Solid, yet Unspectacular
The rebooted Tomb Raider series has been one of the best in gaming. Lara was in dire need of an image change and this series was the remedy. The first two entries were strong Game of the Year contenders and the third should have followed suit. Unfortunately, instead of taking a step forward and polishing what its predecessors did well, it instead resulted in a solid effort, but nothing spectacular.
Set after the events of Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider finds Lara chasing Trinity through South America to put a stop to their nefarious plans. Lara, after suffering through the traumatic events of the first two games is determined to put an end to Trinity regardless of the consequences. The opening of Shadow can make Lara a fairly unlikable character whose singular focus puts the lives of other characters at risk. She makes some rather brash decisions at first but thankfully grows and develop into the Tomb Raider fans know and love. As usual, she is accompanied on her journey by series regular Jonah, who returns to act as her conscious as the events of this entry will push Lara to question what she stands for.
Once again, one of the biggest knocks on the series rears its head in the form of its surrounding cast. Everyone outside of Lara and Jonah arent given enough screentime to fully flesh out their motivations. They are all paper-thin caricatures and this will be disappointing because you finally meet the head of Trinity. You meet several other characters, but the emphasis is on Lara and her development so there is no attachment or resentment to anyone else. You would think that after three titles that the reveal of the big bad would be an “aha” moment and instead he feels like your run of the mill villain.
Players will find themselves trekking through South America and spending their time in two different hubworlds. While there are a number of NPC’s that you can interact with, none of their stories are particular that interesting. It is however, fascinating to see one world that ypu would find in the modern world and another that has been untouched by time. Its just unfortunate that neither locale feature any exciting side stories. They are mostly layered fetch quests, which is a shame seeing how large and detailed some of these areas are. These are incredibly gorgeous vistas that hold numerous secrets, but you will be more interested in what surrounds these areas than what’s in them. It feels like a largely missed opportunity, but is something that future entries can build on.
Gameplay is largely the same from the original, players will engage in combat with a variety of enemies using either melee, stealth takedowns, and guns. The stealth feels overpowered, mostly because the AI is so dumb that they act as nothing more than fodder for Lara to dispose of. Players are given upgrades to their arrows and guns which will allow you to toy with your enemies. My favorite is the hallucinogenic arrow, which will force enemies to kill others before succumbing to the poison.
Melee combat feels clunky as it did in previous titles and you will flail away by mashing the button in the hope that it will knock down the enemy, opening them up to a finishing blow. Aiming in this game is loose which makes it difficult to set up headshots. I was never really comfortable with the combat in this game and found myself frustrated at more than one juncture. This was a complaint I had with the previous titles as well and was one that should have been addressed for this entry.
The other gameplay that players will find familiar for better or worse is the platforming. For whatever reason, the platforming physics in this game feel uneven in comparison to previous entries. There are a number of segments begging for you to retry because mistimed a jump or midair grapple. Its clunky during moments that are precise, resulting in cheap deaths during some of the more exciting setpieces.
When those cinematic setpieces do appear, Lara will have to use all of her abilities to make it across safely. The game can be unforgiving when navigating these moments, leaving you questioning as to why the platforming, which is a large portion of this game isn’t a polished product. It really ruins the immersion and impact of these moments when you’re tapping jump only for Lara to completely miss. Then again, it’s also unintentionally hilarious watching her flail in the wrong direction.
What saves this frustrating affair are the challenge tombs and the exploration. Each area is filled with secrets that players can work to explore and Shadow of the Tomb Raider is at it’s best in these organic moments. The challenge tombs are excellent and will require the players to use critical thinking to solve their many puzzles. I appreciate the fact that these tombs are all multi-layered and designed to be just challenging enough to not make you want to pull hair. It really is the best part of this game and one that I look forward to fully completing.
As in previous titles, players are given access to skill trees and upgradable gear. Unlike those titles, in which you needed to hunt in order to craft certain material, there is little reliance as the bulk of said material can be found during exploration. I found myself doing little hunting in regards to upgrades and honestly it was a feature that didnt feel like a requirement. The skill tree is fairly diverse but there are no standout skills. Players do get to swim more often in this title so it is recommended to upgrade your breathing as soon as possible or face a watery grave.
Performance wise, this is one of the best looking titles of this generation. The jungles of South American are lush and detailed. There is variety in the environments and the minor details are impressive. From the way foliage moves around Lara to the way you can sling mud as you run. A minor complaint would be the way the water looks as it can look somewhat unpolished during certain setpieces. Overall, this is a really strong effort, one that will tempt you in using the photograph mode because you will want to capture some of the more impressive moments.
One of the best aspects of this title is the lack of framerate drops. I couldn’t really remember a time in which there was a significant dip. Which is highly impressive given the fact there is so much going on in each section. You will find yourself in large firefights, cinematic moments, or creeping through stealth sections with nary a dip in framerate. It’s a relatively smooth ride and on my PS4 Pro, I made sure to emphasize visual fidelity. Like I said, it is easily one of the best looking titles of this console generation and of this year.
There is a lot of fun to be had in Shadow of the Tomb Raider but it feels best during its unscripted moments. I did enjoy the fact that there were segments that felt like a dip into the survival horror genre, but those moments are too few and far between. The narrative is simple and straightforward, with no real twists to make it memorable. Lara’s development is the selling point here as this allows her to free herself of the shackles of Trinity so that she can become the iconic Tomb Raider. It’s just unfortunate that the supporting cast isn’t as strong. Gameplay can be frustrating especially in sections that require precision, but the challenge tombs and organic exploration can help ease those frustrations.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels uneven and at times unpolished. But it’s still a solid affair and has it’s fair share of rewarding moments. Lara is guaranteed to have future adventures, so it will be interesting to see where the developers take her from here. While this wasn’t the strongest end to the rebooted trilogy, the future is still bright.
3.5 out of 5