Microsoft has been beating the "best holiday lineup of games on Xbox ever" drum pretty hard for the last few months, and a significant part of that lineup launches this week. The Xbox One-exclusive (for now) Rise of the Tomb Raider hits stores in North America tomorrow, and regardless of whether or not it justifies Microsoft's claims, the initial wave of reviews is generally positive.
In giving the game five stars out of five, The Telegraph's Tom Hoggins said the title was especially apt, with the game being "far slicker and more balanced" than its predecessor, the 2013 reboot Tomb Raider.
"Rise makes sure you've always got something fresh to get your teeth into."Tom Hoggins
"Rise's main thrust is the spectacular roller-coaster ride that Uncharted popularised and the Tomb Raider reboot followed: frantic firefights and chases interspersed with more considered navigation," Hoggins said. "The rhythm is familiar, but developer Crystal Dynamics has learned to tone down the scripted excesses of the genre, blending its mechanics cleanly and adding variety."
"Straight-up gunplay is where the game is at its weakest, dumb enemies and loose aiming combining for a slightly scrappy feel. But there is a satisfying crunch and ferocity to it that means it is rarely less than entertaining. Crystal Dynamics know where the game's strengths lie, however, and the traditional shooting galleries (Lara behind cover, enemies popping up in the middle-distance) are surprisingly infrequent."
Hoggins welcomed the addition of stealthier options to combat, as well as scavenging and crafting mechanics. And while he called the gunplay the weakest aspect of the game, he also said the developers designed around that and limited the "traditional shooting galleries" that permeate many cover-based shooters.
"Even if it is just a subtle tweak to a combat situation, a smart environmental puzzle or the addition of a new traversal skill, Rise makes sure you've always got something fresh to get your teeth into," Hoggins said. "The main adventure moves on at a fair clip, but is terrifically paced and has the rare quality of getting better as the game goes on, helped by a couple of open areas for you to explore and dabble in side-missions."
Those open areas were also a high point for IGN's Lucy O'Brien, who said the game "takes its predecessor's winning formula and improves on it in every way" in her 9.3 out of 10 review.
"While puzzles have been baked deeper into the main storyline than they were in Lara's last outing, the most interesting ones are still those that you have to hunt down on the side. Rise of the Tomb Raider's 'challenge tombs,' those that speak most strongly to Tomb Raider's heritage, are its highlight; imaginative, environmentally gorgeous, and increasingly tough as you progress through the world."
"As a character, Lara Croft has never been so endearing."Lucy O'Brien
O'Brien loved the challenge tombs and open areas so much she seemed upset there weren't more of them.
"As I played through the main storyline, I increasingly found myself hurrying through combat sections just so I could branch off and hunt down my next puzzle fix, buried in the unsettled guts of an icy mountain or under a murky lake in the mouth of a cave."
That's not to say she didn't enjoy the story. O'Brien praised it as "full of the right kind of danger and intrigue," and particular lauded the character of Lara herself.
"Minute-to-minute, Lara shines," O'Brien said. "She's confident and smart, and reacts to danger with an action hero's calmness and intuition. Yet she's scarred by her last adventure, so she carries a sort of charismatic weariness that tinges her quips with self-deprecation. As a character, Lara Croft has never been so endearing."
Not everyone was quite so taken with Lara. In Oli Welsh's unscored review for Eurogamer, he suggested the protagonist actually took a step back compared to the 2013 reboot.
"Whether or not you agree with the direction Crystal Dynamics and [writer Rhianna] Pratchett took Lara in three years ago, it at least moved her toward a three-dimensional humanity. Rise of the Tomb Raider keeps the tone but skimps on the character work, rendering her flat: a cut-price Katniss Everdeen, bow over one shoulder, chip on the other."
Welsh seemed more down on the game than the majority of his peers, but couldn't deny it was well-made.
"It's an unchallenging pot-pourri of virtually every current mainstream gaming fashion..."Oli Welsh
"It's an unchallenging pot-pourri of virtually every current mainstream gaming fashion, bearing the clear imprimatur of design by committee," Welsh said. "But Crystal Dynamics is too experienced and talented a studio to let it get incoherent or unfocused. Whether serving up stealth combat or skill trees, the game is never less than cleanly competent, and often enough it's compelling."
Like O'Brien and a number of other critics, Welsh thought the game was at its best in the challenge tombs, getting back to the series' roots in what Welsh felt was an unfortunately sidelined series of optional areas. The fact that there wasn't more of them (and ones more central to the story) pointed to an identity crisis for a series trying to be all things to all people, he said. The game's Expeditions mode, a microtransaction-driven series of challenges that let players replay sections of the main game with new win criteria and score attack options was further evidence of that.
"Rise of the Tomb Raider is a well-made game," Welsh said. "It's a handsome and solidly entertaining, if seldom inspired, way to while away a dozen hours. It has a famous name and an avatar of real dynamic power at its centre. It has tombs to raid. That ought to be enough. It shouldn't have to reach. But reach it does - for an emotional hook it doesn't have, and for trendy gimmicks it doesn't need."
Even the most critical reviews of the game were still fairly positive. Destructoid's Steven Hansen gave the game one of the lowest scores in the first round of reviews, and even that was a 7.5 out of 10. He acknowledged it was "one of the best-looking games this year" and enjoyed both the story and the platforming elements, but like Welsh, would have preferred more focus on certain elements.
"Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat."Steven Hansen
"People who like busywork will probably appreciate the hub areas replete with open-world style challenges (burn all 10 communist propaganda posters, cut down all the snared rabbits, etc.), but it kind of grated on me," Hansen said. "I didn't open the map until a few hours in and I immediately wanted to slam it shut after seeing the Assassin's Creed-style unreadable mess of icons... Eventually I stopped going out of my way to pick up trash, yet I still always had ammo and arrows. Crafting, skill trees, open-world-style quests: it just feels like bloat. Busy work. And it isn't consistent with the story."
Ultimately, Hansen said Rise of the Tomb Raider is a better game than the 2013 reboot, even though it didn't address that title's core deficits.
"It's not about 'survival' as billed, given the ease of mowing down dozens of folks and plenty of resources," Hansen said. "But finding tombs wherein to clamber about ancient Rube Goldberg machines, coupled with the gorgeous visual flair and diverse environments, make Rise's wilderness one worth exploring and elevate Tomb Raider's otherwise perfunctory take on the third-person action platformer."