Sometimes, when you get to the end of a long journey, it almost feels like a shame for it to end. That’s sort of the feeling we got from Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the final part of the Lara Croft origin trilogy series that started way back in 2013. It’s been a long five years, in more ways than just game release time, but we’re finally at the end of Lara’s beginning. Is the final leg of the expedition worth the adventure?
That… really depends. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does a whole lot right, innovating and tweaking what works and even trying a few tricks with the story subtext, but it also takes a few missteps. If you’re an accomplished raider of tombs, who has completed both 2013’s Tomb Raider and 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, you might find the gameplay very… easy. This one seems targeted at newcomers to the series, gameplay-wise.
This review was played through, from start to finish, on the Hard difficulty setting (one of the few times we’ve taken advice from the internet and not regretted it). SotTR lets you choose varying difficulty levels for Combat, Exploration, and Puzzles, meaning that if you’re weak in a particular area it shouldn’t slow down your enjoyment of the game. But Shadow can be annoyingly over-helpful at any difficulty setting below Hard, throwing too many hints and assists your way and stripping out much of the challenge.
The answer? Use the options the developers have given you. In this case, playing on Hard added back a lot of the challenge that would have otherwise been missing, but if you just want to see how Lara fares in her latest showdown with Trinity, you can lower the difficulty. We won’t judge.
The story so far…
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has one of the better opening sequences we’ve seen in a game, starting in media res with Lara and long-time friend Jonah on a plane before jumping back instantly to several days before. Lara and Jonah are looking for the Mayan dagger of Chak Chel, mostly to keep it out of the hands of Trinity — the organisation that has dogged Lara since she was a small child. What happens next isn’t any kind of secret: Lara finds the dagger and removes it from its place of rest, setting off a Mayan apocalypse that is scheduled to begin… immediately. Cue some wide-scale destruction that players have to survive and it’s off to a new jungle in Peru in order to thwart Trinity’s machinations and save the world (in that order). Should be an easy task. Right?
Yes, and no
Actually, the game as a whole is a little too easy for those familiar with the mixture of stealth, gunplay, bow-assisted puzzle-solving and exploration that SotTR offers players. As mentioned, for best results, turn off all the assists. You should know how to pop a Trinity agent in the head with a flaming arrow and sneak around in the bushes by now. Almost all of your previous abilities, like crafting flame arrows and yanking open boarded-up doors and creating ziplines with your bow, are unlocked from the outset.
There are a couple of new skills you have at your disposal instead. For straight combat (and a touch of exploration), players can unlock the use of herbs that offer Perception (objects in the world are highlighted), Focus (slowdown while aiming) and Endurance (damage resistance) bonuses in addition to using plants for healing. Lara’s got the ability to make special grenades and ammo, if you’re looking to mess with enemies in new and interesting ways, but we didn’t have to make any of it beyond some of the special arrows for our playthrough.
There are also new stealth options, like the ability to hide in vegetation that grows on walls as well as the ability to coat Lara in mud and wrestle (okay, only the former). This makes her harder to spot in general and nullifies Trinity’s thermal goggles — which means that you won’t catch a face full of bullets while hanging out in the green unless you blunder out of cover. Of course, you don’t have to play every stealth section as a stealth section, if you like the idea of scrambling between obstacles and trying to pop off headshots with a handgun, rifle, or bow. Or a shotgun, when you eventually get your hands on one. But Shadow is very obvious about which sections you’re supposed to stealth your way though. And it’s usually a good idea to do what the developers want.
Follow the signs
Shadow is at its best when players are ignoring the possibilities for exploration that the game’s open-world areas have to offer. It’s telling that the best bits of the game are early on, where players are pretty restricted in where they can go and what they can do. The first few hours of the game just disappear in moments as you’re immersed in the action and the tale, with set-pieces worthy of Nathan Drake’s last outing in Uncharted 4. Want to maintain the rip-roaring cinematic ride that tells the last bit of Lara’s origin story? Just keep on hitting those story missions. Save the exploration for New Game+, a mode that keeps all of your upgrade progress from your initial playthough.
This is a common problem with games that attempt to drive play with a compelling narrative but also want to offer players an open world. God of War mostly nailed it, by not having a sense of urgency to player’s actions and then locking them into a set path once a story objective was taken up. Batman: Arkham Asylum got exploration-versus-narrative nigh-on perfect but even the mighty Rocksteady faltered a bit when moving to a more open setting in Batman: Arkham City and the later games. It’s hard to fault Shadow for its pacing issues, because they don’t exist if you just stick to the story. Most of the Side Missions that you’ll be blowing by stand alone, with the exception of one where you’re disguised as a guard and have to perform a rescue. That one ties into the main story rather neatly; the rest can be saved for the post-apocalypse.
See the sights
Even if you’re pushing through the story, it pays to stop and just pay attention to where you are. Whether you’re doing your darndest to not drown the young Miss Croft while dodging moray eels and piranha shoals in one of the many tense underwater sections, avoiding hungry jungle cats in the trees, or picking through bloody bits and bleached skeletons, Shadow looks incredible almost across the board. The game’s built-in photo mode is worth playing with but, as with all the other extras, perhaps save it for the second play-through.
There’s an atmosphere created by the combination of visuals and music, the latter of which is remarkable in just how little you notice it (without being reminded that you’re supposed to be listening). There’s a fairly light audio touch which enhances the experience without overpowering it. There’s also diversity in the game’s settings, with a late-stage change that’s almost jarring. We’ll let you get to that one yourselves, though. It’s one of the better exploration/puzzle sections that you’ll play with Jonah at your side.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider: Verdict
Does Lara Croft eventually accomplish what she had set out to do? Yes. Does she do it the way she might have always wanted to? Perhaps not. There’s a lot to like here in Shadow but also a lot of pieces missing at various stages of play. Unusually for a semi-open world, there’s an ideal way to play this game and it’s not at your own pace. If you keep on hitting the story missions as they appear, you’re in for an exhilarating adventure — even if you side-track every so often for one of the great optional tombs (which tend to be on your way to the next main mission marker). But if you attempt to complete all the challenges and side missions as you go then Shadow of the Tomb Raider is going to drag on in a way that it really shouldn’t. Save the extra content for a post end-game roam and this one is a worthy end of the beginning for Ms Croft.