It isn't really the job of a review to comment on the business decisions that led up to a game being released as a timed exclusive on a platform, so if you're hoping for us to praise or admonish Microsoft for throwing a bundle of cash Square Enix's way to bring Rise of the Tomb Raider to Xbox platforms first, you're going to be disappointed. The game is here, it's available for Xbox One and as such, we'll do what we should and focus on the final game itself.
Not that we'd imagined that to be a hardship exactly, given the quality of Lara's last outing. We'll lay it all out on the table and say that it's safe to say that even though there are additions and changes in this sequel, if you enjoyed what you played last time around – either on Xbox 360 or in the "Definitive Edition" Xbox One re-release - you'll likely be happy here. Rise of the Tomb Raider is, as expected, more of the same action-packed relic hunting that, this time, encompasses quite a few genres and styles of play to produce a rip-roaring adventure. Visually, things have been turned up a notch to say the least, with stunning vistas, immense ice caverns and some incredible lighting that really sets the tone. We don't think it's an exaggeration to say that at pX Towers, "Xbox Take a Screenshot" has never been used more frequently than it was during our time with Rise of the Tomb Raider. Snow deforms relatively convincingly underfoot, the moon bathes the Siberian wastelands in a pale glow and the general atmosphere on offer adds to proceedings immeasurably. It does so whilst keeping the framerate relatively solid, too. Make no mistake, there are drops and skips here and there, but they're usually minor enough to not really affect the experience as a whole.
Modifications have been made to the pacing of the game to satiate players of the older Tomb Raider titles. Love it or not, most would say that Lara's last outing was far too heavily reliant on shootouts. It seemed that as soon as you'd cleared one area of bad guys, you'd walk around the corner and find another set to get rid of before you could proceed through a short story piece and then take up arms again. The actual relic hunting, exploration, and adventure was there, but pushed to the wayside somewhat in order to accommodate a million and one headshots. That isn't the case here. Sure, there's enough gunplay on hand for those who want it, but apart from in some specific situations (most of which tend to occur closer to the end of the game), you get the feeling that almost every encounter could be dealt with by using a bit of stealthy planning mixed with a combination of melee kills and your trusty bow. Even some apparently super-fearsome opponents found later on can be taken out in melee combat should you wish to put down your gun and put up your dukes. No matter which route you choose, you'll need to be careful with regards to your ammunition. Blaze right through from point A to point B without taking on any of the survival aspects of the game – collecting equipment to be able to construct healing salves, picking poisonous mushrooms to allow for the creation of poison arrows, etc. – and you'll soon find yourself up a somewhat icy creek without a paddle. There's a subtlety to the enemy confrontations that just didn't exist in the last game, which constantly left you with only one option.
Of course, your option count is reduced to approximately two in Rise of the Tomb Raider's canned events. You either survive or you die. If Lara lands on a roof that gives way as she hits it, for example, you'll be thrown into a sliding sequence involving quick-time events that are very much black-and-white. These sequences really push the adrenaline up but there will undoubtedly be times when you'll let Lara fall to her painful death because you simply couldn't see the exact point at which you needed to jump. On rare occasions, the timing reduces things to trial-and-error, as well. In an early part of the game, the thin plank of wood you're walking along gives way and you need to jump to a safe spot directly in front of you. You give it a second for the plank to get closer to the other ledge before you hit the jump button, only to plummet to the rocks below. A quick reload later and you find that the game wanted you to actually make the jump right away when you were further from the landing point, which a tad illogical. There are also some odd inconsistencies with what the developers allow you to actually do, at times. At one point, you'll run towards a sheer drop that will kill you and Lara will stop, giving you a chance to think twice or reassess the situation. At selected other times, you'll land from a jump and forget to release the stick for a half-second, which makes Lara just run off an edge and die. Across the course of our play-through of the single-player campaign, we reckon that this happened half a dozen times, which isn't an entire nightmare, but it's frustrating enough to make note of. We also fell through the floor of the game right after a heated battle with a bear which we only just survived. Fortunately, reloads are relatively quick and the checkpoint system is generous enough for these issues to not sting too badly, even if we did have to fight that darned bear twice…
Also helping to numb the pain of the occasional problem is the story, which is excellent. A twisting tale is on offer, revealing more about Lara, her father, and close family members. We don't want to give too much away, but we will say that it's entertaining stuff from start to finish. Also keeping things fresh is the addition of modified hardware. That axe you used to rappel up walls in the last game can now be used as a grappling hook of sorts, once you unlock the ability. When this is in play, you can jump near to a craggy wall or piece of ice, throw your axe at it and climb up using the attached wire. This works really well once you've got the timing down, although that will take a tad longer than you'd imagine since it isn't all that forgiving of a system. You can use it to swing across wide gaps too if there's something overhead that you can use as an anchor point. Rope darts can also be used as swing lines and anchors and can be cut once attached to things, which makes for some interesting timing-based puzzles along the way.
Outside of the story objectives, optional missions are available. Ally missions will provide you with new additions to your arsenal of tools and weaponry and become available during the main story. As we say, they're entirely optional but are worth checking out if you want to maximise Lara's effectiveness in a firefight. Challenge tombs also feature once again. Also optional, these are much more complex than we remember from the first game, and will provide a real test to budding raiders. One notable achievement is awarded for completing all of them during a single playthrough, so that may be something to bear in mind before you begin, unless you fancy taking a couple of runs at the story.
That's something that will be tempting, too. Mainly due to the fact that early on, you realise that there are specific areas that you simply cannot reach due to not having had the opportunity to unlock specific weaponry and tools. There are a few barricades that can't be taken out as you don't have the rope dart or fire arrows and initially, you'll fancy that this is because the developer has decided to liven things up for your second run in a complete "New Game+" mode. That isn't altogether the case. Rather, you're able to replay each level as a separate entity as part of Rise of the Tomb Raider's "Expeditions" mode. Chapter Replay and Chapter Replay Elite (the latter of which allows you to play through any level with the hardware that you have on hand at the end of the story mode) are here, as is a Score Attack mode that lets you play through sections of the game with the goal being to collect pickups, uncover relics, take out enemies, and get to the finish in the fastest time possible. Also on hand is "Remnant Resistance", which is the closest thing you're going to get to multiplayer play, aside from Score Attack's leaderboards.
Remnant Resistance is an interesting affair, allowing you to create your own challenges and missions for the world to play, using the various tools that are on hand. You might wish to task players with taking out a set number of enemies, killing a set amount of bears, and reaching the goal in a certain time. You might want to change the weather in the scene, from clear daytime skies through to a blizzard at night. Once you've set your goals, you might fancy playing a few modifier cards to mix things up. You can enable "Big Head" mode for example, give Lara a specific weapons loadout, or apply buffs and debuffs to make the experience more or less challenging. There are thousands upon thousands of combinations here and every challenge you create has its own leaderboard, so you can challenge the world to beat your scores. Obviously, if you don't fancy doing any of that, you can take on somebody else's created challenge. Remnant Resistance works very well and is a very creative solution to including multiplayer in a game that – even though some loved it last time around – probably wouldn't have a massive player base for live multiplayer play.
Score Attack is moreish fun, but we should mention the modifier cards more in-depth here, since their use is imperative to your success on the leaderboards. Modifier card packs are paid for by credits which you can earn in-game or – unsurprisingly enough – purchase using micro-transactions. You'll probably not come close to earning a "Gold" score on any of the levels without using a couple of boosters and card distribution amongst the packs is pretty random. Higher-level packs (which reward you with better boosters) cost a somewhat astronomical amount of credits that will take an unreasonable amount of playing time to earn. You could feasibly pick up a pack of the lower-priced cards and find that there's absolutely nothing that will help you reach a higher score, so more could be done here to level things out, we feel. You can use the less worthy cards to create your Remnant Resistance missions or just sell them back to the house for credits, though they aren't generally worth all that much. We will note that after a fair amount of playing time, we still have an absolute stack of cards left to use – and you'll earn enough credits if you beat challenges during your expedition runs to pick up some cheaper packs – and we haven't spent a penny on them, so your mileage will vary. We can see those who really want to go for the gold needing to fork out some cash, though.
You do get awarded packs of specific cards during the campaign, which is a nice touch, especially since the campaign will undoubtedly be where you start your journey, as well it should be. Starting anywhere else would be foolish when the gameplay is as rewarding as it is here. While some parts of Rise of the Tomb Raider will feel very familiar to those who played the last title and it may have its flaws, the tweaks and changes to the mix that may seem minor at first – combined with the fact that the game is an absolute visual treat – means that the in-your-face action and puzzling combination on offer here is well worth the asking price.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is not perfect, but the areas in which it lacks are relatively minor technical issues and the story does a great job of picking the player up to ensure that they jump right back into the action if they fall foul of a problem. Once you've beaten the campaign, you'll be tempted by the addictive Score Attack mode, as well as having an eye on playing through the whole thing again to pick up a few more achievements, something which - rarely these days - is no chore. The switch to a style of play that doesn't rely solely on raw firepower is the absolute key to the game's success and that, mixed with a plethora of action-packed adrenaline-boosting scenes, makes Lara's second return an absolute blast to play.