Shadow Of The Tomb Raider Review
How did we manage to reach the end of a trilogy of Tomb Raider reboots already? It seems like just last year when we first had a revamped Lara Croft climbing her way up rocky inclines while avoiding deadly guards and picking up hordes of collectibles.
After the snowy sequel Rise Of The Tomb Raider, we're now headed into the South American jungle with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Yet again, this entry is another third-person action adventure that doubles down on killing cult members, skinning animals, and horribly injuring a even more vulnerable Lara.
From plane crashes to jaguar attacks to being crushed while drowning, Square Enix just loves to see this iteration of the Croft heiress fall into painful situations. But this time around, in the climax of the new trilogy, we find her against the greatest stakes, so her trials and tribulations are understandably the most violent yet.
With a title like Shadow Of The Tomb Raider and a marketing campaign full of of eclipse imagery, it would be easy to think this ultimate version of Tomb Raider was full of gimmicks. However, the imagery and name speak more to what we see in the game -- a changing world and a changing Lara in a dying world brought about by some bad decisions in an ancient tomb.
From Doom and Gloom to Polygonal Laras
If you just want to plunder old sarcophagi without giving any thought to who's buried there, this may not be the Tomb Raider for you. The narrative has strongly shifted here, and there's a big focus on Croft's privilege as an ultra-rich white woman tromping across the world taking whatever she wants.
This time around there are finally some consequences for her impulsive actions. In fact, the game starts with the world on the brink of utterly ending because Lara couldn't keep her hands off an artifact. In Rise, the pseudo-stakes felt more personal. Here, they're literally global.
It's clear the developers went out of their way to make the cultures and people Lara comes across more of a central focus here, rather than something to be trampled through while she seeks out trinkets. This may be a fictional universe, but the game still wants you to think about how people in South American nations are treated by the wealthier nations to the north.
But if you don't care about heavy concepts or social commentary, there's plenty of amusingly silly options to lighten the game up a bit. Want to play through as the old school, 32-bit Lara from Tomb Raider 2 or Tomb Raider 3? Guess what? You can. And it's a hilariously fun nod to the players who have been following this franchise throughout the years.
Personally I couldn't play Shadow with the model for very long, because it felt too much like playing Dead Rising where Chuck has on some absurdly silly outfit. My second playthrough will be all old-school Lara though for maximum lulz, though. You can count on that.
Familiar or Repetitive?
Silly Easter eggs to fans aside, the core of the game feels nearly identical to the previous two entries of the rebooted trilogy. Remember the first time you played a TellTale game and were blown away? Then five or six games later you were thought, "Are we still doing the same exact thing yet again?". That's what's going on here ... at first, anyway.
If Shadow feels too familiar from the get go, don't give up in the first few hours. Shadow comes into its own and sets itself apart around the 25% completion mark. When you hit a certain hub area, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider finds its stride.
It's so large you could get lost just exploring this one location. Talking to the locals and performing quests in this area is essentially a game all its own -- and that's without ever even hitting the surrounding tombs.
Traveling through populated areas and talking to characters adds something to the base experience, so the game isn't just completely adherent to remote jungle set pieces anymore. These characters feel more like people whose lives Lara is intruding on rather than silent NPCs that solely exist as quest givers.
Because of this, you also get to see behind the curtain and into what made Lara into the titular Tomb Raider. In one particularly memorable segment, we get to see a young Lara at Croft manor and learn why she's so hellbent on living the life of a professional assassin archaeologist.
Lara Croft: Ninja Assassin Archaeologist
Some of Shadow's changes, like a bigger city to explore, are welcome. Others are less so -- and start to strain credulity. There's no question the first game in the reboot trilogy featured improbable actions like ridiculously expert rock climbing and god-tier bow skills, but it was still grounded in reality and aimed for a more restrained feeling.
However, we're officially starting to lose that here. Lara landing impossibly perfect pickaxe throws to somehow wedge it into a rockface while leaping insane distances is stretching it to say the least. That's not to mention she also carries an absurd amount of disposable rope, which is also all apparently invisible.
Despite being a completely polished third installment in a trilogy, Shadow feels somewhat regressive. Some areas are in retrograde, particularly in the mechanics department.
Invariably, there will be sections where it feels like you very clearly landed the jump or grabbed the crumbling wall section, but you fall to your death anyway. Many crypts and challenge tombs are more about battling controls than the puzzle -- and that's very frustrating for a game that revolves primarily around puzzles.
On top of that, the blue waypoint pillar no longer functions as well as it did in the previous two games, and sometimes it just doesn't function at all. You can literally be standing directly on top of a collectible you've set as the marker point and it won't appear.
For the most part, the game's combat is satisfying, but the death animations deserve special mention. There are some truly weird body physics going on that rival the worst of Bethesda's ludicrous glitches. Dead guards often looking like they are either taking a very uncomfortable nap or keeled over in the middle of break dancing. That's not to mention some of Lara's death scenes are unnecessarily brutal.
Why Am I Pondering Morality?
While slaughtering your way through rank and file Trinity guards and seeking out a way to save the world, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider takes some time to make you think about your actions. We aren't quite in Spec Ops: The Line territory here, but the developers seem to be keenly aware that a more grounded, realistic Tomb Raider universe needs to have more consequences.
It starts out with little things like a villager commenting, "Oh, I wish you were a tourist. Tourists bring money. Archaeologists just take things." Which, of course, is a somewhat subtle commentary on Lara's tendency to dabble in kleptomania from time to time.
But the concept or morality expands rapidly from there, and by the end of the game's first quarter, you may start to wonder if maybe Lara is actually the villain and Trinity might be the saviors of the world.
I actually laughed out loud when Lara at point muses, "What are they so afraid of?" upon stumbling across some terrified Trinity guards. Gee, I don't know, maybe they are a tad bit worried about the psychotic ninja archaeologist literally stringing their friends up from trees?
Honestly, the only difference between Trinity and Lara's rag tag group is the size and scale of the operation. Both are well funded, both break shit and take what they want, and both firmly believe they are justified in doing so. Trinity just has more people at their disposal.
The primary driving force of the story is directly caused by Lara in the opening segment. She just can't stop herself from snatching a magical ancient artifacts without thinking it through -- and being hyper focused on keeping it out of other peoples' hands.
In more than a nutshell, she's responsible for widespread death and devastation throughout the game, and then she doubles down on her bad decision. Her entire motivation in trying to stop Trinity from getting the totem she seeks is that she thinks no one else should be allowed to find what's rightfully hers.
If you look at this game from the viewpoint of anyone besides Lara Croft, the only conclusion you can really reach is that she's really a mega-maniacal villain. Oh sure, she's cute and likable, but she's also a mass murderer. Seriously, how many of those armed guards have even close to the kill count Laura has racked up in the last two games?
I have absolutely no idea how much of this was intended by the develops to be inferred by the player, but there's something to be said for a game that makes you think a bit.
The Bottom Line
There's a solid mix of old Lara and new Lara here, along with the good and bad that come with those. You get a revamped skill tree to play with, and the camera mode is fun for taking snapshots of a dangling Lara defying gravity (and death). Stealth mechanics take more of a front seat this time, and there are now merchants to trade with and cities to explore, providing a bit of an RPG feel to the action-adventure formula.
Water also plays a much, much bigger role than before, with huge flooded areas to swim across while avoiding deadly piranha. There are also tons of places to explore while diving, and some of the game's tombs and crypts use water in unique ways.
The game can appeal to any kind of player because of its difficulty settings. Instead of being static difficulty modifiers, you can turn on super blunt hints and just play through the story or crank it up to maximum and try for the classically hard Tomb Raider experience.
There are some frustrating downsides to battle against, however, like clunky mechanics that need an overhaul, specifically in traversing cliff faces and jumping from precipice to precipice.
Overall, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is a worthwhile experience for fans of the previous two games, although I'm getting the feeling the series may be in need of another reboot soon.
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[Note: The developer provided the copy of Shadow of the Tomb Raider used in this review.]