Rise of the Tomb Raider is the second in the new series of Tomb Raider games that being with 2013’s reboot. That game was excellent. Fortunately, this year’s timed Xbox exclusive entry is even better than the game it follows.

I was never much of a fan of the original Tomb Raider games. The platforming felt unforgiving and the controls stiff, even by late ‘90s standards. I had dismissed the series thinking the developers would never get it right. I picked up the rebooted version on a whim and it quickly became one of my favorite games and put the Tomb Raider series back on my radar for the first time since high school.

Visuals

Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the prettiest games on the Xbox One. It takes place mostly in Siberia, and good lord is it gorgeous. The opening sequence sees Lara trudging through the snow, and it’s hard not to marvel at how amazing everything looks. Snow deforms under Lara’s feet as she drags her feet through it, ice glistens in the sunlight, and the lighting is nothing short of breathtaking.

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Of course, the good looks don’t extend just to the environments. Character models sport an impressive amount of detail as well. Lara and company’s facial animations are top-notch and you can even see light sources reflect in her eyes. The amount of care that went into creating the characters and the world around them is evident. Every screenshot you could take of this game looks breathtaking.

Lara

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Lara Croft has come a long way since 1996, both in terms of her games and as a character. The new Lara Croft introduced in 2013’s reboot, Tomb Raider, is one of my favorite characters in games today. She’s a strong, badass female protagonist that’s every bit as capable–if not more capable, really—than her male counterpoints. The Tomb Raider games do a great job of putting her through the wringer, too. There are numerous gut-wrenching moments in Rise of the Tomb Raider where you can just imagine how much some of the stuff that happens to her would hurt.

Lara is constantly underestimated by her enemies and proves them, of course, to be wrong about her at every turn. Because her adventures are more grounded in reality, it’s easier to relate to Lara and the challenges she faces. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job writing the character. In the first game in this new series, Lara was still a fledgling explorer, unsure of herself, she had to come to terms with fighting for her life and what that meant. In this new entry, we see a much more serious Lara. She knows the task ahead of her is daunting, even crazy and she doesn’t waver. This Lara has seen some shit.

Action Sequences

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Few games make my heart race as much as a contemporary Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics has mastered the art of creating a tense situation. Running through ruins as they’re collapsing, with explosions detonating all around you never fails to make me nervous in the best possible way.

I don’t understand why, but the last two Tomb Raider games seem to be the only titles willing to put the player into an over-the-top, almost QTE-like situation without making you relinquish total control of your character. These set pieces are one of the best things about the game, and something more games should copy.

Exploration

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Even though it doesn’t quite feel like it, Rise of the Tomb Raider is an open-world title. Unlike most open-world titles, however, doing side-quests doesn’t have to be encouraged or forced upon the player because they’re just plain fun. Searching all around for optional tomb entrances and learning the skills hidden within is awesome.

There’s something that excites me about finding a cave and exploring it. Solving puzzles and doing what I can to get to ancient relics and treasure that just works.

Controls

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Rise of the Tomb Raider isn’t just a beautiful game, it also handles very competently. During my playthrough, I never had any issue with many of the game’s seemingly tricky jumps and maneuvers, even in crowded combat scenarios.

The d-pad handles switching between weapons, of which you can have four equipped at any given time: a pistol, a bow and arrow, a rifle, and a shotgun. Switching between sidearms in combat was swift and painless, and on screen, Lara responded quickly to any commands.

Jumping and climbing was similarly fluid. I never once felt like the game misinterpreted my input when I died, but rather that I didn’t react quickly enough. The only issue I found with Rise of the Tomb Raider’s controls was with the dodge button. I often felt as though I didn’t know when to push it, or what to expect of it. It seems designed as a multi-purpose dodge, sometimes giving you the option to scurry between hiding places—something that I never got to work—and others giving you the ability to roll away from gunfire, which worked consistently.

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Melee combat is fairly simple, but effective. Mashing the Y button will have Laura unleash a series of attacks using her climbing axe as a weapon. You can also choose to sneak up on your opponents if you prefer the less direct method. There’s no dedicated sneaking functionality; instead, Laura will automatically enter a sneaking stance when enemies are nearby. Similarly, there’s very little dedicated cover in which to hide. Bushes provide good cover, but enemies will search there. Your best bet is to hide above. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s stealth certainly isn’t as good as Metal Gear or Assassin’s Creed, but it feels good and works well.

Expeditions

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One of the more interesting additions to Rise of the Tomb Raider is the game’s new challenge mode, which it calls Expeditions. In it, you can choose from a few different types of challenges and replay any of the campaign’s missions you’ve already complete, with certain conditions added.

On top of all that, you can choose additional modifiers from a deck of cards. The cards are similar to Halo 5’s requisition system, in that you can buy random packs with points you earn during gameplay. The catch is that each of these cards has an impact on your score. Some cards, like the big head Lara card will increase your score, as it makes you more vulnerable, where some will give you additional armor and will thus decrease your score. I like the idea of challenge mode, but having it as a separate mode kind of feels like a missed opportunity. Rolling these cards into the regular game could have added some serious replay value.

Crafting/Upgrading

Like 2013’s Tomb Raider, this year’s installment includes a crafting system. Just like last year’s, you can only craft new items at a base camp. If you need more ammo and have the right stuff for it, you can make those types of items, it’s only the bigger upgrades that you’ll have to return to camp for. Speaking of making ammo, there are also great items you can create in the field using bottles and cans you find lying around. Some of the best items in the game are made this way, like molotov cocktails which can be used to devastating effect if you time your throw correctly. Crafting ammo and these smaller items is intuitive, with the right bumper being dedicated to creating whatever it is you need, as long as you’ve equipped the appropriate item. If you want the best upgrades for your weapons, you’ll also need to hunt around for crafting tools which are in boxes hidden amongst the ruins.

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Of course, upgrades don’t extend only to Lara’s weapons, but to Lara herself. Everything you do, from finding artifacts and relics to slaughtering bad guys en masse nets you experience points. You can then use those experience points to learn skills from three skill trees: Brawler, Hunter, and Survivor.

Most of the skills you can learn are truly useful and help you to survive against the game’s later enemies. There’s a dodge kill skill which is particularly useful (and that I recommend you get as quickly as possible) against any enemy that might try lay the smackdown against you.

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Plot

Rise of the Tomb Raider, like Tomb Raider before it is everything you’d expect from a Hollywood action movie: huge explosions, crazy gunfights, dangerous stunts and a completely predictable plot.

If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll probably be able to call every one of Rise of the Tomb Raiders major story beats from the moment it’s not-so subtly hinted at. I won’t discuss the plot here, because only a jerk would do that, but you’ll likely end up spoiling it for yourself through your own powers of deduction.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of Xbox One’s best exclusives to date, right up there with Sunset Overdrive and Halo 5. More than that, it’s one of the best action games on the market right now and the best Tomb Raider ever made. Its solid gameplay, Expedition mode and beautiful graphics do more than enough to prop up the predictable story. this is an absolute must-have for Xbox One owners.

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Steve Bowling is a badass archaeologist and world class ass-kicker dude that writes about games. When he’s not playing games, he ponders why Rick calls his kid Coral. You can follow him on Twitter at @SteveBTAY or read the rest of his stuff here.