Having spent all this time in Lara’s shoes I thought I’d offer some thoughts on what did and didn’t work for me. I hoped this was a return to a more classic style of tomb raiding – one more interested in archaeological puzzles and getting Lara’s hands dirty in the mud.
I am less interested in exploring the psychology of an adventurer in the making, so I’m not going to talk about the story. Of course, before we wade into the critical mud – pardon the visual metaphor – a few things to point out: I played the game on PC, but without the day one patch, so I can’t say for sure if any graphical kinks in this footage have been ironed out.
I spent an unhealthy amount of my 25 hours standing in front of ancient structures and panning the camera over their grand designs. Sometimes I did it hanging from a rope because Lara can do that now and it affords you a pleasant 360-degree freedom.
It might chafe a bit, though. For me, discovering vast historical buildings is what Tomb Raider is all about. I want to emerge from a dank cave to see a giant structure looming above me. I want to be filled with a sense of awe and wonder. I mean, that’s what these things were built for. To fill us with the fear of whatever gods they were built to honor. And it’s something the series hasn’t totally delivered on since the reboot. The last two games featured a lot of military installations and boring concrete bunkers. And who wants to be exploring a bunker when they could be looking at something built out of fire and spikes and giant pendulums? There is a lot of history out to kill you in Shadow Of The Tomb Raider.
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One minute you’re cracking codes inside a fiery chamber and minutes later you’re standing on this mad creation, trying to work out which one of its hundred pointy bits is going to impale you next. What was the ancient civilization trying to achieve by building this incredibly dangerous thing? Just to play the numbers game for a second, setting the adventure in the Peruvian jungle puts us deep in tomb country – there are probably more ancient buildings in this game than the first two combined.
I love how the story takes Lara through proper Indiana Jones-style Inca death traps before taking a detour into Dan Brown territory – but I won’t spoil that though. Then there are the challenge tombs, which are still as comically obvious as they always were. Nothing says ‘nothing to see here’ like a giant golden skull. But they’re great – covering a huge range of styles and puzzle types – and give you powerful character upgrades for beating them.
They’re allegedly optional, but they’re the thing I make a b-line for when I rock up in a new area – if only to see what the art team have magicked into creation. Pleasingly, the optional crypts get some love, too – in Rise Of The Tomb Raider these were quite boring caves you scrabble about in to find treasure, but here they’re more like mini challenge tombs, each with an idea of its own. Even if that idea is: Lara gets killed by a giant stapler. I’m impressed at how often the simple path from A to B takes Lara through a new gauntlet.
Much has been said about the new trilogy is a origins story for Croft, how she became the Tomb Raider we know and love.
Now, whether she has grown as a character over three games is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that the people who make these games have grown as Tomb Builders. I loved the worlds Crystal Dynamics made in Legend, Anniversary and Underworld; and Shadow is the closest the new trilogy has come to those. That’s intended as high praise.
Of course, the level designers have a few more tools at their disposal – namely water, thanks to the reintroduction of proper swimming, and a burst of height from Lara’s climbing rope. The grapple axe got a brief showcase in Rise, but gets a better outing here, weaving into Lara’s usual mix of rock climbing, wall scrambles, and ledge shimmying. It also allows for preposterously dangerous bits like this, which is definitely where I would have turned around and let Trinity take over the world.
It serves more of a role in the drama than anything else, allowing for these cinematic reveals where you lower Lara into the evil-looking pits to find horrors at the bottom. It’s solid, but I’d like to have seen more rappelling outside the obvious platforming – may be used to find more hidden areas, which doesn’t happen that often. Failing that, more bits where Lara falls, because it reminds me of Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard. I was more nervous about the reintroduction of swimming, as I really don’t like drowning in games. In fact, here’s a statue of me finding out that a game has a swimming bit.
Shadow of The Tomb Raider’s diving is mainly about the stress of trying to reach that next pocket of air, but the game is gentle with its demands, and the skill tree lets you buy bigger lungs, or something equally dumb, to last even longer. Without the threat of seeing Lara go blue in the face, you’re free to appreciate what swimming does add – namely, scenes of staggering underwater beauty. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a great looking game as standard, but the sight of light slicing through the watery murk really makes me want to go oooh. Which is a terrible idea when you’re underwater.
The game also has this magic bit of world design that means most journeys tend to end with a huge swan dive, which is probably the most iconic move Lara Croft ever had. It feels like a nod to the fans, as well as giving you an excuse to splash into lovely lagoons. I wasn’t as sold on underwater stealth sections, where you hide in weeds to avoid piranhas or moray eels. Hilariously, if piranhas find you it’s game over, making them more deadly than any human enemy you meet in the game.
At least you’ve got a button-mashing chance against the moray eels. If the price of enjoying the wet world is sharing it with fish bastards, I can live with that. If fish is the deadliest creature in the game, what of those that walk on two legs?
Let’s talk about combat. One of the side effects of focusing so much on puzzles and platforming in the tombs is that you spend more time using grey matter instead of shooting it out.
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This is a weirdly combat-light game. Especially as so much of the lead-up focused on Lara as this supreme predator – I mean, look at all the explosions and exciting violence in the trailer… I appreciate that you’re not going to make a trailer where Lara very slowly turns a dial set to exciting music, but it still came as a surprise at how little fighting she actually does. Combat maybe accounts for 10 percent of the game – which is a big step down from the 2013 reboot and Rise Of The Tomb Raider.
Part of this is down to the story – you’re pushing into unoccupied territory, so it doesn’t make sense for loads of goons to be waiting. But even so, the fights that are here are often hours apart. For large portions of the game, Lara doesn’t have weapons – she puts them away when she’s in the hub areas where most of the game takes place. When fights do happen they’re contained in fixed arenas. You know when you’re in one because suddenly there are boxes of shotgun ammo everywhere.
Just don’t ask how they got into this untouched tomb. Having spent the last two games complaining about how much action there was, I’d actually like a bit more in this one, as the combat is fun in a very pulpy, cartoony way. Lara is ludicrously overpowered, letting her vanish into muddy walls and bushes and then wipe out people with a really generous instant-kill attack. Look at the reach on this thing… And there are so many ways to instantly kill someone. You can stroll up and stab them. You can pull them into the water. You can jump from a rooftop. You can hang them from a tree. You can stab them from a tree. You can kill one of them and then kill any friend standing near them – a move Eidos Montreal has clearly borrowed from their Deus Ex reboots. And that’s before you start factoring in the abilities to fire poison lure arrows or booby trap bodies with explosives or fire off fear arrows that make enemies turn on each other – by the final third of the game you have so many ways to kill people there isn’t any question about whether you can win, but whether you can make your mind up about what horrible thing to do next.
It’s probably the easiest stealth game I’ve ever played, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. I love running circles around these idiots – wiping out one guy here, vanishing up into the trees and grabbing his friends as they come to look for him. Lara feels like the apex predator, and after two games where she was beaten and bruised, it’s big empowering change. Just don’t come to the game expecting your trigger finger to be tested. The downside to shifting away from regular combat is that it undermines the importance of the skill tree and character development. When I initially cast an eye over Lara’s upgrades I couldn’t see many differences from those in Rise – I know a lot of sequels repeat themselves like this, but it feels particularly bland as we’re once against asked to buy dodge counters, the ability to see animal hearts and loads of powers that give you more resources when looting or scavenging.
Some of these abilities Lara has unlocked in both previous games – how does she keep forgetting this stuff? Too many hits on the head, perhaps. The bigger problem is that so much of the upgrade tree relates to combat, which is, as explained, a tiny portion of the game. You’re either unlocking new combat moves or making it easier to upgrade weapons – weapons you might only be using once or twice in the whole campaign. And that’s before you start factoring buying more weapons from merchants in the hubs. By the end of the game I had ten weapons and had only used three – not out of choice, but because there’s no one to kill with them. Unless you just go around emptying an assault rifle at crows, which seems like a colossal waste of time. None of it breaks the game, but it feels baggy in a way the last two didn’t – like an RPG system grafted onto a more linear adventure, which Shadow arguably is. In fact, I’d say Shadow is generally at its worst when it’s repeating the tricks of the previous game.
I felt a similar fatigue with the mountain of collectibles – as before you are collecting relics, documents, survival caches and generic pots that somehow contain xp. Whatever XP is, you can store it in a pot, which is handy. There are collectibles that point out the location of other collectibles, and there are collectibles that let you use another collectible, which gives you a clue where to find… yep, a collectible. There is something satisfying about clearing a map of icons, but in the same way, it’s nice to finally get that big pile of washing up out the way – and that doesn’t scream escapist entertainment. Again, because all this stuff ties back into XP rewards and unlocking the skill tree, it can’t help but feel like excess baggage.
The post credits scene at the end of the game is LOADED with Easter Eggs, featuring relics from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot that dealt with Lara’s origins and onwards. You’ll notice the Japanese Ceremonial Dagger from the Summit Forest in the 2013 Tomb Raider with its black lacquer finish and golden carvings mounted on a wall. Beneath it is the Hannya Mask from the same game. You’ll also notice weapons Lara has used over the course of the games, too. 3 Classic Lara When you stop by a campfire, you have the option to swap out your current 2018 version of Lara for a few familiar versions of her from way back when.
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You can go full blown polygon pointy boob Lara from the 1997 Tomb Raider 2 game, including a version of that with her classic stylish bomber jacket. Or you can jump into the 2003 Angel of Darkness Lara’s skin. As some gamers have noted, the 1997 version of Lara doesn’t move her lips when the character talks, which is wonderful. Unlike the Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Year Celebration edition, this feature is available before completion of the game, which is also really neat, although, during major plot points in the narrative, she will revert back to her 2018 self. You can also wear the costume from Rise of the Tomb Raider, too. 2 Childhood Drawing In that post-credit scene, the scene ends on a framed drawing of Lara’s from her childhood, featuring a small Lara and her parents. But the two other details in the drawing are a major shout out to previous games in the Tomb Raider franchise. The pyramid in the drawing is a reference to the Pyramid of Giza in the Tomb Raider 4 game, the Last Revelation.
The T-Rex is a reference to the T-Rex that you face off against in the original Tomb Raider game from 1996, which is often considered one of the series’ badass moments. Side note, it’s not the only childhood drawing of hers that has appeared in the series. In Blood Ties DLC in the Croft Manor, you can find a drawing Lara has done of a tiger. 1 WINSTON! Many a fan of the Tomb Raider series has a particular soft spot for killing Lara’s butler Winston. For context, in the second Tomb Raider game, Winston, Lara’s butler, would follow her around in her mansion, carrying a rattling tray of tea while huffing and puffing. Players quickly discovered that they could comically lock him inside Lara’s walk-in freezer for a fun little challenge.
And it was hilarious. Looks like Winston has survived to freeze his butt off though because he makes a nice little cameo in Shadow of the Tomb Raider in the game’s post-credit scene. Lara, who is chilling out at home at the games end, is reminiscing in a voice-over, which eventually lands on the drawing from our last number. Then, you can hear the rattling of porcelain, and GUESS WHO IT IS! Dear Winston, offering her tea right before the game ends.