Who is Lara Croft? What defines the "Tomb Raider"? These are tricky questions to answer. Like many video game heroes from the 90s, Lara Croft wasn't exactly overflowing with personality or complex emotions. She existed as a one-dimensional avatar of the player, albeit one with a posh British accent and a nerdy teenager's idea of an attractive physique. Later iterations of the adventuress provided some additional flavour along with extra polygons, but it wasn't until Eidos Montreal and Crystal Dynamics rebooted the whole narrative with 2013's gritty Tomb Raider that anyone really bothered to reflect on the psychology that might define a relic hunter, one comfortable with confronting and inflicting violence in the pursuit of saving the world. As Lara learned of mystical powers beyond the realms of rational science, she also learned how to survive when faced with violence and cruelty of both the natural and human worlds. Rise of the Tomb Raider continued this journey of discovery and conditioning against the harsh realities of Lara's destined profession. According to the marketing, the intended purpose of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is to finish this origin story, completing Lara's coalescence into "the Tomb Raider" — competent, self-assured and deadly. These three words could be used to describe many aspects of Shadow itself, even if Lara's final form is ultimately less compelling than many of her action-adventure peers.
Lara's third journey since the reboot starts strong. Her relentless quest to find some sort of closure regarding the death of her parents and her dogged pursuit of the shadowy organisation known as Trinity leads Lara to an impulsive action that has apocalyptic consequences. Her shock and grief manifest into an even more intense desire to track down Trinity, even at the expense of her own safety. Her faithful friend Jonah gets more of a starring role this time around, acting as a foil to Lara's damaged and frantic ego. Their conversations during the Mexican and early Peruvian levels are smartly written and convey a stronger emotional connection than we've seen in the series so far, and this is helped by a wider and more realistic range of facial animations.
It was also a smart move to put Jonah into the action for longer; in the first few hours Lara travels, fights and puzzles with Jonah at her side, meaning that there are plenty of opportunities for us to see Lara's viewpoint challenged by a friend compared to her largely solo adventures in the last two games. It's a shame that Jonah once again falls back into an off-screen supporting role soon after you arrive in the main Peruvian settlement, and the mid-section of the quest feels a little flatter and less emotionally engaging as a result. Happily the pair get one or two more emotional moments together in the late game, softening the jagged edges of a rushed and lacklustre final confrontation with Trinity's forces. The clash of several factions in the final assault run feels almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider, with only a switch in colour palette to distinguish the two.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn't the prettiest game released this year, but that's only because there has been some stiff competition. It's an impressive audio-visual cocktail even on a standard HD television. The settings of the previous two Tomb Raider games have at times led to some bleak and washed-out scenery with only a scattering of local animals to add any kind of dynamism. In contrast, the Peruvian rainforest is teeming with vivid and noisy life around every corner. It's the first time in the series that simply taking the time to wander the world feels immersive. Helping that immersion is the inclusion of populous human settlements throughout the game. Rather than a grubby group of survivors standing around in a dark mood, Shadow's towns feel more social thanks to larger crowds interacting with Lara and each other more frequently. You can stop to speak to more individual citizens and the game's side missions provide more insights into local culture than we've seen before in the series. One negative point is the game's underwater sections; while it's certainly accurate that the rivers and pools of a jungle would be muddy and indistinct, it's unfortunate that this realism makes diving under the surface a lot less appealing than staying on dry land.
It's especially a shame because the underwater traversal has been massively improved. In fact, moving about above and below the water in the jungle feels smoother than ever in this third iteration of the rebooted series. The basic mechanics are largely the same, but there are far fewer frustrating moments where climbing axes fail to connect or Lara decides to leap off in the wrong direction. This makes the new traversal additions much more fun to use than one might have anticipated. Rappelling from walls feels so natural and appropriate for an adventurer that it's a wonder we lived without it before, while the scattered moments of ceiling traversal add an extra thrill of danger to the laborious task of dragging yourself out of a cave with the axe. When underwater, players finally have a full range of movement in every direction, with improved reactivity to diving and rising. Admittedly this only brings Tomb Raider's underwater traversal up to par with games released half a decade ago, but it's a welcome improvement nonetheless. Unfortunately it feels like the developers were a little too excited to make use of the new swimming mechanics — there are far too many underwater sections in the main quest line, with very little of interest happening while the player is down there. Other dramatic set-pieces are more entertaining thanks to the context of some catastrophic natural events, but on the whole there are far fewer memorable set-pieces than before, which is disappointing.
The lack of set-pieces is likely down to the emphasis given to stealth in this adventure. Sneaking quietly through the jungle to take down enemies is definitely more satisfying than ever. Areas of cover are much easier to identify and Lara reacts more fluidly to being in and out of cover, and the jungle provides new ways to hide including the use of mud to hide Lara's skin, to standing in undergrowth covering a wall. Although cover-based shooting is still an option, most combat arenas are clearly designed to encourage slow and tactical stealth gameplay. Messing up a stealth approach and having to switch to open fire felt genuinely disappointing, which is a testament to how satisfying the sneaking has become. Even so, the balance feels off — a Tomb Raider adventure doesn't feel quite right without lots of noisy, death-defying stunt-work.
While the Challenge Tombs haven't really changed much in terms of length, pacing or modes of interactivity, they do feel a little more deadly and threatening in keeping with the game's darker tone. It's a shame that the new threats still amount to traversal obstacles — it would have been more of a thrill to include some Indiana Jones style puzzles in which an incorrect answer could lead to a grisly end. Still, the puzzles are complex enough to be satisfying without being unbearable. The new difficulty options in the game are very welcome for anyone trying to tailor their experience; you can individually tweak the game's combat, exploration and puzzle difficulty between easy, medium and hard. The default "Normal" setting still felt like the more comfortable balance overall but being able to shift the difficulty down in certain sections, particularly in a post-game mop-up of collectibles or side missions, is a simple and effective way to promote accessibility and longevity. The hardest mode features a kind of perma-death in which any fatal failure will reset you back to the last campfire you visited, which will likely be a welcome adjustment for those looking for a greater challenge.
The full trophy list was not released during the review period, but based on the trophies that were unlocked players can expect a similar spread of collectible-hoovering, side-questing and finishing off the main quest on a harder difficulty. While the sheer amount of languages to learn and items to pick up still feels excessive, the richer world makes these tasks more appealing than previous entries. They are there for the taking for those willing to stretch out their play time, but much like its predecessors Shadow of the Tomb Raider remains a decent popcorn experience to enjoy while it lasts and then promptly forget about.
This game was featured in our Best PS4 Third-Person Shooters Available in 2019 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?
SummaryWhile technically competent and visually appealing, ultimately Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels like more of the same, albeit with some minor improvements. The world is more beautiful and the stealth is more satisfying, and accessibility options mean that different players can decide if they want a puzzling adventure or a straightforward action experience. If players are satisfied with the series so far they will have no trouble enjoying this latest adventure, but for a game that was pitched as the final leg in "becoming the Tomb Raider," Lara Croft's journey still falls short of a true evolution. With a decent origin trilogy behind us, we're looking forward to a bolder and brighter future for Lara beyond the shadows of her past.
- A beautiful and rich game world
- Some great character moments
- Well-crafted difficulty customisation
- Traversal and stealth features hugely improved
- Satisfying Tombs and Crypts
- Flat in the midsection, with a rushed ending
- Still not getting a real sense of Lara's personality
- Not enough bombastic set-pieces
- Underwater sections outstay their welcome
The reviewer spent approximately 18 hours in the game, completing the main quest and all optional Challenge Tombs. The trophy list was unavailable at the time of writing. A digital code was provided for the purpose of this review.
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