After two instalments in the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, one of gaming’s most prolific and well-known female protagonists is back for another action adventure blockbuster. Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal have attempted to close out this chapter of Lara Croft’s young life and bring her arc to something resembling the swashbuckling tomb raider that made her so iconic in the PS1 era. In doing so, they’ve created a compelling popcorn game that engages the player without trying to reinvent the wheel.
Picking up with Lara and sidekick Jonah on the trail of the evil organisation Trinity, this latest adventure shifts the focus to ancient South American mythology. Players will spelunk their way through beautifully rendered jungles and tombs inspired by Mayan and Incan culture, on a rollicking adventure that mostly sticks to the tried and true formula of games of this ilk: a magical McGuffin artefact gets stolen by an evil military group who want to use it to take over the world and the heroes need to get it back. If you have watched an Indiana Jones movie or played any of the Uncharted games, you won’t find many plot surprises here. However, the strength of the aforementioned media was in their ability to take cliché and breathe life into it via memorable and relatable characters and dialogue. Unfortunately, Shadow of the Tomb Raider misses the mark in this regard.
If you were a fan of the original two games in this rebooted series, you’ll certainly find more of the same here. The familiar routine of open ended stealth combat, followed by linear platforming and light puzzle solving still makes for engaging gameplay, but is also starting to show its age. This leaves weight on the story to elevate the experience. However, the work hasn’t been put into the dialogue or fleshing out the motivations and arcs of these characters. The voice actors certainly turn in some admirable performances, but the script is exposition laded, overly serious and begging for a dose of self-parodying humour.
Despite the initial game in the reboot trilogy starting strong, with a young and naïve Lara forced to hone her survival instincts, the developer seems to have failed to find a proper place to take the heroine in subsequent games. Speculation that Shadow would be the missing link in the transition between young Lara and the veteran tomb raider of the original games is mostly quashed. In the first act, Lara makes a crucial decision that leads to the deaths of hundreds of people. The player might think that this event is an attempt to reference the uncomfortable colonialist subtext underpinning the character, or that the guilt resulting from this event would remain a key theme throughout the game. Perhaps our heroine would need to learn a valuable lesson about the cloudy nature of morality inherent in her career path, leading her to become the jaded, plundering anti-hero we know and love. But the game mostly discards this arc in favour of a happy ending that leaves Lara as she started, just with less demons and more room for sequels.
It’s a shame, because the game is certainly impressive from a technical standpoint and it’s a pleasure to set its various systems in motion. The Amazon setting is stunning in sections. Excellent facial animations in cutscenes and solid particle effects and random debris everywhere when exploring are technically impressive. The hub world areas have large amounts of NPCs all moving around their various cycles at once with no lapse in performance, even on a non-PS4 Pro machine. However apart from the bright and beautiful hub worlds and a handful of set pieces, the game favours a dark and dirty aesthetic for most of the combat and puzzle sections. This makes sense regarding the narrative, as our hero is exploring centuries old tombs and becoming a stealthy one-woman army. However, it doesn’t change the fact that most of the game is spent in miserable and poorly lit levels, cluttered with barely visible interactable items and enemies. The survival instinct mechanic is back and you’re going to need to spam it to keep track of the plethora of black clad mercenaries and what direction they are facing to remain unseen. When you think of what its blockbuster contemporaries like God of War or Spiderman have accomplished this year with a more vibrant colour palette, you may find yourself wanting to escape from the muck of the jungle.
Perhaps we have been spoiled by the recent surge in quantity and quality of open world games of late, but Shadow’s gameplay, which worked quite well in the first two games of the franchise is starting to feel dated here. The frequency and diversity of the combat sections has been toned down in favour of more climbing and puzzles. Normally this would be a positive change, as the strength of this series has been in its sense of exploration and discovery. However, the combat sections here are the primary source of player agency in the game, offering a varied range of tactics in large open areas. By contrast, the climbing and puzzle sections, while visually impressive to watch, are quite linear and require little lateral thinking. They mostly amount to just pushing the stick in the right direction or pressing a combination of switches in the right order. I would estimate that perhaps 70% of the game is made up of either forced slow walking as a pretence to mask loading or dump exposition, moving around an area spamming the interact button to pick up resources, or the climbing and puzzle sections. When you add that up, that means that only about a third of this 15-hour campaign is spent feeling as though you are actually playing, which isn’t great bang for your buck.
While not a problem exclusive to this franchise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opts to include the almost obligatory RPG-lite elements so common in action adventure games of late. Some players may enjoy earning XP and sculpting Lara into the warrior of their choosing, but personally I always find these mechanics feel tacked on when out of the context of a dedicated RPG. Despite loving God of War earlier this year this mechanic bothered me there as well. Upgrading a character’s stats can be a very rewarding experience when done right. However, I think it has become a crutch for developers and an easy way to pad out a game’s length with busywork that doesn’t contribute to a refined and enjoyable gameplay experience. When there are enough resources present to simply upgrade your character through all the skill and weapon upgrade trees in a single playthrough, this process feels more like a grudging obligation rather than an interesting tactical adventure. If you spend any amount of time exploring the challenge tombs or completing the optional fetch side quests, Lara will be able to become a jack of all trades, removing the need for much strategy in combat. I would have rather that the developer spent more time tweaking the balance of gameplay and enemy difficulty, because the base set of stealth focused combat mechanics is quite refined, and compelling enough to sustain the gameplay on its own.
If it sounds like this review is relentlessly negative, it wasn’t my intention. This latest Tomb Raider is not a badly made game by any stretch of the imagination. The money and talent put into have assured that it is at least a beautiful and engaging spectacle, in the Michael Bay-esque sense of the word. As a game made for mass market audiences to have some simple, summer blockbuster fun for 10-15 hours it will almost certainly be considered a success. If that is what you are in the market for, you might want to pick it up, especially if you were a fan of the previous two games in the franchise. But it is, at least from my perspective, a rather soulless and at times even tedious game to play. Ultimately, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a cautionary tale about how best to present a classic action adventure game to an increasing literate gaming audience. I can’t help but think that if you want to play the best iteration of this kind of game, you should just pop in Uncharted 2 again.
Review by Dylan Cook
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