After over two decades in the video game limelight, Lara is one of the oldest and most storied characters to date. She’s been through more design evolutions than Nintendo’s entire cast of characters. Now, she has one of her most difficult adventures ahead of her: improving on a great formula and making it feel fresh.
When Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix put out the first of Lara’s new adventures in 2013, simply titled Tomb Raider, it was a revelation for the character. Right from the beginning, Lara Croft had existed in this strange nexus of being cartoonishly badass and cartoonishly sexy. Sexy and badass are hardly mutually exclusive, but the cartoonish aspect became more and more limiting over time. The same way that James Bond became a parody of himself in Pierce Brosnan years, Lara Croft too became harder and harder to find new material for. Tomb Raider overwrote all of that, giving us a take on Lara that grounded her firmly in reality before facing her against the fantastic. This Lara was unprepared for what she had to face, but we watched her grow. Crystal Dynamics perfected the formula in Rise of the Tomb Raider, giving us a more mature Lara and a solid, fun game.
With Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the novelty of this new Lara has worn off. That’s not news – it’s just a fact of sequels. And that’s where Eidos Montreal’s job gets tough: Keeping this Lara that we’re now used to interesting and compelling. She has to continue to change.
And that, really, is what has me most interested in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. How Lara Croft will continue to grow and evolve.
My hands-on time with the game, then, leaves me in conflict with what the producers are saying in interviews. The creators and actors talk in breathless words about how intense Lara is this time around. She’s the hunter instead of the hunted. She’s the villain instead of the hero. She becomes the Tomb Raider we know and love. But the game doesn’t really feel all that different. There are tweaks and changes, but they’re pretty minor in the grand scheme. That’s easier to stomach in something like Assassin’s Creed where we’re getting a brand new character to play with in every game, but it sticks out more in a series like this where we’re watching one character grow.
For example, Lara can be a stealthier character. It’s possible to get through a lot of combat in the game without engaging in open combat and even when you do get into open combat, stealth is still an option. If you attract attention, you can use that to your advantage. I was spotted by an enemy and dropped out of sight. As he climbed the wall to come and find me, I was scrambling down, around, and up after him. He didn’t make it. It’s fun, but again, it doesn’t feel that terribly different. It felt like something I’ve already poured well over a hundred hours into at home.
Some games don’t demo terribly well, and I think Shadow of the Tomb Raider might be in that category. The game played well and looked good, but it didn’t show me much that felt fresh, and I think that’s because the really interesting stuff is going to be with the story and with Lara herself. The writers on the previous titles have done an incredible job with Lara so far of making her believable and entertaining. I have faith that they can keep that up moving forward, and that makes Shadow of the Tomb Raider instantly one of my most-anticipated games of this fall, despite the demo leaving me a little cold, and that’s why I’ll be picking it up when it hits PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on September 14.