For most gamers, Rise of the Tomb Raider released on the wrong day; for me, Lara Croft’s latest adventure couldn’t have hit at a more opportune time.
While most have been scouring the wastelands in Fallout 4, I have opted to play the shorter, less anticipated game that launched on November 10th. I do own and will get to playing Fallout 4, mind you, but right now I’m just not ready to pledge 60+ hours to a game.
2015 has seen, and will continue to see, huge open world games: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Mad Max, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and of course, Fallout 4. I played and enjoyed almost all of these games, but I decided to freeze my impending open-world fatigue by choosing to play Rise of the Tomb Raider first.
I’m glad that in an era where it seems that all of the big launches are for massive role playing games, there is still time to enjoy smaller, more focussed experiences. And Crystal Dynamics’ latest effort proves it.
Like most features in Lara’s new expedition, Rise of the Tomb Raider finds its footing in balanced, unobtrusive gameplay pickings from a wide variety of game genres. Instead of beating you over the head with spacious environments that never seem possible to thoroughly explore, the game is segmented into isolated open-world locations with enough variability to remain a visual treat.
You’ll explore the likes of frigid mountain regions, labour camps, rocky mines, and greenery-filled valleys. And the environments aren’t so overwhelming in size like those found in traditional open-world games, so you never feel like it will take hours upon hours to see the entirety of any one segment.
The locations can be pillaged at your own pace and that anxiety of misdirection felt when playing games with huge open worlds is never an issue. If Lara is ill-equipped for a certain task, the game will prompt you. This chunking method used to separate each region also helps to focus the gameplay and objectives within a specified territory—running into repetitive environments or unbeatable missions won’t drag down the experience. A disjointed atlas of locations is a nice compromise between the linear gameplay of an Uncharted game and the freedom provided by a game like Fallout 4.
Because Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t let Lara off the leash completely, the story can be well-established by means of cutscenes and linear sequences. The same usually can’t be said for open world games, which take great care in making the levelling and strategy elements their most integral features. That’s not to say that the world building isn’t there—The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt did a commendable job of making you feel like a sword-wielding, magic-mastering baddass in a fantasy world. But Crystal Dynamics’ game gives you just enough agency over the protagonist and her exciting backdrops and holds back just enough to allow the narrative to remain in focus.
Truly open-world games have so many interactables and side objectives to complete that the narrative becomes driven by the player and not by the developer. Again, Rise of the Tomb Raider takes my favourite elements from unadultered, genre-abiding titles and combines them into a delicate stew that makes the whole experience taste ever so good.
If you really care for the narrative, the game includes plenty of collectibles to track down. Some of these collectibles provide supporting historical context while others are actual documents that shed some light on ancillary characters and their motives. The story will never burden you if you aren’t all that interested, but the cutscenes and linear action sequences are always just enough to keep you interested.
The same goes for the collectibles and upgrade systems. There is a time for diving deep into customization options, and that time is not now—not when I have played so many titles this year that use such systems. In Rise of the Tomb Raider I can search for parts and materials to upgrade my weapons, and there are always enough options to make me feel like my arsenal is formidable against foes. I’m not spending copious amount of time tweaking my handgun and comparing statistics to get it just right.
But you want to know what I am spending extensive time with? Challenge Tombs! Yet another feature of Rise of The Tomb Raider that is entirely optional, these Zelda-inspired puzzles are tricky and well-designed. I have yet to come across a challenge that was overly perplexing or unfair, and I plan on solving them all.
Challenge Tombs are hidden from the main world hubs, so you are never forced to commit yourself to solving them. However, if you do seek them out, they provide fun puzzle sequences that will lead to useful upgrades upon completion.
This balance between choice and linear presentation is what makes Rise of Tomb Raider the perfect game for me now; not the best game on my shelf, but the best game for my current mood. The Goldilocks approach the game takes in presenting just a sprinkling of features means that I can enjoy the best parts of other genre-defining games in a more diluted form. Story sequences, open-world exploration, collectible hunting, weapon crafting, and puzzle-solving offerings are all included without the overwhelming force of an established open-world role-playing game. But don’t worry, Fallout 4–I’m coming for you too, when the time is right.