This is the most Metal Gear we've ever seen Lara Croft.
Our heroine wades through a stream in the middle of the jungle, quickly ducking beneath the surface as enemy voices drift between the jungle trees. She swims to the edge of the water, coming up to tread just along the edge of a wooden dock. An enemy soldier, rifle in hand, stands with his back to the stream -- a dangerous mistake.
In one swift motion, Lara pushes herself up, grabs her target and pulls him beneath the surface, holding him under just long enough to snap his neck. She resurfaces, climbs onto the dock, and slinks away across the newly cleared path into the bushes surrounding the enemy encampment.
There is no better name for this game than Rise of the Tomb Raider. Lara is rising, growing into the fearless archaeologist and daredevil we've come to know for the past 20 years. Building upon the concepts established in the 2013 series reboot, Rise presents players with numerous options for approaching situations and using the environment to their advantage. The ability to craft weapons from found objects, a deeper stealth system, guerrilla-style combat and a broader skill tree all come into play on Lara Croft's first proactive adventure in the rebooted Tomb Raider timeline.
And "proactive" is the best descriptor here. In the 2013 Tomb Raider, Lara's actions were reactive as she found ways to survive and escape the island of Yamatai. This time around, Lara is willingly putting herself in danger and taking risks as she follows a trail of clues from her father's research into the unknown.
Some of the smallest additions to Rise of the Tomb Raider's combat and stealth turn out to make the biggest difference. The addition of water for stealth and puzzle-solving purposes (sometimes flooding rooms with water allows Lara to reach higher areas) as well as the ability to climb trees adds verticality to terrain traversal. This gives Lara the opportunity for different kinds of stealth kills, such as jumping down and striking enemies from above, or drowning them. These stealth kill options play into what developer Crystal Dynamics is called "guerrilla-style combat," in which Lara has the option to sneak among enemies and attack from within or run in guns blazing with a ton of movement options.
But what makes all of these options really useful is when the situation turns on a dime. If an enemy spots Lara while she's stealthing around and breaks that quiet bubble, things escalate into a firefight very quickly. The action ramps up immediately, with Lara creeping in the bushes one second to dodging rounds the next. Lara will have guns and other tools at her disposal, such as the ability to pick up jerry cans and bottles to make Molotov cocktails on the spot, that make taking out groups of enemies more easy. If she manages to stay in stealth, she can create poisonous arrows or bombs that she can then booby trap corpses with; lure an enemy over to a dead body, and seconds later a bomb goes off, flooding the area with poison gas and killing enemies instantly.
You can complete entire sections using stealth only -- if you're confident enough -- or run in guns blazing like an action hero. Both ways work and there's nothing stopping you from choosing either, as the game prepares you for both. Break stealth? Climb up into a tree and start firing your rifle down on enemies. Still in stealth? Quietly slit throats and plant poison bombs on corpses. Don't want to kill anyone? You can do that, too -- just stick to the bushes.
Enemy AI has also been tweaked to accommodate these opportunities. Enemies take time to investigate noises and curious happenings, rather than snap immediately into action. You can take this chance to have Lara shoot an arrow to misdirect them or, again, booby trap areas. They think before engaging Lara in combat, and it makes them feel more like actual human opponents than AI robots.
Crystal Dynamics has built a highly active and expansive world, giving Lara multiple obstacles and multiple ways to solve them. We may be playing Lara's narrative, but how her narrative unfolds, and how she gets from point A to point B, and what skills she takes away from it are entirely up to you.
Speaking of skills, developers are boasting a skill tree deep enough that you can't unlock it all in one playthrough. Players can unlock skills for Lara's individual weapons and skills -- like her climbing axe and aerial takedown ability -- but will have to choose which ones to unlock. Some players may choose to focus on unlocking the full potential of the climbing axe, revealing abilities to scale walls horizontally as well as vertically, or beef up Lara's aerial takedown ability, upgrading it from a simple jump attack to a silent leap ending with a knife in the throat. Unlocking the double shot ability for Lara's bow lets her shoot two arrows at the same time, or you could forgo this skill and choose to unlock the ability to disable armored enemies. You can focus on upgrading these melee skills, or choose to play with exploration-focused skills, upgrading Lara's climbing abilities.
And all of this is systemic. As you play Rise of the Tomb Raider, situations can unfold in multiple ways depending how you approach it. Everything is built to accommodate your play style. That's the beauty of gameplay in Rise: that open tactical freedom. Crystal Dynamics has built a massive playground that encourages players to use the environment organically, in turn making Lara the most powerful and versatile iteration of her character yet.