Before she rose, the tomb raider very nearly fell. For reasons best known to themselves, publishers Square Enix launched Lara Croft’s latest on a date when most gamers had a diary clash. November 10th 2015 was – as everyone knows – the global release date of Fallout 4, a game which didn’t so much threaten to eclipse Rise of the Tomb Raider in sales as toast it for breakfast in an apocalyptic fission fireball. Sadly, it gets worse: owing to a timed exclusivity deal struck by Microsoft in a rearguard action against all-conquering Sony, ROTTR was available, initially, for Xbox gamers only. Who evidently weren’t tripping over themselves to buy it. The game shipped only 63,000 copies on launch in the UK, against its 2013 predecessor’s 183,000.
Those who did snap up ROTTR on launch – few though they were – would have no cause for remorse, however. The game is a triumph: bigger, better and more beautiful than its predecessor, and quite possibly the finest entry in Tomb Raider’s two-decade history. I should qualify this, firstly, with a word on the plot. A hidden-treasure MacGuffin reputed to grant eternal life? A father whose life work was devoted to tracking down said treasure? An evil collective determined to find and keep said treasure in a tilt at world domination? I mean, for shame, is it or isn’t it an unblushing rip-off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Yes, the story does prod the action along competently enough, but if ROTTR didn’t breach the Copyright Act, it must have been a close-run thing.
Whether you deem Lara Croft or Indiana Jones better looking is a matter of taste, but I put it to you that no game, before or since, has better visuals than ROTTR. From knuckly cave openings in Syria to mountain passes in frostbitten Siberia, Rise is a game of commanding, ravishing beauty. Lara leaves deep trails as she tramps through thick snowdrifts, campfires look real enough to warm your hands on and the sight of godrays filtering through the shivering branches would make Wordsworth weep – especially if, like me, he played on PC. Truly, it’s a game unlikely to offend anyone’s aesthetics.
And ROTTR manages to be more than just an eye-popping tech demo. Recapturing the formula of its successful predecessor, it’s easy to pick up yet hard to put down. ‘Open world’ may be the catchword of the day, but ROTTR is defiantly, almost proudly linear, with an attention-to-detail that dazzles in the cinematic set pieces that see Lara being sprang at by bears, leaping across fast-disintegrating platforms and ducking from arrows shot by a sinister undead race. While the game plainly doesn’t have the depth of its exact-contemporary Fallout 4, there is a cod-RPG progression system akin to Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, letting you upgrade Lara’s skills and weaponry – though even at the start of the game, she feels plenty powerful enough.
Combat is satisfying, if a little easy at the default difficulty setting. The game gets stealth right, however: killing enemies with a bow before stealing away unobserved affords a keen pleasure (all the more so because enemy AI is quite sophisticated). If Lara was a survivor in the prequel, this time around she’s a one-woman commando unit, taking down battalions of enemies with explosive arrows and Molotov cocktails and an arsenal of no-nonsense guns. While those aforesaid enemies are evil, Lara has a lot of bloodshed on her conscience: at a low estimate, I butchered over a hundred human souls. It can be hard at times to square the steely, yet sensitive, young woman we see in cut scenes with the unfeeling killing machine who emerges in free play.
All the more so because Lara’s signature accessories these days aren’t so much her twin pistols as the twin ice picks that serve as climbing aids. In the intervals of slaying enemies, you’ll likely as not be climbing: scaling sheer precipices in the howling wind with impossibly deep ravines gaping below. Usually it’s worth the climb: the game is generously strewn with crafting materials and collectibles – from historical artefacts to extracts from journal entries that provide background on the plot. But what I was especially looking for were the optional challenge tombs, those holdovers from Tomb Raiders’ halcyon days that were such a hit in the 2013 reboot. And they’re even better here. I solved the early ones with little ado, but sussing the larger later ones require significant smarts. None took more than half an hour’s head scratching, I should add, and the endorphin rush on solving the harder ones is like nothing else in the game.
If nothing else, the tombs are a welcome gear shift, an opportunity for the player to mop their brow between firefights and get their puzzle hit. Of course, there those who think that the firefights, not the tombs, should be the optional side activity. It’s a high wire that developer Crystal Dynamics must walk: what should Tomb Raider be? Clearly they needed to contemporise Lara to meet modern gaming expectations, but without throwing aside the series’ hallmarks: the exploration, the mystery and above all the puzzles. To hard-bitten Tomb Raider traditionalists, quick time events and on-rails set pieces – staples of 2013’s reboot – are not in Lara’s line at all. Personally, I think ROTTR is much more faithful to its legacy than its predecessor.
And let’s guard against viewing the classic Tomb Raiders with nostalgia-tinted goggles. Yes, they blazed a trail for 3D gaming and helped sell PlayStations by the truckload, but face it: the combat was crude even by contemporary standards (hold down the shoot button; who needs aiming?), and Ms Croft, for all the craft and love that went into her appearance, controlled more like an eighteen-wheeler than a woman. Then was the uncompromising difficulty setting: ‘90s Lara was a stern mistress. The puzzles – free from hints – were bafflingly hard, and many was the time I died to a falling boulder or marauding T Rex or sudden bastard spike pit. Is it any surprise that most players (raises hand) had the level-skip cheat memorised?
As a history buff, Lara will be aware that no golden era lasts forever. In 1997, Tomb Raider would never have been upstaged by Fallout, or the Fallout equivalent. Tomb Raider was the upstager. While its star has since fallen, and new entries in the series don’t inspire anything like the same event glamour, Lara still has a reputation to uphold as a cultural icon, the first lady of videogaming. But, as ROTTR shows, she’s more than a legacy act. The tomb raider has risen again, and this time she means to stay. Call off the National Trust: Croft Manor hasn’t crumbled to dust just yet.