Rise of the Tomb Raider has many faces. It's a third-person shooter, online leaderboard chaser, Ubisoft-esque collectible hunter, vintage environmental puzzler, 3D platformer, MGS5-rivalling stealth game, and a squirrel murdering simulator, all delivered with the visual flair of a Hollywood blockbuster. You're spoilt rotten at every turn and it's remarkable how well the combined whole holds together. Many games try to be everything at once and few succeed. But this comes very, very close.
Just 'being' Lara feels right. Her exceptional animation means you're right there with her. Every leap, roll and zip-line descent has just the right amount of plausibility to make you think 'yeah, she could do that', especially when her face is telling you she has no idea how she just did that. The result is an adventure that plays like a video game should, but looks like an action movie. You ignite a petrol spill and the whole room explodes, you run over splintering floors, you dodge falling debris and water jets... when it's at full tilt, it's breathtaking. And the vast majority of the time, you maintain full control. This is what AAA productions are supposed to be like.
The plot sees Lara tracking down an ancient artefact, which is closely linked to a legendary prophet, all the while fending off a shady organisation named Trinity who are after it too. With a few neatly-executed surprises along the way and strong performances - particularly vocally - the story scenes that pepper the action are engaging, if not quite riveting.
However, I couldn't help but notice this narrative happens to take you on a very similar arc to the last game, often making it feel like a retread. Or even a tribute album. But if this is very definitely 'more of the same', let's not forget just how good the Tomb Raider reboot was and still is. Bigger, broader and even more beautiful is fine by me.
What else is there?
There are side modes, but no multiplayer. Expeditions lets you replay levels with perks and challenges (like a bonus for not getting hit, or all the enemies are on fire), which you unlock via packs of random cards, and there are online leaderboards to chase. However, since these challenges recycle 5-10 minute chunks of the pre-scripted game – complete with tutorial pop-ups - they don't feel well-suited to speedruns. Then there's 'Remnant Resistance', a series of short challenges that run in 'big head mode'. Yes, it's 2015 and there's a big head mode. Big Head Lara is an abomination and is more worthy of being killed with fire than any of her enemies.
And that beauty is electrifying. My Xbox hard drive is filling up with screenshots where I just thought 'that is so pretty' I had to take a picture. Pure white snow glistens with sparkling ice crystals in the half-light, and leaves deep footprints when you walk in it. Rays of light pierce dust-laden air in the devilishly macabre tombs. Indeed, the interior settings ramp up the detail to render-quality, as vines, skulls and ancient statues are drawn in magnificent 3D, bathing in the light from Lara's glowstick. She is a child of the '90s, after all.
Stretching the new technology in the other direction, some of the outdoor environments are downright massive, in particular the Geothermal Springs hub around a third of the way through the game. Even so, Rise definitely stalls for a while here, leaving you to somewhat aimlessly hunt around for relics, run some errands for rather one-dimensional NPCs, and kill a few endangered species (I set a bear on fire)… basically do busywork until the story kicks back in.
And it really does. That familiar, breathless delivery of set-pieces and revelations from the previous game and the opening of this one starts to flow and all is well again. It's probably no coincidence that the frequency of combat increases here. The first half of the game is rather conflict-light, just maybe because people complained Lara was too kill-happy last time. Even so, she is very much in cold-blooded killer mode here. You sometimes hear enemies talking about their home life, or arguing about some coins they found… then you burn them to a screaming crisp and take the coins for yourself. What a bitch.
But Lara in bitch mode is awesome. You can wade in with explosive arrows, Molotov cocktails and assault rifles, or you can sneak around in the undergrowth and silently off your foes, one by one. Tossing glass jars to distract guards is fun, and the rules of stealth soon feel enjoyably defined. Successfully completing a section without being seen feels every bit as good as it does in MGS5. It's narrower here, certainly, but it works very well.
The new crafting system is largely pointless unless you tackle the game on its hardest difficulty, which I'll come to. Ready-made ammo boxes and quivers of arrows lie around, meaning you'll always be able to find ammo when you need it. It also isn't long before you can fashion ammunition in an instant, literally able to craft, nock and fire explosives in two seconds, all the while scampering around being chased by a wildcat. The idea is great but, just like last time round, the idea of hunting and foraging is carefully set up, only to be almost completely abandoned, at least on normal difficulties.
Even so, raw materials for crafting are everywhere you go and that starts to become a problem. When you've got mushrooms, berries, birds' nests, saplings and ore as well as relics, challenge items, coin caches, fallen adventurers' satchels, fallen enemies to loot, documents and ammo, you're literally always picking stuff up. Every time you walk anywhere, your first instinct is to turn in the opposite direction because there will be something there 'hidden' (I use the term very loosely). Too much stuff. It's overkill.
Adding to this surprising niggle is the Instinct button. Hit R3 and you enter the equivalent of Batman's detective mode. When you can barely move for tripping over a relic of some description (and if you have any hint of OCD when it comes to collecting everything) the flow of your game will likely suffer because you'll take a few steps, scan around, collect stuff and repeat. However, you can turn this instinct button off. If you want 100% completion, you'll probably never find everything without it, but it will make for a more realistic, naturalistic experience that rewards true exploration. And that's where that last difficulty tier comes in.
Couple HUD-free Lara with 'Survivor' mode and you've likely got the 'real' Rise of the Tomb Raider. It's a completely different experience, and everything suddenly seems a thousand times more important. Happening upon a pack of wolves when you just used up your wood to build a campfire instead of more arrows is a very scary, but utterly captivating experience. Every shot counts and you feel properly alone. This finally, finally recaptures that sense of isolation that's been missing since the 1996 original. The difficulty may be too high for some, but otherwise this mode is an amazing experience.
While Rise of the Tomb Raider is a comparatively safe sequel in that it changes very little of an existing, winning formula, this is an adventure game that takes full advantage of new-gen technology… and it's magnificent. Intelligent, beautiful, varied and huge, this is a very classy video game, and one that's surprisingly malleable. Just watch out for all the stuff on the floor.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.