(Ed’s Note: Preview played on Xbox One, but unless Crystal Dynamics decided to turn the PS4 version into a racing game or whatnot, we assume that both gameplay mechanics and design will be the same).
When the credits rolled on Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot, and Ms. Croft had finally brought an end to Himiko’s longstanding and supernatural reign, the studio had effectively resurrected an icon. For generations, Lara Croft rubbed shoulders with the industry’s most venerable mascots, and despite Eidos’ attempt at rebooting the IP in 2006, it was ultimately Crystal that ushered the famed archaeologist back into the limelight with aplomb, kick-starting a new timeline in the process.
Now, the studio is tasked with tie-toping around the notorious sophomore slump. Yes, Lara returns later this year for Rise of the Tomb Raider, a leaner, meaner sequel that’s making strides to ensure Crystal’s new-fangled IP cements its status as a true franchise. And while a partnership agreement means that the follow-up will release as a timed exclusive — debuting on Xbox platforms in November before making the jump to PC and PlayStation systems next year — on paper, only Uncharted 4 stands taller than Rise of the Tomb Raider on the 2016 calendar.
The Ghosts of Yamatai
Much digital ink has been spilled about how the two franchises have influenced one another in the past, though above all, Crystal’s sequel will map out Lara’s character arc from naive, wide-eyed explorer to a bona fide raider of tombs. Upon picking up the controller, we are introduced to a protagonist that has been shaped by her traumatic experience on Yamatai — sporting scars both physical and mental.
Opening with a truncated, road-so-far-styled montage, the demo begins with Lara plumped down into a underground Syrian tomb and in search of a famous lost artifact of some description. Familiar, sure, but if there’s one thing that stuck with us after the vertical slice came to an end, it’s that Rise of the Tomb Raider iterates on a formula that was already approaching excellence in the first place.
Gameplay was slick, refined and truly responsive. Indeed if Rocksteady’s Arkham series is lauded for making you feel like Batman, then Crystal Dynamics ought to receive praise for achieving a similar feeling of intoxicating empowerment within the action-adventure genre. But much to our relief, the early build balanced high-octane action with head-scratching riddles rather expertly.
EGX 2015: Rise of the Tomb Raider Preview - A Fire Rises (Xbox One/PS4)
Environmental puzzles have been expanded to such an extent that the majority of the demo revolved around guiding Lara through precarious pits and nasty spike traps — those toe-curling death animations haven’t gone anywhere. By and large, this puzzle in question involved flooding certain chambers of the capacious cavern all in effort of reaching the decrepit monument at the top.
Fans of the original 2013 reboot will take to the mechanics like a duck to water, as they side-step traps and clamber up and over ancient runes with relative ease. Even if you’ve yet to dabble with Crystal’s Tomb Raider universe, climbing mechanics are remarkably smooth, and guiding Lara toward her goal was as seamless as it was thrilling, with our heroine often just nailing the landing — or grappling onto a crevice — by the skin of her teeth.
Return of an Icon
Character animations feel natural, too, with Lara reacting to the environment around her in a way that feels believable, even if her vitality borders on the superhuman at times. Armed with only a measly pistol and your own intelligence, the vertical slice culminates with our protagonist unearthing the monument.
Keeping story specifics to a minimum, it’s here that Rise of the Tomb Raider begins to roll out the spectacle that helped define the 2013 reboot. From crumbling platforms to intense shootouts, the rat-a-tat pace of gameplay is truly exhilarating; a white-knuckle ride in every sense.
The same can’t be said for the overarching enemies, though. Trinity, as they are known, didn’t really nail the first impression. Rappelling into the yawning cavern to spoil Lara’s party at the 11th hour, the villains were headed up by a chiseled, musclebound mercenary who even sported facial scars to ensure that he really fitted the archetypal mold of the chief baddie. Flanked by half a dozen faceless guards (read: cannon fodder), the game’s villains aren’t half as memorable as one would hope, and even some solid voice acting on the part of the lead antagonist can’t prevent them from falling into the camp of generic — and, ultimately, forgettable — characters.
Lifting a playable segment from a story-centric title will always throw up a few jarring experiences, and our own brief, largely unremarkable encounter with Trinity isn’t indicative of the Trinity that we’ll lock horns with in the final build. A conventional plot wasn’t our only niggle with Rise, however, with gunplay lacking the weight and feel of other third-person shooters. It’s far from bad, but shootouts with the aforementioned cannon fodder takes a second seat behind Rise of the Tomb Raider‘s treasure hunting gameplay — the true star of Crystal D’s sequel.
Visually and aurally stunning, this is a follow-up that ought to be high on your radar for 2016 — or November, if you’re fortunate enough to own either an Xbox One or Xbox 360.
Timed exclusivity is a bitch, but it has in no way dampened my excitement for Rise of the Tomb Raider. After remaining on the sidelines while Nathan Drake swung in to nab the adventurer’s crown Indiana Jones-style, Lara Croft is quickly making up for lost time, becoming one of the more compelling female protagonists in the industry. Long may that continue.