I loved the Tomb Raider re-boot, and it was probably the highlight of my first year of next-gen gaming. It was great for many reasons, but not least because it got a stone-cold gaming classic back on the right track, and its more subtle (and ultimately more mature) approach genuinely marked it out as a title to be respected.

My one complaint, however, was that there weren’t really that many puzzles. Or tombs, for that matter. That was understandable given the game’s focus on (the really rather excellent) narrative, and on Lara’s emotional and spiritual journey, but still, I like the tombs and puzzles.

Rise-of-the-Tomb-RaiderThe good news, from what I saw on Thursday, is that Rise of the Tomb Raider very much seems to have combined the two things; managing to have the same great story cake, whilst eating it with some puzzle-y spoons. That’s not the best (mixed) analogy, admittedly, but it does seem like the game’s pulled off quite the coup here.

Usual ‘caution when extrapolating from 10 minutes of gameplay’ caveats apply, obviously, but there really did seem to be a strong indication that there was a dual focus on a strong narrative arc, and some good, old-fashioned, honest-to-God Tomb Raiding/puzzling. That pleases me considerably.

For example, and without wanting to spoil anything, my brief (but oh so good) experience with Rise of the Tomb Raider began with Lara’s being betrayed by somebody – and in a situation you’d generally not want to be betrayed in. Even joining the narrative in a void (i.e. not knowing what had happened previously) it was still some pretty affecting stuff, and, not for nothing, done really, really well. I mean, this didn’t feel like some who’da-thunk-that-guy-turns-out-to-be-a-baddie style of betrayal, but rather something that Lara was clearly a bit surprised by, and a bit gutted about.

RotTR - TempleAnyway, this was all cutscene, and when I gained control of Lara shortly thereafter, all the puzzley/Tomb-ey magic began. There was stuff to collect, examine, interact with, and even though I knew I only had 10 minutes to play, I sooooo wanted to go off and search every nook and cranny. There was also that sense of claustrophobia that you often got with the earlier TR games, as well as that ominous feeling that something was about to go very wrong and/or get me dead. For the record, exactly that did happen shortly after, but I was so happy about everything else that I wasn’t even that bothered.

Then there were plenty of ‘hang on a minute….how do I get up there!?’ moments as I progressed, followed by that unmistakable feeling of ‘Ahhhhh – that’s how!’ as I figured it out. Just as my time ran out, I was making my way up a huge, sprawling ruin, using a combination of (Lara’s) physical agility and my lateral thinking – basically, just how it should be. After some initial ‘no, you can’t have your controller back, I’m not done yet…’ unpleasantness, I eventually left the little Tomb Raider room with fond memories, and an overwhelming desire to get back to it.

RotTRAnd once I had got out, I was only then able to fully appreciate what I’d just seen and played. Aside from being brilliantly Tomb Raider-ey, Rise of the Tomb Raider was just brilliant – full stop. I know, to some degree, we expect exceptional graphics now, but I still couldn’t quite believe how fantastic this all looked. And it wasn’t just that Lara’s all but photo-realistic now either (which, don’t get me wrong, is pretty damn cool), but that the surroundings were genuinely exquisite, pretty freakin’ massive, and jaw-droppingly awesome (in the true, ‘awe-inspiring’ sense of the word)!

And similarly, when Lara wasn’t gazing skyward at some beautifully rendered temple complex, the moments when she was creeping through dark, dank passages were equally well done. Perhaps more so, precisely because the atmosphere and tension were real, palpable things. So much so in fact, that when I emerged from one such passage, I genuinely felt a degree of relief and gratitude. And all the while, there was a very definite sense of Lara grappling with personal tragedy, learning hard lessons, and taking more of those tentative steps on the path to becoming the kick-ass heroine we know she does.

All things considered, Rise of the Tomb Raider is something to be very, very excited about. To illustrate that point, I’m a mahoosive Fallout Fan, and have been waiting eagerly for the next installment for years, but both that and RotTR come out on the same day, and there’s actually a fairly big chance I’ll be loading up the latter first.

It really did look that good.