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Rise of the Tomb Raider review: Don't look down

Rise of the Tomb Raider is an excellent follow-up to its predecessor and refocuses on exploration without skimping on the action.

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Jeff Bakalar
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Jeff Bakalar

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Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

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5 min read

When developer Crystal Dynamics released 2013's Tomb Raider reboot, you'd be hard-pressed to find a review that didn't (at the very least) mention the Uncharted series to provide some surface-level comparison fodder. The great irony being that the Tomb Raider franchise is arguably what paved the way for the action-adventure game as we know it today. You can't ignore the past. Lara Croft was already raiding tombs while Nathan Drake was still in kindergarten.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider

The Good

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a thrilling action game that refocuses on the tomb raiding, puzzle solving and exploration mechanics the series is known for. The game also features great level design and gorgeous locations.

The Bad

Some of the crafting elements feel a bit monotonous and uninspired. The story isn't overly compelling either.

The Bottom Line

Lara Croft's latest adventure delivers a satisfying action game that also brings back some the puzzle solving and tomb raiding that the series cut its teeth on, even if it's a bit easier than what loyalists might be used to.

The point of all this is that we were slated to see both a new Tomb Raider and PlayStation-exclusive Uncharted game in the same holiday season, but Uncharted 4 was delayed til March 2016. And wouldn't you know it, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels more Uncharted-y than anything else available on November 10th, and currently only for the Xbox One (though its exclusivity is timed).

So perhaps it's a good thing that Rise of the Tomb Raider is the holiday season's lone standout in the action-adventure exploration genre. Because if you own an Xbox One it certainly deserves your attention.

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Crystal Dynamics

Rise of the Tomb Raider is an excellent follow up to its predecessor, feeling more refined and focused. It makes up for a number of the 2013 game's shortcomings, even if its storyline is less compelling. But if you can look the other way on a few expositional missteps and concentrate on the action, gameplay and sheer enjoyment of it all, Rise of the Tomb Raider answers the call.

Set a year after the events of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is chasing down a mystical entity being aggressively pursued by an evil "let's-kill-Lara-on-sight" bunch of bad guys that go by Trinity. Using a set of stealth melee attacks, a pick-axe, bow and a small ballistic arsenal, Lara must keep her head on a swivel at all times, not to mention deal with the perpetually collapsing ancient ruins all around her.

I found the last Tomb Raider much less focused on the explorational moments I came to adore in traditional titles in the series, but Rise of the Tomb Raider honors that legacy. Thankfully, there are plenty of tombs to best in Rise. And sometimes, part of the fun is discovering their camouflaged entrances.

This speaks to the great overall level design of the game. Rise's areas are multi-tiered and labyrinthine, which satisfyingly reward you as you play through and unlock new items and abilities. If there's anything to lament, it's that occasionally the game feels too easy when played on normal difficulty. Gunplay is generously in Lara's favor, and each scenario provides you with a handful of overly convenient ways to use the environment to your advantage.

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Crystal Dynamics

On-the-fly crafting plays a major role in Rise of the Tomb Raider, so you're never without a few perfectly placed bottles or cans for a quick Molotov cocktail or DIY grenade. With these items so prevalent it's almost as if Lara has infinite amounts of explosive ammo. Of course, you'll need to collect resources in the world to complete the crafting of items, but they also overpopulate each area. They can even get in the way. The same button to reload also picks up an item, so odds are you'll do one and not the other by accident -- and when you're being shot at it's really frustrating.

In my first five hours of play I started to feel like I had an unfair advantage because everything I needed to pay attention to was highlighted yellow whenever I used Lara's special vision mode. Luckily, you do have the option to turn that off if you want to figure all of the puzzles and resource locations yourself. It's something I recommend trying out, although you're likely to unlock a skill that makes notable items glow automatically.

Because there are so many collectible resources that facilitate healing, weapon upgrades and ammo crafting, after a while the monotony of it all starts to feel like a silly chore. It's no secret the notion of crafting has become an overused mechanic in many modern games, but I think the key to making it interesting is adding a wildcard that forces the player to think about crafting in a way he or she hadn't considered before. Nevertheless, there's plenty to gather and craft in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Part of that gathering and collecting is also killing animals for their hides and parts, so if you're not ready to shoot bunnies and deer with a bow and arrow, better prepare yourself.

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Crystal Dynamics

Rise of the Tomb Raider reprises the stealth gameplay elements and rewards you for that kind of play. You'll receive bonuses for better stealth takedowns and other skill-based achievements like headshots and making use of the environment. There's also challenges set up in each location that will unlock more XP. The XP earned in the game can be applied to skill points which are categorized into three branches that enhance Lara in various ways.

Sure, under the hood a lot of Rise's moving parts aren't necessarily groundbreaking, but there are a number of really satisfying upgrades and unlocks that change the way you play the game. There's also the introduction of character-focused side missions that break up the linear main storyline as well.

Of course, there's also the over-the-top action that bombards nearly every other scene in the game. It's a nonstop affair throughout. Just when you think you've seen Lara do it all, it's as if the next action sequence immediately tries to one-up the previous one. Is it hyperbolic? Absolutely. But it's undeniably a lot of fun.

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Crystal Dynamics

Lara visits some amazing locales throughout the game and everything really looks top notch on Xbox One. I did encounter three crashes in the game where I had to restart my console in order to get out of the freeze, but the game automatically saved often enough that I didn't lose much (if any) progress at all.

Thanks to the renewed focus on discovering tombs, combined with incentivized exploration of the game's many locales, Rise of the Tomb Raider awakened a fondness for the series I haven't felt in a long while. It packs in some truly thrilling action and delivers an accessible adventure that's easy to pick up and play.

While it will eventually be available on PlayStation 4 and PC next year, Xbox One is the only platform to play Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015.

Read what GameSpot has to say about Rise of the Tomb Raider
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