This week, nearly three years after the last entry, Eidos Interactive and Square Enix released the latest in its rebooted pilot franchise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Considering I’ve been fumbling Lara Croft around tombs since the days of cubic backgrounds and surprise T-Rex showdowns, and have followed this particular plot line from its 2013 beginnings, it was a no-brainer that I pick up the next chapter. But more than that, I was excited to see where this entry took Lara, now that she had risen from her disastrous first expedition and her fateful encounter with series big bad, Trinity. The promise of a darker and less platformer-sterilized Croft has been hinted at from the beginning, right along with more immersive environments, intricate challenges, and polished gameplay mechanics, so players such as myself could hardly be faulted for hoping for and expecting something that brought both form and functionality to the table this time around. Unfortunately, while Shadow appears to have succeeded in refining almost every aspect of it’s predecessor’s contents, it also works so hard at advancing that it somehow manages to take one huge misstep backward.
After a few fast paced, time hopping cut-scenes, Shadow of the Tomb Raider opens with Lara and her
last remaining tie to humanity faithful companion Jonah, tracking Trinity through Mexico in the hopes of thwarting the shadowy organization in its latest diabolical scheme. Unfortunately, in her overzealous attempts at playing savior, Lara ends up triggering the beginning of The Apocalypse™ and delivering one half of the tools of the world’s destruction directly into enemy hands, thus setting her on a literal collision course into Peru in a race to set things right.
As expected, the graphics of this game are solid; with lush jungles, cityscapes of varying infrastructures, and temples that are both haunting and intriguing in their preserved disrepair. Likely in an effort to add to the realism of its settings, the game has also included the indigenous peoples of the lands players are venturing Lara through, and as more than just casual window dressings. Here, the villages are populated, with crowds to navigate and conversations to hear, or participate in as the case may be, and it goes a long way towards exemplifying the idea that these so-called far off lands don’t simply exist in a solitary vacuum of mysticism, ripe for the raiding. Of course, this also plays heavily into the pervading sense of immediate consequences to Lara’s actions (many dialogue hammer home the fact that these characters lives have been devastated in real time by the natural disasters that portend the end-times she’s set in motion), as well as the darker themes of the game, but it’s nevertheless a nice addition to an area that has been sorely lacking in the past.
Something else that has remained constant, and mostly to its credit, are the game mechanics themselves, Yes, Lara moves a touch differently depending on the terrain she’s faced with, and the swimming portions have been made blessedly less perilous with better visibility and increased lung strength, but for the most part players are equipped with tried and true standbys. Starting off with the ever trusty climbing axe, bow and arrow, and (sigh) single pistol, Shadow allows players once again to craft and upgrade their way from basic skill sets and gear to well-armed predator. The newly minted village aids in refining this as well, providing a market and a bartering system that I have yet to try out, but generally this is not too much more than a means to the same end (namely, acquiring more stuff to kill and not be killed). Other returning features included being able to leap crumbling edifices in a single, gravity defying bound, and a focus mode a-la Arkham Asylum’s detective to guide you through the entirety of the adventure, unless of course you like to live dangerously and choose to shut it and all other hints off via a more customizable difficulty settings menu.
Most changed out of everything is Lara Croft herself, though not necessarily for the better. From the outset, fans have been teased with the idea of a more driven and trauma-hardened protagonist, and we certainly get enough of that — albeit seemingly at the expense of the humanity that drew me to the reboot in the first place. Lara is, by equal turns, desperate to stop the bad guys and right any wrongs that she had a part in, and fascinated in the mythology of it all. However, that seems to be about it, making it easier to relate to side-character Jonah and his visible frustration at her emotional constipation than to Croft herself.
Obviously she couldn’t stay the naive explorer following in her father’s footsteps that we met in the beginning of this series, and sure, we’ve been on a course which molds her into the lone, steely explorer long-time fans are used to, but to see her so flat and single-minded (at least initially) is more than a little disappointing and wrong-footed. To some degree, it’s almost as if it’s been playing at opposites with others of its genre, having dwindled down the supporting cast and along with it some of the fuzzier aspects of its protagonists personality. Only in chugging down this alternate road, it feels like they forgot to leave a little bit of requisite heart found at the center of, say, the likes of certain Naughty Dog counterparts. Lara’s strength and intellectual prowess have always been aspects of her character that I enjoy, but in an era where highly emotive, computer-generated faces are the norm, and even the most viscerally action packed franchises are putting that to use, I can’t help but wonder why developers would think trending Lara closer to the archetype she once was would be any kind of acceptable endgame.
With a purported fifteen hours of base game play, I still have quite a ways to go in Lara’s latest adventure and if nothing else, it promises to be engaging for the rest of the ride. The worlds Eidos has re-crafted are captivating, the mechanics comfortably familiar, and I’m more than a little eager to see how Lara ends up swerving the apocalypse at the 11th hour. The drilled-down, generic action girl characterization is an unfortunate sticking point, but it’s not off-putting enough to have me logging off; and with any luck, I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg that is the emotional journey creators have been touting. That said, this is also the entry that has promised to give players ‘the ultimate tomb raider,’ so it may be best that I don’t hold my breath outside of the game proper.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available to purchase for Window, Playstation, and Xbox One, and gets 3.5 Apocalyptic Golden Daggers out of 5.