I was there when the first Tomb Raider was released 22 years ago. The review copy waited for me in my inbox at the office of a computer magazine I wrote for back then. I ended up scoring the game a whopping 96/100 points. It not only changed me as a player, it defined a modern gaming and presented a formidable female heroine in the buxom figure of Lara Croft. I’ve been with the series ever since, seeing its ups and downs. When the series’ quality dwindled and finally took a nosedive with atrocious The Angel of Darkness in 2003, the original developer Core Design was moved aside and Crystal Dynamics was hired in their place. After a couple of great games, Lara’s prime time once again passed with middling Tomb Raider: Underworld. The trust was still on Crystal Dynamics as they resurrected Lara again, taking the series to new heights with Tomb Raider and its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. For the last game in the new trilogy, though, Eidos Montreal took the development lead. Gone was writer Rhianna Pratchett and all the other key personnel who oversaw the previous two games. I was skeptical whether Eidos Montreal was up to a mammoth task of satisfying such a seasoned tomb raider like me.
I love everything in Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider. I loved to play them through on most platforms they were released on – multiple times on each. I loved how the visceral and frenzied first game was turned into a more composed and grand adventure in the sequel. I loved Camilla Luddington’s harrowing performance as Lara, growing from desperate to determined, and from pragmatic to passionate. I loved Lara’s little scar on her right cheekbone, a memento of her first agonizing expedition. I loved how I could grab the controller and make Lara do what I want without rethinking controls. I loved how the gameplay was loose, as I didn’t need to follow rigid patterns to take out enemies. I loved to venture off and collect every relic and document again, even though I had done it so many times before. So, how much love I had left to give to Shadow of the Tomb Raider?
Tomb Raider reboot started with a shipwreck, RoTR with an avalanche and Shadow of the Tomb Raider sees Lara and her devoted friend Jonah plummeting from the skies after a storm hits their plane. If there ever was a fourth part, all that what would be left is a volcano erupting! Not that it’s far-fetched here, either. It’s actually funny how Lara has grown from reboot’s non-believer to adapt a way of magical thinking. You see, she’s adamant that by grabbing an ancient dagger from a Mexican temple, she has set the wheels of Mayan apocalypse in motion. Making matters worse, her nemesis, an evil organization called Trinity, manages to steal the dagger from her. A race against time begins, taking Lara into Peruvian jungles and ruins in a pursuit of a silver box before Trinity, who would use the dagger to open it and change the world to their liking. If there will be any world left to begin with, that is, with all cataclysms starting to happen.
There’s much to recognize in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, so much so that I could pick up the controller and feel right at home from the start. Lara, who thankfully looks the same as she did in RoTR and speaks with Luddington's spirited British accent, hasn’t suffered an acute amnesia unlike many of her colleagues in their associated sequels as everything she learned to do in the previous game is mostly default now. Adventure also kicks in without too lengthy introductions and gets into full gear pretty soon. The game has cheek to assume that you already are a seasoned tomb raider, and why wouldn’t it? Still, it helps the uninitiated with the game’s versatile third-person tomb raiding by plentiful tutoring panels showing all the necessary ropes. Lara’s moveset has seen some welcome streamlining and she also gains new tricks to her book, such as rappelling and climbing overhang cliffs. Also, she learns different ways to hide from enemies, like covering herself in mud and merging with the jungle. All these come into play naturally without too much fanfares.
A new feature is that you can adjust difficulty individually for combat, puzzles and traversal. If you’re a good explorer but ham-fisted at fighting, it doesn’t matter as you can adjust the game to your liking. Mutually, easier puzzle difficulty gives lots of pointers by survival instincts and as hinted by Lara, telling quite punctually what you should be doing. Lara’s upgradeable skills, improving her traversal, survival and combat abilities, are divided into Seeker, Scavenger and Warrior skill trees. It looks almost like something out of an RPG game but it’s all intuitive and you can quickly pick up what’s best for your playstyle. Optional challenge tombs scattered around the jungle reward with skills that are otherwise unattainable. Still, I would have liked seen the tombs been better integrated to the story, making them more obligatory. The game isn’t called Tomb Raider for nothing! The tomb puzzles will challenge even seasoned veterans, as most story-related puzzle sequences aren’t nowhere near as tricky.
So, Eidos Montreal has done a good job with Lara’s mobility and how it’s embedded into the gameplay. But considering my doubts over the developer change, I still didn’t expect that I get to say this: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the biggest and the most beautiful Tomb Raider yet. It brings back the exploration and the wonder of unknown from the series’ early twilight. Lara is back in the jungle, her proverbial home, and Mayan culture and its mysteries provide a good backdrop for ravishing adventures. The best part of the game is its grandiose scale; how you can conquer all those immeasurable rock faces you’ll be seeing and manipulate huge ancient contraptions that seal the way forward.
Some treks Lara has to do aren’t only long, they’re also very vertical. A tough nut to crack for someone with a fear of heights like me but I hung in there (literally, too!). Swimming also plays a bigger part as passages are often underwater, leading through narrow sets of tunnels and glimmering pools. This, my friends, is tomb raiding at its absolute finest. There’s considerably less combat than in the previous two games, too, giving more room to pure adventuring and the sense of excitement and isolation it evokes. Thus, finding lost civilizations among the jungle is truly unexpected as Lara herself points out. There, the game has wisdom to respect the native people and their beliefs instead of turning them into silly stereotypes.
When it comes to taking up arms (attained and upgraded through the adventure), though, Lara faces new perils. The most prominent danger in the local fauna are jaguars, those fearsome predators that will endure a lot of punishment before they bow down (and can be skinned for materials to sew new get-ups for Lara!). It’s an amazing scene when Lara confronts a jaguar matriarch, a test of iron mettle between two powerful females. As a true jungle warrior, Lara can mix up different medicines to enhance her perception and endurance during combat situations, giving an edge in tight spots.
However, it’s Trinity - in a form or another - who will most often stand in Lara’s way. When the bets are high, so are the means. Violence is more apparent and relentless than before. Lara’s stealth takedowns are frighteningly confident and brutally efficient. She’s far from that person who was shivering in dismay when she had taken her first life in the reboot. Despite her vicious combat skills, Lara’s still every bit as emotional as we’ve seen her, passionate to right a wrong. Even if that means she jumps to hasty conclusions - and actions - from time to time. Jonah is also given more room to develop as a character and isn’t seen only in cutscenes either as he occasionally accompanies Lara in the field. To keep the story moving, the pacing is great with punctual dialogue scenes and tight action set pieces.
Absolutely gorgeous graphics lay a strong groundwork for Lara’s amazing and often agonizing adventure. Just when you think you have witnessed the most breathtaking scenery, the game tops it in the next moment. A beautifully simulated natural light weaves dynamic shadows, contouring lush backgrounds and convincing characters into solid and tangible forms. An extensive photo mode turns views into postcards from the jungle, even though I hardly had time to utilize it – otherwise I wouldn’t have made any progress in the game! Sharp and stylishly shot cutscenes blend to the gameplay and don’t feel as detached as they did in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Even on my PC, which I last upgraded two years ago, the game looks fantastic. The better hardware you have under the hood, closer the floor your jaw will drop to. Still, the game doesn’t make much fuss about its visual splendor. It comes off so naturally, as does the gameplay. Lara has such a nice sense of weight to her, giving confidence in moving her vividly animated figure through the Peruvian perils. If you mess up, it will never be because of the controls.
As usual, you can make the game experience pretty much how you like; either storm through the story or take time to admire the beauty of it all and embark on challenges and side missions. These diversions are made more natural with introduction of lively hub areas, offering many activities and also merchants who sell gear and materials to upgrade the equipment with. The people (who, for a full immersion, can be opted to speak in their native language and have subtitled for you) also give away artifact locations by telling local legends that makes hunting relics, documents and other collectibles more justified. A big help is also a revamped map which is more detailed but still easier to read than before. All in all, given the bigger scope, it’s more of a challenge to get that 100% completion. I had to rush for the sake of the review (it took me 21 hours to see the story through) but I can always return to the jungle post-game or start over with New Game+ with all the gear and skill upgrades I have acquired.
If Uncharted rose to fame with weapons it stole from washed-out Tomb Raider (before its reboot), Shadow of the Tomb Raider grabs them back, making it visually and gameplaywise the most essential action-adventure you can imagine. It not only builds upon the series legacy, it goes to its roots and successfully brings back the exploration that we were busy not to even notice was missing while tackling through many exciting action set pieces of the previous games. Doing so, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is the most poignant entry in the long series since the very first game. I’m twice the older now but just as blown away as I was back in 1996. I almost hoped that there would be at least something wrong in the game so that I wouldn’t sound off such a zealous fanboy. It’s only September but Shadow of the Tomb Raider is already my game of the year - and that’s a fact.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.