Rise of the Tomb Raider mixes old-school archaeology with wince-inducing death

You know that moment when you finished the last Tomb Raider and realized that raiding tombs just wasn’t really a core concern anymore? Crystal Dynamics’ new approach led them to some exciting new areas – Resi 4-indebted over-the-shoulder gunplay, set-piece heavy virtual cinema and Japanese demonology – but those areas never properly extended to “inside an ancient, booby-trapped palace.” It was a strange feeling, realizing that what tombs there were had been relegated to optional puzzles – and one that Rise of the Tomb Raider absolutely aims not to invoke again.

In my short hands-on with the new game, a single cut scene encompassed a wild Jeep ride, a helicopter gunship chase, a massive crash, several explosions and, finally, a drop into a medieval tomb burrowed into a Syrian cliffside. From there on in, the design was classic Tomb Raider: spike-filled walls, puzzle rooms, a severe chance of drowning, even a full-on Raiders of the Lost Ark jump scare as a lit flare revealed a well-positioned desiccated corpse. Lara’s alone but for the sound of her father’s voice, as his speculative notes on such a tomb were proved to be accurate.

It’s accompanied by a forbidden thrill, as you smash walls undisturbed for centuries to reach your prize (proof of the existence of a medieval Prophet, rumored to be immortal), while stopping still at others to ponder over immaculate murals and brush up on your ancient languages – brilliantly, Lara has a “Greek Proficiency level” that will help unlock hidden crypts and extra puzzles. Just go with it.

And yet it wouldn’t feel like a nu-Lara game if this slightly more meditative style were simply the case. The last Tomb Raider ran on pure adrenaline, the feeling that if you were to stop, you’d be torn to pieces, and Rise compromises by bringing some of that desperate urgency to what could otherwise be a touristy stroll off the beaten track, into the beaten cave and up to the beaten sarcophagus.

Fail to account for a collapsing floor and you’ll see Lara’s neck impact horribly on the sharpened spikes hidden underneath. Get her foot caught in a bear trap and watch how it leads to a thrilling race to pry the thing off as water rises rapidly around her. And, of course, the whole thing ends in a a race against gravity when the temple collapses, a firefight erupts with the forces of shadowy global evil-corp, Trinity, and Lara makes her escape (or, if you’re me, has her spine crushed by a rock a couple of times).

It’s a neat trick on Crystal Dynamics’ part, a deft means of roguishly winking to older fans while lifting a blood-stained thumbs-up to new ones. It’s not quite a flawless introduction, however. The total focus on water puzzles in what I’m told is a ‘tutorial tomb’ of sorts rankles a little, and the mechanics of platforming feel a little fuzzy – Lara will only jump for a handhold if you press A near a ledge, but there’s a hazy margin for error that can see this battle-hardened heroine at peak physical fitness performing a pathetic little hop into the water/spike pit/corpse dump below.

To that first point, at least, it seems there’s more variety to come. This is the “first of many” tombs set within Lara’s new globe-spanning adventure (in fact, it ends by pointing her on her way to the Siberian wilderness we found her struggling in at E3), and the last game’s optional puzzle parlors are now fully-fledged Challenge Tombs, which Crystal Dynamics promises are bigger and more devious than anything we’ve seen so far.

When roped together by the surprisingly nasty combat sections we saw popping up at the Xbox Media Briefing – all guerrilla warfare and bottle-based utilitarian mutilation – it should make for a new Tomb Raider that not only brings to mind the series that spawned it, but make for a more varied, breathless game than the original reboot itself. To steal a phrase, prepare to die, Lara.

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