Preview: Hands-on with Rise of the Tomb Raider's first few hours (spoiler free)

For the time being, Rise of the Tomb Raider is a Xbox One exclusive, a fact that's proven somewhat controversial. Over a year since that announcement, Tomb Raider's developer still receives angry tweets for "betraying" the iconic franchise to Microsoft, which rose to the fore as a Playstation system-seller back in the 90s. Tomb Raider's current owner, Square Enix, spoke of their "disappointment" in the sales of Crystal Dynamics' 2013 reboot. As a result, hopes for a sequel seemed thin.

Despite a disappointing financial year, Square Enix did greenlight a Tomb Raider follow up, resolving to restructure the way the company finances "Triple A" titles. Whether that apparent anxiety led to the joint-funding deal with Microsoft will likely remain a secret. However, given what I've seen in Rise of the Tomb Raider's first few hours, even the most voracious elements of the anti-Xbox crowd might find themselves thanking Microsoft for stepping in.

The journey to Siberia

Without going into too much detail, Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place a year after the events of the 2013 reboot. Lara, emotionally wounded by her experiences, realises that there's a whole world of ancient and supernatural mysteries to uncover - despite the prevailing scientific consensus. Lara becomes obsessed with her father's research and embarks on a global and dangerous quest for discovery.

The game's tutorial mission takes place in a flashback to Lara's time in Syria, detailed in some of the early trailers. Her quest eventually leads her deep into the frozen wastes of Siberia, and this is where we begin our preview.

Like the reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider is divided up into mission hubs filled with collectibles, secrets and main objectives that drive the story forward. Following the game's tutorial areas, the first expansive mission hub is set in an abandoned Soviet-era work camp, slowly being devoured by decades of icy blizzards.

Crystal clear visuals, dynamic and detailed

Screenshots released to press are rarely taken as indicative of a game's final product, the images could've been enhanced or taken on higher-end hardware. Seriously, though, those early screenshots, as amazing as they were, pale in comparison to what I've experienced first hand in Rise of the Tomb Raider's Soviet Installation area. The visuals are simply stunning, and it comes as no surprise given that Tomb Raider (2013) was one of the best looking games on the Xbox 360.

Rise of the Tomb Raider enjoys vivid, dynamic lighting, made all the more special by incredible fire effects and an expanded amount of dark crypts to explore. Beyond the more obvious improvements, Crystal Dynamics has included more subtle details like realistic snow depression and Xbox One rumble trigger support. Should this level of quality be maintained throughout, Crystal Dynamics will have firmly outdone themselves.

The Soviet Installation hub in Siberia is gargantuan, outstripping the largest areas from its predecessor by a wide margin. To complement the expanse, Rise of the Tomb Raider boasts impressive draw distances and detailed backdrops. It gives Siberia a sense of uncharted majesty that was certainly touched upon in the 2013 reboot but is now fully realised thanks to the Xbox One's hardware and, perhaps, Microsoft's cash. Even when switching between Tomb Raider's impressive Xbox One Definitive Edition, the bump in visual quality is stark, but it's not just raw graphics that have impressed me so far.

The reboot was an incredibly detailed game, even more so in the Definitive Edition, which added special tech to grant realism to Lara's hair. In partnership with AMD, Crystal Dynamics has pushed the hair tech even further for Rise of the Tomb Raider, giving it extra weight when it's wet, allowing it to float in water, and having snowflakes realistically accumulate in it as Lara braves the Siberian tempest. As someone who knows the frustration of an unruly ponytail, I smiled when I noticed Lara occasionally re-adjusts hers, wringing water from it when she leaves water bodies.

Speaking of detail, Rise of the Tomb Raider, so far, seems to benefit from an expanded focus on supporting narrative. Diaries, journals and logs add context to the game's world, as per the previous game, narrated to a high standard. Not all of the logs are completely pertinent to the core plot either, furthering the sense that you're an archaeologist shedding light on personal stories long forgotten. I get the feeling Crystal Dynamics is starting to understand what made Tomb Raider so popular back in the 90s, expanding on the solid foundations set in Rise of the Tomb Raider's predecessor.

Becoming the Tomb Raider

I shan't spoil unrevealed story elements here, but what I've seen in the first few hours already seems like a massive step up for Crystal Dynamics, regarding both the delivery and writing itself. I've mentioned Lara's hair and mannerisms, but it's Camilla Luddington's facial motion capture and expressive acting that truly bring the story to life. The facial expressions are among the most natural looking I've seen, up there with RYSE and Halo 5 without doubt, and they add a layer of empathy to the characters and their struggles.

When it comes to gameplay, Rise of the Tomb Raider seems fairly familiar so far. I can't recall there being enough complaints about Tomb Raider's combat to warrant a large overhaul. There are some differences, though. The upgrades system has been expanded, and requires boatloads of raw materials, adding a gameplay incentive to hunt down those fluffy snow bunnies.

As you unlock new skills, Lara can learn to perform some pretty gratuitous acts of violence, including an Assassin's Creed-like aerial shank; and dual-arrow shots, allowing you to skewer two targets at once. The game has expanded support for different types of play styles. Certain areas can be traversed using a pure stealth approach, distracting enemies and hiding in bushes and trees. Occasionally, though, you'll have no choice but to stand your ground guns blazing, crafting Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs mid-fight using the game's active crafting system.

In support of the diverging playstyles, the skills system is back from the previous game. It affords upgrades in exchange for accumulated XP, but Rise of the Tomb Raider adds an extra dimension with new hidden skills, revealed as rewards for the game's more abundant optional tombs.

One of the biggest complaints about Crystal Dynamics' 2013 Tomb Raider was the lack of, well, tombs. The developer has taken the feedback on board, adding crypts, caves and challenging puzzle tombs for budding explorers to dive in and solve. So far, each tomb has offered additional context in the form of notebooks and audio logs, charting everything from early archaeological findings to ancient philosophies and Soviet atrocities. If you wanted more discovery, more exploration, it certainly seems like Rise of the Tomb Raider is on the correct trajectory.

Rise of Crystal Dynamics

We're still working on our full review, but from what I've experienced in the game's earliest areas, Rise of the Tomb Raider seems to chart not only Lara Croft's ascendancy but Crystal Dynamics' as well. Crystal Dynamics has a lengthy history and is responsible for tons of classics from Pandemonium to Soul Reaver. While I enjoyed it overall, the first Square Enix published Tomb Raider, to me, felt a little more about emulating Uncharted, with a tacked-on multiplayer, linearity, scripted set-pieces, and annoying quick time events.

From my early experiences, Rise of the Tomb Raider feels a little more liberating, a little more confident, and a whole lot more dynamic - without sacrificing that cinematic edge. Since taking up this writing gig, I've noticed that the best games are the ones that engage me enough to make me forget I'm supposed to be writing about them. So far, Rise of the Tomb Raider has me hooked.

Stay tuned for our full Rise of the Tomb Raider review, slated for Monday, November 9th!

Rise of the Tomb Raider launches on November 10th, 2015 for Xbox One, Q1 2016 for PC and Q4 2016 for PS4.

Pre-order Rise of the Tomb Raider on Amazon for $59.96

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!