Shadow of the Tomb Raider ReviewSeptember 16, 2018
Shadow of the Tomb Raider isn’t your regular treasure-plundering adventure with Lara Croft. Lara still raids tombs and finds treasure and murders a lot of people. Like, she is literally a female version of Rambo in this game. At the same time, it gives us a deeper look at Lara’s family and childhood, and the roots of her obsessive nature. It also tries to raise questions about the morality of archeologists and their impact on the countries they visit.
As the third, and reportedly final, game in the rebooted Tomb Raider trilogy that began in 2015, I have to say that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is my favorite. These games are weird in a way because I always enjoy playing through them, but I kind of just forget about them afterward. There are never any unforgettable moments that are burned into your memory — the Tomb Raider games are just the equivalent of playing a decent live-action blockbuster. The gameplay feels good, the scenery is nice to look at, and the story is mostly an afterthought to tie the whole thing together.
Lara controls pretty fluidly, and aside from a few janky animations, the gunplay and stealth sections were well done. Although it felt a bit out of character for Lara Croft, I had a lot of fun hiding in foliage and in tree branches, waiting to pounce on enemies with a brutal knife kill or snapping their necks with a rope. I would expect these mechanics more in an Assassin’s Creed or Metal Gear Solid game, but I can’t deny that they made playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider more entertaining.
The game initially takes players on a brief undercover mission in Cozumel, before letting them run free on the Latin American town of Kuwaq Yaku. Here you get to meet and converse with the interesting townspeople, obtaining side quests and learning information in a bit of hub area, something new to the series. There are plenty of missions and challenges and conversations to get lost in this beautiful city. I found myself taking a lot of pictures in the game’s photo mode.
It isn’t until you reach the huge lost city of Paititi that you realize how much effort Eidos Montreal has put into making the world feel real. You’ll see kids playing in the water, school lessons taking place, farmers working on crops, and you’ll hear political arguments and fun stories. You even get to hear from the outcasts of the city and learn more about the rival factions that tie heavily into the story. Unfortunately, a lot of the side quests are tedious and mundane. I wish that there were branching conversations and multiple possible outcomes for the quests. An awful lot of the NPCs share the same face and voice, which took me out of the game a bit and made these side characters feel much less unique. Still, I enjoyed that the people of Paititi are not portrayed as primitive cavemen and that they treat Lara as the outsider that she is. Lara even gains some life lessons and powerful wisdom from the locals, which is neat.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the first game of the new trilogy to be developed by Eidos Montreal (makers of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided).
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a gorgeous game. The environments are breathtaking, and Lara’s character model is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with ultra-realistic hair and eyes. One level has you walking through a crowded Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, and another takes you into a vast and beautiful ancient landscape in Peru. Everything is packed to the brim with detail – you can see the pores of Lara’s face, the worn texture on clothing, and water running down her body when she gets out of the water. Every strand of Lara’s hair reacts in a believable way when she’s running, climbing and jumping. It even moves nicely underwater.
It’s probably asking too much of today’s hardware to have her hair actually stick to her face and head after taking a dive in the game’s beautiful rivers, but this is still the best hair I’ve seen in a video game so far. Watching the massive amount of foliage move in the wind is a sight to behold, and while I experienced a decent amount of slowdown (especially in Paititi), it was worth it for having such a vast and impressively detailed map to explore. Some of the NPC faces look very out of place when in conversation with the astoundingly detailed Lara Croft model, but it wasn’t too much of a dealbreaker for me.
Right at the beginning of the game, Lara takes an item from an ancient cave and unleashes the Mayan apocalypse. Her enemies in the villainous Trinity group warn her of the horror she’s setting in motion, but Lara doesn’t believe them until an entire town is killed by an enormous tsunami. Lara spends the rest of the game feeling guilty and trying to set things right. Her longtime friend Jonah is the only thing holding her together, as tries to reassure Lara that this wasn’t her fault. Of course, it is her fault. Rather than spending the rest of the game on a therapist’s couch, however, she just keeps doing the same thing that got her in all this trouble in the first place.
The story is paper thin, serving mostly to just propel players from one action-packed set piece to the next. Luckily, all of these set pieces are engaging and impressively rendered. The most interesting thing about the story is Lara’s relationship with Jonah, which is mostly brushed aside to make room for other much more boring and confusing arcs. As for character arcs, Lara has slowly changed from a frightened survivor to a crazed predator in the vein of Rambo. She lies in wait, covered in mud and under foliage, before brutally murdering her enemies with a machete.
And while past games have looked at her father as a crazed, obsessive workaholic, this time it’s Lara who’s obsessed. We get a glimpse of Lara’s childhood life in a playable sequence at Croft Manor, which is neat, but it mostly just made me think of what terrible parents she had. She literally climbs up to the roof and falls, almost killing herself while her parents just completely neglected her. It’s amazing she survived long enough to become a tomb raider in the first place. Sure, we got a similar sequence with a young Nathan Drake in Uncharted 3, but Drake was a runaway with no parents, so it made a bit more sense.
This new Tomb Raider trilogy, and especially this latest incarnation, is strangely introspective. Shadow of the Tomb Raider tries really hard to make Lara (and the player) feel guilty of their actions. This is a game where you literally do nothing but murder people and steal from tombs from beginning to end. I understand the team wanting to give Lara a bit more depth, but it rings false when she is beating herself up about her actions only to immediately turn right around and plunder more treasure and shoot more dudes. This game is never quite sure what exactly it is trying to be. For the game’s message to actually mean something, Lara would have to stop raiding tombs and killing everyone. Another weird thing: there are no female mercenaries for Lara to fight, only men. That seems weirdly sexist. But constantly forcing Lara to look at the repercussions of the death and destruction she leaves in her wake took away from my enjoyment of the game a bit.
Overall, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a satisfying action-adventure title with a huge map and lots of content to explore. Not all of that content is great, and the story and pacing are kind of all over the place. Fans of the series will probably enjoy completing every challenge tomb, but if you’re just here for the main story, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you just want to shoot stuff and explore the lavishly rendered world, it’s still definitely worth playing. But those looking for a satisfying conclusion to Lara’s arc across this new trilogy will probably be let down.