Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review
Crystal Dynamics hit a home run for Square Enix in 2013 when they released into the wild the Lara Croft reboot and origin story, Tomb Raider. A delightful narrative — allowing for the misstep in marketing around a particular scene — combined with all aspects of any adventure game you knew and loved, plus more, wrapped up in cutting-edge technology. The end result was a holistic experience on par with Nathan Drake’s finest, and anything you’d ever seen from Lara in her near-twenty year history. They did it again with the follow-up, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider. Many (but not all) felt it was an improvement, showing the devs were ahead of the curve and at the top of their game. Next on the to-do list was finish this trilogy. So naturally, Square Enix took Crystal Dynamics off of the task, replacing them with Deus Ex’s developers, Eidos Montreal. This, perhaps, was the first mistake.
A few hours into Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the overwhelming feeling is that everything is so very samey. Everything you’re being asked to do is something you did three, even five years ago. It all works very well and looks totally fine but what’s the reason to spend another fifteen hours or so with Miss Croft? The game never relieves the player of this problem. From the start through to the end, there are just no "ooohs", no "aaahs". It’s like the team have played through the entirety of the previous two games and despite the enormous budget provided to them, have decided to remake the best bits of those other games in the series, rather than trying something new and adventurous — like Lara herself seemed in 2013. It’s very much your Return of the Jedi experience.
All of this means we have a very capable, very slick game on our hands. Opening in the middle of an action set-piece is de rigeur these days but it’s a shame it’s non-interactive. Then, with a jump back in time a couple of days, you’re immediately thrust into the middle of happenings, driven by momentum from the conclusion of the previous game’s story. The narrative is a personal one and its perceived quality will be at least partly driven by your empathy with Lara, and those around her — past and present. There are various narrative tricks played throughout, of which none are novel and many are proliferations of prevalent tropes these days. It’s a shame as when playing an action-adventure with such a strong central character, it would be nice to have something really engaging and totally immersive. Narrative-based games are played for two reasons: the game mechanics’ quality and the story. If one or the other doesn’t hit the high notes, the whole thing lacks.
In terms of the game mechanics itself, there are new things interspersed with what we’ve seen before. Rather surprisingly as I was traversing a Peruvian jungle, and after offing a fair few baddies by way of stealth activities, I happened upon a small community with a variety of NPCs with which I could activate some dialogue actions. There were merchants, people who could help me with my current objectives and more. This felt totally out of place and even after getting used to it, and having similar later on in the game, it just didn’t quite work. It is different, yes, but the value it adds is minimal. The same can be said for the evolved skills tree, which might look pretty with funky colour coding, but is so much harder to immediately take in and identify where you want to build your skills. The design there leaves much to be desired.
Some of the better parts of the game are the optional challenge tombs. These are areas of the map which are really environmental puzzles where you need to get to something by way of moving, solving puzzles and avoiding traps. Completing a challenge tomb rewards you with a skill of some kind, so they’re worth doing, but the main draw is the fun, even though this is limited fun and not off the scales.
The presentation of the game is really impressive, as you would imagine for a late-generation game that is the third in the series using pre-existing technology. The graphics are high quality and without any issue throughout our PlayStation 4 Pro playthrough. We chose the option of higher frame rate which is hard to say goodbye to once you’ve been playing at what appeared to be a rock solid 60 frames per second. The sound quality was excellent, and with the returning Camilla Luddington playing Lara again, the voice acting across the board was as good as it’s ever been. Perhaps the best bit about the presentation though was the initial difficulty level choice. Alongside the overall difficulty you have the option to drop or increase the combat, environmental and puzzle challenges. Whilst combat and puzzle are self-explanatory, environmental initially sounded a little vague. Giving examples by image at the selection screen helped, and basically means having fewer markers, or harder to spot markers lining the way forwards.
It’s a shame really that the team who rebooted Lara and carried her forwards past the competition presented by characters such as Nathan Drake weren’t presented with the chance to complete a trilogy, and then move on. Instead Square Enix took their best developers to work on the shiny Avengers game, leaving those who stuttered a little with Deus Ex to bring the world this game. The change shows. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good game but that’s all it is. It does everything well, but never thrills. There’s no delight here, merely an above average performance in all regards. Whilst that steady level of quality works in some walks of life, for a triple-A game which wants to blow everyone away, it’s just not enough.
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