Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review – A Solid End To The Trilogy

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Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

If there’s one thing that I’m always going to feel disappointed about when it comes to the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise it’s that Lara Croft never once picks up her awesome dual pistols. No, for some reason this iteration of the tomb raiding badass focused on her bow, which just isn’t as cool, I reckon. Ah well. This third game marks the supposed end of the trilogy, and is also the only game of the three not to be developed primarily by Crystal Dynamics who this time assumed support duties to Eidos Montreal. So, does the series go out with an explosive arrow or one of the infamous gruesome death scenes?

Well, the plot sure doesn’t make the best impression. The story is mostly pure gibberish that involves a magic box that can supposedly remake the world, and once again the nebulous group known as Trinity wants it for their own agenda, and so in a moment of stupidity Lara grabs a specific object that is required to make all this hocus-pocus go down and winds up accidentally causing a massive disaster that kills a whole bunch of people. Huh.

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Yeah, Lara kicks off this final game in the trilogy as a somewhat unlikable character, her obsession with Trinity and her impulsive nature resulting in huge destruction and a string of dumb choices. It’s an interesting way to start things and presents a lot of opportunities for character growth, especially since she is once again dragging long-suffering best friend Jonah along with her and there are moments on the journey where it looks like he’s finally going to give her the verbal smackdown she needs. It never comes, though, and instead I felt like the game constantly danced around what Lara has done and is doing in the name of defeating Trinity without truly doing something interesting with it. The topic is brought up with one character even pointing out how much killing Lara herself has done, but it’s never tackled in a fully satisfying way.

But we do get some superb voice acting from Camilla Luddington who plays Lara, while the rest of the cast is almost equally brilliant, delivering the sometimes clunky dialogue as best they can. Great facial and body animation help sell these characters as real people, too.

Credit must also be given to the writers for attempting to give the primary villain of the piece some context for what he’s doing. While it goes a bit bonkers by the end, his motivations at least make some sense.

Once again we get a beautifully delivered adventure from start to finish with a strong cinematic flair, the very same style that drew so many comparisons to the Uncharted franchise when the Tomb Raider series got rebooted in 2013. With all the settings ramped up to max this is one beautiful looking game, despite not having as many varied environments as Rise of the Tomb Raider. This one takes place almost entirely within dense jungle and ancient ruins but the developers still manage to cram in heaps of amazing scenery to drool over, and their cinematic eye when it comes to displaying that scenery or delivering an epic set piece is still absolutely on point. There are some moments when the action gets too insane, including a badass moment where Lara basically becomes Terminator and goes on a rampage, but given what the series has done so far you’ll probably take it all in stride, with maybe an eye-roll here or there at just how silly it has become.

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Of course, the big question is how well the trilogy wraps itself up. After three games do we get an ending that will leave us satisfied? The answer is complicated as the ending delves heavily into the series’ supernatural and mystical elements while a single moment really left me divided on whether it should have played out like that. With that said we do get to finish everything on a good note that doesn’t close the door on future games, which is fine by me.

On the gameplay front Lara already has two games under her belt, so by this point she’s a certified badass capable of sneaking around like a ninja and gunning down enemies in equal measure. The amount of times you have to get into straight combat has been toned down quite a bit since Rise of the Tomb Raider, though Lara still manages to rack up quite the body count by the end of the game. Combat has been tightened up so that the general gunplay feels more in-line with a dedicated shooter, but there is still a sense of looseness that makes aiming at close range feel clunky. Still, it’s solid enough stuff and shootouts are infrequent enough that they are always fun.

As for sneaking around all the basics still apply; bushes will keep you magically hidden, one-button takedowns let you instantly murder the crap out of everyone and there are plenty of throwable objects to act as distractions or to craft into stuff like Molotov cocktails. One change is that Lara can now lather herself in mud which lets her hide up against dirty walls before leaping out to stab someone in the neck. It’s a nice addition to some already pretty satisfying stealth mechanics which have you doing all the usual stuff; sneaky instant takedowns, using thrown objects as distractions and occasionally stringing people up from a branch. Not much has actually changed here ultimately, but sneaking through pushes before putting a knife in someone or dragging a guard underwater is a lot of fun.

Later on, an intriguing problem is presented by enemies with thermal goggles who can see you hiding in bushes, a moment where it feels like the game genuinely wants to add a proper obstacle to your stealthy murdering of everybody in the general vicinity. But then the game seems to abandon its own idea by pointing out that covering yourself in mud negates the goggles, and helpfully plops mud down within easy reach before rarely ever using the goggle concept again anyway.

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A lot of the game now takes place underwater, with sizable sections devoted to navigating the aquatic ruins both in the main storyline and the secondary side-quests and challenge tombs. Games and water have had a pretty strained relationship over the years (god damn Water Temple) but the devs have done a good job here by carefully popping down pockets of air and making sure that you don’t get caught up in scenery or anything like that. It actually seems daft to have included skill perks that allow Lara to hold her breath longer as it takes away from some of the tension.

Platforming has gotten a few extra things added, so now Lara can rappel down cliffs or into the air using her climbing axes before then swinging back and forth for a big leap or running across a wall, opening up some fun new twists. With the aid of some crampons she can now climb upside down, too, precariously dangling over hundreds of feet of empty air. There are some issues with the animations where Lara doesn’t convincingly seem attached to the environment or where the physics go floaty so she can make a jump, and I really hate using the rope-axe to swing because it has a weird momentum loss that feels wholly unnatural, but for the most part bumbling around the environment is just as fun as it has been in the last two games. Still, some extra work to the animations to help give Lara a better sense of weight when leaping, climbing and slamming axes into cliff walls could have really helped to elevate the traversal systems.

Of course, you can’t exactly call a game Tomb Raider if there are no tombs to be raided and treasure to be plundered by someone who is apparently all too happy to steal the artefacts of other cultures. There are a bunch of optional challenge tomes scattered around to find and beat, each offering a different style of puzzle that typically revolves around using basic physics and platforming with your reward being a new skill. These tomes offer some of the best fun in the whole game.

Because I mentioned skills there let’s touch briefly upon levelling up, which is frankly kind of dull. There are a bunch of unlockable skills, but so many of them feel completely disposable. I often wound up with points just sitting there unspent.

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I’ve got to talk about the difficulty options and how I would love to see a similar system implemented in other games. Basically, Shadow of the Tomb Raider lets you adjust the difficulty of combat, traversing the environment and puzzles separately. Turn up the difficulty for platforming, for example, and the little white scuff marks that indicate something you can climb on will be removed. It’s a neat idea, though admittedly if you turn off the white paint entirely it becomes a case of guessing which things are actually climbable, indicating that the core game design actually relies quite heavily on the paint effect to work.

It’s not until you hit the jungle city of Paititi where I think Shadow of the Tomb Raider manages to step away from Rise a little more. There are a couple of areas that act as hubs from which you can check out the local area, but Paititi is the main one and from there you can embark on a good chunk of the game’s many side-quests or just explore. Sadly many of these optional missions feature stilted writing and rely heavily on making you run from point to point, but there are a couple of corkers to be found. And just exploring Paititi can be a lot of fun, especially if you enable the option to have everyone speak in their native language, although Lara herself will continue to babble away in English for some reason.

Crafting returns except now there is even more stuff you can pick up then use to quickly toss together special arrows and ammo types, as well as craft one of Lara’s many potential outfits, including a few classic Tomb Raider skins. Now you can put together such fun stuff as arrows coated in a special mixture that drives an enemy mad, forcing them to open fire on their comrades before dying.

Mechanically Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the best of the series, largely perfecting the franchise’s action formula. But the story is forgettable and it’s a shame to see the final game in a good series go out so safely. Nothing too crazy needed to be added, but a few fresh additions to the gameplay could have helped Shadow of the Tomb Raider be a more fitting finale.

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More importantly, you need to deal with a much less likeable Lara Croft whose past experiences have understandably forged her into a dangerous woman, but one who can be difficult to empathise with at times. This is worked into the plot, yet never as meaningfully as I would like and her arc suffers because of it. The real hero here is Jonah who does get a nice little background story, but he could have done so much more to both develop him as a character and to form the emotional core of Lara’s journey from obsessive, ruthless warrior to someone with a less tough view of the world but the experience to deal with everything that comes her way.

But as negative as I may sound when I say all of this, make no mistake that I enjoyed playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider from start to finish. While it may not be enough to bring back anyone who was already feeling burned out by Rise of the Tomb Raider, fans like myself who were eagerly awaiting more Lara Croft action will have a blast. And while it may not tell the most compelling story, the journey of Lara was still one I’m happy to have gone on, and though the execution may be a little lacking I’m still looking forward to seeing where Lara will go from here, because I’m not ready for the journey to end just yet.

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