For some of us, a new entry in the Tomb Raider series is always reason to celebrate. It’s a bit like going home, if you’re someone, like me, who started her adventures with Lara Croft all the way back in the age of the original PlayStation, and opened up the adventure game along with the console on Christmas, only to have impaled poor Lara on the first spike trap they didn’t see coming. Longtime fans of the series are a big part of why the series was brought back after a long silence and a few missteps later in the original series run (Looking at you, Angel of Darkness). Even though it was evident from the first Tomb Raider trailer that it would be a sort of reboot/origin story, I was just as excited as each game released. Both Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider were enjoyable, gorgeous games that got me excited to play the role of Lara Croft again. They had their missteps, sometimes focusing too much on combat, or exiling most of the puzzle play I loved so much to side challenges, but I’d still count them among the highlights of my gaming years each time they came out. Shadow of the Tomb Raider, at least for me, gets rid of some of those stumbles and gave me more of the thrill I remember from exploring ancient ruins with Lara than I’ve had in years. In short: it feels like coming home.
The story this time around focuses less on how unsure Lara is with the whole tomb raiding business, allowing most of the focus to be on the oncoming apocalypse Lara accidentally started. In my opinion it’s good to be focusing elsewhere, finally, besides having Lara still struggling with her destiny, I do understand where they were coming from trying to create more of an origin story for Croft than she already had, it’s a good thing to be focusing on ancient mysteries and tombs finally. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider Lara is still growing into the person she’ll become, and in fact, often coming into conflict with companion and friend Jonah over her decisions to chase that next archaeological high rather than be more directly involved in the problems of the cultures of the indigenous people around the sites of exploration. In a wise move, they don’t delve too far into this, as the gameplay itself creates its own sort of dissonance with a message that’s meant to encourage social responsibility. Sure, Lara’s trying to right a wrong she’s done (the classic “Whoops, I started an apocalypse whilst trying to keep a priceless artifact safe from bad guys” dilemma) but in righting it there’s going to be a stack of bodies a mile high. Still, it’s a solid tale, with well written characters all around and some satisfying twists near the end that had me cheering.
As far as gameplay itself goes, we’ve grown back up into the Tomb Raider I know and love. Tomb Raider the reboot, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, for that matter, both focused much more on combat than puzzles, leaving much of the head-scratching riddles aside for the Challenge Tombs, feeling a little more like Uncharted than classic Tomb Raider. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does away with this, with puzzles being a constant presence in the main story campaign, and a few Challenge Tombs even being compulsory for completing story mode. In truth, there’s so much good puzzle work in Shadow of the Tomb Raider that Challenge Tombs seem unnecessary save for extra bits of fun down the road once the story’s been completed–and that’s a really good thing, as the majority of tomb raiding shouldn’t be relegated to just challenge tombs. There’s so much more exploring and so much more time spent with Lara exploring, puzzle solving, and scrambling from cliff to cliff.
The controls are the same as they’ve been since the reboot, and feel familiar. It feels good to play Lara, and leaping, diving, scrambling, shooting and climbing all feel completely natural and consistent. Weapons themselves feel pretty good, and for the most part enemies don’t feel too much like bullet sponges. The exception here is with the pistols, which while certainly not meant to be as powerful as rifles, shotguns or even bows, feel almost useless, even with upgrades, since they seem to simply irritate baddies rather than put them down.
Base camps allow for save points and upgrades, both to Lara’s skills and weapons/inventory as they have always done in this trilogy. They also allow you to change outfits, and if you’ve purchased other Tomb Raiders in the past (at least on Steam) or have purchased downloadable or special editions of the games, include the ability to play as a variety of different Laras, even including options to go old-school fantastic polygon girl or Angel of Darkness gritty lo-fi. You’ll also acquire and craft outfits throughout the game, with some giving special benefits to things like hunting, XP or focus. Tools run the gamut, with the standard climbing axes, knives, and later rope ascenders and even, new for Shadow of the Tomb Raider, overhang ledge climbing gear, which allows you to sort of Spider-Man your way across the ceilings of vast caverns.
The treacherous tombs and caverns you’ll be exploring contain all new types of enemies as well. Some of Trinity’s mercenary soldiers come equipped with heat-sensitive goggles that require a stealthy application of jungle mud to thwart, and a few new aquatic foes lie beneath the surface of the waters you’ll traverse—of which there are a lot. Since the reboot Lara’s swimming is much easier to handle, but I still found myself frustrated when under the sea, so to speak. This was mainly due to the presence of piranhas. Up on the surface, Lara can take on monkeys, jaguars, snakes, and men with guns. Underwater, she can punch an eel right in the face to dispatch him. But one wrong turn, one stroke too close to the piranhas and it’s certain death for you. You can’t swim fast enough to escape them once they’re on you, and it seems they’re impervious to stabbing, shooting or any other form of maiming to get their teeth out of your squishy bits. This requires you to hide, and is more reason than ever to make sure to spend your XP on the underwater breathing skills early on.
Some enemies, though, made Shadow of the Tomb Raider shine. My favorite memories from the Tomb Raider days of yore were the moments I was good and truly terrified—whether because, in the absence of soundtrack, a tiger had jumped out of the foliage to try to eat me, or a statue I’d been puzzling my way on and around had decided to stand up and fight. Shadow of the Tomb Raider gives us another taste of that again, with a seemingly Descent-inspired group of foes that continued to strike fear in me, both due to the sounds they made as they approached and their twisted visages.
That’s another wonderful thing about Shadow of the Tomb Raider—even when it’s disgusting, it’s gorgeous. All of the latest entries into the trilogy have been impressively gorgeous. Jungles are lush and expansive—tombs fittingly gruesome, dripping with mud, blood and bones, and temples shimmering with gold and treasure. Such care has been taken with every little bit of the appearance of this game, with some art even paying fan service to those of us who’ve been with Lara for years (Look for a nod for long-time Lara fans after the story mode credits roll, too.) There’s even a section of the story dedicated specifically to Lara’s childhood, with its own sort of charm, plenty of good puzzling gameplay and lots of lore that stays true to what the originals told us about the Croft family and their stately home.
It’s my opinion that the third time’s the charm with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Though the first two games were both fantastic, the developers have really found the heart of what made and makes Tomb Raider great this time—focusing less on combat and more on the grand adventure of it all. This time, at least for a Tomb Raider veteran like myself, I felt like I was just picking up where I’d left off, on the same type of epic adventures that’d drawn me into the Tomb Raider series in the first place, just in Ultra High Definition. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows.
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