Is Rise of the Tomb Raider the best Uncharted?

Standards up five years post Uncharted 3

Both Crystal Dynamics and Microsoft lucked out that the tumult behind Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End‘s development shift and scrapped work pushed Naughty Dog’s adventure into 2016. It gives Microsoft the best exclusive holiday line-up for the second year running and positions Tomb Raider ahead of Uncharted. For whatever the latter owed to the original Lara Croft games, both owed to a deeper legacy (including Indiana Jones, which released in 1981 and was itself a somewhat romanticized take on the ’40s complete with villainous Nazis).

That jockeying for position matters somewhat. The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot built upon Uncharted‘s iteration in the genre. I can’t remember a single non-Croftian character from the original Tomb Raiders (aside from Gerard Butler and Daniel Craig in those Angelina Jolie-led films), whereas the reboot shines a light on Lara’s personal relationships, just without Uncharted‘s breezy quips.

Now, though, Lara’s come out ahead. It was a mild challenge during the Rise of the Tomb Raider review to not compare it to Nathan Drake’s adventures. The things that excited me about Uncharted 4, that differentiated it from its stale third entry, a lot of those have — at least superficially — been done by Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The contextual stealth bushes (as seen in the upcoming Horizon Zero Dawn, too), the grappling hook. Uncharted has always had stealth and its grappling hook might prove more meaningful than Rise‘s I-can-jump-further-now tool, but those things might not feel like meaningful additions with two games from a direct competitor now released since the last Uncharted five years ago.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception was less than well-received for bringing little new to the table, instead offering a disjointed series of set-pieces that could have been strung together by throwing darts at a board. Rise of the Tomb Raider threads its hub worlds and set-piece sections — a derelict Soviet gulag built vertically into the side of a mountain — together much more organically.

It also basically mushes Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3‘s antagonists into one game (spoilers in this paragraph). Konstantin is a Burberry-clad Lazarević, just as driven and merciless — a common trope of a character — and even serves as Rise‘s final boss fight in full tactical gear, not unlike in Uncharted 2. Here, though, it’s a stealth affair with Konstantin disarming Lara, who must sneak around the ruined arena and stab him a few times. Meanwhile, equally posh Ana, the character really running things, has shades of Katherine Marlowe. Superficial, maybe. Maybe it stands out because of the general rarity of older-aged British women as villains.

Rise of the Tomb Raider also handles the requisite third act turn to the supernatural better than any Uncharted since the first, which became a creepy, horror-tinged affair to smartly contrast all the lush jungle violence. In Rise, it means expansion to the visual palette with all the blue flames and orange embers (shortly after introducing the new class of regular enemy with the lens flare-ish flashlights and dot sights — a good look). The enemies’ melee focus makes sense and moves the third act away from strict cover shooting, which is welcomed for its variety but also because the cover shooting is probably Tomb Raider‘s weakest part.

Then there’s Rise‘s position as one of the prettiest games of the year, an Uncharted staple. It isn’t just the technology or graphical fidelity, but a new focus on using color, lighting, and other visual cues to set the mood. It is colorful without Uncharted‘s more cartoonishness.

Had Uncharted 4 made its holiday 2015 release, it mainly would’ve been up against itself, or its past self. Being better than Uncharted 3 would’ve been enough for a lot of people. Rise of the Tomb Raider raises the standards though, by iterating in a lot of areas where Uncharted excels. The former is still bogged down by bloat (crafting and skill trees and static menu audio logs and so on) and a go-nowhere story that was more than tired by the time Uncharted got to it (protagonists want thing, antagonists also want thing), but it nails movie-like visual direction (down to the color grading) and exhilarating platforming.

Steven Hansen