Shadow of the Tomb Raider review: Hand-Crofted with love and care
It may not be a perfect artefact but Shadow's stunning 4K fidelity, evolved combat and bold new adventure into the uncharted temple of Lara's soul will satisfy diehard fans.
Let's have a quick recap of the Tomb Raider series as if you're a complete newbie to it. Like you're a member of one of the lost tribes often depicted in the series – a stuck-out-of-time castaway who has somehow gone a quarter of a century without hearing about electricity, video games and the seventeen adventures of Lara Croft.
If you're squeamish this is not your game. Ms. Croft dies in spectacularly violent ways and even those of us desensitised by decades of video game violence will utter a "DAMN" every once in a while. If you suffer from crippling vertigo this isn't your game. You'll be asked to make jumps so suicidal they make the leaps of faith in Assassin's Creed look like sensible life choices.
If you think rare antiquities belong in a museum for the purposes of preservation this is not your game. Our hero is like a bull in a china shop when it comes to respecting undiscovered wonders of the ancient world. If you're a member of PETA this is definitely not your game. Lara Croft has flat-lined more miracles than ticks and tapeworms combined (but to be fair most of them have her on the menu).
Last of all, if you're frustrated by what I like to call boneheaded game logic – writing and mechanics that either feel cliché, lazy or just deliberately obtuse, because the designers wish to head in one specific direction rather than reward player creativity – then Shadow of the Tomb Raider is going to have you biting your controller.
Don't get me wrong with all of this opening negativity. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a sumptuous looking action-adventure that I think is well worth your time, but it's also a slave to some of the dustiest, most played out tropes in our medium. For starters, there's that ol' suspension of disbelief that's required when you scramble up and through an impossibly complex tower of cogs and camshafts that must be either powered by magic or is an ancient perpetual motion machine. Lara herself comments on the absurdity of these sites: "Still standing after centuries of earthquakes and storms".
I groaned in disbelief at my TV
There are other little fourth-wall breaking moments where Lara wonders about other oddities. Losing all of her gear (bar her bow) in the second level of the game, will force you to reacquire all your crap for the third time in this trilogy. Lara grumbles: "Why don't I pack all my things together?"
Admittedly, I thought being dialled back down to her castaway days of 2013's Tomb Raider was quite novel. But only the first time it happened in this game. Denying you your hard-earned and meticulously upgraded weapons becomes a sadistic hobby of Eidos. When I was hit with a complete arsenal reset for the second time – back down to nothing but my knife and harsh language – I groaned in disbelief at my TV.
And there's an insult to that injury. Between those two points in the story Lara arbitrarily takes it upon herself to "go native" with the local Peruvians by shelving her guns. Not because she's ever asked to but because... I don't know... self-protection with the most efficient tools available just doesn't feel fashionable all of a sudden. I actually laughed when there was a tragic, but utterly preventable death of a character due to a villain packing, you guessed it, a firearm. All because Lara was stuck in her tribal phase and you've been robbed of player agency for no good reason. And of course, she goes guns blazing seconds after it occurs.
This is classic, OG tomb raiding that's well worth strapping in for
After the second reset of gear, the "game logic" ratchets up to absurd levels too. For a good twenty minutes, I had to slice my way through about a dozen heavily-armed mercs using nothing but stealth and a sharp bit of metal (not a difficult prospect when you can effectively lure and daisy-chain execute seven enemies into being murdered on the exact same corner). But every one I downed was packing heat of some description. Hell, some dudes were wearing flak jackets, thermal goggles and had state-of-the-art assault rifles. Could I scoop up any of that gear? Nope. Ridiculous.
Those are all the bad things out of the way. For the overwhelming most part, Shadow stands as a great entry in a reboot trilogy that's been a breath of fresh air for this long-running franchise. First of all, I loved the South American settings – there's something so quintessentially Tomb Raider about lurking through deep dark jungles and the remnants of B.C. civilisations. You could easily lay a charge of cliché against this, what with riddles within riddles, hidden cities within hidden cities and the shadowy threat of guardians of either sub-human and or supernatural origin. But I didn't mind because this is classic, OG tomb raiding that's well worth strapping in for.
Mostly because it immerses you in no time thanks to an absolutely gorgeous engine and impeccably designed environments that are opulently lit and brimming with fine detail. There were too many moments when I put myself in danger of being shot or mauled because I just had to pause and drink in the artistry around me. I also lost way too much time slogging through Eidos Montreal proprietary mud and marvelling at the results. You can also tactically smear it on Lara, like Arnie out of Predator, to make her harder to spot by goons. It probably also has skincare benefits.
Other things I liked included underwater stealth sections involving lethal moray eels and roving packs of piranhas (a childhood fear of mine that had me on serious edge). I also loved that there's a lot more flexibility between stealth and guns blazing when on land. If one approach isn't working you now have a better means to break contact, obscure line of sight and adjust your approach in combat. In the old games once the jig was up an encounter pretty much had to be an assault encounter. Sometimes your best bet is to redistribute Lara up into the canopy in order to re-engage with the Eagle Talon move. It's brutal, to say the least – an arrow-based version of a Batman Arkham gargoyle takedown.
Speaking of highflying antics, I have to report that traversal has become a little ropey. And in an awesome way. There are some nauseating traversal moments where Lara uses a "grapple axe" move (think: a rope tied to her climbing axe) to solve insane gaps, plus you can rappel and wall run to your heart's content. I also got a kick out of using high positions in the tress with "fear arrows" – a hallucinogen based means to make one enemy go postal on his mates before committing suicide. Once again, this is pretty dark stuff for Lara. But the warning was on the tin, folks: Shadow of the Tomb Raider.
The fact of the matter is that Ms Croft has now transitioned from naïve survivor to hardened adventurer to, well, casual mass murderer whose obsession with the thrill of the hunt is becoming incredibly destructive to both herself and the entire world. The concept of taking things too far and the price we ultimately pay for our fixations is a fascinating direction for the character and I'm glad Eidos decided to explore the heretofore un-illuminated temple that is Lara's soul.
Expect some high drama moments between an increasingly myopic Lara and her long-time, loveable sidekick Jonah. And I appreciated that we're almost the villain in all this – Lara being reckless and not leaving good enough alone more or less tips the first domino in a potential apocalypse.
Watching her work through all that guilt is brave new ground for the series. But it has to be said that her secondary monologues and casual observations (to us the player) can be a bit too despondent and robotic at times. Not everybody liked her casual asides in the first game but I thought Camilla Luddington sold the fear and uncertainty of her situation – it was a fantastic performance. Now that Lara is a cold-as-steel veteran these feel perfunctory, monotone and don't really add much to the experience. Not a huge minus but worth a mention.
Challenge Tombs are bigger and deadlier than ever
Be that as it may, I loved playing this. It's a wonderful romp (or "concluding chapter of the origin trilogy") and I can't wait to take on more of the Deadly Obsession difficulty. It's a more or less checkpoint-less madman of a thing where one screw up can cost you hours of work. I got through the opening level before shelving it for later (due to time constraints) but my heart was in my throat the entire time. Props to Eidos for also making every other difficulty below it extremely customisable as well and anybody into tailoring stuff will love the slew of skins available that offer perk benefits beyond the cosmetic while also looking amazing (think: the sharp polygonal stylings of 1993 era Croft).
Even if you aren't into ludicrous challenges, I think there's a ton of other things to endear you to Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It is brimming with those big blockbuster moments of catastrophe that Eidos does so well and the Challenge Tombs are bigger and deadlier than ever. You're looking at some of the best-designed puzzles in the series entire; Eidos somehow manages to kick the gore up a notch, plus the combat and traversal have evolved in worthy new ways as well. This isn't perfect but is still some master Croftmanship that will easily sate 25-year diehard fans like myself while effortlessly reeling in a whole new generation of Raiders.
We reviewed Shadow of the Tomb Raider on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.
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