There are several titles that were in the running for my game of the year, many of which were suspected contenders even prior to their release. There is one in particular that caught me by surprise this November – Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Crystal Dynamics’ sequel to the Tomb Raider reboot passed many a gamer by this year, due to its unfortunate release date of November 13th. Normally, this is a fantastic slot to release a title; right before the Christmas holidays. And it would have been if not for one other title, one that really hurt this game’s sales, and therefore its reach – Fallout 4. Bethesda’s highly anticipated post-apocalyptic open world really stole the thunder from Rise of the Tomb Raider this year, not to anyone’s surprise. So for those who have let Lara’s latest adventure pass you by, let me tell you why it is my game of the year.

Man, I LOVE the new Ice Climbers game. Oh wait, we’ve already done that.

Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place in several locations, from snowy mountain peaks to ancient cities and forgotten tunnels. But it is not the variety of locations that make this game so remarkable – it is how they are designed. The art design of these environments is awe-inspiring, and without a doubt the best thing I have seen on next-gen consoles (yes, and this was on Xbox One – shock, horror!). The attention to detail that has gone into making the vistas you look upon from a cliff peak to the intricate design of a mythical city help to immerse you in the world more than many other games I have played this year.  We often get caught up in the 720p vs. 1080p, 30fps vs. 60fps argument, and Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t perfect when it comes to running at a smooth 30fps, but I would much rather play a beautifully designed game at 30fps than a bog standard, non-imaginative grey bore of a game at 60.

In recent years, more and more games have started boasting massive open worlds; partly because of the vast improvements in technology, but also due to their increasing popularity. To some degree, I think this is a good thing, especially in the open-world RPG genre – The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain both attesting to this. But what concerns me is that this new trend might exist at the cost of narrative.

When I first heard that Rise of the Tomb Raider was going to have an open world element to it, alarm bells started to ring. One of the things I most enjoyed about Crystal Dynamics’ first game was that it was a purely narrative (some would say linear) experience. It feels like games like this have fallen by the wayside, and that publishers won’t be happy to approve your title unless you have 3 million side quests and 8 million collectables, just so they can market it as “massive” and at least “150 hours of gameplay”. But in my experience, this added content rarely feels as polished or well-made as the main story, and, quite honestly, can be a little overwhelming. But Crystal Dynamics seem to have found a real sweet spot.

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Important rule of platform walking: never run out of platform.

You travel through a few different hubs in the game, as you progress through the story. Here you can find your standard collectibles, usually a long side a couple of side quests, as well as one of the best parts of the game, the Challenge Tombs. Each zone you travel through is filled with explorable and meaningful content. Whether it is story-related tape recordings, murals, or maps that lead to the various hidden items around the area – and this is the important difference – they all feel like something Lara would actually be doing as she is working her way through this environment. She would be gathering resources, she would be finding lost artefacts, and she would be exploring lost tombs. Nothing feels shoehorned in purely for marketing value; if anything, it really adds to the experience, often finding myself choosing to find all of a certain collectible, as I wanted to know what happened to the character whose notes I had been reading for the last few hours.

The Challenge Tombs are possibly the best example of additional content that can co-exist with the main story without feeling like it was crowbarred in during the closing months of production. Each Challenge Tomb is beautifully designed and works as an excellent cognitive challenge, compared with the fairly mindless murder the main story provides. I found myself often sitting back and scouring the environment to work out how I would complete the challenge at hand. Even the Survival Instincts button only helps to a certain degree in these situations. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you finish each of the Challenge Tombs, and you are often rewarded with a special skill that makes the rest of the game a slightly easier task.

It’s an excellent change of pace, again allowing the player to do something that harks back to the feel of the original games, as well as being able to enjoy the more action based gameplay of the reboot. Their inclusion is a crowning achievement on top of a remarkably beautiful and well-crafted game.

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Proof that it’s possible to use old bicycle parts as some kind of olympic-standard bow.

For anyone who has missed Rise of the Tomb Raider this year, and finds themselves with a bit of extra cash post Christmas, this game is a must buy. Its fairly poor sales should not be a reflection on the game itself, more on the decision to release the game when it was released. Although it’s coming to PS4 next year and will be on PC this January, Xbox One owners have a rare opportunity to enjoy a AAA title before the rest of the gaming population, and let’s be honest, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen very often this generation.

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