Reviewed on Xbox One. Copy purchased.
I’m going into this review swinging with punches… I mean puns. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is overshadowed by its two immediate predecessors.
The Tomb Raider series was rebooted for a second time with 2013’s Tomb Raider. I never really played the older games as a child, but I ended up loving the hell out of Crystal Dynamic’s take on the franchise. Lara’s characterisation and portrayal was powerful, and the story was both grounded and grand. Most importantly, the gameplay was thrilling.
Rise of the Tomb Raider comes out and does the good sequel thing; expands on its predecessor while also fixing its problems. It wasn’t quite as memorable as the first game – but that’s because the bar was set so high on that game’s island setting.
So now we have Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It’s basically the last two games, but nowhere near as exciting.
The plot sees Lara Croft and her friend Jonah attempt to stop Trinity – the paramilitary organisation from the last game – from acquiring a dangerous artifact. She takes it herself which triggers an apocalyptic event and then blames herself for it. Thankfully, she is still dedicated to this mission as long as the big, bad boogiemen in Trinity don’t get it. This mission leads her to the hidden South American city of Patiti. The queen of a tribe teams up with Lara to stop them and I stopped really caring after that because the plot became both boring and absurd.
The theme of Lara Croft “becoming the Tomb Raider” has overreached by this point. It should have been resolved in the first game, but Lara has barely changed at all after her post-traumatic stress disorder in the last game. A far more interesting plot I came up with would have involved Trinity simply trying to hunt Lara down. Not only would that go well with the ending of the last game for those who recall, but then some real stakes would have been introduced.
Stakes, that’s it. That’s what made the first game especially more engaging in the story department. Lara and her friends were shipwrecked on a mysterious and dangerous island, with everything out to kill them (like Australia eh?). The game became infamous for its graphic depictions of Lara’s deaths when the player messed up, but the intense violence played an important role.
Storytelling is not this game’s strong point, and while the gameplay is as good as ever, it’s a bit samey. This third-person semi-open world action-adventure game sees the player once again controlling Lara Croft as she explores lush environments and solves puzzles in underground tombs.
Combat was a big part of the last two games, especially in Rise, but has been heavily reduced in this title. Initially, I was happy when I heard the game would have less combat, but the game still has a system in place where you earn XP to upgrade Lara’s weapons and abilities. There’s not a lot of opportunity to use the upgraded weapons and abilities in combat, so players get a ton of toys they won’t use much. Speaking of weapons, it’s pretty much the same options as last time, but less. You get the same four main weapon types: bows, rifles, handguns and shotguns, and less interesting ways to use them.
There is more opportunity for stealth this time. Just like the last two games, there are many different ways to take down enemies. The new stealth elements allow for Lara to cover herself in mud to sneak around enemies and hide in greenery. Players can of course just run and gun it, and I appreciate that choice.
Focus has shifted from combat to traversing the environments and solving puzzles in tombs. The visuals are incredible; this is one of the best looking games I have seen. The developers know this, as the camera often pans when encountering a new area, with Lara quipping “incredible”. The massive gorges look especially dazzling as Lara dives into the water. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much variety this time; even the island from the first game has snow sections, whereas this city of Patiti looks mostly the same throughout. The level of darkness during some of the tombs can be frustrating at times. However, the sound design is excellent, with percussive music bringing the new environments to life.
Something else that’s been reduced in a big way is the action sequences. The best parts of the previous two games were these action movie-esque set pieces where Lara was running and jumping, avoiding hazards as the terrain was collapsing around her, or a building was burning down whilst a wave of enemies were trying to hunt her down. I waited forever for these set pieces, and there are unfortunately only a few of them, which was highly disappointing. There’s way more swimming though if you’re into that. I thought these sequences were okay, with Lara surviving in water way longer and swimming faster than before.
Lara can complete side missions with folks in the Patiti towns, but it’s not very fun. It seems like the developers wanted to create a living, breathing town, however the last thing I wanted to do was listen to family squabbles from these town folks. They say rather useless things too. In fact, there was a moment when a townsperson was saying something uninteresting, and then Lara says “thank you for the story”, which immediately reminded me of that scene from The Room.
After three games, I’ve gotten sick of all the collectibles too. Hitting the right stick over and over to activate survival instinct became annoying in the last two games, and it’s bothersome here.
A welcome new feature is the ability to customise the difficulty of three aspects of the game: exploration, puzzle solving and combat. For example, this allows players who are good at the combat to raise the difficulty, but to also get hints for puzzles and where to go next. It can be changed at any time in the options menu too.
If you haven’t played the reboot series of Tomb Raider, go out and buy Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition or the second game as they are dirt cheap by now. As for returning players, this game didn’t advance the franchise, and feels like a game they had to make to finish the trilogy, whether or not they had any good ideas to make the investment worth it.