September 19, 2018

Shadow of the Tomb Raider - Review

Lara is back for third adventure in the rebooted series, but has she finally learnt how to be a Tomb Raider, or is she still in school?

The game starts out with Lara and Jonah on a plane, as it is plummeting to earth in a storm and while Lara tries to level the plane out and keep it in the air, it breaks in half and the game cuts back a few days, giving us a moment to see how the two came to be in that situation. Lara and Jonah start out in Mexico, following some notes left by her father, which talk about an artefact that Trinity is after, after learning more about a Dr Domínguez, Lara discovers where a special dagger is hidden and locates it, but Trinity is hot on her tail and even after reading a warning about removing the dagger, she does so, in the hopes of stopping Trinity from getting it, but that fails as she has unknowingly begun the ending of the world.

Now we re-join Lara as she wakes after the plane crash and begins to search for Jonah and together, attempt to stop Trinity as well as the apocalypse that she had begun. While past games have told the story of Lara as she was slowly making her way into being the character we all know, this one is more about her past and present relationships, Jonah, who has always been with her and supported her, lays into her for her very foolish decision and while they still work together for the length of the story, there are underlying tensions, that keep rising to the top. The other characters that Lara interacts with are less engaging, but still fun, Dominguez is a much more nuanced villain that we have had in the past, his right hand, Rourke, is a cookie cutter military man and not worthy of note. Unuratu has a strength behind her and her son Etzli is a little mischievous, but confident and as time moves on, he becomes even more so.

The problem with the story, is mostly due to the fact that Lara has set out on this journey, but still carries on like she did in the first two games, not all the time of course, but enough to make it noticeable. She does things without thinking, complains about the situation she got herself into and then refuses to listen and when it all ends, they attempt to wrap it up, that she is now confident, the problem though, is that she was meant to be that at the end of the reboot and its sequel. Jonah is still relegated to supporting Lara, but he is at least surer of himself, when he confronts her over things he think need to happen. The ending is also feels forced, Lara spends the game ignoring things and then has a change of heart at the beginning of the final act and at the very end, she is calm and confident, the speed at which she transforms, is a little scary.

Gameplay wise, there is very little here that players of the previous games will not be familiar with, Lara is now quite capable, but as the world is very dangerous, you still need to be on your toes. The game is split quite nicely into main story missions and side quests, the challenge tombs also make a return, giving you a chance to break off the storied path and just enjoy some puzzles. Lara begins the game with her now standard bow, and climbing axes, which give her some strong defence moves and mobility options out of the gate, as you explore and level up though, you can improve her use with the bow. Lara still moves like she has in the past and that is not really a good thing, almost all of my deaths came from Lara jumping at odd angles, which meant she would miss the ledge, other times the button would be pressed to grab on, but if she was not in the right place, it would not matter and then she would plummet to her death.

Outside of the constant missed jumps, Lara has kicked up her survival skills, something that she really needs to make use of, as Trinity is ever more determined to end her, along with some locals she encounters later on. As in past games, Lara can use the environment to her advantage, lying in wait for unsuspecting enemies to wander near her, for a stealthy takedown, assuming they are not in the view of a fellow soldier. Lara is now able to cake herself in mud, by choice and use it to hide amongst the vines that cling to some walls, combine that with the shrubbery and other assorted hiding places, it makes Lara quite adept in the stealth game. For the most part, as long as you remain undetected, which if you make use of the Survival Instincts is pretty easy to do, you can take out most enemies without to much fuss, however later in the game, there are some soldiers which can take a more active approach in hunting you down, so you still need to be cautious.

One area that got a bit of an improvement are the challenge tombs, the earlier ones help you come to grips with the mechanics, but the later ones can prove to be, pardon the pun, but quite the challenge. When you complete a tomb, you will be rewarded with a perk, that you can only get by completing that specific tomb, so if you want your version of Lara to be the most powerful, you will need to try and beat them all. Outside of the tombs, you can earn xp by completing story and side missions, taking down enemies, hunting game and more, that xp will then earn you skills points that you can use to purchase other perk, the first one I suggest is removing the need to press the grab button, when you barely make a jump. As you can pick and choose at will, you may need to experience the game a few times, to see how your choices would have differed.

One element that hasn’t differed from past games, is just how great it looks, the characters, the locations, the effects, everything comes together in such a way that few games manage to achieve. Lara herself looks as good as ever, with the work that the team at Crystal Dynamics did years ago, still shining through today, the hair especially is something to pay attention to. Jonah has a lot of character again, thanks in part to his larger role in the story, but also, he just seems more grounded, with his design. The locals in and around Peru are pretty basic in their design, but it is the people of Paititi that are the best, not only do they look incredible, they all behave accordingly. In fact Paititi is one of the best locations in the game, with plenty of things to do around town, there is always something new to see, the opening shot you are shown, when Lara first sets eyes upon the village, is stunning.

Other locations are also really nice, again the tombs have been enhanced and provide a more tense atmosphere, with their lower lighting and creepier designs and the same can be said for the opening village you visit. Celebrating the Day of the Dead, there are candles about everywhere, sparklers and more as well and it bathes the town in a wonderful light, combined with the number of people, it really feels like people are truly celebrating there. There are a few minor blemishes though, Lara has her bow and other items magically disappear in cutscenes, unless she has to use it and in that case,  it remains. Her hair, while looking and behaving incredible, still has times where it can get a little wild, which is move humorous than anything else.

From an audio point of view, Camilla Luddington does another spectacular job of bringing Lara to life, there is one particular moment, where Lara is at her lowest and you can feel the raw pain come through in Luddington’s performance. Likewise, Earl Baylon delivers a lot of soul and compassion as Jonah, but the few scenes where he gets angry, you can hear his frustrations come through, something which has not happened a lot in the past. As far as villains go, Carlos Leal does a really nice job of avoiding the trap of playing it campy, even with some of the later lines he has to say, but the character of Dominguez never really felt like a threat for most of the game and rounding out the cast, was Patricia Velasquez as Unuratu, not only did she deliver the reserved power of a deposed Queen, but she was able to bring power as well, as the leader of the rebels, a nicely balanced performance across the board.

The rest of the audio is nice and comfortable, the games music only makes itself known at the most important moments and being honest, I could not point out a single piece that I can recall standing out. The sounds of the jungle are nice, with dangerous sounds coming through in the distance and all those sounds can fade away when you enter the underground sections and tombs, leaving you with a much quieter experience, which helps build the atmosphere.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a strong game, it is a shame that we still have to wait for Lara to be the Tomb Raider we know, as we were given the expectation at the end of the last two games that she was there, but she got there in the end. The story here is one that tests Lara the most, thanks to her reckless actions and by the time the credits roll, we see that Lara is now comfortable with who she is, while the gameplay is much the same as the past games, the new stealth options and redefined challenge tombs help keep things fresh.

Review copy provided by Square Enix

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