Lara Croft’s latest adventure doesn’t stray far from what made the series great…and that’s good news indeed.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider starts with our adventurous Lara Croft in a familiar predicament. Her leg wedged in a rock and bloodied badly, she must pry it free before making an extensive climb out of a narrow passage. We’ve seen this pained ordeal on her face for years…except when she emerges and bandages her leg, there’s no hint of weakness. There’s no slowing down. There’s only determination. The transformation is complete – Lara has gone from prey to predator, hunted to hunter. Her methods differ slightly from Rise of the Tomb Raider but the weight behind those actions is cleaner and more brutal.
But this isn’t just about Lara becoming the Tomb Raider of legend. It’s also about her determination blinding her to the bigger picture, testing her relationships and interactions while asking how far she would go to stop Trinity. Accompanying this is a macabre aesthetic, more fitting of the first game – the stakes have clearly never been higher. What else is to be expected when mistress Croft triggers the apocalypse?
"Some of the story beats in Shadow of the Tomb Raider may seem a bit similar to Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rest assured they play out very differently but as a whole, the tone is significantly more serious than the second game."
Yes, this time the end of the world is kind of Lara’s fault. When travelling to Mexico to investigate some Mayan ruins, Lara and her friend Jonah hear of one Dr. Dominguez working with Trinity to excavate an essential artifact. This isn’t your run of the mill commander on an excursion for his masters – Dominguez is quickly revealed to be the leader of Trinity.
Of course, through her usual series of tomb raiding antics, Lara finds the artifact first and takes it, fearing Trinity getting their hands on it. This triggers a tsunami in the Mexican town but not before Dominguez takes the artifact from Lara, revealing her own callousness and brash nature as ultimately dooming everyone. A few more catastrophes are on the way and our hero is on the back foot. It’s time to travel to Peru to find a second artifact, one that’s essential to Dominguez’s plan to “remake” the world.
Some of the story beats in Shadow of the Tomb Raider may seem a bit similar to Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rest assured they play out very differently but as a whole, the tone is significantly more serious than the second game. This is levelled out a bit as Lara and Jonah begin exploring Peru and learning more about the artifact and rumoured hidden city there. The story set-up for the first hour is heftier but only to underscore the consequences of Lara’s actions, her relationship to Jonah and whether she’s really taking the path of nobility or mired in her own obsession. From there, we’re reintroduced to the core gameplay loop that’s defined this Tomb Raider trilogy in general – explore, hunt, scavenge, kill, upgrade, so on and so forth.
The deft pacing of Shadow of the Tomb Raider ensures there’s never a dull moment, whether you’re battling leopards one minute or engaging in a harrowing Challenge Tomb in the next. However, it also accentuates these action-packed moments with quieter, more character-driven scenes. That’s a good thing because the writing and voice acting for Lara and Jonah, courtesy of Camilla Luddington and Earl Baylon respectively is top tier. Though other characters emerge to help the two along in their journey, their core friendship helps Shadow of the Tomb Raider have an emotional constant that’s consistently endearing.
"Insane dedication to one’s craft is nothing new in the gaming industry but Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics deserve all the credit in the world for making Lara’s psychological and physical descent into the abyss so immersive."
In terms of gameplay, Eidos Montreal has added some strong nuance and variety to an already excellent set of systems. While Rise of the Tomb Raider admittedly felt very mechanically familiar to the first game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider incorporates a few new mechanics into the mix. You can still climb on rough surfaces using the pickaxe but it’s now possible to rappel up or down from this surface. This grants a wealth of new navigational options as Lara can swing back and forth to jump towards a nearby ledge; swing left and right, using the momentum to run along walls and clear gaps; and so on. There’s also the underwater sections which feel more expansive and less on-rails. Diving opens up new gameplay challenges as well like avoiding piranhas and eels by hiding in the underwater foliage.
While these new mechanics may not sound crazy, they mesh seamlessly with all the climbing, jumping, swinging and puzzle-solving. They also take advantage of the increased scale and verticality of the new areas. Eidos Montreal clearly wanted to focus on raiding tombs, as evidenced by multiple story events taking place within the same core regions. Take the ruins in Kuwak Yaku – you’ll venture through a concealed entrance to solve the next part of a riddle but double back to the ruins to partake in a large series of trials. Each trial is more harrowing than the last, testing your puzzle-solving and platforming skills. It’s all seamlessly integrated and really highlights the game’s stellar level design.
To the developer’s credit, each area is also meticulously designed with a wondrous attention to detail. Even if your Mayan history isn’t completely up to date, it’s easy to just wander around and gawk at all the wall paintings, statues and symbols. There’s a lot to love about Shadow of the Tomb Raider‘s visual presentation from the gorgeous scenery as one trudges through the jungle to scaling an enormous structure and coming face to face with a deity’s overwhelming statue. The environments exude ludicrous amounts of detail and boast amazing interactions with lighting and alpha effects. Such details are apparent even when you’re casual navigating the streets during Mexico’s Dia de Muertos or visiting a quiet town in Kuwak Yaku. Insane dedication to one’s craft is nothing new in the gaming industry but Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics deserve all the credit in the world for making Lara’s psychological and physical descent into the abyss so immersive.
"The new Challenge Tombs which are easily the best in any Tomb Raider game till date. They’re expansive, aesthetically unique and full of interesting puzzles while the process to find them is an endeavour upon itself."
Combat, as with previous titles, is pretty much the same here. Assault rifles (both quick and slow firing), pistols, shotguns and the ever trusty bow are all accounted for. Each offers the requisite amount of “oomph” in their feedback while having a range of customization options. I honestly didn’t expect the combat mechanics of the franchise to hold up so deftly by the third game, especially given the number of other action adventure titles played in the past year. But Shadow of the Tomb Raider performs exceedingly well, right down to the classic “dodge and plant an arrow in some fool’s face” move. The bow remains as fun as ever to use – planting headshots just never gets old.
Stealth combat has also been expanded in new ways. Lara can now cover herself in mud to blend in with walls, closing in on a foe for the kill. Survival Instincts now also highlight which enemies can be disposed of without alerting others, making it easier to discern targets ripe for quiet murder. It’s just another reminder of Lara’s transformation – her initial attempt to sneak along walls nearly ended in her demise in the first Tomb Raider. Now she’s the one to be feared. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on you.
I also quite enjoyed the ability to hoist an enemy up using the rope arrow, leaving them dangling while sniping their horrified friends. Going loud and killing everyone is still an option though and the layout of each combat area (with a few exceptions) allows for great freedom when deciding one’s approach.
Progress in terms of character abilities has been slightly modified. While the previous Tomb Raider titles pushed you to invest in a single skill from a tree to unlock subsequent skills, Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes a branching approach. All skills are now part of a single screen though they are clearly segregated into hunting, combat and stealth sections among others. Unlocking one skill will cause any two adjacent skills to be purchasable with the right amount of skill points. Completing a Challenge Tomb can reward you with a high-level skill, thus opening up a farther branch and allowing slightly more customization. It’s a nice change even if a number of the skills are retreads from previous titles. Mind you, lining up two arrows to simultaneously or modifying the rope arrow takedown to conceal bodies is still great.
"Lara’s journey into the heart of darkness and doubt may not set the world on fire in terms of innovation but it doesn’t have to when it’s this good."
Aside from the main campaign, players can take up side missions that are your usual “Talk to X number of people” or “Kill X thing”. Personally, I didn’t indulge in them too much, instead opting for the new Challenge Tombs which are easily the best in any Tomb Raider game till date. They’re expansive, aesthetically unique and full of interesting puzzles while the process to find them is an endeavour upon itself. One particular Challenge Tomb had to be located by traversing through numerous underwater passages, avoiding eels in the process. The “tomb” itself was actually a Spanish Galleon and breaking through to the Captain’s Quarters by releasing a rusted hanging cannon was a heady mix of navigational awareness and puzzle-solving.
The saying “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” could be applied to a majority of the core gameplay in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Those familiar with the series can immediately delve in and the emotional pull of the story feels stronger than Rise of the Tomb Raider. It’s also possible to modify certain aspects of the difficulty, tuning combat to be tougher with no health regeneration and smarter enemies while keeping the hand-holding of the exploration present. This is a fairly great touch and provides replay value though I do wonder what happened to the Expedition modes from the second game.
That strong sense of familiarity may lead you to wonder if this series should head into some radical new directions. However, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still an expertly-crafted adventure, one that features top-notch visuals, a gloriously realized soundtrack, strong story-telling and characters, amazing combat and a dozen other things that could be fawned over. Lara’s journey into the heart of darkness and doubt may not set the world on fire. But when it’s this darn good, it doesn’t have to.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Attention to detail in environments and structures is phenomenal. Gorgeous graphics and soundtrack. Strong characterization backs a tout narrative with solid pacing. New mechanics augment the already compelling movement and combat. Challenge Tombs are some of the best yet, providing the perfect combination of puzzle solving and platforming. Difficulty adjustments provide new-found freedom for tailoring one's experience.
An awkward animation or two may creep up occasionally. Compared to previous games, core gameplay might not be different enough for some fans.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is another compelling reason to jump, run and suffer in Lara Croft's boots. Stellar production values, new mechanics and a deftly paced campaign do wonders even if the formula is pretty familiar by now.