Who doesn’t enjoy a nice swim?
After reinvigorating Lara Croft with the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot and taking the series next gen with Rise of the Tomb Raider, Square-Enix is back with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which once again puts Lara at odds with the mysterious Trinity organization. What is different is the presence of Eidos Montreal as the lead developer, stepping in for Crystal Dynamics, which handled the first two. Time to find out if the change affects the series’ quality.
Not a lot has changed when it comes to how Lara handles, both in and out of combat, though it’s fair to say the game contains fewer enemy encounters and features exploration and platforming more prominently than its predecessors. Lara does have a couple new tricks as she scrambles up sheer rock walls and performs death-defying leaps with great frequency, but these are minor adjustments.
One area that has definitely been worked in more than ever is swimming, and, by extension, underwater exploration. Lara spends quite a bit of time dodging piranha and squeezing through submerged openings, and doing so generally feels responsive. Our lone complaint is that there at times when transitioning from the surface to underwater that the lighting doesn’t change properly, leaving things really dark (it made us wish we could manually activate Lara’s flashlight).
Combat is as smooth as ever, streamlining a few areas but offering little in terms of innovation. Lara still works with a bow, pistol, shotgun and rifle — though some areas only allow you to carry the bow — where she can craft special ammo like arrows that drive enemies mad or flare rounds that set their target ablaze. It does feel like there’s more focus on stealth with Lara now able to cover herself in mud and hide in plant-covered walls, but still, Shadow mostly plays a pat hand.
Running in 4K on the Xbox One X it’s no surprise that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the best looking game in the series. The lush jungle environments pop off the screen, and the intricately designed tombs and ruins are thrilling to explore. The colourfully attired natives provide a nice contrast to the Trinity forces armed to the teeth and decked out in body armour. Cut scenes are consistently well done, conveying emotion and moving the story along.
Led by Camilla Luddington (Lara) and Earl Baylon (Jonah) the voice acting is stronger than ever with the duo asked to show more emotional range as the enormity of the task, Lara’s feelings of responsibility and Jonah’s efforts to talk her down from carrying too much of the burden make for a good showcase. Good music, sound effects and everything else round out the tremendous presentation.
Set shortly after the last game’s conclusion, Shadow opens as Lara and Jonah arrive in Cozumel on the lookout for Dr. Dominguez, who was referenced in some of her father’s notes. Upon locating him they learn of his connection with Trinity, prompting Lara to investigate nearby tombs in hopes of thwarting their efforts.
It doesn’t take long for Lara to infiltrate the tomb and locate a dagger, which she grabs to keep it from Trinity despite warnings of cataclysms. Dominguez and Trinity relieve her of the relic, however, and leave to locate a silver box that will allow them to control the “Cleansing,” a Mayan doomsday proclamation. After narrowly surviving a massive flood, which Lara believes to be the first cataclysm, the pair set off to South America in search of the box.
As with pretty much every worthwhile adventure since the days of Indiana Jones, Shadow of the Tomb Raider weaves together actual history and religion alongside fantasy elements, grounding the game in reality while incorporating the fantastic as well. It’s a good blend, and though we wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit more advancement from Lara, the story being set so close to the last game makes the more subtle changes understandable.
As mentioned it feels like the emphasis is more on exploration and puzzle solving this time and less on combat. There are a few action-heavy set pieces, but for the most part the game puts you in position to stealthily eliminate enemies one or two at a time. It’s a welcome adjustment, as the series’ best work has typically been in the design and implementation of exploring ruins.
There’s easily 20-plus hours of gameplay here with the option to extend that by completing side missions, challenge tombs and searching for documents, relics and more. Lara’s skill tree is back, though just completing Shadow’s core elements should allow you to unlock a healthy percentage of those skills, meaning there’s no real need to focus on a single area at the expense of the others.
For all the good stuff here, though, it’s worth spelling out that this is very much a continuation of the last Tomb Raider game with minimal changes. Word is this is being viewed as the conclusion of the origin trilogy, meaning the next installment could skip ahead and mix things up more, perhaps bringing this Lara a little more into alignment with the dual-wielding, short-short wearing character she began as.
Beyond a lack of progression, our only other quibble is the game’s scripted action sequences. As with Nathan Drake in Uncharted, much of what Lara does seems, if not probable, at least feasible… and then there she is escaping the flood. Sure, at some level it’s a Hollywood action moment, but for us it just takes the suspension of disbelief a bit too far.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider continues along the excellent groundwork laid by Crystal Dynamics back in 2013, offering an exciting, well-paced adventure in a beautifully realized world.