Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the third and final instalment in the origin story of video game heroine, Lara Croft.
The gritty, sometimes brutal reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise has been a hit with both new and veteran fans of the series alike. From the inception of the character that we know and love, through the tombs, trials and tribulations of love and loss along the way, to this moment when Lara’s formative journey reaches its climax, the Tomb Raider franchise is, in truth, better than it has ever been before. The standard has been well and truly set by Shadow’s predecessors, so how does the new game keep up?
Story has been the critical ingredient of the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise. The promise from the very beginning has been that, by the end of this third game, gamers would know the true roots of Lara Croft. The nature of this adventure to-date has been fast-paced, mature and full of excitement. First, Lara was tested during the events on Yamatai. Then, the villainous Trinity battled the Tomb Raider in Siberia, seeking to secure the “Divine Source”. Now, the rivalry between Croft and Trinity has reached its head, as the organisation seeks to obtain the Silver Box of Chak Chel; an artefact with the potential to re-forge the world. Think a slightly more sweary and bloody Uncharted game, and you will be along the right lines.
The duel to capture the Silver Box begins with a race to find its key, the Dagger of Ix Chel, in Cozumel, Mexico; a small but still far more populated setting than we have experienced in the previous games. Close on one another’s tails, Lara and Trinity traverse Cozumel, searching for clues as well as each other. Ultimately, Lara comes out on top, artefact in hand, but at great cost. This is where we meet Dr Pedro Dominguez; an antagonist whose calm and composed demeanour makes him a much more compelling candidate than those we have witnessed on the journey so far. What’s more, he seems to have a far greater knowledge of the powers at play when it comes to Mayan history and artefacts; a story point which is well developed in the mid-to-late game.
In the immediate aftermath to Lara and Dominguez’s first interaction, the stakes of the game become abundantly clear. A phenomenally-executed tsunami bears down upon Cozumel, leaving very believable and terrifying destruction in its wake. Adrenaline pumping, Lara must fight to survive against the odds once again. When the chaos dies down, however, we see the familiar anxiety and confusion of the new, young adventurer as she processes the destruction which she may well have unleashed. Fortunately, close friend and comfort-giver Jonah is on hand to get Lara back on her feet; and so our journey takes us into the rainforests of Peru.
With a view to not spoiling the story beyond the introductory beats of act I, the story which follows focusses on the lore and lives of the people of Paititi; a small group of tribespeople hidden away from the eyes and troubles of the modern world. Ideals clash between leaders of this land, with varied views being met with violent ends. The interests of Paititi find themselves in-line with the interests of our heroine, and thus the stakes of the quest at hand become all the greater still. Throughout the game, the story beats of Shadow of the Tomb Raider are compelling and engaging, keeping you motivated the plough on forwards.
The majority of the gameplay elements in Shadow of the Tomb Raider will feel familiar to players, provided you have played the previous games in the series. Climbing is back once again in a big way, however traversal of the game world feels smoother and more refined than ever before. Puzzles have also become a greater focus, harkening back in many ways to earlier Tomb Raider titles. These, too, are well executed and add something fresh to the experiences offered by the trilogy thus far. Some notable new additions this time around, however, are a re-worked skill tree and an improved system for combat; focussed heavily around stealth as opposed to all-out-warfare.
The new skill tree helps to make Shadow feel like the continuation of a story, rather than another reset along the way. Basic skills which Lara has learned in previous games, or that we can assume she should already have, do not appear on the tree, which instead focusses on improving upon Lara’s various abilities. These include upgrades such as never having to correct a landing when climbing around the game world, improving Lara’s survival instincts to better identify natural or man-made crafting materials in the world, or improving Lara’s abilities to heal herself or take down enemies, both unseen and unheard.
The alterations will feel very welcome for returning players, removing an element of repetition from the game in favour of underlining the fact that this game is about the protagonist’s progression towards becoming something greater; something formidable. The skill tree is not only in addition to, but in fact fully supports the game’s story, which makes it a much more worthwhile feature of the adventure game.
Stealth-based combat is also a welcome change to the way that Shadow of the Tomb Raider plays, compared with the previous two titles. When playing the previous games, combat could feel a little heavy-handed when considered in terms of the character we are supposed to believe we are following. Lara is not meant to be a proficient killer, not is she supposed to immediately feel that way inclined.
In Shadow, combat is utilised more sparsely, and it presented in moments where it feels a necessity. In these cases, the focus has been shifted onto taking down enemies unseen, with new ways for Lara to conceal herself from foes. The most notable example of this is the ability to cover Lara in mud, hiding her from the new thermal headsets that some Trinity foot soldiers are now armed with.
Combat ties in well to story in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as well. Whenever combat initiates, we often see Lara’s adrenaline amp up, leading to the killer instinct which began to define her actions during the first two titles. A key difference in Shadow to what we have seen before, however, is that immediately after each combat experience, Lara becomes visibly drained and troubled by what she has had to do. Cleverly, the developers behind Shadow have used a game mechanic as one of their strongest character building tools of the series so far.
In addition to these elements of gameplay, underwater play is back in a big way in Shadow and is worthy of a brief notable mention. It feels like it has been some time since we had effective underwater gameplay in a Tomb Raider game; at least any of real significance. The rainforest setting of Shadow has been used well to bring this element back as a staple of gameplay, in what feels like another transitionary design choice to bridge the gap from the Lara we see evolving into the Lara we all know.
Aesthetics & Immersion
It is no accident that Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes place in a setting of the calibre of the Peruvian rainforests. The rich history and ancient acidity of the area make it ripe for some good old-fashioned tomb raiding; something which the developers have overtly tried to bring back to the forefront with Shadow. Equally, Peru makes for a stark contrast against the series’ previous settings of Yamatia and Siberia. Indeed, from a development standpoint, Peru is perhaps the perfect choice for Shadow.
All of the environments included in the game, from Cozumel in Mexico during the introduction, to Paititi and the more modern life we see in Lopez’s Mission later in the game are stunningly beautiful. It is fair to say that, in a nutshell, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is incredibly well designed and put together. From luscious flora which truly looks real, to landscapes vast and clear enough to conceivably be photographs from the real world, the environments of Shadow of the Tomb Raider are about as good and immersive as they get in modern gaming. The world looks truly incredible.
Further to this, the characters of the game world look spectacular, too. With real-looking facial expressions, emotions and micro-movements during conversations and reactionary cut scenes, the characters could say nothing at all and their intentions and responses to events would be entirely clear to the player. It is a remarkable feat which has been pulled off again and again by the Tomb Raider development teams during this series, and Shadow is the pinnacle of that achievement. Of course, Lara’s hair looks excellent once again too.
Naturally, one of the real gifts in a setting such as the deep jungles of Peru is the use of modern lighting techniques to bring the game world and its inhabitants to life. Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s pallet is complimented heavily by the way that light falls on every feature of its ecosphere. Truly, the game world is magnificent to behold at every stage, and this is promoted further by the sounds of that world.
Outstanding voice acting and believable sounds for both nature and mechanical elements in the game support what the player can see and do along the way with artistic prowess. Indeed, it feels that every designer on the team worked closely with one another throughout the development process to complement each other’s work perfectly; from naïve NPC conversations to the sound of stone doors crushingly rolling aside for our protagonist to enter. Every emotion in characters’ voices is as believable as the way we see them express said emotions, and every corner of the world comes alive in a sensory wonder.
On the whole, Shadow of the Tomb Raider kept me playing from start to finish over the course of just two days; fully immersed in the world and story and thoroughly enjoying the gameplay experience. For me, Shadow is the second best game in the series; I was blown away by the first adventure, and although the second game was very strong indeed, I preferred the setting of this title over the last.
That being said, if such a thought process is needed to differ between a trio of titles so specifically, this speaks fully for the outstanding nature of the final installment of the trilogy and the series as a whole. I sincerely hope we get to see Lara’s journey continue in the near future as a fully-fledged Tomb Raider. If not, however, I am more than satisfied with the journey I have experienced in these three games along the way.