Welcome back to Rock Paper Shotgun. This is Matthew, but for the last few days I’ve been pretending to be Lara Croft in Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. And she’s quite a fun person to pretend to be. It means I get to climb around and almost break my neck a lot… Get to drop on people’s heads like an incredibly violent rain drop… And occasionally stare deep into a llamas eyes. I mean look at the chewing animation – it was someone’s job to animate that jawline.
Almost makes me feel bad when I later set his friend on fire so I can turn him into some new shoes. But enough about them – llamas are only a tiny bit of a big game. Steam tells me I’ve played for 25 hours, and my map is still covered with things to pick up. Having spent all this time in Lara’s shoes – both the llama variety and not – I thought I’d offer some thoughts on what did and didn’t work for me.
If you watched my earlier preview video you’ll know that I hoped this was a return to a more classic style of tomb raiding – one more interested in archaeological puzzles and getting Lara’s hands dirty in the mud. I am less interested in exploring the psychology of an adventurer in the making, so I’m not going to talk about the story. Of course, before we wade into the critical mud – pardon the visual metaphor – a few things to point out: I played the game on PC, but without the day one patch, so I can’t say for sure if any graphical kinks in this footage have been ironed out.
And secondly, if you find yourself enjoying this video as you go along, why not subscribe the channel for more like it. Because when you hit that sub button it makes me pull this face… And when you don’t, I pull this face… So let’s get on with it… I spent an unhealthy amount of my 25 hours doing what you can see right now: standing in front of ancient structures and panning the camera over their grand designs. Sometimes I did it hanging from a rope, because Lara can do that now and it affords you a pleasant 360 degree freedom. It might chafe a bit, though. For me, discovering vast historical buildings is what Tomb Raider is all about. I want to emerge from a dank cave to see a giant structure looming above me. I want to be filled with a sense of awe and wonder. I mean, that’s what these things were built for.
To fill us with the fear of whatever gods they were built to honour. And it’s something the series hasn’t totally delivered on since the reboot. The last two games featured a lot of military installations and boring concrete bunkers. And who wants to be exploring a bunker when they could be looking at something built out of fire and spikes and giant pendulums? Man, there is a lot of history out to kill you in Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. One minute you’re cracking codes inside a fiery chamber and minutes later you’re standing on this mad creation, trying to work out which one of its hundred pointy bits is going to impale you next. What was the ancient civilization trying to achieve by building this incredibly dangerous thing? Just to play the numbers game for a second, setting the adventure in the Peruvian jungle puts us deep in tomb country – there are probably more ancient buildings in this game than the first two combined.
I love how the story takes Lara through proper Indiana Jones-style Inca death traps before taking a detour into Dan Brown territory – but I won’t spoil that though. Then there are the challenge tombs, which are still as comically obvious as they always were. Nothing says ‘nothing to see here’ like a giant golden skull. But they’re great – covering a huge range of styles and puzzle types – and give you powerful character upgrades for beating them. They’re allegedly optional, but they’re the thing I make a b-line for when I rock up in a new area – if only to see what the art team have magicked into creation. Pleasingly, the optional crypts get some love, too – in Rise these were quite boring caves you scrabble about in to find treasure, but here they’re more like mini challenge tombs, each with an idea of its own.Er, even if that idea is: Lara gets killed by a giant stapler. I’m impressed at how often the simple path from A to B takes Lara through a new gauntlet.
Much has been said about the new trilogy being a origins story for Croft, how she became the Tomb Raider we know and love. Now, whether she has grown as a character over three games is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that the people who make these games have grown as Tomb Builders. I loved the worlds Crystal Dynamics made in Legend, Anniversary and Underworld; and Shadow is the closest the new trilogy has come to those. That’s intended as high praise. Of course, the level designers have a few more tools at their disposal – namely water, thanks to the reintroduction of proper swimming, and a burst of height from Lara’s climbing rope.
The grapple axe got a brief showcase in Rise, but gets a better outing here, weaving into Lara’s usual mix of rock climbing, wall scrambles and ledge shimmying. It also allows for preposterously dangerous bits like this, which is definitely where I would have turned around and let Trinity take over the world. It serves more of a role in the drama than anything else, allowing for these cinematic reveals where you lower Lara into evil looking pits to find horrors at the bottom. It’s solid, but I’d like to have seen more rappelling outside the obvious platforming – maybe used to find more hidden areas, which doesn’t happen that often. Failing that, more bits where Lara falls, because it reminds me of Alan Rickman at the end of Die Hard. I was more nervous about the reintroduction of swimming, as I really don’t like drowning in games. In fact, here’s a statue of me finding out that a game has a swimming bit. Shadow of The Tomb Raider’s diving is mainly about the stress of trying to reach that next pocket of air, but the game is gentle with its demands, and the skill tree lets you buy bigger lungs, or something equally dumb, to last even longer.
Without the threat of seeing Lara go blue in the face you’re free to appreciate what swimming does add – namely, scenes of staggering underwater beauty. Shadow of the Tomb raider is a great looking game as standard, but the sight of light slicing through the watery murk really makes me want to go oooh. Which is a terrible idea when you’re underwater. The game also has this magic bit of world design that means most journeys tend to end with a huge swan dive, which is probably the most iconic move Lara Croft ever had. It feels like a nod to the fans, as well as giving you an excuse to splash into lovely lagoons. I wasn’t as sold on underwater stealth sections, where you hide in weeds to avoid piranhas or moray eels.
Hilariously, if piranhas find you it’s game over, making them more deadly than any human enemy you meet in the game. At least you’ve got a button-mashing chance against the moray eels. If the price of enjoying the wet world is sharing it with fish bastards, I can live with that. If fish are the deadliest creature in the game, what of those that walk on two legs? Let’s talk about combat. One of the side effects of focusing so much on puzzles and platforming in the tombs is that you spend more time using grey matter instead of shooting it out. This is a weirdly combat-light game. Especially as so much of the lead-up focused on Lara as this supreme predator – I mean, look at all the explosions and exciting violence in the trailer… I appreciate that you’re not going to make a trailer where Lara very slowly turns a dial set to exciting music, but it still came as a surprise at how little fighting she actually does. Combat maybe accounts for 10 percent of the game – which is a big step down from the 2013 reboot and Rise.
Part of this is down to the story – you’re pushing into unoccupied territory, so it doesn’t make sense for loads of goons to be waiting. But even so, the fights that are here are often hours apart. For large portions of the game Lara doesn’t have weapons – she puts them away when she’s in the hub areas where most of the game takes place. When fights do happen they’re contained in fixed arenas. You know when you’re in one because suddenly there are boxes of shotgun ammo everywhere. Just don’t ask how they got into this untouched tomb. Having spent the last two games complaining about how much action there was, I’d actually like a bit more in this one, as the combat is fun in a very pulpy, cartoon-y way. Lara is ludicrously overpowered, letting her vanish into muddy walls and bushes and then wipe out people with a really generous instant-kill attack. Look at the reach on this thing… And there are so many ways to instantly kill someone. You can stroll up and stab them. You can pull them into water. You can jump from a rooftop.
You can hang them from a tree. You can stab them from a tree. You can kill one of them and then kill any friend standing near them – a move Eidos Montreal have clearly borrowed from their Deus Ex reboots. And that’s before you start factoring in the abilities to fire poison lure arrows or booby trap bodies with explosives or fire off fear arrows that make enemies turn on each other – by the final third of the game you have so many ways to kill people there isn’t any question about whether you can win, but whether you can make your mind up about what horrible thing to do next.
It’s probably the easiest stealth game I’ve ever played, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. I love running circles around these idiots – wiping out one guy here, vanishing up into the trees and grabbing his friends as they come to look for him. Lara feels like the apex predator, and after two games where she was beaten and bruised, it’s big empowering change.
Just don’t come to the game expecting your trigger finger to be tested. The downside to shifting away from regular combat is that it undermines the importance of the skill tree and character development. When I initially cast an eye over Lara’s upgrades I couldn’t see many differences from those in Rise – I know a lot of sequels repeat themselves like this, but it feels particularly bland as we’re once against asked to buy dodge counters, the ability to see animal hearts and loads of powers that give you more resources when looting or scavenging. Some of these abilities Lara has unlocked in both previous games – how does she keep forgetting this stuff? Too many bonks on the head, perhaps.
The bigger problem is that so much of the upgrade tree relates to combat, which is, as explained, a tiny portion of the game. You’re either unlocking new combat moves, or making it easier to upgrade weapons – weapons you might only be using once or twice in the whole campaign. And that’s before you start factoring buying more weapons from merchants in the hubs. By the end of the game I had ten weapons and had only used three – not out of choice, but because there’s no one to kill with them. Unless you just go around emptying an assault rifle at crows, which seems like a colossal waste of time. None of it breaks the game, but it feels baggy in a way the last two didn’t – like an RPG system grafted onto a more linear adventure, which Shadow arguably is. In fact, I’d say Shadow is generally at its worst when it’s repeating the tricks of the previous game. I felt a similar fatigue with the mountain of collectibles – as before you are collecting relics, documents, survival caches and generic pots that somehow contain xp.
Whatever XP is, you can store it in a pot, which is handy. There are collectibles that point out the location of other collectibles, and there are collectibles that let you use another collectible, which gives you a clue where to find… yep, a collectible. There is something satisfying about clearing a map of icons, but in the same way it’s nice to finally get that big pile of washing up out the way – and that doesn’t scream escapist entertainment.
Again, because all this stuff ties back into XP rewards and unlocking the skill tree, it can’t help but feel like excess baggage. If Lara does return again, this whole side of the game needs an overhaul – either have fewer things to find, but make the finding more memorable, or give us a better reason to get them, rather than ticking off a completion percentage on the world map. Just as Shadow is at its worst when it just recycles previous ideas, it’s at its best when it takes a hammer to them. The smartest idea in the whole thing is allowing us to set the difficulty of the combat, platforming and puzzling individually.
Right from the outset you can tune the game to your liking. The most boring of the three is tweaking the combat difficulty – as this is basically what all games offer. Raising it makes the baddies soak up more damage, and makes the goodie soak up less. And anyway, you spend so much time insta-killing people from inside a bush that it doesn’t make a big difference how weak or strong they are. Perhaps high difficulty should give them hedge trimmers to eliminate the amount of cover Lara can use? More interesting is puzzle difficulty. Set it low and Lara’s instinct mode lights up all the key parts of the puzzle like christmas lights – it’s a real shame to see all that ornate location work boiled down to two switches you can interact with. Turn it off and you really have to work with the game, reading each room to get a feel for what can or can’t be done.
It also stops Lara from butting in and shouting the answer out loud, which makes you feel like an idiot being told off by the teacher. I really recommend setting puzzles to hard as a result. Setting exploration to hard does two key things – it removes collectibles and mission markers from instinct mode, which means you can look for stuff without cheat-y x-ray vision. Even better it removes the streaks of white paint used to highlight platforming routes, which is easily my least favourite thing about the two previous games. It put platforming on autopilot, drawing your eye to every path. You can see the impact it has here just by toggling the mode in game – without the paint the world looks more natural and it encourages you to pause and to really look at the environmental detail to see what you are meant to do next. There are still loads of clever design tricks to lead your eye – lighter areas, or slight camera shifts to point you in the right direction – but it felt closer to the older platforming than the reboots have. I hope I’ve managed to shed some light on this shadiest of tomb raiders – I’ve really enjoyed playing through the game and it’s just nice having a proper single player action adventure you can lose a weekend in.
But it’s not a game without a few wonky bits. I’ve tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but if there’s anything you’d like to know about in more depth, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. I’d love it if you’d subscribe to rock paper shotgun – and hit the notification bell when you do – so that you can enjoy our future videos about all things PC gaming related. And why not check out some recent, videos such as our trip through Biomutant or a delightful look at Dragon Quest 11. Thanks for watching and hopefully see you soon. Bye for now. .
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