Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft has descended to a dark place.
That’s probably obvious from the title of Crystal Dynamic’s newest entry in the decades old franchise, in which Lara delves deep, both literally and metaphorically, with a new emphasis on heavier themes and subterranean exploration.
While pushing the series in new directions thematically is a welcome change, the over-reliance on trite modern gameplay conventions keep it from sustaining the daring heights of its most ambitious prospects. That said, it’s also an unbelievably gorgeous game, with some truly inventive puzzles, and some of the best set pieces and exploration the franchise has ever offered.
For the four of you out there who are unfamiliar with Lara Croft’s many escapades, the Tomb Raider franchise consists of (often subpar) gunplay, environmental exploration, an emphasis on supernatural elements, and plenty of creative puzzles.
Oh, and occasionally you’ll raid tombs.
Crystal Dynamics attempted to bring some relevancy and perspective to the character of Lara Croft in 2013’s reboot, but her essential characteristics are unchanging. She’s a young, wealthy adventurer who rejects a life of luxury in order to uncover the treasures of the world, find out who murdered her father, and expose all manner of world ending plots.
In Shadow of the Tomb Raider though, she is the catalyst for the world ending devastation, after making a cataclysmic mistake deep in the jungles of Peru. This allows for an intriguing examination of Lara’s regret and guilt, and though it’s not as thoroughly explored as it could be, it’s still an interesting twist to the usual formula.
Other than the light twist on Lara’s assumed heroism, the rest of the Tomb Raider formula is completely intact.
Virtually no risks were taken from a gameplay perspective, and though systems have been tweaked and improved, anyone who has played a recent Tomb Raider (or Uncharted for that matter) will know exactly what they are getting. I've always enjoyed the fairly straightforward exploration, the extraordinarily detailed environments, and the simplistic, if enjoyable crafting elements, so this was fine by me. For those who didn’t enjoy the last two titles however, it’s doubtful SotTR will change your mind.
You’ll explore exotic locales, you’ll delve into trap filled caves and crypts, and you’ll make daring leaps over mawing chasms with only a timed button press between you and a grisly death. You’ll hunt animals, and people, you’ll solve puzzles, and you’ll engage in very light crafting and skill upgrading. It’s a fun gameplay loop, with a quite a few systems working together, and though they’re all fairly shallow, they’re also polished and engaging.
While exploring the dense jungle, Lara will find copious crafting materials, ranging from scrap machinery used to upgrade weapons, to plants for health and enhanced perception, to animals to hunt for their hides to upgrade her many outfits. Crafting requires a simple button press; a hardcore survival sim this is not, and though some find it annoying to have to pause in the middle of a crazy firefight to craft more fire arrows, it’s a fun way to inject some survival elements into an otherwise fairly straightforward action title.
A critical component of the Tomb Raider franchise is the puzzles, and on this front, SotTR delivers. Though they’re still utterly ludicrous in terms of realism, Crystal Dynamics found an excellent balance of challenge here. Most of the puzzles, especially later in the game, were perplexing, but rarely frustrating. I wasn’t able to find them all, it’s a big game, and no doubt there are some serious head scratchers hidden deep in the dusty crypts and forgotten jungle tombs, but the ones I did encounter were a well-mixed balance of difficulty and reward.
Welcome to the jungle
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is not an open world game, but it is the closest the franchise has ever come, and that is one of its greatest strengths. Though most of the areas Lara explores are fairly linear, they are brought together in an elegant hub that rewards exploration with a plethora of side quests, challenge tombs and crypts you’ll have to work to discover. There’s quite a lot here, including a New Game+ mode that will no doubt benefit anyone trying to 100 percent this title.
And it’s a pleasure to explore, because the absolutely stunning environments are the best thing about Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Other than a few iffy character models, it’s one of the most beautiful games of this generation, and one of the most meticulously crafted landscapes I’ve seen in any game. From the depths of the flooded crypts to the heights of the jungle canopy, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is relentlessly beautiful.
Nowhere is this more clear than when you uncover the legendary lost Incan city of Paititi. Not only is it breathtakingly gorgeous, but also thoughtfully designed. I never felt lost despite the enormous scope of the beautiful valley, and I never grew tired of backtracking. Not necessarily for the familiar gameplay, but to see what lay through the next cave, or over the next verdant horizon.
Also, you can pet llamas so...GOTY right here.
I played SotTR on a PS4 Pro, in high resolution mode, and had no issues with framerate. You can also play in standard HD with a higher framerate, if that’s your preference, similar to 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Other than a few small glitches, and a few missed button presses I’m adamant weren’t my fault, I had almost no performance issues, which is quite satisfactory for a pre-release build of a game that looks this good.
I’m looking forward to seeing how it looks with ray tracing enabled on PC, but even as is, it’s an indisputably gorgeous game, and should provide a visual benchmark for years to come.
A Shadow of a story
Unfortunately, the clearly evident love and care put into crafting the environments did not extend to the narrative elements. Tomb Raider has always struggled with predictable, cliche filled writing, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider does not rise above this despite some noble intentions to do so.
This is a much darker story, with more violence, more death (a grisly example springs to mind when Lara has to literally crawl through a pile of corpses,) but the same lack of depth.
There are a few moments that stand out in the dreary narrative, particularly a well-done flashback where you play as a young Lara exploring her childhood home, but for the most part it’s utterly predictable, and lacks any narrative inventiveness. It strives for the somber exploration of death and vengeance found in God of War, and the pithy playfulness of Uncharted, but instead finds itself in a self-serious, over-ambitious in-between space that does a disservice to Camilla Luddington’s stellar performance as Lara.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also suffers from the same issue that so many modern video game titles do: trying to tell an interesting and serious story while bombarding the player with reminders that they're very much playing a game. Nothing shatters emotional investment like dropping into a firefight, murdering dozens of guards, instantaneously crafting arrows, and seeing a colorful pop up that you’ve earned a new skill point. While no means unique to Tomb Raider, this dissonance between arcadey gameplay and attempting to tell a dark, compelling story has yet to be resolved, and this game suffers from this issue more than most.
There’s no reason Tomb Raider has to have a great story, the first titles certainly didn't, but the emphasis on the narrative in the marketing implies it was considered a selling point. Lara is an interesting character, and though there is some exploration of that potential, particularly in her guilty conscience, the not entirely two dimensional villain, and her friendship with her stalwart best friend Jonah, most of what’s here you’ve seen countless times before, and that’s disappointing.
Tomb Raider is at its best when you’re solving puzzles deep underground, desperately trying to survive treacherous set pieces, or sneaking through the jungle like a death dealing jaguar, taking down foes with quick thinking and stealth. Though there can be some frustrating trial and error in these segments, usually you’re able to avoid gun battles by using Laura’s extensive skill set.
Which is why it’s so frustrating when the game forces you to take part in mandatory firefights. Not only is it ridiculous, there’s not a drop of originality in the way they play out. The enemies are simple bullet sponges, there are red barrels galore, and the lack of interesting weapons only highlight how out of place these segments are.
They add nothing to the gameplay, and feel very much like a relic of the last generation, where visceral shooters like Gears of War ruled the roost. Lara Croft is not, and should not be Marcus Fenix. The inclusion of these unfortunate segments detract from the charm of the stellar exploration, puzzle solving, and stealth that makes the rest of the game so compelling.
Third time’s the charm
Of the three recent Tomb Raider titles, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the best.
It’s bigger, more beautiful, and more ambitious than its predecessors, and has more of everything that makes those games such enjoyable titles. It’s also held back by the same weaknesses. The unfortunate writing is the biggest offender, and the forced emphasis on gunplay when that’s always been the weakest part of Tomb Raider’s gameplay doesn’t help.
But there’s so much Tomb Raider does well, and that’s never been truer than in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The stunningly gorgeous environments are a joy to explore, and the level and puzzle design still stand tall among the best in the industry. The sense of exploration is absolutely vibrant here. That elusive feeling of joy when you climb an unclimbable mountain, solve a demanding puzzle, and finally discover the treasure Lara’s had her eye on, that never gets old.
That freeing sense of exploration in the face of insurmountable odds is what Tomb Raider should be about, and SotTR serves it to you in abundance on a beautiful, if slightly rusted platter.