Warning: some minor spoilers may lie within; please read with caution.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is, for all intents and purposes, a direct sequel to the critically acclaimed reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise in 2013, with the narrative following one year subsequent. With that being said, there are a lot of similarities—and I use that term loosely—between the initial reboot and the sequel that would otherwise render the two indistinguishable if it weren't for a handful of improvements and changes across the board in the second installment.
Following Lara's traumatic experiences on the island of Yamatai, our British heroine is finding herself in isolation and shadow, not out of post-traumatic stress as the initial announcement trailer led us to believe. Instead, Lara's self-inflicted societal evasion has been brought upon by her pursuit of her father's research, where the British tabloids have labelled her negatively as her father's daughter—"another crazy Croft." Rise of the Tomb Raider descends deeper into the Croft family history in an appropriate way to help highlight Lara's new-found obsession with uncovering the truth behind ancient myths. Fortunately, it does not mimic Tomb Raider Underworld, with her family story serving as the overall focus for the experience; instead, we develop an understanding of Lara's upbringing and her father's legacy through brief flashback interludes and collectible documentation. In between the events of Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara understands that her father was not psychologically damaged; he was right about everything and it was an ancient, malevolent organization called Trinity that was responsible for discrediting her family and her father's demise.
In her mission to pick up where her father left off and to find closure for what she'd experienced on Yamatai, Lara's prologue sends her to Siberia to find the lost city of Kitezh, believed to contain the secret of immortality, while being pursued relentlessly by Trinity. Lara is no longer a reactive survivor, but a proactive force, racing toward her destiny as she ultimately discovers what it means to be a Croft. In her experience in Siberia, Lara must face off against the environment, its inhabitants and Trinity mercenaries to find and understand the power of the Divine Source.
Rise of the Tomb Raider immediately thrusts players head-first into a stunning, immersive environment that truly paints a picturesque experience. The amount of detail not only on the scenery, but the character models themselves is positively outstanding. Lara herself looks significantly different compared to the last game as her character model has changed, but the level of detail in her facial and hair animations are truly magnificent. The environments feel the way they should, showcasing an outstanding level of verisimilitude; between the icy realms of Siberia's outskirts to the warmer, more inhabitable geothermal valleys, the environments feel alive and are decorated with numerous collectibles to find, crypts and tombs to explore, animals to hunt and challenges to complete.
With the positive reception of the previous installment, Rise of the Tomb Raider features another round of RPG elements, with more depth and variety this time around. Lara can once again earn experience for discovering and clearing crypts and tombs, finding documents, relics and hidden caches, hunting animals, eliminating enemies with finesse and completing side missions for the friendly Remnant inhabitants. With enough experience, Lara will earn skill points which can be used to unlock skills from three different trees: Brawler, Survivor and Hunter. The skill trees offer different skills for Lara ranging from combat tactics to improving crafting resources and training an eye for detail to better locate the in-game collectibles.
Combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider is very similar to its predecessor, but one of the newly implemented features is the ability to craft additional armaments that will aid Lara in her fight against hostile forces. With resources that she can scavenge like cloth, wood and oil, Lara can craft both distracting and lethal consumables like smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and booby traps. In addition, Lara has more brutal tactics at her disposal such as being able to jump from a tree branch and stab an enemy with her combat knife, to grabbing an enemy and pulling them underwater, breaking their neck with her climbing axe. Lara also has more variety in her arsenal this time around; Rise of the Tomb Raider still offers the same weapon categories of handguns, rifles, shotguns and bows, but each category contains several weapons each. With the exclusion of downloadable content and preorder bonuses, there's around three or four different weapons per category that are indeed customizable. The customization is not as in-depth as say, Medal of Honor, Ghost Recon or Fallout 4, but attachments and upgrades can be crafted and utilized. The only downside is that the attachments are not removable (so think carefully before you add on that suppressor) and the upgrades are universally shared; so unless you want an extended magazine or leather-wrapped handles on every weapon in the category, I'd advise against it. With the customization, there are several cosmetic upgrades I've skipped primarily because they wouldn't look good on a revolver as they would on a semi-automatic handgun, for example.
Rise of the Tomb Raider features an interesting new game mode called Expeditions, which offers an arcade-style theme on the side of the main narrative. Expeditions include game modes such as Score Attack, Remnant Resistance and Chapter Replay. With Expeditions, players may utilize Chapter Replay to go back to previously completed missions for another go; Chapter Replay Elite will allow you to do the same, but with your current gear and skills, a la New Game Plus. Players may also indulge in some arcade play and take on missions with specific challenges like hostage rescue, relic and artifact finding and specific enemy eliminations. If you're wanting a bit of an interesting twist, you can utilize the new Expedition Card Packs feature in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Expedition Card Packs give access to different modifiers, weapons, and outfits for use in the Expedition modes. Card packs can be purchased with credits easily earned in-game, or via microtransactions from the Xbox Store.
The true and unfortunate downside to Rise of the Tomb Raider as a whole is that in some instances, it is simply too familiar. I couldn't count on two hands where some animations, concepts or situations were essentially copy-and-paste scenarios from the previous game in the franchise. Some people may not find that entirely negative, but it does feel overall uninspired and lacking effort and innovation. Naturally, it's to be expected with direct sequels running on the same hardware and game engine, but there could have easily been some changes and tweaks to make those moments actually feel new and not recycled. For those who've played the previous Tomb Raider game, the last few missions in Rise of the Tomb Raider will give you some solid déjà vu.
Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a magnificent experience. It offers truly spectacular visuals, gameplay and a fascinating narrative on top of immense replay value. Unfortunately, while the overall game had great pacing, the last few moments of the narrative felt rushed and almost lackluster, leaving a lot of unanswered questions and "Wait, what...?" moments. In addition to that, the recycling of animations, features and concepts from the previous installment might have a negative impact on some players while others may find them to be bridging-the-gap between the two games, reminding you that they are connected. There's also the matter of absolutely zero weapon animations in cutscenes—yeah, the handgun slide doesn't cycle back and forth when firing, if that bothers you. Despite some small annoyances, Rise of the Tomb Raider stands as a definitive experience as it puts the 'tomb' back in Tomb Raider and showcases a classic video game heroine as she transcends from a survivor into the Tomb Raider in her own unique, bad-ass way.