Lara Croft’s been on one hell of an adventure since her debut title back in 1996. Much like any franchise that spans a great deal of time, our favorite tomb raider’s had her ups and her downs. To date, we’ve seen a total of two reboots; Legend and 2013’s Tomb Raider. Up until Legend, developer Core Design worked on most titles prior until the critical failure that was The Angel of Darkness, at which point, Eidos transferred development duties over to Crystal Dynamics. Since then, Crystal Dynamics have proven their worth time and time again, beginning with Legend and taking us up to the newly released Shadow of the Tomb Raider – which has been developed by Eidos Montréal in conjunction with Crystal Dynamics.
Now, Legend itself wasn’t nearly as much of a reboot as Tomb Raider 2013 was. In fact, Tomb Raider 2013 was a much more necessary reboot than that of Legend. You see, following the release of Underworld, it was clear to Crystal Dynamics that amidst (at that time) shifts in modern gaming, Lara was in much need of a fresh lick of proverbial paint. Thus, Tomb Raider 2013 was born, the first in a trilogy that focuses on Lara’s origin story. By and large, Tomb Raider 2013 went down a treat and despite some minor criticisms, so did its 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now, here we sit at the origin’s conclusion with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The question is, does Lara’s origin tale go out with a bang?
Not entirely, but that’s not at all a criticism. In fact, it’s something I feel needs to be commended. There’s an overarching evolution when it comes to Lara, across Tomb Raider 2013, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider 2013 introduced a very innocent and naive Lara, making that game a game of self discovery. Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the other hand, saw our protagonist in a determined yet somewhat fragile state of mind, largely due to the events in the preceding title. Shadow of the Tomb Raider flips the script. Lara’s experience throughout Yamatai and Siberia has truly hardened her, so much that she’s a loose canon driven by her unwavering motivations.
Following the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has returned to Croft Manor to settle her affairs and take some time to reflect on her past, both distant and recent. However, the suspicious circumstances surrounding her father’s death still haunts her. Determined to find answers, Lara sets off on her most daring and deadly adventure yet. Taking Trinity head-on, Lara finds herself in the midst of Latin America as she searches for a Mayan relic that seemingly has ties to her father’s research and movements shortly before his untimely demise. Foolishly, Lara sets off a Mayan apocalypse in the process and in a race against Trinity’s will to reshape the world in their own image, a nonstop power struggle ensues.
Worry not, I wont dive into heavy-spoiler territory here. Instead, I’ll dance around the specifics and talk briefly about the material shown in pre-release footage and via press feeds. Light spoiler warning for those that wish to go into the game spoiler-free. Moving back to my praise for the storytelling, I have to say that the rather bold premise makes for some very interesting and emotional moments. Unlike most games that start small and build to something grand and final, Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes the direct opposite approach. The game starts big and ends small(er) and although that might not sound as though it would work on paper, in practice, the end result makes for a wild ride.
This very specific arc allows the story to breathe and flesh out at a solid pace, rarely outstaying its welcome throughout. There’s a few elements that felt somewhat out of place and not baked for long enough, as well as a few story beats that just didn’t have the intended impact, but for the most part, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s story is top notch, excellently written and very well presented. That grand opening outlined above sets one hell of a scene, one that’s not to be taken lightly. The stakes are high from the get-go with intense second-by-second deep and disturbing scenes, such as the demolition of an entire village, the death of a young child, and more, showcasing the ramifications of Lara’s actions.
The tug of war-like story pushes and pulls at all the right times, and come the conclusion, it’s a fitting end to an adventure that started five years back. Of course, this evolution isn’t isolated to just the game’s story, there’s been quite a number of refinements to the gameplay, too. Those that have played any of the two predecessors will be met with familiar ground. Lara controls and engages in combat and traversal much like she did beforehand. Though, Shadow of the Tomb Raider comes with quite a number of tweaks and notable additions. The game does a good job at feeding players into the swing of things, and depending on your difficulty modifiers, you’ll get a curve that’s fair but challenging.
The game features quite a deep set of difficulty sliders, allowing players to adjust the game’s difficulty across three pillars; puzzles, traversal, and combat – each of which come with four tiers of difficulty; easy, normal, hard and deadly obsession. Once you’ve tweaked these settings, you’re ready to dive on in. The game tends to throw a lot of different scenarios at you during the first hour or two of play, allowing you to grab some insight as to how the game should be played. The controls are tight and responsive from the onset across each element of play. Whether you’re raiding tombs, kicking Trinity’s ass, scaling cliff-sides or enjoying a spot of underwater exploration, the controls remain fluid and precise.
That’s right, people, underwater exploration is back and it’s more deadlier than ever. In fact, most of my deaths throughout the game occurred underwater, among its many dangers the lurk within. Tombs come back like never before too. Shadow of the Tomb Raider packs more challenge tombs than any game before it, and believe me, they’re tough, deep and massively rewarding. Each coming packed with tricky puzzles, deadly traps, oftentimes brutal enemies, and tense, dizzying environmental traversal. In short, if you want that treasure, you’re going to need to work for it. Combat is a heavy constant throughout and is often necessary to make progression. The subtle gameplay changes accommodate this nicely.
Lara is now better able to switch between engaging in combat and utilizing stealth, on the fly. Several times did I break away from a harsh firefight, blend into the game’s environments and start picking off my foes one by one via brutal stealth kills. The neat ability to wipe Lara in mud and swiftly jump into some vines, saved my ass many times. These stealth features wont save you at all times, for instance, jaguars and enemies wearing night vision will sniff you out in an instant. There’s certainly no shortage of weaponry within, ranging several guns, the return of the bow – complete with unique arrows, and indeed, Lara’s trusty knife and ice axe. Plenty of tools to stick it to Trinity’s forces once and for all.
Upgrading skills via the intuitive skill tree will aid you across several gameplay elements, and just like before, these skills are unlocked through the use of rewarded points. Survival instincts returns again, however, your difficulty settings will determine what gets highlighted and what doesn’t, when utilizing this function. Even when using survival instincts on a frequent basis, I’ve been unable to locate each and every challenge tomb. I completed the game at 52% overall completion percentage, in which the campaign took roughly twelve – fifteen hours to run through. Safe to say, there’s more than enough content to work through once those credits roll and you’re thrown back to the game’s vast hub.
These optional tombs are well hidden and easily present the game’s toughest challenge. Oftentimes, the route to access these tombs are sneakily tucked away off the beaten path, so it’s important to pay close attention to your surroundings. Once uncovered, you’re in for one hell of a trek. Note that each tomb has been designed to toy with your skills in a range of different ways. These tombs want you dead, and through some meticulous development and stellar level design, you’ll be pushed to your absolute limit as you work to solve tough puzzles, clear death-traps with perfect timing, and clear jumps with pinpoint precision. Each of these tombs vary magnificently and can easily last north of an hour per-whack.
You wanted more of a challenge and more treasures to seek? The developer hasn’t under-delivered. I’m still sat somewhere between 50% – 60%, and fully expect spending much of what’s left diving into new and uncharted areas. Moving back to the skill system, skills are spread across three areas; seeker, warrior and scavenger. These individual trees feed Lara’s capabilities further. Looking to make life easier and reveal traps or locate the hearts of large animals during survival instincts? The seeker tree, which spans over twenty unique skills, will be where you’ll want to focus upgrade points. Perhaps you favor more precision and visual aid? Then you’ll want to spend those points wisely on the twenty distinct warrior skills.
Scavenger skills, on the other hand, will benefit you in a range of different ways, spread across twenty upgrades. This includes the likes of performing stealth take-downs on enemies that are within close proximity of their unsuspecting buddies – without alerting them, and other helpful additions such as auto-looting upon killing a foe. Looting is a very important aspect of Shadow of the Tomb raider, and will gift you with resources that are needed to upgrade your arsenal, as well as currency that can be spent in shops to buy more equipment, weaponry and so forth. Nevertheless, the wide pool of skills vary greatly, and you can truly feel the difference once applying either a new skill or upgrading a weapon.
The hub system returns in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and much like any single aspect of the game, it’s bigger and better than any game before it. Here, players can slow down and enjoy a range of side activities, chat with townsfolk, and (arguably) more importantly, acquire powerful new weapons, gear and more. Much of which is needed to access those elusive hidden areas spread throughout the game. Furthermore, interaction with people across the game’s city hubs allows Lara’s character and personality to shine through in different ways. Rounding off, the hidden city of Paititi is a gorgeous, vibrant and diverse locale that’s jam-packed with not only secrets and danger, but culture, charm and flair.
I’m purposely dancing around anything specific here, because if anything, you need to witness this stunning world first hand. There’s a lot of lore hidden throughout the game, and by interacting with certain structures and completing side quests, Lara will gradually become more acquainted with the history and details. Despite my minor issues with the game’s overall story, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here. Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels like one epic adventure that’s focused on fan-service, quality and innovation, something that shines through on a constant basis. It’s a brand new trek into the vast unknown, yet one that feels both somewhat familiar and exciting at the same time.
Special credit goes to one specific section in the story, in which Lara, within the space of just ten seconds, finally taps into her potential as survivalist. This section is easily the most empowering part of the game, and something that will stick with me for a great deal of time to come – you’ll know it when you see it. When all is said and done, Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes the origin story out with a bang. The voice cast has put forward some excellent work and Camilla Luddington, once again, does a fine job at relaying a broad pool of emotions from start to finish. Everything from the game’s beautiful visuals, its depth, its gameplay diversity, its innovative puzzle design and anything in between, is near outstanding.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider offers an epic journey that’s jam-packed with heaps of fan service. There’s more depth and gameplay diversity here than in any game before it, spanning a lush, rich and deep world that’s crammed with activities, secrets, and an impressive variation of deadly tombs. Despite some minor issues with the otherwise solid story, this is Lara’s most defining adventure yet.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.