Archaeologists are some of our favorite characters in popular culture. Academics who explore places hidden from our everyday, venturing far out of our comfort zones. The original Tomb Raider games took the Indiana Jones template and rewrote it, combining the explorative nature of that film series with the sexy quippiness of James Bond – in an ultra-sexy hotpants-wearing package. 2013's Tomb Raider reinvented the character of Lara Croft, turning her into a smart but deeply inexperienced character who knows more than most people ever will about the past but had a ton to learn about the real world. The sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, grew Lara up a little and took us to a new place – from the rain-soaked beaches of the South Pacific to the bitter cold of Siberia.
As Lara travels once again in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, this time to the muddy jungles of Peru, the creators are trying to make her world bigger, and to give Lara more internal conflict to deal with. What we end up with, though, is a game that is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, and one that stumbles as it tries to push Lara forward.
The Toughest Adventure Yet
I want to be totally realistic here – this is definitely the toughest game for Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal so far. 2013's Tomb Raider was an absolute revelation. We were seeing Lara as we'd never seen her before, in this huge open world and dealing with things she'd never dealt with. To some, she was no longer Lara Croft. To many others, though, Lara Croft was finally a character we could get behind.
Rise of the Tomb Raider was a refinement of that idea. The open world was better, the tombs were more interesting, there were more characters, and there was just plain more to do.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider, then, has the tough task of standing out against a revelation and a refinement. It's neither the rewrite of the original nor the maturation of the sequel. It's a tough job, and I admire the team that created Shadow of the Tomb Raider for taking on such a task, because they have a lot of work to do to keep our attention this time around.
Archaeologist or Thief?
One of the things that have progressed throughout the Tomb Raider trilogy is the presence of people in the games that Lara can talk to instead of shoot. I'd say that's overall a good thing, but in this case, it ends up feeling really weird and problematic.
When Lara washed up on the shores of the Yamatai kingdom, the only inhabitants were shipwrecked cultists that had found their way the same way she did – by accident. None of those men were natives of the island. The supernatural enemies, the Stormguard, were literally undead. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, your allies were the residents of the small town of people living in the secret basin in Siberia. They were leftovers of an ancient Greek culture. The enemies were a combination of the invading Trinity soldiers and the Deathless Ones, cursed soldiers. In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara has traveled to Peru. Throughout her adventure she meets Central and South American people and eventually finds – what else – a hidden city. There, people live as if it was 2000 years earlier, without technology or modern tools. In addition to the Trinity soldiers, Shadow of the Tomb Raider features its own supernatural enemy.
With that in mind, what we have now is Lara – a well-meaning but obscenely-wealthy, white, British woman coming into this Peruvian village where you can dig through their boxes for "artifacts" and through their pottery for "salvage," while fighting a humanoid and clearly intelligent creature that looks like a less-civilized – read: "savage" – version of the out-of-time villagers in the secret village Lara has discovered.
It makes mechanics like picking up artifacts, which are really just the same as they were in 2013's Tomb Raider, feel strange. I'm imagining sitting in my apartment when a space alien comes in through my balcony, walks into my bathroom, and picks up my toothbrush and starts commenting on what it might've been used for even as I sit there. I feel like an invader in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, instead of an archaeologist. When I take an animal hide in the midst of being tanned for use as someone's clothing, I feel like a thief.
This is something that recontextualized for me everything I would do in the game. It may not affect your playthrough, but it felt really strange to me throughout.
One thing that furthered this is that I missed a setting in the options. There's a switch you can flip that will have characters speaking in their native languages throughout the game. I only discovered this after I'd completed the main campaign, so I'm not sure how much it changes in terms of the main story – if anything – but interacting with shopkeepers and villagers seems very different when they're speaking their own language instead of barely-accented English. I highly encourage switching this – and necessary subtitles – on early in your play session.
Theme Park Raider
A knock-on effect of the increased presence of "living" characters was that more and more, these games feel like theme parks. I've always gotten a sense of this from open-world and MMO-style games, but with Tomb Raider, it feels like everyone is just waiting around for me to talk to them. That has the effect of making the whole world feel like it's waiting there not to be found, but specifically for me to explore, at which point it'll reset and the next person can come in and "discover" it.
What's Actually New?
With a sequel, developers have to balance keeping the core of what makes the series what it is while still offering us something new. We've seen series break out from that, such as with the progression from Batman: Arkham Asylum to Arkham City, and the progression from The Witcher to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In both cases, we saw a relatively enclosed space open up to encompass a huge world and saw the gameplay change to embrace that.
With Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it doesn't feel like there's much new here.
The story and setting, of course, are both new, and full of gorgeous tombs, towns, and wilderness to explore, and with characters to meet and storylines to experience.
But what about the rest of the game?
The team's biggest focus seems to have been on making that comparatively big city work. Paititi, the hidden village, is the biggest hub yet in a Tomb Raider game, and it's big enough that I was still getting lost in it later into the game.
Unfortunately, what you actually do in Shadow of the Tomb Raider hasn't changed much from Rise. It's evolved, but it's mostly just the same thing with a wrinkle to it.
For example, in combat, stealth is a bigger part of play. If you played Splinter Cell: Conviction, you'll be familiar with the way it works now. Getting into open combat doesn't mean you can't play stealth anymore. If you can break line of sight long enough to dive into some bushes or put your back against an ivy-covered wall, you can surprise the guy that was chasing you just moments ago. You can hide up in trees and surprise enemies from above, too. It feels more proactive and less like a shooting gallery. It's actually really fun. You can cover yourself in mud and go after guys Predator style, but I was having a tough time determining what effect this actually had on moment-to-moment combat.
I wish more of the combat worked like that, though. When you fight supernatural enemies, for example, you never get the chance to get the drop on them. They're always getting you from across a chasm or coming out of a hole in the wall, and while I think it's meant to be scary, it ends up being kind of boring. It's just plowing through one enemy after another.
You're still working with the four-point weapon wheel that features Lara's now-iconic bow, a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle, each with its own specialized ammo. It's the same as it's been for two games now.
Exploration is equally unchanged. There's new stuff – you can climb on certain ceilings, rappel from walls, and there's a lot more emphasis on going under water. The team clearly put a lot of work into making Lara swim well, and it actually works pretty well. I don't think I've felt this good about swimming in a game since maybe Assassin's Creed Origins in 2016. There aren't many games where it's fun to navigate underwater, so that's an achievement on its own.
But all the climbing and exploration uses exactly the same design language that it has always used. I don't mind the white-painted ledges, but if I have to fire one more arrow into a post with rope around it, I'm going to scream. The same goes for the jumping puzzles where you're swinging on a pole, then leaping to a grappling point, swinging off, and then grabbing onto a wall.
It's not that it's not somewhat fun, it's that it's old hat by this point. It feels clunky, slow, and outdated. I'll admit that it coming out a week after Spider-Man isn't helping. I certainly don't expect Lara to whip around the jungle the way Spidey whips around NYC, but it feels a bit like going from riding a motorcycle to a tricycle with a squeaky wheel.
One thing that I'd had high hopes for was the addition of outfits with stat changes on them – making you quieter, giving you additional experience points, and so forth. You get your first one pretty early on in the game, but it feels like a half-baked idea.
First, shortly after you start collecting these outfits, you arrive in Paititi, where they insist that you dress in a traditional Paititi dress. The dress is cute, but you don't get a chance to mod it. If you put the moddable outfit on, people just won't talk to you because you're a scary future witch covered in murder weapons. You spend a lot of the game in this dress, and in a guard outfit, and not as much of the game in this one. There are other outfits you can put on if you've played the other Tomb Raider games and have saves on your hard drive, but again, these aren't moddable and provide not benefits.
So, you can play dress-up with Lara, but for only a very small segment of the game, and the effects make only a couple of the outfits feel worth it.
Like most of the rest of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the story is okay, but feels far less interesting – like the people behind it didn't really get what made Tomb Raider 2013 feel like such a big deal.
The story opens – this has been shown in previous demos – with Lara starting the apocalypse in motion. It was going to start anyway, but she blames herself. What the game wants us to believe is that Lara is this obsessive person who is so driven by her quest that she lets other parts of her life fall apart, but the story doesn't back that up.
She really is the only person who can stop the apocalypse in this game. No one but her and Trinity (the secret organization, not the Matrix character) are aware of this stuff, and they're looking for it just like she is, and would be even if she wasn't. So what's happening isn't her fault, and she's the only person who can help to stop it.
The villain is no more memorable than the strictly-okay villain of Rise of the Tomb Raider. He's another zealot driven by his belief that his view of the world is the correct one (#ThanosDidNothingWrong), while we of course are aware that killing millions of people is bad.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn't a bad game. It shows us a vibrant world filled with life, giving us an eye into a culture totally different from ours. It shows a strong woman surviving on her own terms. There are tons of puzzles to complete and things to collect. There's competent combat, and mostly well-crafted environments that are fun to navigate, even if I could do without seeing Lara impaled on spikes every time I make a mistake. If you only play a few games and Tomb Raider is one of them, you're probably going to dig what's up on offer here. Xbox One X owners will appreciate the return of options for high resolution and high-framerate gameplay, too.
But Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn't much more than competent, and September 2018 is not really the time for that. This game hits on the heels of Spider-Man and just weeks before Red Dead Redemption 2. It's competent, but its shortcomings beyond that feel especially apparent. For a fourth Tomb Raider game to work, the team needs to rethink what they have here again, because Tomb Raider is already starting to feel stale and rote. There's more life in Lara Croft, more legends to explore and more character development in store, but a fourth game like this isn't going to work. I spent over 50 hours with the original Tomb Raider, even buying it twice – on Xbox 360 and then again on Xbox One. I spent 56 hours with Rise of the Tomb Raider. Right now, my time with Shadow of the Tomb Raider sits at 19 hours – and I don't think I'm going to end up going back.
DISCLAIMER: We received a review code for Shadow of the Tomb Raider from the publisher and completed the campaign and a significant portion of the side content on Xbox One X before starting this review.