Trying to outrun an oncoming avalanche; fleeing a collapsing temple, ducking and weaving as thousands of fire-arrows rain upon you from a vengeful, immortal army guarding an ancient object of unbelievable power... If you’ve ever watched action movies and thought that computer games should be more like one, this is the game for you. The second game in the Tomb Raider reboot sees Lara Croft and her trusty side-kick, Jonah, trying to complete the research her father was doing before his untimely death: finding the lost city of Kitezh and the mysterious artefact known as the Divine Source, a relic capable of granting eternal life. So far, so straightforward. However, things get rapidly complicated by Trinity – a private army of religious zealots who have been relentlessly pursuing Kitezh and the Divine Source for centuries.
This is, without a doubt, one of the best and most compelling executed stories I’ve ever encountered in a computer game. With the odd twist and betrayal, the player follows Lara as she struggles to come to grips with the supernatural world she’s been pitched into, and the murderous organisation she finds herself in the path of. The pacing is brilliant, slowly building until, by the final act, you simply have to keep playing to see the conclusion. This is helped by, in no small part, the exceptional voice-acting and animation – so much so you can easily read the emotions of the characters involved (a far cry from the plastic looking puppets of a few years ago). The exceptional animation also extends beyond cut scenes: Lara shivers and shields herself from the cold, wrings her hair out after she’s been in water and she carefully squeezes through cracks in the rocks – all of which combine to give her a more realistic feel than nearly any other computer character. Adding to this is the top-notch graphics, easily rendering realistic skin textures, frozen mountain peaks, searing deserts, lost valleys and ancient caverns.
But what of game-play? Well, if you’re looking for that feeling of unstoppable combat prowess, or the sense of being the perfect hunter picking off your terrified foes one at a time, you’re better looking to the Batman Arkham games. That said, combat works wonderfully in this context of the game. Everything in Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I mean everything, ties back to the story and the feel it tries (and succeeds) in producing. Lara is not superwoman, and combat is a tense affair which you try to survive, rather than show just how dangerous you are. One misstep, whether it’s letting those wolves surround you or getting caught out in the open with no cover, will often be lethal. Of all the foes you will face, humans are the least dangerous (excepting a few instances involving flame throwers, or smoke filled rooms and laser sights). On the other hand, wolves, particularly when encountered in dark caves or during the brilliant Baba Yaga expansion mission, will easily induce a sense of panic if you’ve run out of automatic ammo; and encountering a bear, even when you’re wielding the snazziest of weapons, will still be incredibly tense encounters (they’re faster than you, can soak up a lot of damage, and one hit from their paws will mean its game over).
Rather, the game strikes that right balance between combat, exploration, and navigating the environment (often a challenge in itself). Hidden tombs, many of which become accessible only after receiving special equipment (such as a re-breather for underwater exploration, fire-arrows, or the grappling-axe – a brilliant traversal tool which puts hard-to-reach areas within your grasp and also makes you wonder if you’re about to plummet to your death every time you use it), reward players with pieces of rare weapons or codex granting unique skills... or a spear to the stomach if you’re not keeping an eye out for traps. The world is also littered with journals, diaries and relics, all of which tell stories which give the game’s world a real sense of depth and history more in keeping with games such as Riven and Obduction.
While I liked the first game in the relaunch of the Tomb Raider series, I felt it was a solid, if not terrific game, which showed a lot of potential. This potential has been well and truly realised, and, in Rise of the Tomb Raider, while you may come for the adventure, the thrill of combat and the exploring of long lost tombs and ancient civilizations, in the end you’ll keep playing simply because you’re simply enjoying the show. ■