Playing Rise of the Tomb Raider reminded me that it’s a really great time to be a gutsy adventurer.
If any one aspect of recent adventure games has me excited for the genre in the near future, it’s that developers have been smarter in adding nuance to stealth gameplay. These days, more games are featuring a type of sneak approach that I call “aggressive stealth.” It’s not about stalking enemies at a snail’s pace and staying so quiet that it’s as if you’re walking on broken glass; it’s more about recognizing narrow windows of opportunity between the moment you get close to your prey and the brief instance when they realize they’re done for.
It’s about boldly approaching targets with speed and cunning, and while your target might notice you for a split second, the ensuing blow from your melee weapon of choice ensures that no one in the immediate area will be alerted. As someone who loves making instant judgment calls between finishing off prey or remaining a ghost, the glut of opportunities for aggressive stealth is the feature in Rise of the Tomb Raider that I’m looking forward to the most.
Using Lara Croft as the vehicle for all this shadowy lethality walks a fine line between her characterization as a now-skilled survivor and her very human reactions to adversity. She’s obviously not as helpless as she sounded in her last predicament but she’ll still grunt with every physical hardship and scream when the environment tries to get the better of her.
In Rise, she resumes right from where she left off in 2013’s Tomb Raider—specifically, on treacherous snow-covered mountain tops, albeit a different set. No, she’s not back in the cursed kingdom of Yamatai, but rather the unforgiving frozen wilderness of Siberia. In the opening scene, Lara looks as miserable as she did in her last adventure. Her body language conveys profound reluctance, a far cry from the one-dimensional over-confidence of the original Lara Croft of yesteryear. Between the unpredictable weather and the tenuous nature of Lara’s ice climbing, it’s easy to draw parallels with the dramatic moments on the frozen peaks of Uncharted 2, the second game in a series that once took cues from Tomb Raider, though the tables have clearly turned.
You want to sympathize with Lara’s quandaries, but like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake, she knew the risks. Rise of the Tomb Raider doesn’t stray far from the classic temptations that drive all adventurer-slash-archeologists. In Lara’s specific case, it’s the quest for the secret to eternal life, a search that is doubly poignant since it was her father’s odyssey as well. But this is Tomb Raider through and through, where one of the themes is how the journey is more important than the goal. This is made plainly obvious by the myriad treasures, temples, ruins, and relics scattered throughout the game, let alone the gratification of surviving a given tomb and solving the puzzles that lead you to these riches.
Tombs or otherwise, some of the most beautiful games are those with backdrops that exude implied history. In these ancient ruins, you can’t help but wonder what these walls have seen, what events—from the fiendish to the mundane—transpired. It’s all the more surprising that much of this kind of imagination-stirring comes from distinctly fictional settings, like the lands of critically acclaimed titles like Journey and Dark Souls. This vibe is less present in this rebooted Tomb Raider series. There’s a heavier emphasis on the valuable garbage that people leave behind rather than the sense that any one place was once brimming with life.
Artifacts and ruins provide a layered history to any given area, not unlike the ancient Japanese treasures found alongside Nazi installations in the last game. With the Siberian setting of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Soviets replace Nazis as Lara infiltrates a number of Cold War-era bases. I often enjoy this visual melding of 20th century history with relics hundreds of years old, though it takes a talented developer to make the scattering of these remains feel realistic. An old galleon wedged inside a Siberian cavern is one thing; adding mummified Mongol hordes and missing warplanes borders on an unpleasant and a forced “kitchen sink” approach. When Rise of the Tomb Raider is out in November, I hope that these Soviet strongholds convey a nuanced sense of history not unlike the poignancy of the abandoned city of Pripyat in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Siberia is a big place and Rise of the Tomb Raider promises to be a more expansive experience than its predecessor. It’s the kind of general anteing-up that any sensible person can expect from a sequel in the adventure genre. Could that make Rise of the Tomb Raider more predictable? Possibly, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less difficult. In fact, my recent three-hour preview sampling points a very challenging sequel.
The Soviet base alone was made up of two sections: a linear, heavily guarded path ripe with stealth kill opportunities (or if you prefer, open combat) and a much more open area filled with resources to scavenge and environmental puzzles to solve. Developer Crystal Dynamics’ idea of mirroring the borderline-iconic wolf encounter in the previous game with a bear battle in Rise of the Tomb Raider is a blunt and effective way to convey increased stakes, and no doubt it was intentional that this was one of the sections they showed to press. Whereas the fight against the wolves put Lara on the defensive, this sequel gives you every opportunity to outsmart the bear with an offense mindset. Much like many well-designed boss fights, there’s no one absolute way to take out this bear. You can boldly take a pickaxe to its head or overwhelm it with a series of archery attacks. Distracting it with poison-infused arrows offers some breathing room and serves as a reminder to consider all your available tools and gear in a given encounter. And while the openness of the combat area prevents aggressive stealth, well-timed dodges rolls from the bear’s charges is the next best thing.
It’s a credit to Rise of the Tomb Raider that I now have a hankering for a third playthrough of the previous Tomb Raider, a game whose main story path excelled in both focus and conciseness, where it felt like every beat and every moment had to have meaning or an impact. In the small chunk I played, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels looser, with lulls in the pacing, possibly to add weight and contrast to the more intense moments. We’ll have to wait until it’s out to see how the game shakes out over all.
Based on this preview sampling, Rise of the Tomb Raider won’t be short of variety. I’ve yet to see how the new game’s gunplay feels, but I’m hoping it’s as stimulating and overwhelming as Lara’s entry into the shanty town in the previous game. I’m talking about a deadly game of hide and seek, thoughtful use of cover tactics, and smart flanking. I thought Tomb Raider shined the brightest when its level design and enemy behavior compelled me to adapt and improvise. When combat smarts met creativity, the game responded in kind by giving me the gratification of clearing an area and a progress-saving checkpoint. I’m eager to experience something similar in The Rise of the Tomb Raider. I got a taste of this aggressive stealth that I’m intensely fond of and I’m eager for more, more than any ancient artifact or tomb puzzle this game throws at me.
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