Tomb Raider arguably ranks as one of gaming’s most successful reboots, reversing years of terminal decline for a much-revered series. In that time we’ve witnessed Lara Croft’s transformation from timid survivor to tenacious explorer. The games assumed a more action-oriented focus, too, undoubtedly influenced by the runaway success of Naughty Dog’s blockbuster Uncharted.
I’ll confess to some misgivings about Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It’s that difficult third game in a trilogy, often the point where things go awry. Ideas can be stretched too thin, or recycled once too often. Writers can uproot the story and usher it to incongruous new directions, while there’s always the risk of fatigue taking hold if the developer plays it too safe. Thankfully, with extended play, these fears simply evaporated. This is a well-crafted finale which is easily the equal of its accomplished older siblings.
Early on, it’s evident that Lara Croft carries the burden of her previous adventures and comes to this game subtly changed as a result. She appears to be inured to acts of violence, almost unflinching in her execution. It’s pragmatic; a justified means to an end. Lara has not become one dimensional or devoid of empathy – far from it- but there is a definite change in tone, which may prove divisive. There’s a bit more of a badass at work in this chapter. For me, it was the only logical step left to take. Lara pursues her quest with steely determination and resilience. Flashback scenes remind you of the experiences that have shaped her outlook today.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an apt title, as the shadows have become Lara’s ally. She now embraces her environment, using it to her advantage in order to wrong-foot her enemies. While there is a pervading sense that Lara herself is now the hunter, she isn’t invulnerable, and without care can be taken down by the weakest of enemies.
Consequently, there’s a greater emphasis on stealth gameplay. Lara can interact with the environment in new ways, for example obscuring herself from view using mud and dirt in order to mount a surprise attack. Her move set has been expanded, so she can climb to unexpected places, whilst the ability to lurk underwater for longer periods is a welcome option. Using the bow to pick off enemies from afar is hugely satisfying. She can pull off some fancy tricks with the aid of the pickaxe as well.
It’s clear the template has been expanded, but the series staples are present and correct, too. That means breathless action set pieces, stifling moments of claustrophobic tomb raiding, and tense combat sequences. Enemy attacks vary over the course of the game, keeping you on your toes and forcing you to adapt accordingly, employing different tactics and weapons. Many of the systems appear to have been streamlined, making it easier to manage and improve your skills.
‘Tomb Raider’ is no longer a misnomer. There are a variety of clever environmental puzzles to test your mettle, a shift which should find favour with fans of the original games. These engender real ‘eureka’ moments of satisfaction when you solve the more complex problems. Not into puzzles? Fear not, for the game offers some comprehensive accessibility options, meaning you can adjust the difficulty of puzzles, combat and exploration to match your taste and ability. I can already hear purists scoffing at this, but it will make for a more enjoyable experience whilst potentially courting new players. Many of the puzzles and tombs are in fact optional, so if you’re not a completionist, your focus can be on the story.
In the early stages, most of Lara’s interaction centres on her assistant, Jonah, although you will encounter many interesting characters over the course of the 20-odd hours that comprise the main story mode. You’ll enjoy more interaction with NPCs, too. In fact, your very first mission sees you don some suitable attire to blend in with the locals and earn their trust to glean information. In truth, I’m a little ambivalent about the story. While it’s consistent in quality with previous entries in the series and unlikely to disappoint Tomb Raider fans, I found myself longing for the lightness and levity that Uncharted so deftly weaves into the story. The only real criticism I have relates to cutscenes, which rarely evoke any emotion due to the wooden performances and stilted facial animations. Still, most games this generation have yet to truly nail this, so perhaps that’s unfair.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the superlative visuals. Drenched, verdant jungles, dense, dank caves and shimmering water really impress, while the lighting and reflections are amongst the best I have seen so far. The world is superbly realised, supporting the elusive feeling of immersion that only a select few games achieve with such conviction.
The role of sound in a game is frequently underestimated in terms of building tension and atmosphere. Whether you’re traversing the seething, chattering jungles or the teeming, bustling towns, your senses will be treated to so many competing sounds which make the world feel organic and alive. Simple, pared back instrumentals are built to a crescendo to signify discoveries or lend pathos or gravitas to specific scenes, too. It’s superbly executed, and deeply convincing, especially if you happen to own a soundbar.
Let’s talk about content. You can probably push through the story in around 20 hours or so, but don’t expect your completion count to be anywhere near 100%. The game positively showers you with tombs to raid, puzzles to solve and side quests. If you’re of a completionist mindset, you’ll wring hours of extra play from the generous menu of optional stuff. There’s the obligatory photo mode, too. Judging by the number of Spider-Man posts over the last week, this will prove to be another time sink for many gamers. Still not enough for you? The Season Pass – which is included in the Croft edition – gets you even more.
My main concern about Shadow of the Tomb Raider is unconnected to the game itself. It’s expanded the template, bringing a new emphasis on stealth, serving up plenty of puzzles, comprehensive accessibility options and some of the most arresting visuals I’ve seen this year. But there is a problem of timing, launching as it has only one week after Spider-Man (even less if you picked up the Croft edition). If you have the room in your life for two big games right now, go for it. If you don’t, I urge you to pick it at a later date, for I will still be playing this for months to come.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*