Tomb Raider has been a stellar franchise ever since the reboot happened a few years ago. The development team has found a way to make Lara relatable, heroic, and an all around amazing character. Shadow of the Tomb Raider continues this trend, and Lara is now at the peak of excellence.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a game that has literally been building up for the last two titles, and it truly feels like the culmination of all we've seen so far. Lara is a strong character, ready to face fear in the eyes, and explore the world around her. Right off the bat we can see that Lara has changed due to her experiences with previous adventures and she’s become a little more selfish. This is a trend that is apparent throughout the entire game, Lara putting what she wants first, and it’s something that helps drive danger her way.
This aspect is really enjoyable because it makes the story seem authentic in a sense that Lara caused the problem, either intentionally or not, but she’s trying to be “more” than she is. Which is something her character should do considering the previous two adventures she’s had. She has this experience and now she feels she can survive anything. The cost of her selfish actions are something to be reckoned with, especially as she puts her close friends in danger.
While the story has this new powerful character approach, Tomb Raider as a whole seems to have the same basic formula all three games have followed to this point. The opening sequence is a perfect example because if you lay it next to the first or second game you can see how the sequence is trying to replicate what came before. Lara's in a tight situation, escapes with a quick time event, a big environment reveal, and ultimately Lara is injured and stuck in some far off place with bad guys infesting the world around her.
This is a template they've created to tell a compelling story and it has done so, successfully, three times (include this title). Shadow of the Tomb Raider rides the rails, while throwing small twists at the franchise. Anyone new to the games will be blown away by stellar storytelling, and amazing breathtaking visuals that made the reboot so iconic. Even returning fans will be thrilled with the return of Lara to see how she has evolved, with both previous games playing an important part in her characters development.
The issue with the formula is simple; it’s old. Being a huge fan of the reboot means I’ve played this before and can see when the game is trying to hit specific points, and the mechanics remaining mostly the same. The reboot was a fascinating take on the franchise, and perhaps new titles should keep trying to be cutting edge in the department in some way. Shadow of the Tomb Raider fails to do so and instead plays it safe by sticking to what works.
That’s not to say some new ideas didn’t shine through. Shadow of the Tomb Raider finally lets us be a stealth lethal Lara that we have been craving. Letting Lara dive into the environment is simply amazing in every aspect. Hiding in mud or trees to avoid, or escape, enemies is thrilling every single time it happens. Looking at groups of enemies and finding a strategy to get through them is brilliant. Lara’s bumbling attitude even plays a great part in being a human weapon in the wild.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider also isn’t simply following the road map either, instead the game excels in showing the pinnacle of the franchise in all areas. Yes we’ve done this before, but it wasn’t this good. Everything is bigger, everything seems to have some importance to gameplay, and it’s an experience that is going to make you not want to the put the controller down. There is just something about these Tomb Raider games that makes you not want to stop playing.
While the game is tossing some new mechanics in our direction, mostly stealth oriented, a lot of it doesn’t feel fully developed. For example the stealth mechanics are great in a small approach, but on a wider scale you can see that it doesn’t really expand outside of your immediate danger zone. There were times where I was screwing around and running around the place, only to realize an enemy was roaming around with me, within view. At that point I could then be careful and take him out, but it didn’t really matter since he wasn’t paying attention anyway. This mechanic extends to all aspect of the new gameplay. Running away from enemies only requires you to get out of view, hide, then from there you can simply narrow your field and take out enemies one by one. Most of them wont pay attention to you, even if you are within reaching distance of them and making a lot of sound.
The game has a wonky AI system that plays a part in all aspects of gameplay, new and old. For example there were multiple times where I was attempting to figure out a puzzle and leaped to a ledge, only for Lara to not reach or grab anything. I tried multiple times, nothing. So I tried other things before I went and tried again, this time Lara simply grabs the ledge and the puzzle completes. It’s a rather odd thing to happen, especially when I had Lara literally climb over holes in walls (instead of into them) like they were not even there.
It’s a matter of figuring out if you need to die to reset the puzzle, or if you are simply doing something wrong, and this becomes frustrating the further you go. Enemy AI is very similar. You could get through a zone rather easily, not being seen, and escaping only to make a minor mistake and have to restart all over again, but this time it’s different. An enemy that normally never spots you suddenly has a wider range of vision, so your route no longer works. The game has an odd luck based aspect to it because of a mechanical flaw in development.
There are also other minor areas where the game has expanded, but isn’t quite there yet. For example Lara is supposed to be extremely smart, and the game has put a lot of effort into characters talking in different languages, but Lara never does. If she were to flip between languages, perhaps mid-sentence, it would make her feel so different. I have also not been a fan of collecting random items in the franchise, and the game simply expanded on this by adding more crafting and more things to collect. A lot of side quests also send you searching for items too, and don’t really add anything of value while doing so.
I wish that these concepts were a little more fully baked because they are so thrilling to use. The added stealth mechanic to the game really does add a whole new experience to everything. Instead of simply solving puzzles when the game wants to throw a tomb at you, we instead get to do it 100 percent of the time. Every enemy encounter is a puzzle, every stealth area is a puzzle, and this is what Tomb Raider should feel like.
By doing this, Lara as a character feels not only extremely intelligent, but also a blood thirsty hunter. She’s putting every skill she has acquired and is taking revenge on enemies that have cost her a lot of pain. We can see her grow, to become this beast that is simply thrilling to watch and play. Every aspect of gameplay compliments her as a character. Yes some of the dated mechanics can hold the experience back, which is why I was hoping they could step away from the formula, but it doesn’t harm the game in a way that is worth noting.
However, by following this formula one thing becomes extremely clear, the developers had time to make other areas of the title above and beyond good. Tomb Raider has always had pretty level design, the snow levels in the previous title are seriously my favorite looking levels this generation, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider takes things even further. Every part of every level looks absolutely stunning. The crowds in town areas, the mountains, the jungles, every area feels like it comes to life and no matter where you go there is insane detail to everything.
The tombs are absolutely beautiful and to top it all off, the level designs are incredible. I mean this from both a gameplay perspective and a functional perspective. Tomb’s having moving parts that work in a believable way. Then the gameplay aspect has areas where you feel like you are outsmarting the game by finding ways through, but perhaps the game was designing to make you feel good.
Then there are the puzzles themselves. I’ve said that the entire game feels like a puzzle, which means the actual puzzles need to be even more extravagant and they truly are. Tombs come together like puzzles, and most of them give you this “ahh ha!” sense of feeling. You might get a little frustrated at times trying to figure out the intricate parts to them, but it’s totally worth it because they all give you a sense of accomplishment. Some tombs even seem to play respect to the previous titles, giving some seasoned fans a bit of an advantage in figuring them out.
Overall this is a game that has been building and it sets itself up nicely as being the next step in Lara’s adventures. We’ve growing with Lara. In the first title we empathized with her, we saw her kill for the first time and felt the impact, and now we get to see her be ruthless, experienced, and somewhat selfish. This idea is great, it’s a new take, and it makes her an interesting character. We can also see how her actions are affecting her, and potentially setting up her demise in a future title. This is Lara at the top of the food chain, and it’s going to be a hard fall down, it’s what the franchise needs.
The game does a fantastic job of adding new concepts in gameplay, taking Lara in a new direction, and crafting some of the most brilliant puzzle adventures to date. Sadly some missed steps hurt Lara’s adventure, keeping the game in check and not allowing it to be a perfect experience.