'Rise of the Tomb Raider' is more of the same, and that's okay

Crystal Dynamics' 2013 Tomb Raider reboot pulled off a tough task: It successfully brought life back to an aging, muddled franchise and provided heroine Lara Croft with an excellent origin story. Now that Croft has made her transition from a terrified shipwreck survivor to adventuring (but still vulnerable) badass, what does she do for an encore? Rise of the Tomb Raider (coming to the Xbox One and 360 as a timed exclusive on November 10th) answers that by tightening up and refining the first game's core experience while throwing players into an entirely new environment. The world is bigger, there are more skills to improve, more secrets to find and, yes, more tombs to raid. It isn't wildly different than the last game, but that's not a knock: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

It's easy for players to jump right in whether they're familiar with the previous game or not; the controls remain mostly intuitive and the story stands up well on its own. It's a story that's a bit of a cliche: Croft is continuing her father's research into reincarnation and "tangible evidence of the immortal soul." The search for immortality is hardly new, but fortunately the ensuing fight for survival and world exploration aren't dulled by the reason behind Lara's mission.

While the first game did a great job of presenting a lush, detailed island of terror, developer Crystal Dynamics is really harnessing the next-generation power of the Xbox One to craft a massive and beautiful world to explore -- and one that puts you in the kinds of environments not typically associated with Lara Croft. Creative director Noah Hughes says that focusing on "virtual tourism" is always a part of location design in Tomb Raider games. "You go to these exotic destinations and feel like you've been there on some level," Hughes said. "That leads to a natural focusing on environment as part of the concepting phase, thinking 'where are the cool places we can take her' that are ultimately different than we've been in the past."

A good chunk of the game's first hour flashes back two weeks and takes you out of Siberia to a more "standard" Tomb Raider environment (the sun-baked deserts of Syria). But the majority of what I played put me in a vast, frozen wasteland where the weather feels as much of a threat as the enemies stalking you. But despite the consistent, snow-covered aesthetic, the details of each location continue to be quite varied -- Hughes noted that they focused on making sure each location had a wide diversity of terrain to keep any one environment from getting stale.

The remastered version of Tomb Raider that hit the PS4 and Xbox One last year should give you a good idea of what to expect visually, but Rise of the Tomb Raider improves on even that title in some pretty significant ways. For starters, it's not just the landscapes that are rendered so dramatically: Character facial expressions, movements and hair are all rendered in far more detail than in the previous game. They're safely far away from the dreaded Uncanny Valley here, and it's not just in the cutscenes -- everything looks great throughout, whether or not you're in a pre-rendered storytelling scene.

"Rise of the Tomb Raider strikes a nice balance between driving the story forward and allowing players time to explore areas for secret items as well as tombs."

The Xbox One's extra horsepower also allowed Crystal Dynamics to build areas that are much larger and more in-depth than anything the team was able to do in the first game. In fact, Hughes says the game's hub areas are two to three times larger than in the previous game. You'll be able to spend plenty of time getting lost in the world, searching for the many collectible artifacts spread throughout that fill in the game's back story.

The biggest gameplay change I noticed was to the crafting system for upgrading weapons. You can still find the generic salvage around the world, but some puzzles will require you to scour the environment for specific materials you'll need to survive. At one point in the demo, I was confronted with an enormous grizzly bear that mauled me to pieces when I tried to get around it. The game helpfully informed me that poison might be a way to get around the beast, and so I was sent off to search the snowy forest for mushrooms and other supplies I could use to craft a poison arrow -- something that made felling the bear much easier. Fortunately, the requirements for crafting these special items weren't too onerous; I never felt like I was being forced into unnecessarily long fetch quests to pad the game's running time.

Rise of the Tomb Raider strikes a nice balance between driving the story forward and allowing players the time to explore areas for secret items as well as the titular tombs players felt were missing a bit from the first game. There are definitely more side quests, and the ones I tried felt a lot more challenging than the ones in the first Tomb Raider. In fact, a few ended up being too time-consuming. I moved on to keep the story going because of my limited demo time -- but if I were playing at my own pace, I would have been happy to spend more time exploring.

In the end, this is a Tomb Raider game, through and through. Rise may not break any new ground for the series, but the 2013 reboot successfully reinvented the game's formula well enough that I'm not at all disappointed to have another chapter to enjoy. There's more to explore, the world and its inhabitants looks better, and the frozen, desolate old-world Russian landscape is a huge departure from the previous game. All of which is to say that Rise of the Tomb Raider could be the best kind of sequel: One that delivers even more of what people loved about the original.