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The opening minutes of Rise of the Tomb Raider had me worried. It starts with Lara trudging slowly through the snow, my only requirement being to hold W as the game plays itself around me. All of sudden, I’m having flashbacks to 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot and its interminable, set-piece heavy introduction. At one point during a cutscene laden climbing tutorial, I miss a prompt, fall and die. Redoing the section, I hit the prompt, climb a few feet higher, and watch another cutscene in which Lara falls but is fine. Here we go again? Actually, no.
The opener is frustrating, but over quickly. From then on, Rise of the Tomb Raider sticks to a mostly consistent level of interactivity. There’s still plenty of set-piece spectacle, but these pace-breaking action segments trust you to read the visual clues of the environment and react using the appropriate controls. There’s a level of artifice to these sequences, but they operate within the framework of established interactions. This is emblematic of RotTR as a whole. It’s not that Tomb Raider’s missteps have been eradicated, but they’ve been dramatically lessened. There are less slow-mo QTE sequences, less awkward conversations, less by-the-numbers miniboss fights. They’re all still there, but take up significantly less of 15-or-so hour running time.
Lara’s latest adventure opens in Siberia, and—aside from an early sojourn in Syria—that’s where it stays. Lara is on the hunt for the Divine Source, an artifact that her father had obsessed over before his death. There’s an important difference in the plots of RotTR and its predecessor. Here, Lara has initiated her quest. While things quickly spiral out of control, particularly after the appearance of militaristic cult Trinity, she’s no longer an unwilling participant in events.
That’s crucial to how the game treats Lara. In Tomb Raider, she was frequently battered, bruised and impaled—and that’s just if you were playing well. In RotTR, Lara can fall foul to a number of fatal traps, but in regular play she no longer feels like a victim of her environment. That’s not to say the story isn’t clumsy in places. There are times when the it all goes a little bit Avatar. Lara stumbles across a tribe called the Remnant, and—despite their having lived in this Siberian wilderness for generations—she quickly proves to be the best at hunting, climbing and gunning down an entire army.
Other elements of the story work much better. This is still Lara’s origin, but, while she hasn’t yet embraced her role as a globetrotting murderess, she is at least more accepting of it. There’s a resolve that didn’t exist before, and that means there’s no clumsy disconnect between the story of a woman traumatised by her actions and the gleeful feeling of killing off a camp full of bad guys. It’s just as well, because the combat remains highly enjoyable. Rise of the Tomb Raider—like its predecessor—deftly blends stealth and action. Most enemies begin unaware of Lara’s presence, giving you the scope to creep through bushes and behind cover. With patience, and by chucking around objects to provide distractions, it’s possible to systematically and silently clear out most enemy patrols. Often, it’s more fun to take out a couple of guys and then choose to initiate a firefight.
Lara has access to a small selection of weapon types—pistol, rifle and shotgun—with a variety of styles available in each category. Most feel good to fire, the panicked inaccuracy of the automatic rifle being the only real exception. Pistols feel lightweight and clinical, while the pump-action shotgun is a chunky and gratifyingly deadly option. Once again, though, the bow is star of the show. Having to draw back and charge shots provides a nice rhythm to the combat, especially in conjunction with some of the skill upgrades available as Lara levels up. I especially enjoy the feel of the rapid fire skills, which let you instantly fire off fully charged follow up arrows after your initial shot. Aimed correctly, and you can down even heavily armed guards with a single salvo.
New for this outing is Lara’s ability to craft combat tools on-the-fly. Arrows and special ammo can be created at any point, but you can also make use of things found around enemy camps. A bottle can be turned into a molotov cocktail; an empty can an IED. Doing so costs resources found out in the world, but I was never so low on them that I was unable to set light to a clustered group of soldiers. You craft combat tools by holding the middle-mouse button, thus keeping your keyboard hand free to control Lara’s movements. As a result, scrabbling between cover while grabbing and arming a can is a frictionless process. It gives combat a welcome feeling of fluidity.