“Lara, you’re going to give me a heart attack.” Lara Croft’s companion speaks these words at the beginning of Rise of the Tomb Raider, pinpointing the feelings of anyone who has ever played a game with her.

Lara’s latest adventure in Rise of the Tomb Raider is a beautiful step-up from 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot. Improving upon its predecessor in almost every way, Rise of the Tomb Raider opens in its first 10 minutes with magnificent scope and pulse-pounding scenery that only grow bigger over its 20-hour campaign. Developer Crystal Dynamics presents a magnificent story and immersive gameplay, despite not always putting the game’s best parts at the forefront.  Rise of the Tomb Raider takes what was already a great game and makes it stronger, bigger and better.

From its first moments, it’s clear that Rise of the Tomb Raider emerges as one of the best-looking games of this generation.  It was often nearly impossible to distinguish between cutscenes and gameplay to the point where I wasn’t always sure if I was controlling Lara as she slid down a mountain or if it was merely a pre-rendered scene. The sheer beauty of Lara climbing (and of course, falling) off of the tall, snowy mountains of Siberia is drop-dead gorgeous, and where 2013’s Tomb Raider contained Lara to the environments of jungles and wilderness on the shipwrecked island of Yamatai, the new variety of landscapes and areas this time around make the game feel bigger and more varied, begging to be explored.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

And plenty to explore there is. Lara’s adventure is filled with things to do and find, including optional side missions with NPCs or searching out collectables like documents, coin caches and scrap – just to name a few. Each collectable has meaning, translating into XP that allows Lara to upgrade skills at checkpoints she stops at along the way. Because of this, nothing I do in the world of the game ever feels like fluff, and it’s great that the game respects your time by putting a reason behind each and everything there is to do. The environments themselves tend to feel a lot less linear than in Lara’s previous adventure. While it is by no means an open world, many of the areas feel like small ‘hub worlds’ filled with things to do. I spent a few hours merely exploring one section of the game, enjoying every minute of it.

The story told throughout the game, which includes flashbacks, is on a more personal level with Lara than before as she explores the research left over by her father, or as we learn to know him as, “Lord Croft.” Lara is determined to prove neither she or her father have gone off the deep end, as many seem to believe. This time around, she is in search of the “Divine Source” that apparently grants immortality, where in the process, comes face-to-face with a rival group called the Trinity (as well as a few other antagonists), the former of which features a main villain that is downright treacherous – in the best way. I truly felt for Lara as the story went along and enjoyed watching it unfold through its well-acted cutscenes.

One of the biggest additions to Rise of the Tomb Raider is the multiple challenge tombs found throughout the story. These tombs are bigger – MUCH bigger – and more immersive  than any of those found few and far between in the game’s predecessor. Each tomb contains a puzzle that, while challenging, never got to the point of being annoying. While they remain optional, by seeking out and solving each tomb, Lara is awarded with a new, useful skill. For example, completing one of the game’s early tombs resulted in Lara learning “natural instincts,” where useful items found throughout the world will now automatically glow when she is close to them, without the player having to activate her survival instincts (requiring an annoying press of R3). The tombs are gorgeous and always different, yet their biggest weakness is that they still are just an optional part of Lara’s adventure. She must trudge through a plethora of basic firefights throughout the game – something that almost every action game has. Tombs are one of the the series’ unique features, and the best part of this game in particular, so why not let them be the star?

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Combat in Rise of the Tomb Raider has a more stealthy approach than ever, as Lara can jump on enemies from the tops of buildings, or sneak up behind them for a silent take down a la Assassin’s Creed. While stealth is not required, as soon as Lara is noticed by her enemies, a few bullets quickly take her down. Later in the game, she additionally earns a skill that farther rewards her for stealth, so it feels like stealth is the direction the game ultimately wants you go to.

Rise of the Tomb Raider presents a tremendous amount of replay value as it has a strong Metroidvania feel in its world. When initially traveling through each area, certain sections or puzzles will not be accessible until you return later with the appropriate gear or upgraded skill. To gain entry to every tomb, find every collectable and reach 100% completion, it will nearly double the amount of time you spend with the game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is arguably one of the best action-adventure games of 2015.  When Nathan Drake moved into 2016, he handed this holiday season to Lara Croft, and she clearly took no time making it her own. Lara’s latest round is a beautiful, engrossing adventure that stands out during this busy time of the year and deserves your time and attention. If you have an Xbox One, this one should rise to the top of the your list.

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