

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Bear necessities? This guy’s got three arrows stuck in him but still wants more…

However, like in the Ubisoft series, animals can pose as big as threat as humans. What they lack in number, these beasts more than make up for with AI. You can’t simply challenge a bear in its cave, run out and turn around with loaded shotgun expecting it to chase after you. These creatures know when to run at you and when to pull back and disappear into the bushes. Musical tension is used to great effect here, with a drum beat steadily building up in speed and intensity as stalking wolves draw closer, before hitting a crescendo as they pounce. Animals may be tough, but once you’re able to craft special ammunition and arrows, beasts go from a genuinely difficult adversary to something you dispatch of as an afterthought. I actually achieved a trophy (Was That Really Necessary?) after firing a poison gas arrow to kill two deer in a single shot. With standard arrows, you need to line up a shot, hit the animal, then stalk it through the snow before landing another arrow for the kill.

Upgrade and crafting systems

Tomb Raider‘s crafting mechanic is part Last of Us, part Far Cry. You need components and materials such as bolts, animal furs, oil and fabric to do everything from heal yourself to making a larger arrow quiver or shotgun ammo bag to tightening the string on your bow for faster drawing.

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Base Camp and chill? Here’s where you get to hear Croft’s innermost thoughts on the action-packed madness unfolding around her. It’s also where you can change outfits, upgrade weapons and use skill points

You can only do this at Base Camps, set fireplaces within and between missions that offer a moment of respite and glimpse into Croft’s internal reflections on various characters encountered and the most recent events in the game. There are separate categories for the crafting/upgrading of gear, and for weapons. For the latter, you need to rely on a (thankfully) different set of parts – usually more metal and oil-based. But compromises and choices need to be made. Will you opt to increase the stopping power of the relatively weak automatic shotgun or speed up the firing rate of a slow combat shotgun? Should upgrading the recoil of an uzi take precedence over the reload speed of a bolt-action rifle? The game lets you carry one bow, hand gun (or uzi), rifle or shotgun at a time. These can only be swapped around at Base Camps, which feels a little silly – surely an Uncharted system would be more logical, where you can swap guns with fallen foes? That said, most upgrades will not only improve one particular weapon but also that entire class of weapon.

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Crafting explosive arrows behind cover. This saved me more times than I can count

There’s the planned crafting done at your convenience at Base Camps, then there’s the more fun kind carried out while you’re ducking a hail of bullets and frantically trying to wrap together a bomb from a cup, gunpowder and a few bits of fabric. Throwing one of these and taking out a group of enemies is somehow miles more satisfying than chucking a simple grenade would have been. Another fun thing to do is set a poison gas trap on an stealth-killed enemy’s corpse; when his colleague arrives on the scene and rushes to investigate, you’ll pick up loads of points as he collapses to the ground, choking and clutching his throat. Enemy radios can also be picked up and repurposed as grenades.

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Animal skins and scavenged resources let you craft specific items at Base Camps

You have three kinds of special arrow: poison, explosive and fire. All of these can be upgraded, with a bigger, longer-lasting poisonous cloud, a stronger explosion and the addition of napalm. You can make special hollow-point bullets, compatible with any handgun, as well as explosive shotgun shells, which can be a fun but expensive way out of a pinch. Switching between ammo types is as simple as pressing R1 or R2.

Experience points can be earned in myriad ways. In combat, aside from the usual headshots and silent take-downs, you gain additional bonuses for “clever” methods, such as taking out multiple enemies in a single shot without raising the alarm (easiest to accomplish by firing a gas arrow into the middle of a chatting group). Discovering relics, caches of parts, gold coins, recordings and ancient documents also net you small amounts of XP. After crossing an XP threshold, you earn a skill point, which can be used in either the Brawler (concerned with making croft more damage-resistant and melee combos), Hunter (primarily bow skills and firearm-specific take-downs) or Survivor (a broad mix covering crafting, discovery and special ammunition) categories. Coins can be spent on purchasing weapons and parts.

Exploration

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The entrance of a tomb near Wicked Vale, where the Baba Yaga witch lives

One of the best things about the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider was a return to the eponymous concept. Rise brings a greater degree of variety to the tombs you can explore, with our personal favourite being a deep underground Soviet mine.

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This old Soviet mine set an awesome setting for a challenge tomb, thanks to the still-working carts

All challenge tombs provide a couple of small puzzles or logic exercises followed by a big one. The same upgraded and new equipment you collect as the game progresses becomes a mental burden when you’re stood in the middle of a massive expanse wondering whether rope, fire or explosive arrows are needed, or whether you should break down a wall with the crowbar.

There’s always a tantalising prize in sight that’s not easy to reach. Once you get there, a skill (which you’d ordinarily need to unlock through XP) is unlocked.

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These large tomes grant you a skill point, which would otherwise need to be earned through increasing combat and exploration

Blood Ties

Picking up the 20th anniversary edition gets you the Blood Ties DLC. A non-combat prequel to the main events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, the DLC is set entirely within the confines of the palatial Croft Manor. You’re free to roam and explore its vast passages, library, wine cellar and hall. Relics from Richard Croft’s travels are scattered about the manor, as are recordings, letters and other items that shed light on Lara’s mother Amelia, who died when the adventurer was still a toddler. PSVR owners get to do this in first person, though we didn’t get to try it out yet.

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The master bedroom at Croft Manor has clearly seen better days

Lara struggles to remember her mother, but as she explores her childhood home, memories come flooding back through old birthday present “relics” and long-unvisited spaces of the manor.

This is an interesting concept as far as DLCs go. It takes the elements of exploration and puzzle-solving from the main game and fleshes them out. Having finished Blood Ties immediately after completing the main story campaign, I almost felt like it might be better to finish the DLC first. It instills a sense of emotional investment from you, the player, into Lara and her story.

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A purely narrative-driven DLC that expands upon a singular aspect of the main campaign, you say?

Love the setting but missing the combat? Square Enix also offers Nightmare, a zombie survival mode set in Croft Manor. A note of warning: playing this on Seasoned Raider feels almost diabolically difficult. When you need three clean shots to the head to take down a zombie while there are two others on either side of you and an armoured, helmeted following up, things can get tricky. This is made worse by the paucity of health and ammo.

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Blood Ties: Nightmare sees zombies attacking Croft Manor. If you’re playing Seasoned Raider or above, this guy will probably need three shots to the head

Unlike in the main game, your health isn’t automatically restored between fights. There aren’t any herbs lying around and you’ll need to hope a fallen zombie was packing a few leaves in its pocket. There are objectives, but we died too many times to fully explore these. You can’t sneak past the zombies – they always know where you are and entering specific areas triggers an attack of three to four of them.

There’s also Cold Darkness Awakened, which not only restores stealth but makes it mandatory. A chemical substance leaked from a Soviet camp has turned Trinity soldiers into zombies with poor vision but excellent hearing. Think of the clickers from Last of Us. However, these thankfully aren’t a one-hit kill for the player, but they are unlimited. If you don’t run and hide, you will eventually be overwhelmed. And that’s before you even meet a death giant, whose makeshift axe-cleaver-scythe will end you immediately. Again, this is on Seasoned Raider difficulty.

Finally, there’s Endurance Mode, which is the only one to offer co-op play in this game. You (and an optional friend) search for resources during the game’s day phase. When nightfall comes, it brings beasts, trinity soldiers and natural elements for you to combat. Fire is required to survive the cold, while food from hunted animals will give you health. For motivation, you have a leaderboard that tracks players’ survival runs in days and nights.

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Endurance Mode lets you and a friend battle the elements, wild beasts and Trinity soldiers

Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch

Rise of the Tomb Raider may lack a few good old-fashioned boss fights, but you’ll find one at the end of this DLC mission, which is also included in the 20th anniversary edition of the game.

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This elaborate shrine in Baba Yaya isn’t very welcoming…

Croft is recruited by a member of the Remnant, an isolated indigenous tribe that guards Kitezh, to help find her grandfather, who has rushed off to kill the Baba Yaga witch. She lives in the Wicked Vale, a place where those who enter are driven mad.

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… neither is the entrance to the Wicked Vale

It’s brief, at roughly 60-90 minutes, but without spoiling anything, I can tell you that it brings a deep sense of mystery and another gameplay element you won’t find anywhere else in Rise.

Bonus: Classic Lara

Croft has a range of outfits to pick from, most of which offer some form of perk. I went with the Siberian Ranger outfit as my mainstay because it allows you to carry additional special ammo, which really helps out in a combat pinch. There’s also the uber-cool Apex Predator get-up, which fashions our adventurer into a deadly wildlife hunter.

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You can unlock a host of classic Lara skins, though the 1998 Tomb Raider looks more than a little out of place in 2016

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