Rise of the Tomb Raider

Now that we're nearing the end, it's becoming clear that this might go down as one of the best years in video games, and I continually ask myself, "how am I going to play all of these games"? As I sat down to play Rise of the Tomb Raider, there were at least five other games I had sitting on my entertainment center that I desperately wanted to play. And yet after the first ten minutes of Rise of the Tomb Raider, those games began to quickly fade away, and I was left with a game that’s nothing short of a masterpiece.

Before I get too carried away, let’s dig into Rise of the Tomb Raider. It’s the follow-up to the very successful Tomb Raider reboot from 2013. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, it shifted the series' focus from a puzzle/adventure oriented game to action more akin to the Uncharted series. Although the game might have alienated some of the longtime fans of the series, its broader appeal opened the game up to a wider audience and made it one of my favorite games of 2013.  As popular as Tomb Raider was, it felt that its follow-up was going to get lost in the holiday 2015 shuffle, overshadowed by games like Metal Gear Solid V, Halo 5, and Fallout 4.

I'm here to proclaim, from the top of the Darkstation mountain, that you shouldn't let Rise of the Tomb Raider slip you by. It takes what worked well in Tomb Raider, builds upon it, and adds back in a lot of the puzzles and platforming that people missed from the last one. The game starts off with an incredible sequence that has you climbing up the side of a giant snow-covered mountain with nothing but some rope and a pick-axe. The world is against our heroine, and the mountain has other ideas for Lara. What ensues is an incredible 30-minute action sequence that left my palms sweaty and my heart pumping.

This is just one example of the deviations from the very action-heavy Tomb Raider. While there are still plenty of enemies to fight on your journey, there's a much greater variety of stuff to do this time around, and it was nearly an hour in before I had any combat situations with other humans. Rise of the Tomb Raider puts more emphasis on hunting, for example, which is used to craft and upgrade items, making hunting feel closer to the way it was in Far Cry 3 & 4. The opening sequence in the snow-filled wilderness, having Lara huddle by a fire and head out to a nearby forest to hunt, is brilliant. I got so addicted to hunting that I lost a most of my first handful of hours just searching for rare animals to hunt.

That’s another thing about Rise of theTomb Raider -- although it’s an open world game, it’s a much more contained world. The maps within Rise are smaller in scale and allow you to travel freely, but the content is all within your reach, with very little empty space in between. You can complete a mission, walk for twenty seconds, take out a pack of wolves, and less than a minute later begin traversing an optional tomb. Rise of the Tomb Raider is constantly throwing stuff at you to do, but never gets into the open world trap of being overwhelming. At any of the camp fires, you have the option to fast travel back to past areas which allows you to take on more of the side missions and optional tombs, the latter of which there are a ton to tackle this time around. It’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered and completed a couple of tombs and the rewards for doing so are actually extremely helpful.

Upgrading Lara throughout the game is a big deal. There’s a ton of things to upgrade. You have XP that goes to upgrading her physical attributes, and the aforementioned hunting which allows you to craft items and improve your current arsenal. There are also weapon upgrades, requiring you to combine several items you find on your journey. You can do all three of these things each time you go to a camp fire, so you'd better be out there looking for loot! By clicking in the right analog stick, it goes into a detective mode which highlights things you should be interested in. You will sadly be doing this a lot; one of my biggest gripes in Rise of the Tomb Raider is that it almost forces you to spend most of the game in this mode instead of taking in the gorgeous vistas Crystal Dynamics created. It's a problem that I also had with the Batman Arkhamfranchise, giving you so much to explore but then making detective mode the only viable way to do so.

Combat hasn’t changed much from Tomb Raider, and that’s perfectly fine. The bow and arrow is still the most satisfying weapon in Lara’s arsenal, although gun play is really well done. The one area where Lara struggles is hand-to-hand combat. The developers have only given her a handful of animations, so any time you use your climbing axe to take out enemies you will see the same canned animation over and over again. It's definitely a small thing, but you start to notice it when the rest of the game is just so good.

For me, Rise of the Tomb Raider really shines when it combines heavy action sequences with strings of platforming. Lara is able to traverse around the world with a multitude of different, satisfying to use tools. She’s also able to use the environment as her weapon, allowing her to stealthily take out enemies when the moment is right. I found myself more then once getting closer to the TV to take in a combat sequence or maneuver my way through a hairy situation. Towards the end of the nearly 20-hour campaign I found myself using a huge variety of weapons and techniques to take down the tougher enemies. It’s the freedom in Rise of the Tomb Raider to take on a situation in a multitude of different ways that’s truly exciting.

Combine near-perfect action with one of the best looking console games on the market and Rise of the Tomb Raider is about as good of a video game as you could ever want. My biggest issue is the story which, in short, makes no sense, involving Lara attempting to avenge her father’s death by trying to prove he wasn’t crazy. The artifact she’s after is supposed to give you the ability to live forever, and what transpires is a convoluted mess that I would have skipped if I hadn't been reviewing the game. But the story isn’t really all that important; there’s just so much to Rise of the Tomb Raider that it doesn't really drag things down that much. Most of the cut scenes are less then a minute, existing mostly to give your adventure some context.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is all about its pacing. It’s a game that will throw you into a huge action sequence and then slowly ramp back up. You don't have to worry about endless waves of enemies. Instead you will move from one area to the next, traversing the world, hunting so you can craft and upgrade, and scouring the world for treasure and tombs. Crystal Dynamics took what worked in Tomb Raider and made it even better. Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the best games of the year. It's absolutely beautiful and plays as good as any game on the market today. I can’t wait to hit new game and jump back in for another playthrough of one of the best games of 2015.

The owner and editor-in-chief of Darkstation.com. I've been apart of the website since 2002 and purchased the website in 2010. Owning and running Darkstation is a dream come true. I love video games and I love writing and talking about them even more.