By far the most surprising thing about Rise Of The Tomb Raider is that it is an Xbox exclusive – long-term Lara Croft fans will recall that in its early days, the franchise was inextricably linked with Sony’s PlayStation. However, times change, and this year, Lara has been enlisted to assist Microsoft’s drive to close the sales gap between the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
Apart from the Xbox One/360 exclusivity, Rise Of The Tomb Raider doesn’t really concern itself with surprises. It picks up where 2013’s rebooted Tomb Raider left off. Lara is a bit older but still young and forging her identity as a raider of tombs. The shadow of her recently deceased father, Lord Croft – who apparently committed suicide – looms over proceedings, as she sets out to find the source of immortality her dad was professionally pilloried for believing in. Her search leads her to a glorious, snowy Siberia, where in true Tomb Raider style, she finds a lost Byzantine city. But it is by no means unpopulated, and she has the sinister organisation Trinity dogging her every step.
What ensues is classic Tomb Raider gameplay, with Lara in full possession of all the skills she amassed during her previous outing – most notably the ability to climb certain ice and rock faces by digging in with ice-axes, plus a beautifully fettled bow which can fire rope-arrows, as well as poisoned, flaming and grenade-tipped ones. This time around, she does get some new gadgets, such as an attachment that turns her axe into a grapple, enabling her to leap enormous distances (as long as there’s a convenient grapple-hook nearby) and to rescue jumps in which otherwise she would fall agonisingly short.
Lara herself has never looked better – the classic blue top and unfeasibly large bosom having been consigned to history, in favour of a much more practical outfit and realistic, although still winsome look. And her surroundings are rendered in magnificent detail: the snow and ice is fantastically convincing (and Lara can only move slowly through deep snow), and the level-design swoopier than ever, inducing countless heart-in-mouth moments when Lara attempts vertiginous jumps. There’s a great levelling up system which upgrades her abilities (for example letting her use her Lara-sense to see traps, or turning her dodge-and-stab move into a dodge-and-kill), and all her weapons can be upgraded, as long as you find the requisite plans and collect the raw materials.
As with its predecessor, Rise Of The Tomb Raider is heavier on the jumping, mountaineering and combat than on the classic Tomb Raider-style puzzle-solving. The mystical/archaeological element of the puzzles has been abandoned in favour of physics-based puzzling, which may displease some, but that’s definitely how we prefer it – much less suspension of disbelief is required than in the early days of the franchise. The combat and stealth have been impressively tweaked since Tomb Raider, too: Lara’s aiming has never been steadier, she can craft special ammo on the fly (such as incendiary shells for the gloriously powerful shotgun), she can turn items like booze bottles and petrol cans into what amount to grenades and she takes cover much better. And while the stealth sequences aren’t exactly as rigorous as those of Metal Gear Solid V, she can at least now conceal herself in bushes.
There are a few boss-battles, too, which generally require a surprisingly tactical approach, and the combat in general is easily the most satisfying we have encountered in any Tomb Raider game. The storyline, on the other hand, struggles to elevate itself beyond the merely decent, despite the presence of several flashbacks examining Lara’s relationship with her late father. Trinity make pretty clichéd baddies, and although the ups and downs of Lara’s various helpers add a modicum of ebb and flow, the tale that Rise Of The Tomb Raider tells has an uncomfortably by-numbers feel to it.
Once you’ve finished the main story and the hidden tombs (of which we would have liked to have seen a few more), there are still quite a few exercises left for the completists, such as challenges (which involve diverse pursuits such as hunting deer or shooting arrows at targets), side-missions given to Lara by allies and all manner of collectibles to find. But you’d be hard-pressed to spin the story and the tombs out much beyond 18 hours of gameplay, and there’s no multiplayer element to the game. You can, however, replay the missions as speed-runs, and as you progress through the story, you are awarded cards which add extra dimensions to those, such as giving enemies giant heads, thereby rendering headshots laughably easy.
In short, then, what Rise Of The Tomb Raider offers is classic Tomb Raider action, constructed in a very slick and classy manner, but without any real surprises. Which is exactly what is required to excite long-standing Tomb Raider fans, but we’re not sure it’s enough to shift a significant amount of Xbox Ones this Christmas. Still, if you’re after a brand-new slice of classic, beautifully executed Tomb Raider gameplay – no more, no less – you’ll only be able to find it on the Xbox One right now.