As I’ve said before, one of the highlights of my first year of next-gen gaming was the Tomb Raider reboot, and that, coupled with the ever-so-brief go I had on this one prior to release, made Rise of the Tomb Raider one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of Silly Season. I had every reason to expect good things from this installment, and particularly because I’d very much gotten the impression that this one would feature more of the Tomb-ey/Puzzle-y stuff that I loved about the earlier Tomb Raider games, whilst still maintaining the strong narrative arc of the 2013 release.

However, after playing 15ish hours of RotTR, it seems I might have been a wee bit mistaken in some of that. Whilst things started off well enough (huge, sprawling temple complex, with stuff to figure out/climb/interact with), that seems to have been the exception, rather than the rule – at least so far. In fact, at this point, that’s the only place of ‘archeological interest’ I’ve been within a hundred miles of, and all these Tombs I was hoping for are actually of the random “challenge” ones dotted around variety. Basically, the same as they were in the last game.

RotTR - TempleNow, that’s obviously a disappointment to me, but then, in many ways, it’s also my fault for playing 10 minutes of a game and just extrapolating from that like there’s no fucking tomorrow. I mean, it’s not really fair if I lambast a game because it didn’t deliver what I thought it was going to deliver – with little to no evidence, right!? Moreover, it’s slightly churlish of me to focus on something that isn’t in Rise of the Tomb Raider, when there’s plenty of stuff that is in it to focus on. So, I’ma concentrate on the other stuff – and try to forget the Tomb Related Disappointment – but, in the interests of accuracy, every few paragraphs or so, just imagine me shaking my fists and crying, ‘but what about the puzzles, I THOUGHT THERE WOULD BE PUZZLES?!’.

Anyways; what is in Rise of the Tomb Raider? A lot is the short answer, and a lot of quite cool and addictive stuff would be the slightly longer one. As with the 2013 release (and as the name suggests) Rise of the Tomb Raider is very much centred around Lara’s journey from regular archaeologist, to kick-ass hero with an interest in archaeology. Essentially, you’ll start the game as a vulnerable character out of their depth, with the odds stacked massively against them, and finish it as a one woman army with a skill set that would make Indiana Jones look like an amateur messing about with a Fisher Price archaeology set. This will be done via XP/levelling up, crafting, acquiring skills and weaponry, and in total, there are a commendable amount of ways to git gud, as well as an impressive degree of personal preference in how you choose to do so.

RotTR UpgradingIf you’re loving the bow and arrow, for example, you can choose your skill points accordingly, and use the various things you’ve scavenged to upgrade the shit out of it. If you’re more of a hand-to-hand brawler, there’s skills that’ll help you out in that department – basically, you can tailor Lara’s learning curve to compliment your own, and that’s something I’m loving at this early stage. Given everything’s exactly 156.25% cooler when a bow and arrow’s involved, that’s where I’m focusing my attention, but you don’t have to.

What’s also pretty cool, in my opinion, is that RotTR continues with the same degree of freedom that I really liked in the last game, and you have the option to treat the game as an open worlder; just crack on with the story; or, as I’m doing, combine the two approaches to suit your style. In mixing the two approaches, Rise of the Tomb Raider allows you to tailor your journey in whatever way you see fit, or indeed, just to match your mood. Fancy a break from shooting people in the face? Fine, have a wander around one of the “hub” areas, collecting various bits and pieces. Fancy shooting people in the face, but just can’t because you’re not that good? Don’t worry about it, use some “down time” to rack up XP/craft upgrades, so that you’re better at shooting people in the face henceforth. Obviously, this isn’t an element that’s new to games, generally speaking, but its addition to the Tomb Raider franchise is, I think, a welcome one.

Yesterday, for example, I spent most of the day just piss-arsing around with side missions, tombs and challenges, and I enjoyed every second of it. To give you a flavour of just how enjoyable and addictive that was, my plan was to do a few hours on RotTR before moving back to Fallout, but I actually ended up sticking with Lara instead.

RotTR LaraNow, that strong narrative arc thing. From what I’ve played of the story stuff so far, Rise of the Tomb Raider is every bit as compelling as its predecessor, and it’s equally well done too. There’s a definite sense of purpose in Lara’s journey, and her quest for answers doesn’t have an overly contrived feel to it. What’s driving her forward isn’t just the hope of getting her hands on some shiny relic that she can offload for a bucket-load of cash, but the need for redemption, and ultimately, to provide a degree of closure to the tragedies of her past. It works well, I think, and it’s pivotal in making Lara a character you can sympathise with, and root for. Lara’s vulnerable and scared, but never annoyingly so, and more importantly, it’s totally understandable why she’s vulnerable and scared. In the little moments of introspection and soliloquy, we also get a sense of the inner struggle she’s going through, and how, in the end, she just about manages to push herself onward, rather than sacking it all off and going home to Netflix and chill.

There are a few clichés in there, for sure, and particularly in the fact that you’re up against a huge, shadowy organisation with evil, end-of-the-world intentions, but on balance, and for the most part, I’m finding the story compelling, well-executed, and enjoyable.

RotTR - vistaFinally, in terms of the whole package, Rise of the Tomb Raider is also very well executed. Graphically stunning, this is another game that makes me glad I made the jump to next-gen. Indeed, as somebody who was blown away by the first Tomb Raider all those years ago (lolz), it feels fitting that another Tomb Raider is now carrying the baton forward. From the picturesque vistas visible from the top of a structure you’ve just climbed, to the dark, oppressive caves you’ve jumped down into, Rise of the Tomb Raider is an impressively realised world, and one it’s a joy to explore. I’ve often found myself enjoying the scenery, or admiring a particularly well-crafted monolith, and it all adds to, and augments, the sense of immersion set up by the story stuff.

Gameplay-wise, I’m also finding RotTR a real pleasure. Lara’s very responsive, and everything’s just generally intuitive and easy to use. In combat, the controls are as smooth as a first-person shooter, and for exploring, climbing and whatnot, there’s been almost no instances of her leaping into an abyss, rather than across to the ledge a foot away like I wanted her to do. That, I think we can all agree, is something of a bonus. There’s also an ‘extrasensory DooDah’, which allows you to highlight things of interest, climbable objects, etc, so there’s less of the frustrating ‘let’s see if she can grab onto that……nope, obviously not!’ trial and error type stuff. It’s highly possible that this makes things a bit too easy, but, for the most part, I’m liking that I can plan and execute stuff without dying a million times in the process.

RotTROh, and speaking of easy, my biggest complaint about Rise of the Tomb Raider (apart from the dearth of Tombs) is that the ones that are there have (so far) been ridiculously simple and obvious. If you put me in a room filled with rocks, I’d still struggle to make the top 10 in terms of intelligence, yet I had absolutely no problem figuring everything out immediately. That might change as I progress further in the game, but so far, I feel like they’ve missed the one opportunity to nail some old-school Tomb Raider greatness here. Given the tombs are optional side-activities anyway, there’s almost no price to pay in terms of pacing, or consistency by making them trickier, and if anything, I think some genuine head-scratchers (particularly when it didn’t interfere with the story that much) would’ve given the game the best of both worlds. As it is, it’s an opportunity missed, and that’s a real shame!

However, all-in-all, I’m very, very much enjoying Rise of the Tomb Raider – and I can definitely feel that I’m going to keep enjoying it for the time being. If I’m being honest (this being a timed exclusive and such) it was a fairly big chunk of the reason I got the Xbox One, and I’ve had no cause to regret that decision, or the part Rise of the Tomb Raider played in it. If you enjoyed Lara’s last outing, you’ll almost certainly love this one too, and its every bit as compelling, and well-crafted as I hoped it would be. It really is a damn shame about those tombs, though!