Shadow of the Tomb Raider
|Platform: XBoxOne, PS4, & PC
XBox Series X, PS5
|Genre: Adventure, Platform, Puzzle
Playable Character: Lara Croft.
Atmosphere is a large part of the Tomb Raider experience because the vast majority of a good Tomb Raider game should be Lara Croft exploring by herself. Combat, interactions, and cut scenes have their place, but should be used minimalistically.
Annoyingly, you actually can’t use most of your weapons during a big chunk of the game (Paititi) for arbitrary story reasons. I typically used the bow and arrow anyway, but it was still irritating not having backups when I ran out of arrows and had to craft more even though I had hundreds of rounds for three different guns.
The skull icon and double-skull icon means I can take out both of these enemies with back-to-back stealth kills. However, it seemed like I had to get 75% of the way through the story before enemies became abundant enough and close enough together to pull this off.
Review by Jay Wilson
I wanted to like Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I really did. The 2013 reboot had an uncomfortable mix of things I liked (the tomb raiding) and things I did not like (combat with seemingly endless respawning enemies, the cinematic chases, the story not ending when it should have). Rise introduced stealth to mitigate much of the combat, the enemies didn’t respawn endlessly, it didn’t have a large end-battle then keep going for another two hours, and it even introduced a few nice additions such as the occasional NPCs to upgrade items and offer additional missions—just enough to inject variety in case you want to take a short break from the main action. It wasn’t perfect, but it significantly improved upon its predecessor, so I thought, “All right! Shadow is going to nail it!”
And at a glance, Shadow looks like it’s going to improve upon Rise, starting with its superior cover art showing a battered and mud-covered Lara perched on a fallen tree, backdropped by a solar eclipse—infinitely more striking than the generic “holding a torch (flare) in the snow” cover of Rise. Then the game actually starts with slow annoying credits interwoven with an abstract, non-interactive cutscene of a plane crash. Then we get control of Lara in a flash back, and the game, itself, proves just as visually stunning as its box art. I loved the scene in Cozumel, a little Mexican town, where you get to essentially treat people like obstacles to maneuver around and squeeze in between while tailing an important member of Trinity without being spotted. Pretty nifty. Even better: you go outside and, hey, you can rappel again! You can free-explore underwater again! This is starting to feel like classic Tomb Raider again!
Then we find out the unassuming guy we’re following is not just any high-ranking member of the unimaginably large and powerful, shadow organization, he’s also the leader of the whole thing ... and he has about half the charisma and maybe a tenth of the intimidation factor of past villains. This guy is Trinity? Really? The guy with, like, two body guards, wandering the streets? The guy Lara gets within ten feet of and could literally kill with her bow and arrow if the game let her? That’s Trinity? See, this is the problem with pulling the mask off. Mathias in the first game was a creepy, marooned, crackpot, whose middle name was lying, backstabbing snake. Konstantin, the zealot Lara fought in Rise, attacked from behind a seemingly infinite army while flying an attack helicopter. Dominguez looks, sounds, and is about as intimidating as a gentleman I used to work with, not to mention he’s about as easy to approach, and when he put on the ancestral ceremonial garb about halfway through the game, I just couldn’t take him or Trinity seriously anymore.
Then the cinematic chase happens, and you die because you focused in on the light post falling over and thought you were supposed to swing on it—and why not? All hell is breaking lose around you. But, no, you were supposed to see the telephone pole on the other side of the street and run across that as it falls perfectly in your path at the last second. Or you tried to get to the balcony that looked like the next safe area to sprint across right up until you hit the jump button and it started crumbling too. Forgive me, game, for looking ahead and trying to anticipate where to go next instead of letting it pave the path in front of me in this vortex of artificial chaos.
Like the rest of the reboot trilogy, base camps allow you to spend skill points, craft weapon upgrades, change outfits, and fast travel. I honestly have no idea what my weapon upgrades did. I just clicked on things continuously until the exclamation point went away.
Playing as young Lara running around and tomb raiding her home is admittedly very cute, but adult Lara set off the end of days, and she’s racing to collect the one artificat which can stop it ...
... so why aren’t we playing that?
Even the currency to purchase weapons, tools, and upgrades are excessive to the point of meaninglessness. I bypassed half the gold/jade deposits because my storage space was full, and I still bought everything with a small fortune left over.
Fortunately, I got the game on sale bundled with all the DLC. Had I paid full price for Lara’s modern outfits, I’d be pissed as 50% of the game forces you to wear tribal garb for story purposes ...
... even after you’ve beaten the game.
Anyway, flash forward to the plane crash, and granted, Lara is not tomb raiding yet; however, she does get to swim, climb up trees, swing and zip-line across chasms, tear down walls with her axe, balance across narrow ledges on her journey to reunite with Jonah. Fair enough. I don’t mind the lack of a tomb setting so long as Lara is exploring, and it was kinda nice having Jonah tag along and be helpful instead of getting into trouble and needing to be saved (like a woman) for once. I wouldn’t want to spend the whole game with him, but I don’t mind non-Tomb Raider things in Tomb Raider games provided it’s in small doses. I even liked Kuwaq Yaku, a modern little Peruvian village, where you can walk around, talk to the locals, take up missions, and trade with a merchant (all non-TR things), and it would have been the perfect little hub from which Lara could launch her titular tomb raiding expeditions (you know, Tomb Raider things.)
But every time the game took a step forward in one area, it took a step back in another. Some big issues, such as the next flashback where we play as young Lara crawling up rain gutters and jumping across balconies of her own home to find the secret of the White Queen, which would be perfectly fine as a bonus post-game extra (or even DLC adventure), but why are we putting the apocalypse on pause to play make believe in Lara’s memories? Other step-backs are small and admittedly trivial: I kinda preferred the simple skill upgrade menu in Rise over the convoluted, branching spiderweb of icons you have to chart a path across in Shadow—not a deal breaker by any means, but when you couple that with other little things like Lara monotonously reading every message she comes across instead of the author of said message and/or recordings ... it all adds up to a resounding, “Eh.”
Then we get to the primitive, hidden city of Paititi where much of my enthusiasm died. Maybe the novelty of talking to NPCs had worn off, maybe the writer got carried away, or maybe the voice actors started riffing—I dunno—but I do know the people in Paititi (and later San Juan, yes yet another settlement with NPCs to talk to) they would not shut up. And I’m not talking about quest givers, either (although I got sick of those conversations/cut-scenes too.) Random NPCS would have a dialog indicator over their head, and you expect them to say one or two lines like every other video game. But no, each and every inhabitant recites one or two paragraphs such as this one from random lady standing around in a cemetery:
“Someone once said if you really want to learn about a town, you have to visit their graveyards. I don’t know why. One is the same as the next. Some might be a little more orderly with neat rows. Or they’re more like this one where it feels more natural and unplanned.”
By itself, that doesn’t seem like much. But keep in mind there’s dozens upon dozens of NPCs to talk to scattered around the three different settlements, every one of them reciting equally meaningless and often more lengthy monologues to a complete stranger. Also keep in mind Paititi is huge, so keeping track of which generic-looking NPC you’ve already spoken to becomes difficult, if not impossible when it takes more than one session to get through everything (especially if there’s a significant gap between each sitting). And many of these conversations reveal points of interest on the map, so there’s an incentive to talk to everyone. And while you can cancel the dialog by walking away, Lara is programmed to face them until you reach a certain distance which means she walks backwards which means she walks slower which means you can never get away from the endless droning fast enough.
Speaking of things that go on and on: the combat. Yes, the lazy, “Stand here and fight respawning enemies until we arbitrarily decide you’re done” encounters from the 2013 original second reboot are back, although now sometimes you can run around a corner and hide in the one obvious bush, then kill everyone with sneak attacks as they come looking for you, which is funny because they seem to spot you instantly when they don’t know you’re lurking. Or to phrase another way: it’s literally easier to not get spotted after they’ve spotted you. Being a Tenchu fan, the first skills I purchased were stealth related. Headshot up to 3 enemies with one draw of the bow? Check. Melee stealth kill enemies without alerting nearby enemies? Check. Chain your melee stealth kills together to take out multiple targets? Check. I wanted to go Rambo: First Blood on these Trinity bastards. But it kinda felt like a waste because almost immediately every enemy started coming with helmets, completely nullifying the headshot skill. And about the only way to melee take-down multiple enemies for most of the game is to let them spot you, dash to cover, then kill two when they both come to investigate. I found the most effective way of stealthily taking out an entire camp unnoticed was, and I’m not kidding, to get the skill where you can plant bombs on corpses. Yes, bombs. Every encounter always has one guy off by himself providing an easy stealth kill. Kill him, plant a bomb, the bomb beeps, one enemy comes to investigate. Boom! New body, new bomb, repeat. Somehow they don’t seem to instantly find and spawn in on you like they do if you, I dunno, snipe them from two cliffs away.
To Shadow’s credit, the tombs and crypts are generally bigger, more complex, and more satisfying than both TR2013 and Rise when they’re not getting carried away with their challenges and puzzles.
But other times, stealth isn’t an option at all, and combat is unavoidable. Hang out behind cover and kill because you’re locked into an arena that won’t open until we say so, and what makes it particularly obnoxious is how enemies seem to be completely immune to damage while their armor breaks apart. Shoot a guy in the helmet, he spins around, and you can empty an entire magazine’s worth of bullets into his now unprotected skull, and it doesn’t do a damn thing. Then on top of that he instantly snaps out of said stun animation to dodge and counter Lara’s axe, rendering melee next to useless. I don’t mind that Lara’s axe is no longer universal God mode anymore, but really? I would think a headshot—helmet or not—would give me enough of an opening to get at least one good swing in.
And unfortunately, Shadow also finds a way to make even the tomb raiding obnoxious at times. For example, I found myself facing a locked door that required a combination to open. I figured out the correct symbols, moved the stones, and the door opened to reveal another door. The combination stones expanded, and now I had to figure out the next symbol in the sequence. Solved that, dialed it in, the door opened, and then I stared at a third door. Another example: on the way out of a tomb, Lara acquires a pair of boots with steel spikes for soles, which I’m not exactly sure what they do because Lara could already climb completely upside down. But whatever benefit those boots did bestow, Crystal Dynamics felt the need to send Ms. Croft on a marathon cliff-scaling expedition. Cliff after cliff after bloody cliff. And this is coming from somebody who if I have the option to make my video game character walk and it’s appropriate (ie, not being chased), I’ll make them walk. And Lara is realistically not going to sprint full speed through a possibly trapped and dangerous environment, so I’m happy to immerse myself in the moment and make her exercise caution when she logically would even if it does add a dozen hours to my playtime. My point is: I’m patient. And escaping that particular tomb went on so goddamn long, I wanted to say, “Screw it” and sprint up the friggin’ cliffs.
I prefer puzzles that just prevents progress or sets off an escapable trap if Lara gets it wrong. One of Shadow’s many missteps is puzzles that outright kill her, such as this one where she has to rotate the mirrors and aim a light beam at the correct target.
I made the last phase of the last boss fight infinitely harder than it needed to be because so much emphasis is put on the dagger acquired at the very beginning of the game. I thought I had to dodge/melee it. But, no, just shoot Dominguez with a machinegun for two seconds, press the F key, rinse and repeat. You don’t even have to screw with the minions, he dies so fast.
Lastly, the cutscenes. Shadow of the Tomb Raider goes overboard trying to weave a rich narrative with complex, multi-faceted characters with their own pure motivations, and, frankly, I don’t play Tomb Raider for that. Set up context, show the stakes, and let me go explore. I don’t care that Dominguez is really a generous soul who helps innocent children, but he’s pushed to the extreme to protect his home and honor his dead brother. I didn’t care about the local resistance in Paititi lead by a woman named Unuratu. I didn’t care that she died even though the long, drawn out cutscene tried its damnedest to show me how sad it was. And I really didn’t care to see a pre-teen go through a non-interactive coronation ceremony and draw up battle plans to fight the mega-corporation that the Croft family has battled for generations. I might have entertained a character arc for Lara, but her journey doesn’t make sense. Crystal Dynamics should have portrayed Lara as relentlessly pursuing Trinity over the death of her parents to the point that she gets Jonah killed, but it doesn’t have the balls to do that. It doesn’t make Lara face any significant consequence for her actions, so she has no reason to feel like a failure. Trinity would have taken the magic McGuffins no matter what Lara did, resulting in an even greater death toll. Unuratu would have died with or without Lara’s intervention—she was rebelling against a god and his cult, for crying out loud. And despite Ms. Croft saving her friend from an entire army backed by a helicopter gunship—by herself, I might add—she has an emotional breakdown and cries that she “can’t do it” and that she “keeps making things worse.”
Really, Lara? You can’t do it? And you’re making the end of the world worse how exactly? See, this is why I prefer a general premise over a full-fledged story in my video games.
Did I hate Shadow? No. Most of my complaints revolve around it not knowing when to quit. For any element, I would start out fully invested and having a lot of fun, then less so as the encounter continued, and then finally, “Good God, just stop already.” I can’t discount the enjoyment I did have, but I can’t ignore that it simultaneously ruined said enjoyment by indulging in excess. And I honestly think this would be my favorite Tomb Raider had it just stopped two steps sooner with each of its individual components. Two steps by themselves might not seem like much. But two steps here, two steps there, two steps over yonder, two steps by the wayside—after awhile, it all adds up. And when added up, Shadow of the Tomb Raider misses the mark by a long shot.