By: Gentleman Jeb
I’ve played every Tomb Raider game since the original was released on the PS1, and I have to admit that I like the latest reinvention of the series the best. These games truly showcase what it’s like when a heartfelt character who combines a brilliant natural sense of archaeology with the lethal abilities of a one-woman-army explores some of the most gorgeous locations ever seen in a video game. Shadow of the Tomb Raider gives players a familiar adventure, but the experience is heightened by exciting new combat and exploration abilities, complex tombs full of secrets, new hub areas where Lara interacts with villagers, and the possible end of the world.
Speaking of which, Lara begins the game as a highly-skilled, if slightly overconfident, explorer and fighter who follows her father’s footsteps in hopes of discovering ancient secrets. She discovers an ancient dagger, complete with deadly curse, and inadvertently begins a global apocalypse by hastily removing the dagger from its stone mount. Now it’s up to Lara to stop the impending doom while also fighting the deadly forces of Trinity, who are also after the dagger. Along the way, Lara faces old foes and even uncovers the details of what happened to her late father.
One of the most noticeable things about this game is the incredible visuals that showcase dense jungles, deep caverns, and gorgeous vistas. I played this game on a PS4 with a 4K OLED TV, and it looks simply stunning! There’s a staggering amount of detail in every frame, and the wonderful lighting effects add lens flares from the sun, reflections and glints on water, realistic shadows, and incredible fire effects. I simply love how the developers accent the discovery of new areas and distant tombs by pulling the camera back to give players the best view possible. This is one of the best looking games I’ve ever played on a console.
They’re not hunting her. She’s hunting them.
I was surprised by how lethal Lara has become. She’s always been very deadly, but I really felt like a predator while playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider. That’s because there seems to be more of an emphasis on stealth than before. One of her new abilities is pulled straight from John Rambo’s move-set, as Lara smears mud on her body and hides in the vines and leaves of vertical walls. When an enemy moves in close enough, Lara grabs them, stabs them, and then pulls them into the wall to hide the body. She also hides bodies when performing stealth kills from bushes, which helps players remain in stealth.
Another welcome change is the ability to re-enter stealth after a few moments of hiding. In most stealth games, getting seen by one person usually means everyone in the area is alerted. However, this game rewards skilled players who can leave the enemy’s line-of-sight and hide long enough to make them give up their search. I love this ability because I play most of the game in stealth and rarely go in with guns blazing.
Exploring tombs is an essential part of the franchise, and the tombs and crypts in Shadow of the Tomb Raider feature the most…ahem…depth of any game I’ve played. There’s a heavy emphasis on vertical exploration thanks to new features like the handy ability to rappel and run along walls. That’s right, the spunky spelunker can repel from anywhere she uses her ax grapple, and this removes many exploration limits. For example, she can frequently rappel down areas that looks like a dark abyss, and then swing on her rope in any direction to land on a ledge or handhold. In fact, when I couldn’t figure out how to progress, I looked for an ax grapple and then rappeled down to see what I could find.
Many of the tombs and crypts feature intricate 3D puzzles that require moving objects, finding levers, activating floor switches, and other interactive moves. These puzzles are interspersed with many areas whose “puzzle” is simply to figure out how to progress. Some paths require excercising real brain power, while others are barely even hidden. There’s also a lot of underwater exploration, which can feel really claustrophobic when Lara starts to lose her breath. Add deadly eels and hungry piranha, and the result feels like Lara is facing death around every corner.
Play Your Way
Virtual adventurers can choose to play the game however they want because there are three different skill “trees” to select from. Warrior skills let Lara master the art of combat with abilities like resisting damage after performing a stealth kill and increasing precision bow shots. Scavenger skills let Lara master the world around her by making poison arrows from spiders and perform silent takedowns within feet of enemies without being heard. Seeker skills increase environmental awareness and resource gathering with boosts like revealing traps while using Instincts mode and reducing noise from jumps, landings, and falls.
Players shouldn’t be concerned with choosing one path, as there are enough skill points (when side quests are performed) to purchase nearly all skills. To me, this is indicative of one of the problems of modern games. They don’t force players to make hard choices. I want skill trees where I’m heavily rewarded for investing deep into one path, but investing partway in different paths is also viable. It’s not very rewarding to know that I will eventually get every single skill I want in one playthough.
Another disappointment is the outfits. Early on, I found one that makes enemies take more time to notice me while in stealth, and I never changed outfits afterwards. It was simply too effective for my play style. Many of the outfits look cool, but they have lackluster bonuses like gathering additional resources or protecting against a certain elemental damage.
These are minor quibbles that slightly mar the experience but certainly don’t come close to ruining it. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is my favorite game in the series so far, and I’m looking forward to Lara Croft’s next adventure.