The most controversial exclusivity deal since the Xbox 360 release of Final Fantasy XIII is over: Rise of the Tomb Raider has finally launched on the PlayStation 4. To beef up the release of a year old game, Crystal Dynamics has coined this edition the 20 year celebration of Lara Croft. Included is the base game, bonuses that harken back to the days of the original PlayStation, all the DLC from the title's season pass, and a brand new level playable in VR. A bumper package this may be, but does it surpass the level of quality that we experienced in the series' 2013 reboot? In a year that includes Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, a franchise that is consistently compared to the adventures of Lara Croft, it faces a tough challenge.
Rise of the Tomb Raider picks up one year after the events of its predecessor and tells the tale of Lara's obsession over a discovery that her late father made: the “Divine Source". Legend has it that the artifact grants the user immortality and is located somewhere in the lost city of Kitezh - and naturally Lara wants to get her hands on it. But she's not alone in this, as an organisation named Trinity follows her every move in a bid to track down the treasure before she does. This conflict forms the core of the narrative as the two battle it out for the prize in an Indiana Jones-esque way that rarely leaves you with breathing room. Despite being fairly predictable aside from a few twists, everything moves at a fast and enjoyable pace, which provided us with an entertaining plot that was gripping from beginning to end.
If you played the 2013 Tomb Raider, you'll feel right at home here in terms of gameplay. You can once again choose how you approach combat, which skills you equip, and what you do in the expansive environments, but everything feels so much bigger and more complex compared to what we experienced three years ago. In terms of encounters you can stick to the broad strokes of stealth or going in all guns blazing, but now you have the option of mixing the two as you silently take out a couple of goons, then make a group of enemies aware of your presence as you slip back into the shadows. This puts those thugs on alert, but you still have the upper-hand as you wait in the bushes for their guard to slip.
However, it's the extensive locales you visit that really show off the evolution from reboot to sequel. Occasionally, you'll come across a wide area that will have a main objective marker at the end of it, but you'd be foolish not to get side-tracked by the amount of content that these places contain. They're big enough to provide you with a serious amount of time dedicated to exploration, but they're never too large to the point that you'll feel overwhelmed. A variety of side missions and challenges can be found in these areas as well as some of the best content in the game: the optional challenge tombs. Nine of these are spread throughout the campaign and they represent the best and most challenging puzzles the game can throw at you. But in exchange for the time that you spend confused by what to do next, you'll be rewarded with an exceptional new skill that is always worth the investment.
While traversing the ground is important, climbing is just as vital to navigation, and unfortunately, this is a place where Lara's expedition perhaps falls a little short of Nathan Drake's latest excursion. While Drake will fluidly scale buildings and jump from ledge to ledge, it takes Lara a little more time as she navigates the scene around her, as if there's a bit more weight to her jumps. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but players expecting a seamless traversal system may be left feeling a little disappointed. In a sense, this is combated by the amount of tools Lara is provided with to conquer the icy cliffs and rocky mountains that she faces. The axe makes its return as the ice axe which makes scaling the icy walls of Siberia a far easier ordeal, and the famous bow and arrow makes its reappearance as both a weapon for killing and a navigation tool. All of the equipment feels unique and equally important, with late-game additions including a wire spool that allows Lara to latch onto hooks while in mid-air.
As you explore the vast backdrops, you'll come across base camps which make their return from the 2013 reboot. Here you can equip new skills, craft ammunition and new items, upgrade your weapons, and fast travel. The most vital of these four is your skills which are split into three tiers: Brawler, Hunter, and Survivor. The categories focus on improving different aspects of Lara, from firearm and melee enhancements to shortening the time it takes to craft items while out in the field. It's a deep enough system that at times allows perks to complement each other as they stack together to give you an even bigger boost. The structure allows you to see Lara grow as a character in not just the story, but also as a fighter, a craftswoman, and a navigator.
Throughout your travels you'll uncover a huge amount of collectables, six different types, in fact. There's the strongboxes, relics, documents, murals, survival caches and coin caches. Relics and documents are the two most important ones, as they tell tales of old and flesh out the world in the present. Locating these collectables is made easier by the return of the survival instinct - Tomb Raider's version of Batman's detective mode. This will highlight important objects within Lara's immediate vicinity, and makes collecting treasures a far easier task, but it's easy to become too reliant on the mechanic, as we found ourselves immediately spamming the survival instinct as we uncovered a new area. In turn, this potentially takes away any sense of real discovery.
Although the game's exploration mechanics are top notch, it's the shooting where Ms. Croft doesn't quite hit the mark. The act of firing a weapon always feels a bit off, as if there's a large amount of input lag present. This makes aiming a far tougher challenge than it needs to be, and we found ourselves missing shots that we were certain we had lined up correctly. The core weapons of the pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun all suffer from this and no amount of weapon upgrades manage to fix the flaw. This is an issue that was present in the Xbox One version as well, so it's disappointing to see that it hasn't been fixed despite an extra year of development time.
As previously mentioned, the 20 year celebration edition comes with a whole host of additional content, with the most substantial piece coming from the game's season pass: Baba Yaga: The Season Of The Witch. This piece of DLC is accessed through the main game around three to four hours in, and takes you to a new location to fight a new foe, the witch Baba Yaga. This area takes on a whole different aesthetic, along with a psychedelic and horrific vibe. The DLC remains true to the core components of the main game, but concludes with a fantastic final boss battle that's one of the highlights of the overall package. You'll get an extra two hours out of this expansion, three if you're hunting for collectables and looking to complete the challenge.
Next up on the agenda is the brand new level titled Blood Ties, which is also playable in VR. We'll have a separate article for you in the coming days that focuses on the PlayStation VR variant, while this review will take a look at the standard version. Blood Ties takes us back to the Croft Manor, and after the death of Lara's father, the ownership of the mansion is in a bit of a grey area. Bailiffs want Ms. Croft out, but she's determined to keep the house for herself, so she tasks herself with either finding her dad's will, or uncovering some sort of proof that could secure the property. This sparks a treasure hunt throughout the manor as you solve puzzles that her father put in place, and crack safe codes in order to move one step closer to finding the will. Just like in the base game, the residence is full to the brim with documents and relics. However, these ones flesh out Lara's past and the relationships she had with her parents, something that long-time fans will appreciate greatly. It's a neat little addition that expands on the character of Lara and the Croft family, as well as bundling in a whole load of fan service and a few surprises here and there.
Another addition is Lara's Nightmare, which once again takes place in the Croft Manor, but this time Lara must face a horde of zombies and their leader. It's a fun enough mode that has you taking out the undead and destroying floating enemies known as skulls of rage, but it won't have you coming back for a second shot. We got a little bored of it after 20 or so minutes, as it kind of feels like too much of an afterthought.
With such a wealth of content on offer, it's a good job that the entire assortment looks phenomenal. Incredible vistas of the Siberian mountains loom in the distance as you traverse lush gardens and snowy paths in the foreground. Waterfalls spill over the cliffs and rivers carve their way through the landscape in a bid to impress your eyeballs that little bit more. Ruins of the city of Kitzeh look almost life-like, as if the Romans had made it their stomping ground in days gone by. Cutscenes are another place where Crystal Dynamics has excelled, with faces and expressions that can most definitely rival the Uncharted series. With only one case of major texture pop-in, it's safe to say that Lara's latest foray looks outstanding, and runs smoothly.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is the complete package for both newcomers and series veterans. Barring some wonky gunplay, the base game is superb, with its sublime exploratory mechanics, wonderful semi-open world hubs that deliver tons of side content, and sensational graphics. Lara's Nightmare does feel like a bit of a throwaway, but Blood Ties and the Baba Yaga DLC are more than worth your time if you want to stray away from the main adventure. Lara Croft is back where she belongs, and you owe it to yourself to join the 20 year celebration and get back to some tomb raiding.