You crouch anxiously, obscured in a heap of shrubbery, reloading your revolver as you wait for an opening. Killing often doesn’t require patience. But killing stealthily does. A few minutes pass but the two hulking brutes standing around the bonfire show no sign of splitting up anytime soon. Your impatience gets the better of you, and you decide to take matters into your own hands, picking up a bottle a few feet away and whipping it overhead. It careens over the two men and smashes into a rock nearby. The second brute turns abruptly on his heel to check out the disturbance.
You snatch the opportunity and pad forward quickly, sloshing through the sea of mud until you’re just a foot away from the first brute. You channel your inner Jason Voorhees as you step out of the shadows, plunging your knife deep into the his neck. The world spins feverishly as he struggles, twisting and turning in agony, huffing and puffing his last breaths. You finish the deed, and drop his limp body to the floor. Eyes glazed, you lift your head and look ahead. His companion is about to meet the same grisly end.
Sounds like a scene from Metal Gear or the Arkham series doesn’t it? Sure, it bears an uncanny resemblance, but this is none other than a scene lifted straight from Rise of the Tomb Raider. Yes, Lara Croft the archaeologist and mass-murderer has returned in fine form, this time with yet another reduction in cup size. And yes, there is killing. En masse. Above all, there is stealth killing. Not on the grand scale of Big Boss’ savage antics, to be sure, but stealth killing is very much a welcome feature to the latest AAA installment, which dazzles with its intricate photorealistic visuals and engrossing gameplay. A subtler method of slaughter is only one of many features that Crystal Dynamics has added to the perpetually expanding Tomb Raider world.
Rise of the Tomb Raider thrusts you headfirst into the desolate snowy conditions of Siberia, where our young crusader embarks on the search for the Divine Source, a trinket that is allegedly the source of immortality. Clichéd? I’ll bet my game collection it is. The premise of the story is surely not the game’s strongest suit, but the plot itself takes you for a few memorable twists and turns, and more importantly, into a variety of unique landscapes that bring out the gorgeous design. You will be constantly amazed by the level of detail invested into the sprawling set pieces, from the view atop a snowy mountain to the ancient murals adorning the cave walls.
The gameplay is paced evenly, often pulling you to the edge of your seat with some guerilla warfare, which is usually followed by a bombastic obstacle course or a crafty puzzle. Sporadic cut scenes are highly cinematic and enjoyable, but without disrupting the flow of the game. There are also a few more optional tombs filled with brain-racking puzzles, which provide an apt challenge for the gamer who is looking for more than just the usual joyride.
Lara’s arsenal is similar to the 2013 reboot, with a variety of bows and the usual assortment of firearms, which pack a satisfying kickback when fired in combat. The addition of poison and grenade arrows add diversity to the variety of ways to tackle large groups of enemies. There are many missions that you can execute stealthily – à la Metal Gear – leaping from a tree branch to choke out an enemy with your makeshift bow, or pulling down and strangling an unsuspecting guard in frigid waters. You can craft a variety of grenades and Molotov cocktails on the fly to snuff out two or three enemies at once. It is especially satisfying to watch a particularly pesky enemy writhe in pain as flames engulf him, his body toppling from ledge to ledge.
The gruesome death scenes from the 2013 reboot are back in the sequel, though they are fewer and further between, and the majority of them are less graphic in nature – though sharp objects can still impale Lara if you slip up. The fast-paced combat and the AI opponents are generally intelligent. Turning up the difficulty level a notch or two higher makes combat a definite challenge, especially with the omission of health regeneration and hordes of AI strategically flanking you, all the while chucking deadly bombs in your vicinity.
Lara’s outfits are varied, from a puffy winter jacket to a flannel sweater and everything in between. You are even able to craft something resembling chain mail near the end of the game – yup, chain mail. The skill tree is expansive, and if you sweep the sandbox meticulously for assorted collectibles you will be duly rewarded with upgrades to health, combat, scavenging, stealth, and more.
Lara Croft is without a doubt one of modern gaming’s most recognizable faces, and not only because her looks transcend the high bar of CGI beauty standards. Her backstory is full of depth, her legacy illustrious; Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly takes advantage of that. The plot milks all the clout that the British heroine brings to the storyline, molding a likable and compelling main character, but the depth of many of Lara’s compatriots pale in comparison. Cutscenes delving into Lara’s dynamic with her parents are compelling and pump some much-needed juice into the storyline.
Post-campaign, Crystal Dynamics has added several replay options that stack on a few extra hours. The game has added Expedition Cards this time around, which modify replays of chapters of your choice. Some cards set you off with certain fully modded weapons, while others make life more difficult for you, planting traps and improving AI capabilities. Crystal Dynamics also took this opportunity to insert a few slapstick moments here, with cards like Big Head Mode and Chicken Arrows. There is nothing more comical than defending yourself against a flamethrower-wielding guard with squawking fowls.
The bottom line is – if you haven’t played Rise of the Tomb Raider yet, go indulge yourself. The slick combat and stunning visuals should be more than enough to justify at least one play through of Lara’s latest expedition, if not more. The less-than-stellar storyline and flat side characters detract ever so slightly from the overall presentation but are not enough to keep you from enjoying yourself immensely. If you played the 2013 reboot Tomb Raider, count yourself in for a treat. If not, treat yourself this time around. This much-heralded sequel is more of the same, but boy oh boy, it sure is more of the same. Greater quantity, and greater quality. Rise of the Tomb Raider is an AAA title on par with the hottest releases of 2015, holding its own against modern-day gems like MGSV and the Witcher 3.