After almost 30 years on the scene, Lara Croft is the Grande Dame of a certain brand of video gaming. The original “Tomb Raider,” released all the way back in 1996, established the template that’s since become its own genre – the globe-trotting adventurer who chases fortune and glory by solving mysteries and dodging bullets.
“Tomb Raider” borrowed from the Indiana Jones movies, of course, which in turn borrowed from the treasure hunter film serials and pulp comics of the early 20th century. There is nothing new under the sun. But you know what they say about things that ain’t broke.
The stalwart Ms. Croft is back again with “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” an entirely successful continuation of 2013’s major franchise reboot. As with the last installment, developer Crystal Dynamics has delivered an elegant gaming experience in which story and gameplay are skillfully stitched together.
In this new re-imagined “Tomb Raider” universe, Lara is still a young adventuress learning the ropes of extreme archaeology. Following the trail of hints left behind by her dearly (and mysteriously) departed father, Lara scrambles from Syria to Siberia, gradually uncovering the sinister machinations of an ancient conspiracy.
Yes, I know, it’s all rather familiar. Like the 2013 reboot, “Rise of the Tomb Raider” deliberately mines those bedrock premises of pulp fiction – the shadowy secret organization, the ancient artifact, the hint of magical powers at work. Why is it that all magic relics give the gift of immortality, anyway? Why not the gift of, say, prophecy? Or a really reliable minivan?
Anyway, “Rise of the Tomb Raider” peppers in some interesting specifics. Those ancient Siberian ruins are hidden beneath Soviet-era installations, and the designers pull off some nifty tricks combining recent and ancient history. The player learns about the region by uncovering documents and artifacts as the game progresses.
Lara’s character is also given some surprisingly sophisticated emotional depth. At one point, an ally confronts Lara about her relentless globe-trotting and suggests that she’s just running away from herself and the family issues she refuses to confront. He’s right.
Many of the game’s most rewarding sequences occur when these elements of storytelling, characterization and gameplay all click together. There’s a feeling of active participation when you scale the temple to get the clue that unlocks the critical story point about Lara’s past.
In fact, players are encouraged to empathize with Lara at every turn, often in a very immediate and visceral sense. The designers put you in Lara’s (snow)shoes through highly coordinated sound, visuals and even tactile effects – rumbling haptic feedback is generated by way of the vibrating controller. When Lara is shivering in a glacial cave, you can almost feel the chill yourself. Her body language and facial expressions are carefully designed to help you identify with her plight.
As for gameplay, there’s not much new here relative to the 2013 game. But again, if it ain’t broke.... Cover-based combat is improved and specific fight scenes are set up so that Lara can improvise with objects in the environment. Got some mercenaries clustered around a gas leak? Toss that lantern at them and see what happens. Be sure to watch for deliciously evil tactics concerning icy lake surfaces, too.
The game’s complex crafting and resource gathering return as well, and these are less successful. To upgrade your equipment and weapons, you’ll need to spend a lot of time harvesting animal hides, gathering salvage and even mining minerals. I’d love to see a toggle system, or maybe a difficulty setting, where you could simply opt out of all this piecemeal progression. Give me an upgraded weapon every three tombs or so, and I’ll be set.
Actually, it would be interesting to see a new minimalist approach in “Tomb Raider” or similar series like “Uncharted.” I found the old-school platforming puzzles to be the most enjoyable part of the new game, but they’re relatively few and far between. The game works best when it’s moving along quickly, but it’s hard to maintain momentum when you’re stopping every few steps to gather mushrooms or hardwood or whatever. Let Lara get back to what she’s best at – climbing stuff, solving puzzles and shooting bad guys.
“Rise of the Tomb Raider” (rated M) is now available exclusively on Xbox 360 and Xbox One. PC and PlayStation 4 editions are due in 2016.