Shadow of the Tomb Raider preview: A bigger, badder Lara
Lara's latest adventure showcases a new level of action-packed Croft-manship.
I'm a masochist when it comes to my video games. The harder the better. The more at stake as I live on the edge, the greater the rush and the happier I'll be. The holes in my walls and the pile of snapped controllers over there may not fit completely with this narrative.
In my three hour hands-on with Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I somewhat foolishly put myself to the test in a game I'd never even touched before. You see, the general idea with any insane difficulty is to attempt it on your secondary playthrough, when you know what death is around the next bend and you have a handle on the combat and upgrades system. Heck, a lot of developers lock out the toughest modes in their New Game menu from the get go, forcing you to earn your stripes.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn't do this with its Deadly Obsession difficulty. It's more than happy to reap the deaths and anguished howls of newbies and veterans alike.
Here's what you're staring down the barrel at: in terms of combat you'll get no health regeneration when the bullets start to fly, ammunition boxes are rarer which means you'll resort to stealth kills and desperate attempts to bludgeon gun-toting enemies with a climbing axe. Meanwhile your enemies will have increased health, will do more damage, shall locate you faster and can't be pre-marked to let you track their movements around the battlefield. Wonderful.
The simple act of raiding tombs has been made tougher as well. The handy visual aids that subtly guide you along the correct path are stripped away and if you make a sketchy leap the "press X not to slip and die" mechanic will have a smaller viable window. Worse, you'll get zero puzzle hints, no survival instincts to pinpoint precious materials, and just using your base camp to upgrade yourself and your gear will now sap said resources (fuel is required to start your fire).
But here's the real kicker. The game will only save when you use that base camp. No checkpoints. No second chances if you screw up a jump or run out of bullets in the climactic gun battle that will usually cap off a forty minute expedition. You will die. You will shriek with rage. This is what you signed up for (and once a Deadly Obsession file has begun the difficulty can't be ratcheted down).
I learned all of this the hard way. I have to say that playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider like this is an adrenaline plus experience. Even though it was the opening level I had my heart in my throat all the time.
The action picks up with Lara in deep at an undisclosed location – if I had to guess I'd say Mexico somewhere. The young Croft is competing for an artefact with the nefarious Unity corporation hot on her trail. It's all sorts of dangerous and looks absolutely sumptuous in 4K HDR.
After a bit of preamble the training wheels come off and it's time to infiltrate the tomb of the goddesses Ix Chel and Chak Chel. That involves a daring climb across a moonlit, impossibly high sea cliff with nothing but your axe. Puzzle platforming remains as satisfying as ever and the engine has (somehow) been made to look extra gorgeous since Rise of the Tomb Raider. Even on a strict time limit I was compelled to stop and gawk at the detail in the caves and partially submerged tomb beyond.
By happy chance, taking the time to smell the roses allowed me to spot a few thorns and stay alive in Deadly Obsession. Shadow of the Tomb Raider assumes you're a veteran of the two previous adventures and is therefore happy to throw utterly lethal tripwire traps your way. If you jog through any tunnel you might miss the option to slice the wire. End result: a Lara shish kebab and twenty minutes of progress down the toilet.
Sadly, ten minutes after that point I flubbed a leap over a chasm dotted with weight-shifting platforms. The contextual icon to secure a handhold asked me to press X. I momentarily forgot I was playing on Xbox One and pushed the DualShock 4 equivalent of an X button (which would be the A button here). Lara's death shriek still haunts me.
I'm happy to say that a good 50 minutes of unbroken tomb raiding happened from here on out. The controls feel tighter than the last game, especially in the super intense gun battles with Unity goons. I loved using stealth walls (read: vine covered surfaces) to inch along and cover-hop right up to mercs before silently eliminating them. Baddies communicate and coordinate much better this time around too. Going in guns blazing will cause elite spec ops units to chopper in and hunt you down with superior firepower and better ballistic armour. Pro tip: camp on a corner with your shotgun. Even on Deadly Obsession it's OP as hell.
I'd also recommend you don't conserve your ammo in the opening level as you're going to lose it all soon enough. I'll not spoil what happens in Mexico, but suffice to say a Pandora's Box is opened. It's an event that causes Lara and Jonah to change tact, head off to Peru and subsequently become castaways again.
Interestingly, this new situation highlights a worrying change in Ms. Croft – it's clear that she's an adrenaline junkie who loves the thrill of the chase but increasingly blocks out the damage her actions cause to herself, Jonah and the wider world. I think digging deeper into this heroine and excavating her destructive nature shall prove to be more fascinating than any tomb in the game.
Whatever the case, in the span of three hours Shadow of the Tomb Raider managed to burrow its way into my heart. I'm hooked. I'd already carved out all of September to play Marvel's Spider-Man but now those plans must change. Looks like hours devoted to sleeping in that month will have to be redistributed into game time. Like I said before. Masochist.
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