The third instalment of the rebooted Lara Croft franchise is here, this time helmed by Eidos Montreal instead of Crystal Dynamics. With a lot to live up to when it comes to the story and playability of the last two games, and having to deliver on the promise of transitioning Lara from the young, passionate inexperienced explorer to the cold, calculating relic hunting machine we were introduced to over 20 years ago – you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe they’ve taken on more than they bargained for. Be assured though, Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t just the studio using the same game engine and reworking a few puzzle ideas… this is a bigger, richer and more fully featured game than any that have come before it. Has the torch successfully been passed to a new generation?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is dark. Dark in tone. Dark in the story. Dark in the presentation. D-A-R-K… dark. Exploring an ancient Mayan ruin in Cozomel, Mexico, Lara and returning sidekick Jonah are tracking the nefarious Trinity and trying to fathom out what they’re doing after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Throwing caution to the wind, and failing to pack a decent flashlight, Lara stumbles into triggering the apocalypse that will result in a permanent eclipse, and starts an adventure that sees her and Jonah travelling to Peru to undo the mess she’s created. It’s a journey of redemption, soul searching and reflection that is aimed at shaping the iconic figure that we remember from the very first game – one that’s more sympathetic with the civilisations and artefacts she’s looting than the eager and impetuous younger version we’ve seen over the last few years. It works to a degree with the tale driving everyone to their particular fates in perfunctory fashion, yet it doesn’t always gel with the gameplay and the remorseless killing machine that Lara has become.
It’s typical third person action and adventure in Shadow of the Tomb Raider with the emphasis more on jumping, climbing and swimming than shooting people, though that is a reasonable chunk of it. Combat feels more brutal than in the previous games, and less forgiving as well with a focus on stealth to manage the number of enemies. New tools are at Lara’s disposal like mud to cover herself in and hide in foliage, and more options for crafting improvised distraction devices, as well as the ever expanding list of things she can do with a bow. Being able to target an enemy from above, loose a roped arrow, then use her own weight to haul the unsuspecting victim off into the trees feels a bit Predator-esque, and in no small part bad ass. Tackling her foes like this is nearly always essential because she’s got the constitution of a wet paper bag and crumples at the merest knock on the higher difficulties, so it’s handy that there are drugs on hand to keep things going.
Crafting is expanded from weapons to clothing and medicines that can give you an edge in the more violent encounters. Choose from health, perception, fortitude and focus – or all at once – and things get a little more tasty. Enemies are visible through cover, more hits can be taken, and time slows down when aiming to get an all important headshot lined up. The effects of each don’t last long, but it’s enough to get through a particularly trying battle. Having the right components on hand is never an issue either when the jungle is so generous with its flora and fauna. Hunting the wildlife and harvesting the plants gives most of the bits needed to fix clothes or heal wounds, and the weapon parts collecting has gone the way of the Dodo. Simply find a friendly merchant with the right bits and purchase whatever is needed. The same goes for some of the kit too. For whatever reason, Lara has lost her rope ascender since the last game, so don’t forget to buy that as soon as possible, it’s easily overlooked. All upgrading is done at the ubiquitous campfires and is simple and straightforward if there’s enough skill points and salvage on hand.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s skill trees are interesting to look at because they’ve changed slightly, though still offer the same options of upgrading combat, exploring or crafting skills. There are a lot to go at, and very likely they’ll not all be done in a single playthrough. The game makes this pretty clear in most of the loading screens, which on the one hand is nice to know about, yet on the other it doesn’t really encourage going out of the way to grab everything if there’s another go needed to see the best perks it has to offer. A nice touch is that some skills are awarded solely for completing the challenge tombs, and this time they really are puzzles to behold. Usually set way off the beaten track, searching them out and solving them is one of the high points of the game because they’re exquisitely designed and worth the effort. Eidos Montreal have definitely answered the critics that have said the recent titles have been a bit of a misnomer. There’s usually something different in each one to make it distinct from the others, especially as they’re near enough all underground in natural caverns (Peru must be riddled with sinkholes in the making); and all employ tests of logic, trap avoidance and timing to get to the treasure at the end.
Impressive environments don’t end with the tombs either, when Lara finally breaks out of the cramped, damp caverns there’s a bright and colourful world to jog around. It’s a significant sized map with the regions linking together to form the backbone of the route, and many can be revisited at any time by backtracking or fast travelling between campfires. Possibly the most impressive area that demands a lot of time spent in it is the hidden city of Paititi that remains untouched by the outside world. It’s a sprawling, layered place with much more to do and see than initially meets the eye. It’s also the part that manages to push some of the believability out of the story – no one seems shocked at Lara and Jonah wandering around with their tech, and they all can speak pretty fluent English. The game tries to hide it with some guff about different outfits and one or two people having ventured beyond the borders, but as this place is effectively Lara’s epiphany about her life to date and future, it’s a bit trite. Pretty, colourful, filled with llamas, but still trite.
With this being a Tomb Raider game it’s expected the traversal systems are going to be impressive, and they don’t disappoint. It feels like over half the time is spent scaling rock faces and swinging from branches, and the inventive uses of the grapple axe make me wish I had one. It’s very fluid, though does suffer from the usual inaccurate jumps that are synonymous with the series, though this could be deliberate to showcase the gruesome ways of killing the character off. The other part of the time is spent swimming through the flooded caverns, lakes and streams around the world. With a couple of skills allocated to the amount of time Lara can hold her breath, it’s obvious things are going to be happening underwater. Even there it’s not safe from roaming packs of piranhas or moray eels, or squeezing through very tight spaces. These are probably in the game as a mechanism for managing the level streaming, those that are claustrophobic might want to give Shadow of the Tomb Raider a wide berth, it can get intense frequently.
For those playing on the Xbox One X, the PS4 Pro, the resolution vs framerate options are back. One provides an increased level of detail for playing in 4K (or supersampled to 1080p), and the other uncaps the 30 fps lock and creates a crisper experience. The latter was the preferred option with it allowing more consistent feedback in some of the action sections, and because there was a slight tendency to stutter in cutscenes that was off putting. Rather strangely in some of the scenes the lip syncing dropped off and the audio and video ending up out of alignment. Playing with the settings didn’t stop it, and it did only crop up in the beginning and ending sections, so I’ll chalk it up to some bad encoding somewhere. Otherwise the sound is very nicely mixed to simulate the environments, and the voice acting is decent enough. Camilla Luddington has put in a lot of effort to cover the amount that’s actually said when collectable descriptions and puzzle clues are taken into account, and it matches the visual side well. There’s little in the way of light relief though and it gets a bit heavy with human sacrifice and total disregard for life in the Mayan culture, as well as some of the horrific areas Lara encounters.
Did I mention it was dark? Yes, the story isn’t bright and cheery, and the whole magical eclipse thing casts a double meaning shadow over the proceedings, and I get that most of the adventuring is underground and there needs to be a nod to the lack of pre-lit candles or burners, but I had to adjust the brightness early on to see what was happening, as well as enjoy the richly detailed environments. It’s a small gripe amongst others that don’t ruin anything in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, because all the parts work so well together that it’s easy to overlook the odd flaw (or TressFX hair disaster). It’ll take somewhere up to 20 hours to get through the campaign – longer if the photo mode is discovered, or if you try to track down the elusive 100% completion targets – and it’s money well spent. This is a gorgeous looking game that feels like the pinnacle of the series development so far. Sure, the story misses a few beats and doesn’t land with the emotional payload it wants to, but that’s not what anyone is really here for. It’s all about raiding those tombs, and that’s what it’s managed to dig up and polish this time around.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is out now on PS4, PC and Xbox One, and available in a number of different editions – one of which contains the season pass which starts dropping content on the 13th November.