A heartbeat grows ever louder. Engines splutter, a storm howls, alarms pierce the air and Jonah’s voice cries out in fear. “No!”.
Fade in… on Lara Croft – adventurer, tomb raider and, at this moment, our impromptu captain for a rather turbulent, sweary and not-entirely-successful flight to Peru. Buckle up folks, because we’re going down, down, down. Down, into the jungle below. Deeper, into a series of caves and caverns that give the game an awesome sense of verticality. And deeper still, on at least some level, for a period of some serious self-reflection. Welcome to the jungle. ‘Fun and games’ are very much TBC.
It’s a thrilling, cinematic and smart re-introduction to a heroine who we were last told, at the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, had “a plane to catch”. And it’s part of an opening section of around 45 minutes that grabs your attention, establishes the tone and delivers a taste of all the best elements of the subsequent game. That 45 minutes is, in my view, pretty much gaming perfection. However, our ill-fated flight is not really where we spend it, as we quickly jump back two days to Cozumel in Mexico, to the day of the dead, and to where the ‘end’ might just have begun.
Speaking of beginnings, back in 1993 a small team at Core Design began working on a new idea that would go on to become one of the biggest franchises in gaming. As a Sega guy, it was a series that I ‘knew about’ more than actually experienced, only completing The Last Revelation on Dreamcast and dabbling in a couple of other instalments to mixed success. 20 years, 10 main games, two movies and two full reboots later, Tomb Raider (2013) re-introduced me and the world to a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. Critics praised it, lots of people bought it but it was not universally loved by fans.
I, however, did love it (or, at least, I enjoyed it a lot). As a big fan of this kind of cinematic, relatively linear single-player game and as an Xbox owner during the last generation, I’d been glancing over jealously at Uncharted and waiting for something similar to come along on my console. I carried little baggage or expectation either – based on my limited experience with the previous games. I didn’t mind that this was a different kind of Lara, the retconning of her origin story or the absence of the dual pistols. To be honest I didn’t even really notice that there were pretty much no tombs involved.
And so I bought the 2013 reboot on the Xbox360 and really enjoyed it, though it was perhaps just short of true greatness. Moving on to Xbox One and tempted by a bargain and the relative shortage of other similar experiences, I then picked up the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, on the cheap and felt it was another good step forward and a solid 4/5. And now, as a proud owner of all three consoles and thanks to the brilliant Xbox Game Pass, I get to play the new game as part of my subscription. No money down. Which is good for me, though it’s still not really clear how good it is for the developers.
Which leads me to my recent playthrough of Shadow of the Tomb Raider (which I’m just going to go ahead and call Shadow from here for the sake of my word count). It’s the concluding act of that trilogy that started in 2013 and sees Lara on another epic quest, tracking down another ancient artefact and tangling once again with the dastardly forces of Trinity. The stakes are as high as ever, the tone even darker than before and with this version of Lara continuing to find out just what makes a tomb raider.
In the 2013 reboot, Lara found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and doing what was needed to survive; by the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider she was ready, willing and able to take the fight to Trinity; and now, in Shadow, she’s going to destroy the world. Wait, what? Are… are we the baddies?
Because, heading back to the game and our short stop off in Mexico, this is definitely how things seem. Having come to terms with death and mortality in the snowy mountains of Siberia, it transpires that Lara might soon get to test out these new feelings on a rather grander scale. After following Trinity into an excavated temple, she seizes a ceremonial dagger from their clutches only to trigger the Mayan apocalypse along with no shortage of angsty self-doubt. As this all happens within the first 30 or so minutes of the game you can probably guess that’s not the end of the story (and rest assured that it’s a spoiler-free zone from here on in) but oh Lara, you are right – “what have [you] done.”
From a gameplay perspective, what impresses most during this opening section is the clever introduction to the mechanics of the game and the range of activities that you’ll be performing over the next 20 hours or so. We get to explore, sneak, fight and puzzle before triggering an action-packed sequence showing off both the impact of Lara’s actions and some of the highlights of this iteration of the Tomb Raider franchise.
That action is kinetic and spectacular as you rush your way through stunning scenes of destruction until, hopefully, emerging out the other side. It’s won’t win over any converts from those who see the reboot as an inferior Uncharted clone but it’s an exciting and visceral sequence that gets the adrenaline pumping and raises hopes for what is next to come.
Which is a shame, because what comes after that is a bit of mixed bag to be honest, foregoing the urgency and variety of the opening act with a series of much more separate, delineated experiences. In the immediate aftermath, we head back to the plane, then into the jungles of Peru for a much slower, more survivalist experience. Then it’s on to the first of the now-familiar hub areas for a series of specific missions and fetch quests before the pace picks up once again. Sure, we’ll encounter all the gameplay types from that great first hour again but rarely in such a seamless and joined-up manner.
Like in the previous entries, this journey will be interrupted by encounters with plenty of hostile wildlife, Trinity goons and a variety of other threats that I’ll avoid going in to for risk of more spoilers. However, in the main, these are to be dealt with through a combination of stealth and gunplay that is fine but still, in my opinion, the weak point in the series.
In my experience, these encounters usually descended into one of two patterns. Where I could, I’d hang back in the shadows, making use of the plentiful cover to avoid detection and the various vantage points from which to despatch my foes. The jungle and the game itself both feel like they are made for you to play this way, offering up various tools to wreak havoc from afar and solid mechanics that help you disappear when needed.
There are elements of Rocksteady’s Batman games in the way you can hide up high, picking off enemies as you go but sadly without the excellent melee combat for when things inevitably go south. There is variety in how you can do this, though I personally found there to be a few too many options in this respect. In my experience, this made the controls slightly cumbersome and resulted in the fairly regular occurrence of me firing off, say, a fire arrow when I was intending to craft something a little more poisonous and discreet. I guess I can’t entirely blame the game for that.
But unlike, say, Arkham Asylum I found the combat a bit of chore when things did go wrong or on the occasions when I needed to go in all guns blazing from the start. Like the previous games, Shadow has sections that descend into a cover-shooter that is perfectly serviceable but rarely ever entirely fun. In my experience encounters tended to be a fairly predictable routine of shoot, hide and heal with a good few deaths thrown in there too, particularly against the more agile or solid of enemies. I also spent more time than I’d care to admit lunging at someone with a pickaxe before learning that this particular move had been removed from Lara’s arsenal since the previous game. Which is odd.
Thankfully, these encounters feel dialled back a bit from the previous instalments, with a strong pivot towards exploration and, yes finally, more puzzles and tombs! Many of these are still optional but are worth seeking out, providing a change of pace and a satisfying test compared to the more recent series entries. The nine challenge tombs in particular contain a number of large, multi-stage puzzles, often focused around a distinct mechanic or skill. They offer a great atmosphere of isolation and an awesome sense of scale and were some of the highlights of my roughly 24-hour experience with the game. I would have happily played more of them.
I don’t feel quite the same way about the other reasons to go off the beaten path. Crypts were mostly a short, fun distraction but rarely worth making a special journey for. Side missions in the hub worlds tended too much towards the ‘go here, fetch that’ padding of so many open world games and opportunities to converse with locals rarely offered up the repartee or insight I was hoping for. Collecting items and crafting things from felt more like an obligation than an adventure. However, as this is a real pet hate of mine anyway, your mileage may vary if you like that sort of thing.
And finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum, those spectacular action set pieces return along with at least one level of enforced stealth. Both are good fun despite the inherent risk of instant death and a few particular issues with the stealth level that we’ll get to later. The action set pieces in particular, are up there with the best in the genre – nailing both the feeling of exhilaration when you get it right and, usually, the recognition that it’s your own fault and not the controller when getting it wrong.
Looking beyond the moment-to-moment gameplay, one of the best things about Shadow, is the ability to customise your difficulty using a combination of three factors. As well as three default difficulty levels you are able to tweak individual settings for combat, exploration, and puzzle difficulty. Want fewer visual clues about where to go next or more peril when grabbing ledges? Turn up the exploration difficulty. Want more hints and tips for puzzles and a superhuman version of Lara’s survival instinct? Turn down the puzzle difficulty. Want tougher combat so you spend more time fighting goons instead of tomb raiding? Well, each to their own I guess.
This ‘raid-it-your-way’ approach isn’t just a smart response to gamer feedback but is also the perfect way to have the game appeal to the widest possible audience. It’s such a good idea that it’s the sort of mechanic you hope other developers adopt and feels particularly relevant given the current debate on videogame difficulty inspired by tough as nails titles like Sekiro. It means that my experience of Shadow can be different from yours and we can both have the tomb raider game that we wanted. Well, in theory.
Because there are also some real frustrations that kept me from loving the game and now keep me from recommending it more strongly. 10 to 15 hours of content like that opening sequence would have been a straight up five stars from me and place Shadow as a strong game of the year contender. Instead, it felt like the game was missing a true single focus that would have set it apart. It makes this a fun but flawed also-ran, full of frustrating contradictions and a sense of what could have been.
Take the Trinity storyline and impending apocalypse for example – both of which demand a sense of urgency that’s entirely at odds with the desire for exploration. ‘Avert the Apocalypse and destroy Trinity’ but before you do that, take time to go crafting a new outfit, talking to local residents and help a young boy find his dice!
It’s a pacing issue as much as one of character integrity. Games like Uncharted, which the reboot series is clearly taking ‘inspiration’ from in some ways, are so good because they stay in control of how you spend your time – building momentum when needed and cooling you off with some limited exploration when it suits. It’s what is present in that opening sequence too and what’s missing in all but one of the later sections.
Or take the customisable difficulty and ‘Metroidvania’ exploration which grant the game an appealing sense of freedom. However, then contrast this with the decision to remove the axe kill from the previous games – something that feels like an entirely artificial restriction given the tools Lara that possesses and the idea that this is a continuation of her journey.
Or, in another example during one later level (and in videogame cliché No. 473) take the fact that Lara loses access to her weapons and is forced to use stealth to avoid a series of guards. It’s actually quite a fun sequence and followed by some great action but the limitations that are placed on you feel arbitrary and limiting compared to the relative sandbox that has come before. Worse still, if you kill these guards you cannot pick up their weapons – in direct contrast to what happens in all other areas of the game.
It’s one of the ‘game-iest’ moments that I’ve played recently and it stands out even more given the ambitions that the developer clearly has to make something more substantial in both tone and quality. Not long after this, we are treated to an absolutely fantastic marriage of action, visuals and sound that perfectly portrays the rage as it boils up inside Lara. It was so powerful that transcended gaming and made me feel it too. So, yes, I think the developers can and should do better than uncollectable weapons and arbitrary stealth.
On the other hand, one thing I can’t fault is the game’s presentation – which is as good as anything I’ve played. During that sequence I just mentioned, there’s a short cutscene where Lara rises slowly from some water framed by flames and with the score building to a crescendo. It’s particularly effective coming after some tragic news and before an extremely violent gunfight and a brilliant insight into Lara’s mindset at the time. It was genuinely one of my favourite moments in the game – which is pretty special for a cutscene!
The sound effects throughout also deserve special mention with the jungle feeling entirely alive and gunfire ringing around your ears particularly if, like me, you are lucky and geeky enough to have a decent Dolby Atmos setup. Similarly, played in 4K HDR on the Xbox One X, Shadow is an absolutely stunning game. The level of detail is incredible and the jungle and other locations of the game look spectacular. The high dynamic range helps cast the eponymous shadows in just the right places. Subtle glints of sunlight peek through the trees and bounce off wet surfaces. Walk out of the jungle and into dazzling sunlight and you may just start to appreciate why some civilisations worshipped it.
And yet, for all the praise I can give and the fun that I had, Shadow of the Tomb Raider still had too many moments that didn’t quite connect with me. It’s a sequel that takes a few steps forward but also a couple of steps back. Where I was expecting refinement, issues still remain and they are less easy to overlook after three bites of the cherry. It’s a collection of ingredients from various five-star games but where on whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts.
Those ingredients do occasionally come together to deliver something special and unique but, at other times, they remain strangely unsatisfying. A little bit (ok, a lot) of Uncharted plus a pinch of Assassin’s Creed. A dash of RPG here, a sprinkle of cover shooter there. A satisfying dollop of classic tomb raiding is great but it can’t make up for the fact that parts of the base still feel under-baked.
So Lara may never be the same tomb raider from the late 90’s or early 2000’s – but times change, gaming changes and perhaps the character needed to change too. She may not be the hero some fans wanted but by the end of the new trilogy, at least Lara knows who she is and what makes her strong. The games, unfortunately, are still working that out.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on Xbox One and PS4. The game and full reboot trilogy are currently included in Xbox Game Pass.
In my roughly 24 hours with the game, I completed the story and all challenge tombs while dabbling in various side quests. I achieved a 71% completion but never did find that kid’s dice.