Developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square-Enix. Released November 10th, 2015. Available on Xbox One (reviewed) and Xbox 360. Review copy provided by publisher.
2013's Tomb Raider was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It was a complete revitalization of one of gaming's most iconic characters; one that successfully modernized both its gameplay and Lara Croft herself, repackaging her as a young, strong, intelligent, relatable and above all else, likable protagonist. Some may call it an Uncharted clone, and while that's not entirely inaccurate, Tomb Raider's added focus on exploration, survival and puzzle solving went a long way in establishing the series' own identity.
Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn't stray too far from that identity and at several points throughout the game, feels almost too familiar, to the point of evoking deja vu. It's a sequel that plays it very safe, and though the few new additions at best feel unnecessary and at worst slightly detract from the overall experience, the core of Tomb Raider carries it a long way.
Rise picks up a short time after the events of the first game, with Lara now being driven by the research of her late father after witnessing first hand on the island of Yamatai that the myths and legends he chased after are all true. Lara's search eventually leads her to Siberia where she believes she'll find the lost city of Kitezh, and within it, an artifact known as The Divine Source that grants immortality. But of course, as with most stories involving lost cities and immortality granting artifacts, an evil organization (Trinity) is also on its trail, intent on using the artifact for their own nefarious deeds.
The plot does a good job of filling in some backstory involving Lara and her father, providing some added depth to Lara's character and giving the player a good understanding of why she's so determined to disprove the widespread perception that her father was this crazy scholar who chased myths and fairy tales. The present day storyline of Lara trying to find Kitezh is not quite as compelling as her first adventure on the island of Yamatai, but it has its moments, and at the very least establishes Trinity as the "Big Bad" of the series.
Rise of the Tomb Raider will feel extremely familiar to anyone who played the 2013 reboot, but that isn't to say that nothing's changed. Crafting is the big new feature that Rise runs with, giving players a total of 16 different materials to find out in the wilderness. These materials will allow you to not only craft upgrades for your weapons and equipment, but also different types of arrows, first aid kits and throwable items.
The problem is, for a crafting system to work, the things you craft need to feel worth the effort of finding the materials, which just isn't the case here. Craftable weapon upgrades cost a ton of materials and only offer slight, barely noticeable improvements, which makes hunting the materials feel like a waste of time.
That's not to say there's nothing worth crafting. The game no longer has a regenerating health system, so craftable first aid kits are a necessity. It's a change that makes the game substantially easier, since you're able to restore your health via a first aid kit much faster than you would if you had to find cover and not take damage until you get full health again. The last Tomb Raider wasn't a particularly difficult game, but it had its fair share of intense firefights that came with a sense of satisfaction after getting through them by the skin of your teeth. Playing through Rise on the second hardest difficulty level, I never got that same level of satisfaction, mainly because any tough encounters were remedied by shoving a surplus of first aid kids down my throat.
Despite being much easier than its predecessor, Rise of the Tomb Raider's combat is still a lot of fun, in that blockbuster'y shooter kind of way. The battlefields are almost always littered with exploding environmental hazards and throwable objects that can be crafted into deadly grenades, giving players plenty of flashy options to dispatch their enemies. Those enemies are also very aggressive and constantly rush you down from all angles, facilitating a very fast and frenetic pace to the action.