There’s a point in Shadow of the Tomb Raider (and I’m being careful to avoid spoilers here) where Lara comes across the mutilated remains of a special forces team deep in the Peruvian jungle. The sounds of battle echo through the dense foliage; the gut-churning squeals of the dying, the ear-splitting screams of the terrified, gunfire, explosions, frantically bellowed orders. As she picks her way through the carpet of viscera and shredded limbs, spent ammunition and mangled corpses, she mutters to herself, “What the hell are they so afraid of?”
This moment highlighted two very important points to me: one, this isn’t young, naïve, frightened Lara doing what she must to survive anymore; this is now a hardened survivalist almost completely desensitised to the dead at her feet and more concerned with what she herself might be walking into. And two, that, given the fact that in the last sequence Lara (controlled by me, admittedly) had put arrows clean through the skulls of eight utterly unsuspecting men, I’d be just as inclined to be terrified of Lara Croft as I would the unseen horror decimating a squad of armed soldiers.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is dark, people. The opening few hours present a tour de force of actions and consequence that serves to hammer home in the most unsubtle of ways what an utter sociopath Lara has become in the last few years. Her obsession with stopping Trinity clouds all of her decisions. Lara finds a trinket, takes a trinket, watches a devastating cataclysm unfold as a direct result of her actions, but instead of taking a step back, re-assessing her life choices and weighing the consequences of her actions against their overall necessity, she launches herself directly into the next adventure only to see a similar fallout.
Lara Croft is a one-woman apocalypse at this point, so much so that I wondered occasionally whether I even wanted her to succeed anymore. I mean, yes, she’s Lara Croft, and yes, Trinity are evil in that pantomime way that Bond villains are evil, but you have to wonder if their plan would result in quite the same trail of destroyed settlements, desecrated temples and bloodied corpses as hers. The conflicted young explorer Lara was becoming by the middle point of 2013’s reboot is all but gone, and in her place is something often terrifying to behold.
Lara’s personal battle with Trinity approaches its peak in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, leading our heroine and her beleaguered sidekick Jonah from Mexico to Peru searching for the ancient Silver Box of Ix Chel, a Pandora’s Box-like relic that contains the key to “remaking the world”.
Similarly to the previous games, the world is semi-open and contains elements reminiscent of a metroidvania, in that as you progress and unlock new abilities you can choose to revisit earlier areas to plunder crypts, hoover up collectibles and complete the vast amount of optional challenges on offer. If you played the previous titles then you’ll know what to expect. Cleverly, Lara retains her prior knowledge and is able to use certain skills such as the rope arrow, fire arrow and, of course, her trusty climbing picks from the get-go, but as you progress through the story she will learn new abilities and acquire new tools. For instance, she can attach her endless coil of rope to the haft of her pick and use it to swing across chasms, and the climbing grips she attaches to her shoes will allow her to traverse the ceiling of certain caves.
Every skill is welcome and new developers Eidos Montreal (taking over from Crystal Dynamics) has been careful not to overuse any of them, maintaining a decent mix of required moves for each of their tombs and environments. The only problem I had was how necessary the Focus mode has become, as I was constantly clicking the right stick to locate my next objective or climb point. A simple compass or minimap would alleviate a lot of this frustration and, let’s be honest, is hardly outlandish given the protagonist. For those who found previous games a little too easy, you can now tweak the difficulty until you find your happy medium, adding or removing things like auto-aim and the daubed white paint that often highlights your way forward. Personally I found the combat frustrating without the auto-aim enabled, as the surroundings tend to blur when you’re moving the camera around too fast.
The primary mission, which is to stop Trinity at pretty much any cost, is shot through with side quests and the usual Tombs and Crypts. Eidos Montreal present a great selection of challenges across 9 optional tombs, with 7 more promised as future DLC. Instead of receiving an artefact or collectible at the end of each one, Lara instead unlocks a new ability such as increased melee damage, or uncovers the pattern for a new outfit. Interestingly, the outfits Lara crafts, known as Vestige Gear, offer their own buffs such as silent running or lengthened Focus time. Often they require exotic materials to craft, necessitating exploration and the hunting of rare or endangered animals (seriously, Lara Croft has zero chill).
Most of the challenge Tombs feature intricate, impeccably thought-out design utilising all of Lara’s skills and gear, although I’ll be honest, there’s one set entirely underwater which requires the constant use of air pockets and features repeated fights with conger eels that became incredibly tiresome. Kudos to the designers for pushing the boat out, but it drove me to close to rage.
You’ll derive XP from almost everything you do, and accrued Skill Points are then spent at campfires to unlock abilities in one of the three schools: Warrior, Survivor and Seeker. Some of them are more useful than others (who doesn’t want double stealth takedowns or the ability to snipe three enemies at once with your bow?), but the trees themselves are not easy to read, presented as a garish blue, red and green Incan pyramid. It’s not game-breaking, but it seems an arbitrary change.
There seem to be fewer gunfights this time around, and stealth plays a much bigger part. In addition to being able to lurk in long grass, Lara can now smear herself with thick mud and hide in tangled vines like a SAS operative, ready to administer silent oblivion to any unsuspecting goon who wanders too close.
Enemy AI still takes a few seconds to recognise an obvious 20-something woman with an assault rifle standing in front of them, which often gives you time to disappear, upon which they’ll assume the heat is making them hallucinate and forget they ever saw you. Sadly I didn’t notice much difference between enemy types in terms of difficulty or tactics. Fully armoured soldiers are as easy to kill as feather-skirted cultists, or vice-versa, and enemy tactics involve either shooting from cover or advancing menacingly on your position, meaning most fights are over as soon as you start spraying assault rifle rounds. Later, enemies are introduced with thermal imaging gear to spot you in bushes, but they’re still fairly easy to evade.
Perhaps my biggest bugbear with Shadow of the Tomb Raider is how keen it seems to be to break its own immersion. Weapons disappear during cutscenes (Lara will literally have an empty holster), and tools like the climbing picks change based on context. One moment she’s using them to cling to a wall, and in the next she’s throwing them at a swing point and there’s rope attached. Invisible rifles and shotguns that leap to existence with a push of the D-Pad are always irritating, and in a game so grounded in the gritty realities of human obsession and devastating natural cataclysms, it’s just annoying to be constantly jarred out of the moment by cutscene-specific outfits and vanishing weaponry. There’s also an undeniable convenience to the placement of certain reliquaries supposedly hidden for centuries. Quite often you’ll simply need to smash through a mural or swim through a submerged tunnel to find a priceless artefact, and you’ll wonder why no one else found it first.
All the above notwithstanding, I still love “new” Lara and how incredibly human she is, even if she is a deeply troubled individual, and you have to disengage your belief circuits every time she takes more damage than a Sherman tank and gets up again. In terms of pure gameplay, though, Shadow is a confident and competent sequel to Rise of the Tomb Raider. During the many “escape” set-pieces it’s exhilarating, as you race through exploding, collapsing environments, dodging helicopter fire or a hail of arrows and it feels like everything is at stake. The only downside to these moments is that they throw a light on the occasionally uncooperative camera and clumsy jump aiming, which aren’t a major issue but caused me a few unnecessary deaths.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is, in its very best moments, a compelling descent into darkness and bloodshed that highlights the very worst elements of human nature, but which at the same time presents an enjoyable adventure filled with clever puzzles, breathless stealth sections and stunning environments. There’s a sense of scale to some of the game areas, even the indoor cave systems, that’s at times breathtaking. I mean, ultimately, you’re funnelled to where you need to be by the assault course-like routes, but there are some truly mesmerising vistas on offer along the way.
When the credits rolled on a genuinely emotional ending, I wanted to keep going, to hit the tombs I missed and gather up all the trinkets I’d blown past – or maybe jump straight into the New Game + mode – which is a testament to how playable it is. It doesn’t get everything right, but it’s still one of the most exciting and surprising campaigns I’ve played this year. Perhaps the story could have gone darker still, could have taken us to that place it almost, almost showed us, and it comes close during the third act, but ultimately the ending left me satisfied but hungry for more – even if I’m still just a teensie bit concerned for Lara’s mental state.
Challenge tombs are superb distractions
Script and voice work are spectacular
Breaks its own immersion at times
Enemy AI and variety aren't great
Some fiddly camera moments